Between Human and Object: Performing Artists on the Possibilities of Puppets


Janie Geiser, excerpt from The Reptile Under the Flowers

The Creative Capital grantees working in the medium of puppetry aren’t your average Punch-and-Judy puppeteers. We have seen remarkable, complex works come to life in the hands of these innovative performing artists. To find out more about the adventurous practices of our grantees, I asked a few of them about their experiences in the field and their thoughts on puppetry today.

While puppet theater in the U.S. is often thought of as a form of entertainment for children, or relegated to the world of comedy, several of our grantees noted the increasing popularity of puppetry as a viable art form for adult audiences, from Broadway to experimental theater. Susan Simpson (2006 Performing Arts) commented on the differences between puppetry then and now, contrasting the tactile nature of the art form with the intangibility of digital media. “What is different about puppets today,” said Simpson, “is that they exist in a world full of digital avatars and other bodies like them. I think our relationship to puppets has changed fundamentally because of our relationship to technology. Each time you use a puppet there is an automatic comparison that is made between the sensation’s relation to tactile objects and the experience of virtual objects.”

If the space between virtual and tactile is of profound importance today, the human/object and animate/inanimate dichotomies have long been a part of puppet theater. Janie Geiser (2000 Performing Arts) found herself drawn to the medium because of “the exposed artifice of puppets and performing objects,” a power that she calls both “transcendent and uncanny.” Accordingly, her work “explores the use of objects between life and non-life.”

Simpson was attracted to puppetry because of the “awkwardness of it… The frailty and vulnerability of the illusion of a puppet communicates something of the frailty of the identities that we all construct and attempt to maintain. The obvious effort it takes to animate a puppet says something…about the difficulty of merely living.”

Dan Hurlin (2002 Performing Arts) and Wakka Wakka Productions (the collaborative team of Gabrielle Brechner, Kirjan Waage and Gwendolyn Warnock, 2013 Performing Arts) were also drawn to the human/object relationship in puppet theater. Hurlin suggested that puppetry allows artists to truly pursue Brechtian theatrical ideals because the audience “is willing to suspend disbelief, all the while being acutely aware of the mechanics behind everything.” Brechner found that the puppets in Wakka Wakka’s works “could do amazing things that an audience would simply not buy if a human actor did them” because of the immediate suspension of disbelief. And as Basil Twist (2000 Performing Arts) commented in a recent feature on his work in the New Yorker, “the crucial point about puppets is that they are real and unreal at the same time.”

BABY UNIVERSE (A Puppet Odyssey)BABY UNIVERSE (A Puppet Odyssey) by Wakka Wakka Productions

While many of our grantees turned to puppetry later in their artistic careers, Ricki Vincent (2006 Performing Arts) began making puppets as a child: “I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s when half of children’s entertainment was puppet-oriented…. I was hooked when I saw the work Henson was doing with the Muppets.” Twist, too, was a toddler puppeteer, inspired not only by Jim Henson—and, later, Star Wars—but also by his family, a cast of puppeteers themselves.

Picture 10Basil Twist’s Creative Capital-supported project, Dogugaeshi

Where are they now?
Basil Twist, who received a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award in 2012, recently premiered an abstract puppet version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring at the Carolina Performing Arts “Rite at 100” celebration. Twist will be teaching a puppetry course at the San Francisco Art Institute this summer.

Susan Simpson just wrapped up a production of Exhibit A—a fictional account of the Silver Lake visionaries of the 1950s—at Automata in Los Angeles. She is currently working on a multimedia adaptation of Death of a Salesman, using puppets and a live video feed to explore “the sensation of failure and the uncomfortable machinations Americans perform to defend against it” in today’s crisis-laden economy.


Dan Hurlin, excerpt from Disfarmer

Dan Hurlin will spend the next year in Italy as a recipient of the prestigious Rome Prize. For his Untitled Futurist Project, Hurlin will create several short toy theater pieces based on Italian Futurist theatrical works.

Ricki Vincent is getting ready to shoot a stop-motion puppetry film on the last three days in the life of Hunter S. Thompson.

The Dr Is Out imageThe Dr. Is Out: The Last Hours of Hunter Thompson by Ricki Vincent

Janie Geiser presented her new “true crime” Bunraku Clouded Sulphur (death is a knot undone) at Automata in February. She is now busy at work on three projects: a mounting of her diorama performance The Reptile Under the Flowers for the upcoming Great Small Works Toy Theater Festival at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn (June 14-23); an experimental film about actors forced to flee their theater at the beginning of World War I; and Fugitive Time, an interdisciplinary performance piece focusing on the unrealized urban plan for Los Angeles and its relationship to the female body.

Wakka Wakka Productions will be touring their most recent work, SAGA, in Norway, and their piece BABY UNIVERSE (A Puppet Odyssey) in Washington, D.C. and the Midwest. They are excited to begin their Creative Capital-supported project, Made in China, at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta this fall.

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Reya Sehgal

About Reya Sehgal

Reya is a writer, performer, researcher, producer and museum enthusiast. In addition to assisting Creative Capital, she has worked at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, SFMOMA and the Guggenheim, doing everything from organizing colloquia to writing press releases to performing in installations. Reya holds a BA from UC Berkeley in Postcolonial Urbanism and Theater.

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