What do you think of when you hear the word "puppets"? Bunraku? Punch and Judy? Jim Henson's Muppets, Mr. Rogers's hand-puppet royal family, or Tim Burton's Corpse Bride?
As those examples prove, puppet shows have engaged audiences of all ages and cultures, and the medium was and still is a part of pop culture. From Oct. 12-22, when the Voice 4 Vision puppet theater festival takes place at Theater for the New City, New Yorkers will have the rare chance to see a diverse selection of puppetry from around the country and the world, including Anna Kiraly's shadow puppet play Slow Ascent as well as The Traveler, a piece about vagabonds, traveling, and ghosts by the puppetry company Dramaton Theater.
Neither Kiraly nor Dramaton member Ken Berman began their artistic careers in puppetry: they both made serendipitous journeys to the medium. Kiraly began her career as a set designer in Europe and subsequently began designing puppets. She won a place in the prestigious NEA/TCG program for designers, jointly developed by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Theater Communications Group. She made contact with puppeteer Dan Hurlin, and he introduced her to the Puppet Lab at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, where she developed Slow Ascent. Kiraly continues to be strongly influenced by visual media, including visual art, film, architecture, and animation—the animation of Jan Svankmajer in particular.
Berman started out as an "unfocused" visual artist. His early work, he says, includes "strange kinetic object sculptures, portraits, and still lifes in a manner most commonly likened to Lucian Freud." At the same time, he played in "an angry punk-rock band" with his twin brother. Then, he "drew a marionette of a skeleton with a light bulb for a head, a halo of flies buzzing around the light." He and some friends formed a puppet performance collective called the Lost Art of Puppet Theater, which brought Berman's monster to life.
The first performance, he recalls, "satisfied every part of me," and puppetry became a key element in his subsequent work. After performing an early, short version of The Traveler at a Voice 4 Vision "puppet slam" open platform, Berman and Dramaton Theater developed the full-fledged version that you can see at this year's festival.
One of Berman's strongest influences is Victorian ghost stories. "They were written with a strong sense of psychology that symbolized the mysteries beyond the human psyche," he notes. In terms of visual style, his influences include German expressionism and surrealism. He also admires modern puppeteer Basil Twist, "because he uses atmosphere in the same way that we do—merging the environment—water, air, etc.—with the emotional and dramatic intention of the puppet."
For Kiraly, puppets are "works of art come alive"—or undead. A puppet, she says, "can look so real when animated" or "so abstract or lifeless," as Svankmajer often explores in his animations. "You see a lifeless puppet hanging, and then you see it assembled and animated, and as soon as it begins to move, you are ready to believe it's alive," she says.
Puppetry also allows experimentation with scale in ways that performances involving actors rarely do. In puppetry, Kiraly says, "you can play with scale to create dramatic compositions, more like in film shots. You choose your point of view, and it doesn't have to be fixed, as in theater."
She recalls that "designing puppets gave me a lot of freedom of expression." In this traditional art, she found room to innovate. She enjoyed "coming up with new types of puppets and experimenting with animation techniques." She also appreciates puppets' apparent ability to transcend limitations that human performers must observe. "Puppetry and animation are great genres," she observes, "because they don't even have to deal with as much reality as the physical body of the actors and its physical limitations."
In Slow Ascent, the puppets are shadow puppets— specifically, as Kiraly explains, "digital printouts of photo-realistic images." She thought they were "a perfect choice to show how dreams can be even more confusing when seemingly real," while shadow puppetry allows her to "explore the chemistry of opposites." For Kiraly, nearly any object can be transformed into a puppet, "anything from a bag to an elaborate marionette." As she points out, "It's what you want to say of how you 'animate' them that really counts."
Berman developed The Traveler because he wanted to say something about vagabonds, including wandering spirits, and human psychology. "Ghosts have always been a strange obsession with me in particular because they inhabit some world beyond ourselves," he says. "They are much more informed of the entire journey of life. Yet at the same time, ghosts are caught in a limbo that hinges on a singular event: they cannot move forward past their—or others'—transgressions. Dramaton's shows have always set up a series of questions about compulsions, passions, and self-discovery—in this way, I think the lexicon of ghosts and the supernatural is an extremely entertaining way to approach this subject matter."
Puppetry is a perfect medium for this theme, because "the disembodied figure" of the puppet "becomes metaphorical for the state of transience that the characters inhabit," Berman says. "Human actors simply cannot capture a concept so literally as a puppet."
Today, Kiraly points out, "puppets appear everywhere, from TV to Broadway shows and recently even the Metropolitan Opera. … It is getting the recognition it deserves, and artists are beginning to see how amazingly versatile puppetry is and how expressive puppets can be." At Theater for the New City during the next two weeks, you can see this versatility and expression firsthand.
Visit the Voice 4 Vision Website at http://www.voice4vision.org.