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Teaching puppets, learning too

The RadiCackaLacky Puppetry Convergence points toward the next level in radical puppetry

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A scene from Horseshoe Bend by Rebecca Tennison and Kate Sheehy - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE RADICACKALACKY PUPPETRY CONVERGENCE
  • Photo courtesy of the Radicackalacky Puppetry Convergence
  • A scene from Horseshoe Bend by Rebecca Tennison and Kate Sheehy

Just how badly does the world need another gathering like the RadiCackaLacky Puppetry Convergence? Consider the following quote from Charles Isherwood's lead New York Times theater essay that ran Sunday, Sept. 3--the same day the five-day radical puppetry conference and festival wrapped up in Chapel Hill:

Can art save the day? More specifically, can theater rouse the populace from a sense of numbed anxiety? Can a stage play change minds, or help channel passive beliefs into active commitment?

Short-term answer: a resounding "Nope." Long-term answer: a less resounding if hardly less dispiriting "Probably not, alas."

Folks, that clanging sound you just heard was of a gauntlet being thrown down. What's even stranger? Such a cheery sentiment, reduced to three words--"resistance is futile"--fronted an essay on Eve Ensler.

Some of you remember her name: A play she wrote, The Vagina Monologues, has actually made a modest impact on both the stage and the world.

Actually, Isherwood's essay is useful for the way it correctly identifies certain obstacles to those who would produce the theater of social conscience. It speaks--perhaps grudgingly at points--to the effective strengths that art form capitalizes on when it works. We are more likely to recapture what he terms "a sense of fellow-feeling" when gathered together as an audience than when we're apart. And Isherwood notes that the physical reenactment of events in public reminds us that "history doesn't happen in newspapers but to people."

If the 60-odd artists who gathered here last week are as serious as they say about contemplating the next steps in their ongoing personal, social, political and artistic evolution, Isherwood's essay has useful thoughts--even if a shot of bitters is served before and afterward. To those thoughts, I add the observations below.

The 20-some companies represented here displayed a remarkable variety of techniques, including bun raku, shadow puppetry and cunning marionette work. But in the process, we also saw that their works fundamentally differed in the strategies--and, I'll argue, the competency--with which they communicated their messages to the audience.

On one end of the spectrum was Rebecca Tennison and Kate Sheehy's Horseshoe Bend. The broken fragments of this broken heart of a love story to the earth and its inhabitants were drawn from sections of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, accounts of a 1999 gasoline pipeline disaster in Bellingham, Wash., and other sources, including the personal experiences of the artists.

(Note 1 to other artists: Mixed sources, mixed emotions and mixed points of view all resist the fixed monofocus and the one right answer of the zealot.)

On Wednesday night we saw a series of white mini-umbrellas attached to Ms. Sheehy's costume pop open, one by one, and form a nearly geodesic dome from within which she projected shadow images of tortoises and birds, reflecting on the fragility of life.

Storytelling of a most immediate nature (as opposed--Note 2--to sermonizing) followed this low-tech coup de théâtre. After Tennison's brief memorial about Harriet, a tortoise captured by Charles Darwin that died in June of this year, she grounded the account of the disaster at Whatcom Creek in a vivid and clearly heartfelt description of the land and water on which it happened.

The story was first an achievement in editing--a passage whose words were as spare and as true as the illustrations accompanying it on the cloth pages the teller turned while recounting it.

It would be as tempting as it would be wrong for a performer to melodramatize the hellish details of the Bellingham gasoline spill. Theatrical topspin isn't necessary for this tale. The words and the story have their own, intrinsic power; here Tennison lets them do their work without the interference of ego.

At the close, she leaves the lesson for us to interpret, instead of directing the audience on how it should feel (Note 3). Instead of saying "Damn that oil company" or "Damn our vampiric appetite for fossil fuels," Tennison closes with these words:

"A plaque there says, 'It will take more than 30 years to grow back what was lost in 30 seconds.'"

"I've been thinking about that a lot lately."

The silence after this gave us the chance to do the same. We needed to.

PHOTO BY K. RUBY/WISE FOOL
  • Photo by K. Ruby/Wise Fool

The best of the work we saw last week took note that the theater audience is not asleep. It comes prepared to work: to figure out puzzles, connect even dots placed far apart, and to infer and determine the meanings and feelings of things for themselves.

What's more, the audience actively resents it when a show insists on doing most or all of that for them. To spectators not already firmly situated in the choir of social activism--audience members that radical puppetry presumably is interested in reaching--that insistence is usually read as saying, "Yes, we are smarter than you, and we don't think you're intelligent enough to figure this one out for yourself."

The droll critique of the divisiveness that riddles the realm of international activism and diplomacy that was represented in Pausenpuppet's brilliant duet "The Problem of the Puppet" had to be contrasted with other shows we saw last week that, ironically, still employed the same doctrinaire rhetoric--at times, the identical words--that the Pausenpuppets so usefully mocked.

(Note 4: Perhaps it is great fun to build a straw man the size of a small tree. It also accomplishes little when it is effortlessly knocked down. Ham-handed, single-sided japes with the sole, ideologically correct answer thoughtfully provided at the end: These are ultimately a discredit to a complex people who have already been really worried about--and working on--that really complex problem a work addresses before the performance showed up.)

(Note 5: The audience already has a clue.)

That group--in short, the people--need an honest, real-world conversation that compassionately sheds some insight on the complexities and simplicities of the broken world a lot more than they need another religious--or political--tract. (Note 6: When offered both, they'll value one over the other.)

Thanks, guests, for a lovely festival. Now, back to work--for us all.

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