Like a puppet on a string
handspring puppet company edited by Jane Taylor
(David Krut Publishing)
Handspring Puppet Company, the multi award-winning team of puppeteers and dramatists, has committed its process to paper at exactly the right time. With the release of the handsome edition simply titled Handspring Puppet Company (David Krut Publishing), edited by Jane Taylor, one can now get a holistic appreciation of this group at the highpoint of an extraordinary career stretching back almost three decades. The book is a celebration of their designs for 11 plays and two operas.
The book’s seven essays provide a pleasing variety of voices, from overviews by Taylor and Adrienne Sichel to the personal reflections of William Kentridge, the philosophical musings of Gerhard Marx, the word swirling subjective memories of Lesego Rampolokeng and the sharp insights into puppetry by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler themselves, the couple who co-founded Handspring in 1981 after both had majored in sculpture at the Michaelis School of Fine Art.
For me, puppetry has always entailed a curious mixing of genres. On the one hand, sculpture seems to be the most Apollonian of arts; being, in its traditional sense, a study of pure form. On the other hand, performance is the birthplace of the Dionysian—involving the unpredictability of change and the transformations of movement. To bring these opposite impulses together, to inhabit an inanimate object with life, breath, speech and motion, draws on both ancient and modern sensibilities.
As I am by no means an expert, my approach to this book was through a completely naive question: “What is a puppet?” This question is answered in a number of different ways by the essays collected here. All of them are interesting, but my two favourite are the last two, by Marx and Jones. Perhaps I’m drawn to these more than the others because they’ve made me think in a new way about the perception of objects.
Marx’s essay is called The Function of Malfunction and it draws on his solid grounding in philosophy. He defines puppets as “exomatic organs”, parts of the body outside of the body, and the main premise of his essay is that the object can also be a verb, a performance operating within fields of “semiotic fluidity” instead of only a “material solidity with determined qualities”.
Relying on a reading of Heidegger, Marx describes the moment when an object malfunctions as the instance its physicality becomes apparent. Up until that point it has been known only “through its use, only as a means to an end”, but when it no longer functions it becomes itself—it is then that “the object’s physicality becomes present”. Marx says it is “as if we need to kill the tool to make the object come to life”. In this sense visible dysfunctions are of more value on stage than smooth functionality, and to be successful a puppet should, paradoxically, become a dysfunctional tool.
Jones argues that puppetry design should be considered a “form of authorship”, saying that the designer is responsible for the life the puppet possesses in performance. He goes on to say that much of the writing for their productions happens during improvisation and that “the written text incorporates what in fact began as a movement text”. The writing is thus a witness of the record, rather than an impetus to move. The puppeteer also uses the puppet to physically evolve ideas that are “incommensurate with script and scriptwriting”.
To return, then, to my initial question—what is a puppet? According to the writers in this collection a puppet is a moving sculpture, an embodied thing, an extension of animation, a malfunctioning object, an idea and a metaphor of the human condition. Perhaps definitions of art as plastic or static are outdated, as all art is about ideas. In trying to embody fitting expressions of human conditions, the “fine arts” and performance have, for a number of decades, been drawing ever closer to each other and puppetry is an example of ways in which they have completely fused into a rich new form.