Puppets Are People, Too

I have to confess to a prejudice, friends.

It’s one I’ve only recently became aware of and am actively and mindfully addressing, but like all prejudices, it’s something I’ve built up and refined over the years with daily ignorance and a healthy allowance of lazy thinking.

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I don’t think of puppeteers as actors.

Nope.

I think of them, all of them, as one big bunch of “Puppet People,” a tribe apart, with their own language, history and puppetish ways.

I’m working through it, but there it is and I am not proud of it.

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Don Cristobal Photo credit Richard Termine

Don Cristobal
All photos by Richard Termine

I opened a show last weekend, Don Cristobal: Billy Club Man. It was the first time in over ten years I’ve worked as a pure performer: I didn’t direct it, write it or produce it, and I don’t sweep the floor after the show is done. I’m just an actor, Jim, and it’s a joy.

This show has puppets in it-hand puppets, shadow puppets and a beautiful bunraku-style three foot tall puppet who is the star of the show-so you could say it’s a puppet play, but my point today is you shouldn’t. You should just say it’s a play and come see it.

“Puppet play” is one of those lazy mental categories like “dance theater” or “clowning.” Be honest: when you read “puppet play” you think, “Oh. Cool. But not my thing.” It’s going to be for kids, you think, or really odd and beautiful in a boring way. This is just another example of our self-segregation in the American theater, our instinctive divisiveness. Dance is over there and is not what I do. Live music is over there, it’s great, but it’s not what I do. I love the clowns, but it’s not what I do. Puppet people stay over there, please, you’re great, but you’re not what I do. I’m a theater guy, so I keep choreography, live music, clowns and puppets mostly out of my work because…I do… “theater“.

I have so rigidly defined “theater” in my head as a text-based semi-realistic narrative form with live humans pretending to be other live humans that it is no wonder a general air of exhaustion and boredom greets me some mornings before the coffee kicks in, and I remember what possibilities await if I allow them in to my work. Theatrical tools like puppets, when handled by masters, instantly re-introduce wonder and possibility onto the stage. They’re fun. They’re magic. They can do things and evoke things that a human body never can, precisely because they are not a human body. But I keep them, somehow, for some unthinking reason, apart.

Last October I was hanging out backstage at the Electric Lodge in Venice, CA, with the preternaturally gifted Kevin Augustine. We were performing at the Day of the Living Festival, and he asked me what I had coming up. I started babbling and Augustine looked at me at one point and asked me straight, “Why don’t you ever ask me to be in your shows?” And it drew me up short. And I had to confess to him that I didn’t think of him as an actor. I had just been raving about how brilliant his work was, but I didn’t think of him as an actor. Crazy.

photo credit Richard Termine

Augustine in action

I asked Augustine yesterday if he considered himself an actor first, a puppeteer second, or did that distinction matter?

He said,

It does matter. I consider myself a “theatre maker” first, as that best encompasses what I do. I sometimes cringe at the “puppeteer” introduction because both “actor” and “puppeteer” have such preconceived and to my mind, limiting connotations. I see partnering with puppets, as long as they are, as with everything else, in service to the story, something that can make theatre great and magical. I sometimes make the distinction of “puppet theatre” to clarify, but that, too, falls short of satisfactory titles. Interdisciplinary theater (not my favorite either) encompasses better my theatrical sense. I’m trained as an actor and self-taught as a puppeteer and maker.

Why should an actor’s mastery of a particular theatrical technique erase or blur his or her identity as an actor? Why can’t I see beyond the puppet and appreciate the basic skill of the performer? Isn’t this like a musician who writes the music, sings and has mastered several instruments finding herself alienated and unable to work regularly because her fellow musicians don’t know how to categorize her? Or a visual artist who sculpts and paints and draws being told to focus on one aspect of the work over all of the others? Maybe this happens, I don’t know, but it feels like in the performing arts we’re just not comfortable with artists who do more than one or two or three things.

The brilliant Brendan McMahon, who voices the large Cristobal puppet in our show and is the lead puppeteer (in the original Japanese tradition of bunraku he would be the omozukai), negotiates the same strange and arbitrary boundary crossings Augustine talks about. Last week McMahon told me a story about a production of A Christmas Carol he did where he played all of the characters except for Scrooge. A few months later, an agent wanted to work with him and asked him for a tape, so McMahon sent him one of that performance.The agent watched it and said, “No no no. I can’t use this. I need to know what you do.” And of course, that is what McMahon can do, something your average, run-of-the mill actor can’t. But McMahon’s square peg wouldn’t fit into the agent’s round hole.

Broadway shows like The Lion King and Warhorse have demonstrated that a popular audience accepts and applauds puppet work as another part of mainstream theatercraft, but for some reason, down here in the independent theater world, a division still exists.

All right, so puppets may not actually, technically, be people, but they have long since earned the right to share the stage with us and they certainly deserve my respect.

I’m still a little freaked out by ventriloquist dummies, to be honest, but one step at a time.

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  • You are so right. I studied with Frank Ballard and took puppetry for granted. It wasn’t until I saw Kevin Augustine that I realized that puppetry could be so powerful, majestic and heartbreaking. Puppets can convey most anything and in the “hands” of a master they are unstoppable.

  • It’s interesting to me that this puppet/straight theater division, along with so many other divides happens after college, somewhere early in those first “real world” years. I wonder if it could be a symptom of the increasing specialization tendency of the world nowadays. You used to have a doctor, now you have a foot doctor or a joint doctor, etc. Years ago Carolyn Raship pointed out that the multi-slash identity of independent theater artists (writer/director/performer) was something we should pay attention to and celebrate and honor, rather than treat it as a joke, as many do.

  • catherine gillard

    Helloooo! x