New Interview: The Creators Behind “A Night with Walt Whitman”

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At Whit’s End
By Leonard Jacobs
Special to The Clyde Fitch Report

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Puppets — or performing objects, for those of you who cotton to the academic term — are a guilty pleasure of mine. Especially really extraordinary puppets, or puppet-influenced constructions. For this reason, I became immediately intrigued by A Night with Walt Whitman, a two-hander running at HERE Arts Center (145 Sixth Ave.) for a too-short time — all of five performances through June 7. The first piece is Bart Buch’s Ode to Walt Whitman, featuring “organic electronica” by Martin Dosh; the second piece, Brian Selznick’s Live Oak, With Moss, features music by Robert Een.

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Buch and Selznick each told me they developed their pieces independently — this isn’t one of those situations in which a power-broker with love for the author of Leaves of Grass commissioned some ponderous profusion of performing objects (there’s that word again). Rather, each artist has long had a relationship to Whitman’s writing and, indeed, to the works of those who have written about him. Here’s the description, for example, to Ode to Walt Whitman:

A tender, silent puppet-poem uncovers a dialogue between Walt Whitman and Federico Garcia Lorca. Within the confines of an online gay chat room, their poetic dialogue contrasts Whitman’s America, a nation full of lovers and comrades, with what Garcia Lorca sees, “and America is inundated with machines and tears.” Whitman and Garcia Lorca are chased through a surreal and tragic landscape employing hand puppets, a butterfly marionette, masks, grass bunraku puppets, toy theatre, shadows, video projections, and live organic electronica by Martin Dosh. Ode to Walt Whitmanexplores and updates their conversation by extending the metaphors of Garcia Lorca and Whitman into the postmodern gay world. The chat room, the “meat,” “target,” and “bull” markets introduce new, but relevant and related metaphors to explore the new confines that homo-consumers dwell within. Ode to Walt Whitman interprets an important conversation that draws upon and adds to a specifically queer cultural identity. It is a marginalized identity traced through this crucial poetic lineage. This puppet ode hearkens for a remembrance, realization, and infusion of Whitman’s love, Whitman’s dreams of America.

And here is the description for Live Oak, with Moss (which is subtitled “A Prequel to the Christine Jorgensen Story,” part of a planned trilogy about, per his bio, “identity and the body”):

Around 1859, Walt Whitman wrote a sequence of poems about a love affair with another man. Possibly thinking these poems were too explicit to publish, he cut them up and hid them among the other poems in what was to become the Calamus section of Leaves of Grass. The original sequence remained unknown until a scholar named Fredson Bowers pieced them together in the 1950’s. The sequence was reconstructed, and today the twelve poems have become known as “Live Oak, With Moss,” which is the basis for the puppet show. The piece takes place entirely inside a single suitcase, in a three by five inch opening. This intimate show is projected live onto a large screen, and is accompanied by an original score performed live with cell and voice by the musician Robert Een.

Clearly these two efforts could not be more different. Indeed, Buch’s show is ambitiously sized — I was given a tour of the set, which contains all kinds of openings and playspaces, including two scrims. Buch also introduced me to some of his puppets, and in some cases their sheer size was astounding. As with most puppeteers, you could observe a tight parental bond between Buch and his objects: the care with which he made them is matched by the care with which he handles them. Buch is assisted in performance by a small cadre of object operators (are they actors?) and you could sense the meditative and romantic sweep of Ode to Walt Whitmanmerely from the dazzling number of puppets that are involved in performing the piece. Selznick’s piece, as noted, takes place in a suitcase, in a three-inch by five-inch opening, and doesn’t involve puppets, really, at all, so much as evocative panels and stirring images on what he called “crankies” that conspire into narrative. What occurs during the piece is then projected onto a screen whose position is determined by the size and dimensions of the venue.

You can read bios of Buch and Selznick here.

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The Clyde Fitch Report: I know a lot about how to make theater. But I don’t know how to make — well, what is it? Performing objectivity or whatever the current vogue term is?

Brian Selznick: I try to avoid all academic language.

Bart Buch: Me, too.

CFR: Do you guys hate that term?

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BS: Well, it does sound politically correct, doesn’t it? “They’re not referred to as puppets anymore, they’re performing objects! You don’t want to insult the puppet lobby! They’ll fuck you up!” I mean, I like calling my piece a puppet show, even though there aren’t any puppets in it.

[Selznick begins to describe how Live Oak, with Mosstakes place inside the vintage suitcase that was sitting beside him, resting atop an enormous plant stand. A picture being worth a thousand words, Selznick eventually decides that he can better illustrate how his show works by actually doing the show. He exits and the conversation continues with Buch.]

CFR: So how did this piece come together for you, actually?

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BB: I always forget how my piece start, exactly. I do know that I read Whitman in college a little bit and after college for a little bit and later, when I moved to my grandparents’ farm, I began rereading him and I fell in love and soaked it in all over again. Then I put Whitman down for a long while. Then, right after Sept. 11, I started reading him more. At that point, I was in a mood like the country — having this feeling of disgrace for being an American and that made me want to read Whitman now in a different way. Now I wanted to read Whitman with an eye on his ideas and visions of being an American. That got me really inspired, and it dovetailed with my own personal search for love and finding a relationship. Then, somehow or other, I found Lorca’s poem, Ode to Walt Whitman. And I thought, you know, I just don’t understand this. What is this with the faggots — the urban faggots — what’s he talking about? What’s he saying to Whitman? What’s he saying about Whitman? I was obsessed now with trying to get a conversation going between the two of them. I worked on it for two or three years before I was ready to perform it.

CFR: And how does something like this piece come together? In other words, do you devise a scenario and then try to imagine how, using puppets, you’d execute it?

BB: Good question.

CFR: It’s like that old conundrum about songwriters — what comes first, the words or the music? Do the puppets come first or does the narrative? Or the exploration?

BB: I didn’t use a script — just puppets and an idea. I did have the visuals in my head and I just sort of inched forward on each front a little bit at a time, like a game of — I don’t know. Like, Opposite Tetris. So, say, the chat room — I’d say I was going to work on that all summer, and so I would just focus on that piece. Or I’d say, “All right, this fall I’m going to just work on getting the puppets ready for a rehearsal.” So it was first the birth of puppets, then a spurt of words.

CFR: At what point do you bring in other pairs of hands so you get a feel for the piece?

BB: It takes awhile. First I did this piece like a cabaret act — maybe 15 minutes. I think I bought in someone after a few months.

[Selznick returns.]

CFR: I guess it’s hard — like asking the actor, “How was the play?”

BS: Well, mirrors will take you somewhere and video can help a huge amount, but generally as a puppeteer you don’t have any idea of what you’re doing.

BB: It’s true, you’re doing the doing.

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CFR: How frustrating is that?

BS: It can be pretty frustrating. But because you’re so focused on getting it right and on being at the right place at the right time, I think you know that hopefully by the time you’re performing — that is, if this is someone else’s piece that someone else is directing — you know when you hit this mark and this position you’ll be creating some part of a stage picture that will mean something to the audience, even if it doesn’t mean anything to you.

CFR: Which is why you’re behind the suitcase the whole time.

BS: And it’s just me. You know, sometimes if you see a videotape later on, it’s like, “Oh, that’s cool — that’swhat that’s doing!” I’ve done a few shows with Basil Twist and a lot of times you’re in black and covered all in black and working on a black set that’s three stories high and you have these giant things trying to move in a giant circle and it doesn’t look like anything from the back. But from the front, it’s a giant instrument with giant hands circling a Russian village. Or there’s bunraku puppets where you’re three people, working in tandem and arriving at this strange symbiosis where you become one thing that makes something else alive.

BB: Sometimes, to create this piece, I’ll use video a little bit and also if I have someone I really, really trust, that we speak the language, the balance of the two tells me where we are at.

BS: Like with Basil’s pieces, or Dan Hurlin’s pieces, I appreciate the scale of then and what you can do with 12 people.

CFR: So, looking at your suitcase, you have no ambition.

BS: No, I have limited ambition. But seriously, when I first started doing toy theater, I was living in a studio apartment about the size of a table and I felt I couldn’t make anything larger than my desk to be able to wrap my head around it. Also, as a children’s book illustrator, I tend to work pretty small anyway.

CFR: So it’s about control.

BS: I want to control everything I can. Puppeteering is about control — although as an artist, generally, it’s important, don’t you think?