Thu. Apr 22nd, 2021 Magazine

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“We’re all mad here”

7 min read

The Caterpillar was the first to speak.

“What size do you want to be?” it asked.

“Oh, I’m not particular as to size,” Alice hastily replied; “only one doesn’t like changing so often, you know.”

“I don’t know,” said the Caterpillar.


“But I’m not used to it!” pleaded poor Alice in a piteous tone. […]

“You’ll get used to it in time,” said the Caterpillar; and it put the hookah into its mouth and began smoking again.

(Alice in Wonderland, Chapter V)

The events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have cast all of us down a sort of ideological rabbit hole where, as Alice discovered on her journey to Wonderland, everything has become what it isn’t: parents play new roles as both teachers and tech support, bedrooms double as office spaces, and dining rooms host family meals, study halls, and conference calls. This transformation has been particularly unpleasant for the world’s performers, now entirely dislocated from the actors, artifice, and audiences that comprise the theatrical experience. It can be difficult to organize any kind of performance these days, and for those who do it can be difficult to distinguish how the event differs from television or film.

After more than a year of reimagining rehearsals and sharing Zoom link tickets, the frequency of these changes may have rendered us accustomed to them, but, like Alice, we are unlikely to enjoy it. Nevertheless, some creatures in this new performance world have a long history across radically diverse environments. Puppetry, for example, with its unique understanding of theatrical space, finds itself well-positioned to negotiate the intersection of radically different spaces occupied by fundamentally separate and distinct participants. In this sense, the plasticity of puppets and their ability to thrive in even the most hidden and unthinkable of spaces may prove more valuable now than ever, at a time when the pandemic and a world gone mad has undermined every performance space as we know it. This series takes a look at the varied spaces of the puppetry world and the way those spaces shape the beings that inhabit them, both in front of and behind the curtain, and sometimes even away from theatrical settings.

We authors are somewhat creatures from differing worlds: Esther is a scholar of Spanish literature, and Jason is a theatre director and puppeteer. As two academics specializing in early modern theatre, our paths crossed at various conferences where we discovered a mutual passion for performance and puppetry of seventeenth century Spain. In 2018, we, along with friends and fellow scholars Jonathan Wade and Jared White, decided to put our academic interests into practice by founding the Dragoncillo Puppet Troupe, a performance group that celebrates Hispanic culture through innovative shadow puppet techniques that enable spectators to become performers themselves. As professional educators, we believe the best way for students to learn and to gain an appreciation for the past is through the kind of hands-on experience that puppets offer.

Puppetry, for example, with its unique understanding of theatrical space, finds itself well-positioned to negotiate the intersection of radically different spaces occupied by fundamentally separate and distinct participants.

In late January 2020, just weeks before the pandemic shut everything down, our troupe travelled to Salzburg, Austria, to participate in an intriguing conference titled “Puppet Theatre: In the Beginning Were Puppets.” The event brought together an international cohort of scholars and performers to explore any and all things related to puppetry: from the historical, anthropological, or theological, to the aesthetic, creative, and practical. The subject matter of the conference had piqued our interest, but its unique location had secured our immediate desire to attend. The gathering was supported in part by the famed Salzburg Marionette Theatre—one of the oldest and most respected puppet troupes in the world—with the first full day of presentations taking place on the company’s stage itself.

The remarkable setting proved most unexpected. The area of the stage, a space typically occupied only by marionettes, was scarcely larger than a very small bedroom, and in fact had been decorated as such for the company’s production of Pùnkitititi!. One of the marionettes used in the show stood proudly on a small, white pillar center stage. What little floorspace remained had been used to furnish the needs of the conference, including a projector screen, a couple of chairs, and a table. The contrast in scale between these two disparate yet overlapping spaces was as provocative as it was abrupt: regular-sized humans being engaged in a constant yet natural exchange with a miniaturized environment and people. The blending of spaces was also reflected in the diversity of intersecting ideas shared by the speakers on topics such as the use of puppets in a broad spectrum of creative, historical, and sociopolitical settings across the world, from radio plays, magic shows, and opera houses to concentration camps, foreign language pedagogy, museums, philosophy, and even architecture. As a result, the gathering produced a truly thought-provoking exploration of the puppet’s contributions to both creative expression and the human condition.

The introspection this conference inspired caused us to re-examine the way Dragoncillo connects performers, puppets, and audience members, and—in particular—the way those relationships are dependent upon and affected by distinct yet sometimes overlapping spaces and the contrasting physical forms they embody. Nevertheless, in early March of last year, when the gravity of the emerging pandemic began affecting massive change to every aspect of life across the United States, these questions about reimagined performance spaces grew from simple musings to existential dilemmas:

  • As inanimate objects, are puppets simply an extension of the performance space they inhabit, the performers behind them, or both?
  • Might puppets function better as the canvas upon which audiences project their own emotions than a human actor could?
  • How might the size of a puppet relative to its performer and audience impact the space it inhabits, and vice versa?
  • In what ways might a puppet’s interaction with the fourth wall differ from traditional performance?
  • How do the requirements of a puppet’s performance space differ from an actor’s?

To assist us in answering some of these questions, we have enlisted the support of several friends and colleagues from the puppetry community, most of whom we met for the first time at the conference in Salzburg.

We also hope to call attention to the unique power of puppets themselves, as liminal figures between the real and imagined, supremely adaptable to nearly any environment.

Our series begins by locating puppetry outside a traditional theatrical setting. Puppets, as created objects acting within a particular environment, can be molded to suit the spaces they occupy, such as public protests. In her essay, Sarah Plummer, a doctoral candidate in social, political, ethical, and cultural thought and the editor of SPECTRA, a scholarly journal examining forms of knowledge and structures of power, shows how puppetry can be a powerful tool for social and political resistance.

We then go to Lübeck, Germany, where a group of scholars and performers curate the Theaterfigurenmuseum, a puppet museum that holds one of the largest and most internationally diverse collections in the world. As an exhibition space, the museum might have become a puppet tomb, showcasing cultural artifacts otherwise devoid of life, but in the hands of Antonia Napp, Sonja Riehn, Silke Technau, and Stephan Schlafke it has been designed to maintain performance and encourage audiences to interact with the puppets firsthand. Napp, Riehn, Technau, and Schlafke’s contribution to this series explores questions emerging through their efforts to create educational, virtual, and display spaces that simultaneously document and preserve performance in order to draw attention to the story of puppets themselves.

The next piece is an innovative turn to the past. The work of Jesús Caballero’s unique puppet troupe, La Máquina Real based in Cuenca, Spain, is both performative and archaeological, as it seeks to reclaim religious and secular puppetry spaces of the seventeenth century, where saintly figures carved out of wood once depicted the struggle against the forces of evil, which challenged their audiences, and even the concept of free will. In an interview with playwright and educator Emilio Williams, Caballero describes the process of recreating the historical performance space and translating puppet traditions across time and culture.

Our series concludes with a dramaturgical exploration of metaphorical spaces to illustrate the ways in which writing theatre for puppets differs from writing theatre for actors. Emily LeQuesne is a freelance writer, performer, and dramaturg from Bristol, England who co-founded the Croon Productions Puppet Company. Her work regularly considers the unique mental spaces that a puppet playwright must inhabit in order to give creativity and life to her characters. Her piece in this series describes the many spaces of a puppet show—actors, figures, scenery, audience—and provides a model that writers might use to reshape an audience’s perspective in order to tell a story.

With this series, we hope to draw attention to the inspiring work being done in the field of puppetry by a wide range of professionals hailing from both academic and performance spheres. We also hope to call attention to the unique power of puppets themselves, as liminal figures between the real and imagined, supremely adaptable to nearly any environment. Finally, in a world turned upside down by the pandemic, we extend to everyone an invitation like the one we enjoyed in Salzburg: to embrace the madness down the rabbit hole, to cross fields and languages and perhaps even geography to join the community of puppeteers in a space of boundless creative potential, where caterpillars and rabbits, hatters and Cheshire cats, spring to life through imagination.

“What sort of people live here?” [said Alice.]

“In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its paw round, “lives the Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw, “lives the March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

(Alice in Wonderland, Chapter VI)

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