Voice 4 Vision 2011

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Duality of the Puppet: Objects of Art and Performance ....... a few thoughts behind the upcoming Panel at the V4V Festival Dec 17, 2011

This panel brings together scholars and artists who work in
puppetry or with objects in performance to share their thoughts
on the dual role of the puppet as object of visual art and tool or
character for performance. What does the object itself contain,
transmit, evoke? How does it crystallize, bring forth,
preserve the performance? Do these issues change when
considering images vs. objects or with virtual objects?  How do
these images/objects translate across cultures? How important is
the artifact of the show? -CLAUDIA ORENSTEIN
ON THE INSPIRATIONS FOR HER BEHIND                                                                             
"Over a year ago I read Prehistoric Figurines: Representation
and Corporeality in the Neolithic by  archaeologist Douglass
Bailey. In the book Bailey is  researching figurines and the
human fascination with corporeal representation as evidenced
by these figurines--these objects which are abstractions of
human form. He talks about the involvement of, and the effect
on the viewer--but also the involvement of, and effect on the
handler of these objects.To try to discover what these effects
might have been, he looks at modern artists and their use of
objects and other forms of corporeal representation --studying
what it is about this "objectness" that effects us, and how and
why. (He also refers to scientific studies  that explore this as
well.) But, he didn't look at puppets or puppetry-and so I
wondered about how puppetry related to this early interest in
making and possibly moving/handling -or creating still scenarios
/tableaux for contemplation --using these figurines and often
little furniture made on their scale.

I  also recently read Performing Remains: Art and War in Times
of Theatrical Reenactment by theater theorist Rebecca
Schneider, writing about "performance/performing remains" --
and it strikes me that one "performance remains" of a puppetry
event are the objects-the corporeal representations- which were
[once] performed. So the object is a very unique part of what
we do--and we choose it as an integral part of our storytelling
over other forms of storytelling...why? And --what can we learn
about ourselves by interrogating these questions?  Schneider
talks about body to body transmission of  performance- so that
it  (performance) remains by being transmitted through time--
body to body, memory to memory. Can we apply her thinking(
and the archeologist's) to puppetry to unpack any new thinking
of our own about why we are working with objects, -and why or
how audiences of puppetry are effected? Is it different than the
effects of live actor theater? Or walking around a sculpture-that
never has-never will be and  never was-- intended to be
performed? Or when we see an object which was not intended to
be performed-but is? Or-what can we say now about our
condition (current culture) when we realize that there are many
who will call a piece of their own body a puppet--is it objectified,
or is it super endowed/super concentrated with the essence of
"life"? Are we alienated to and from our own body-or to being
human? Why? Or, what about the new space/ time dimension
that has been made real by electricity and the digital age
(Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media: The Extensions of
Man) I find some people completely resist it--and find it hard to
comprehend it--but the ephemeral object that exists in digital
form is now being manipulated -Second Sight, Xbox, Playstation-
Avatars perform life in digital theater playgrounds. It is an
idealized version of us that we reflect back-- who we want to be-
- and we perform behind the digital veil. We watch ourselves
mostly--and a little, we watch the performance of others.

Can we pick up an object that has been designed and built to be
performable--and find there is performance information
sedimented in the object that we can discern across time--and
also across cultures? (Will those who come 100 years after us,
be able to find us in the puppet objects we leave behind?) So,
this is the direction I'd like to ask questions. I'd like to
investigate what it is about the object that speaks-and how does
it speak-- I am interested in the fact that a great deal of time is
invested in thinking about and designing the object with the
belief that there is a language of design that is communicative.
And, if we were to pick up a 500 year old hand puppet, or a 500
year old marionette, or a 500 year old shadow puppet--clearly
there is built into the object a necessary way of moving it--and
so is it possible, that in what was intended to be the way of
handling and causing movement in the object ,  that body to
body transmission of puppetry is accomplished? We won't be
able to recreate the entire 'performance" or "story" from that
past of the object--but a shard perhaps is reflected back at
us.....? .What I hope we can look at from the various
perspectives of panelists are the questions about the visual and
material culture -the cultural anthropology of puppets and
puppetry-- the historiography of puppetry-social and cultural
studies of ourselves that the object-what we call puppets can tell

I've been reading Hans -Thies Lehmann's Postdramatic Theatre
too--and it seems that  in Postdramatic theater-linear, narrative
storytelling is not always the end goal and some puppetry artists
may be looking for another kind of relationship with the viewer
in the theatrical space....Additionally some artists from other
fields are now beginning to enter the field of puppetry making
their art in this  movable/performable object theatrical form;
they are clearly hoping that some of the story or information
they wish to convey is transmitted by and through design and
art. Josef Krofta of Drak led a workshop that I attended once
and it was imperative to him as well: that the choice of materials
from which the object was made, the choice in design, are and
must be intentional, it conveys information --so he felt it was
important that this be the first and  important part of the thinking
and development of a work for puppetry. "

Sunday, February 27, 2011


From puptcrit this morning-and brought to our attention by  Simon Palmer/
Illustrated History:
 Green Porno
Isabella Rossellini's award-winning series of very short films about the reproductive habits of marine animals. GREEN PORNO is scientifically accurate yet extremely entertaining. Produced by Isabella Rossellini, Jody Shapiro and Rick Gilbert.


Directed, written by and starring Isabella Rossellini, these five two-minute portraits explore the unconventional seduction rituals of creatures ranging from bugs to cuttlefish. SEDUCE ME offers an entertaining yet informative look into the bizarre seduction rituals that often precede the mating process

These  beautiful and witty shorts  feature shadow puppetry and papercraft  sculptures/puppets alongside a live actress(Isabella Rossellini) in animal drag.  
To see the entire series on the Sundance Channel go here: http://www.sundancechannel.com/greenporno/

Friday, February 25, 2011


The Little Angel Theater

The borough of Islington in London has a reputation for attracting the funky and hip artist types. All along Upper Street, which connects the two tube stops in Islington—the Angel and the Highbury & Islington stops—there is a plethora of pubs, trendy shops, antique markets, and restaurants featuring ethnic cuisine.  Tucked away nearly in the middle of these two stops, just steps away from Upper Street, is a cozy and intimate theatre dedicated to the art of puppetry. Founded by John Wright, the Little Angel Theatre has been operating in an old temperance hall in Islington since 1961.
The Workshop at The Little Angle Theater

Although the Little Angel Theatre has been served by several Artistic Directors since Wright passed away in 1991, it has always maintained its posture as a puppet theatre. Once mainly a venue for marionettes, today the Little Angel Theatre includes a variety of puppet styles in its productions, and has sought to broaden its audience base by introducing puppet theatre conceived for adult audiences, to a London public that has managed to remain unaware of the growing trend of adult oriented works for puppet theatre.
In  October 30th -November 8th , 2009, under the leadership of Artistic Director Peter Glanville, the Little Angel Theatre presented the Suspense Festival proclaiming that it was the first puppetry festival across London in over 25 years, with all of the work programmed being exclusively for adult audiences.
 On its web pages devoted to the new Festival the Little Angel Theatre announced:
SUSPENSE is exploding the myths that currently surround puppetry in this country, proving that puppets aren’t just for kids.  It showcases a diverse range of contemporary work from UK and international practitioners, bringing puppetry to new adult audiences.
… revealing how sophisticated, irrational, grotesque and potent the art form can be.  The work programmed for SUSPENSE represents not only the changing landscape of puppetry in the UK but a challenge to the way theatre is made – opening new doors of expressiveness. 
The sentiment and goals will be recognizable to puppetry practitioners and scholars here in the US as well. While I was there assisting with a production participating in the Festival, I was able to attend three of the shows and one of the two symposia arranged for this event.
It has been nearly twenty years since I have heard ardent discussions about whether or not puppetry can truly be considered an art form or as a craft. I don’t doubt that the question has been raised in the intervening years, but I had mostly moved away from questioning. As a practitioner I had immersed myself in the doing and the making, and there was no longer any question to me that puppetry was an art form. Yet, many practitioners feel a kind of exclusion from mainstream acceptance and keenly feel the absence of approval lent by puppetry being qualified as an art form. While in the UK at the Suspense Festival I once heard this apprehension expressed by a speaker who referred to it cryptically as “the P question.”  Here in the US, there are some artists who work with figures and objects that are reluctant to use the term puppetry to refer to their work. In fact, I have experienced a subtle pigeon-holing myself–that I’m an artist is accepted, yet even amongst other artists who should know better, there is the idea that I am a limited artist who works with a kind of immature art form. With block buster Broadway hits like The Lion King and Avenue Q occurring in a medium that is reserved for mainstream culture and maximum income potential, it seems that puppetry has arrived as an economic art force, but I’m not sure we have had lively discussions about what our art form has to offer that truly sets it apart from any other art form. These were the kinds of dialogues that the Suspense Festival hoped to encourage with its offering of symposia, lectures and workshops organized as part of their presentation of artists and works to the London public.

Penny Francis, co- author of A History of European Puppetry writes in her Animations Online article, What is an artform? :

 Does the prevalence of good manipulators and good makers make puppetry an art form? No, because art is transcended craft. The craft of puppetry needs to produce its artists to qualify. ….Art is a transformation of craft, craft in the hands of a genius, coming from nowhere, out of reach of anything that can be taught. He or she trails inspiration and reveals perceptions which make us gasp and see the world afresh. 'Art makes the stone more stony'. [1]
Here the often sore spot; much of the work produced for puppetry is immature, not revealing anything new but making poor visual metaphors of common perceptions and feelings and all too often is executed poorly by inexperienced manipulators.  Penny Francis directs us to examine our notions about puppetry directly and unflinchingly. The stringencies that she applies to puppetry rising to Art are bracing and challenging and should create a benchmark for practitioners.  While in discussions about puppetry as Art or Craft, practitioners and scholars will need to confront the reality that the field is littered with examples which don’t lift puppetry –either to the level of art or craft. During the Suspense Festival symposium on Puppetry in the UK, this idea was expressed briefly when organizational funding was discussed. Alison Duddle of  Horse + Bamboo Theatre, one of two on the panel who still receive organizational funding support, voiced that she often questioned its worth in relation to the responsibilities involved upon  receiving it; however she stated such funding must be predicated by “excellence.” A member of the audience asserted that while some puppetry organizations had failed when Arts funding was cut, the work created by these organizations had not been of high merit and there had been no great outcry from the public when they had closed.
            During the same symposium Clive Chandler of Puppeteers UK articulated the conflicting concerns of many artists who work with puppetry: the feeling of exclusion due to working with a little appreciated art form versus the relative freedom that working under the radar confers on the practitioner. While he noted that on funding applications there was no box to tick indicating that the proposed work for funding was puppetry, (therefore conferring artistic status implicitly) he also expressed that funding—particularly organizational funding—might perhaps exert controlling influences on the artist. In the US, we experienced a heightened awareness of the possibilities for government control during Jessie Helms’ 1980/90’s culture clashes when he sought to impose restrictions on content in federally funded arts projects and organizations. At the height of these struggles Time magazine snapped a rather sad photo of me sitting next to a Cinderella marionette—looking for all the world like an innocent victim of government intrusion on free artistic expression. The photo appeared next to a 1990 article titled Nation: Is the Government paying for pornography? The impact of this era of public foment led by Jessie Helms has had a lasting impact on arts funding in this country. In the UK puppeteers are now struggling with a new funding structure/application process which seems to resemble our model. As I understand it, this redesign is due to the impending Olympics which have diverted much of the budget that was formerly allotted to fund arts organizations.
Puppetry in the UK was a Symposium that had been targeted to discuss where puppetry was “ …happening most, what are the hotspots, opportunities and trends across the country?”   ….to create a puppetry map of the pick of the UK's projects, venues, festivals and new initiatives” (Suspense).  Apart from the introduction of panelists who seemed to exemplify that puppetry in the UK was far ranging and who were involved in many old and new initiatives, the discussions focused on the funding crisis and puppetry’s status. These topics have resonance with us here in the US, and I suspect across many other cultures as well. Other symposia  and workshops—which I was unable to attend –were: symposium Objects in Performance, and lecture The Life of Paper,  To be or not to be: a material—a  four day master class with Philippe Genty, a two day workshop in Objects and New Technologies, and a two day workshop in Ephemenral Animation.
Suspense offered no fewer than nineteen works for puppet theatre occurring in six venues located in or near Islington. I was reminded often that many of the companies who were featured in the Festival had achieved some notoriety outside of London, but in their home country, they were largely unknown.  Green Ginger is one such company with an International reputation. Their show Rust enjoyed an extended run beyond the Festival dates at the Pleasance Theatre.  Rust is described as, “…a fast-moving story of piracy, passion and vinyl.  Grotesque puppets, animated sets and shiploads of absurd humour are welded into a dark comic-book vision of low-life on the high seas” (Suspense). This show was visually delicious, and certainly delivered on its promise of absurd humor and comic- book sensibility, but it lacked a clear and coherent story. The presence and interaction of the puppeteers seemed vital, but in the end was a red herring. The consequence, for me, was that I couldn’t maintain interest in following the performance, tuning in for moments when something visually compelling was presented and becoming distracted once I had consumed the image. Still, Rust was a terrific example of puppet manipulation, and design concept and innovation, even if the resonances it hoped to evoke remained a bit murky.
A view of the interior of Movingstage's barge theater from the audience seats.
Movingstage Marionette Company’s production of  Out of the Heart of Darkness based on Joseph Conrad’s novella was also a tremendous effort, yet could not deliver insight into the complex psychological motivations Conrad’s book deals with nor delve deeply into the major themes. Movingstage presented its production on The Puppet Barge, and as in the novella, it began the piece symbolically and literally on the Thames –or just off the Thames—and then transported us to a river in Africa in an instance in which the puppet stage became the deck of a ferry boat. The manipulation of the small, beautifully carved marionettes was meticulous and many of the images were startling and beautiful.As a return to the classical  marionette theatre using traditional methods, Movingstage is  exemplary.  The atmosphere of the barge is further enhanced by the many marionettes from various cultures that Movingstage hangs on the walls of the Barge.  With consummate hospitality our hosts generously invited us to squeeze backstage to see their marionette bridge and rail hung with puppets both from Out of the Heart of Darkness as well as their current family show at the time, Brer Rabbit.
Movingstage's Brer Rabbit marionettes.

The last show I was able to attend was TAMTAM Objektentheatre’s production of to have or not to have. Here at last I was able to enter into that transcendence of artistry that Penny Francis refers to as a goal. It wasn’t without my own personal reservations: for me there was more animation in the puppeteers than was necessary and I found it distracting. The world created by Gérard Schiphorst  and Marije van der Sande was so meticulous, detailed and mesmerizing that I had no need of the additional commentary provided by the puppeteer’s performance behind the objects. The story a rather simple one—
 In the beginning there was nothing.
And then there was something.
And then everyone wanted to have it.
To be has become to have. (Suspense)

--provided ample imagery and enough plot with an addition of the wonder that is evoked by the found object that becomes character and lives. When I entered into this world, agreeing to suspend my disbelief, I became involved in an internal relationship with the events unfolding before me, which was heightened by the environmental sound score and spare, but meaningful, vocalizations. This was a performance that provided me with an opportunity—by leaving enough room for my own thought—and yet simultaneously, enough detailed information through expert manipulation and characterization—to process and use the artist’s insight. Possessiveness and territoriality isn’t new, but it is interesting and new to see it developed in this other world on these otherworldly creatures; a pair of pliers, a rusty mouse-trap, utility scissor birds and a few other found objects were the cast for the piece.  TamTam reminds me what I strive for in creating works for puppet theatre and re-inforces my personal goals as an artist working in the field of puppetry.
            In New York City, where I live, Sarah Provost and I have been on a similar track with the Voice 4 Vision Puppet Festival.  Though not as large as the ambitious Suspense Festival, we too have been seeking to create community amongst our peers in NY, to bring audiences together with emerging as well as established artists, and to provide a venue that will encourage artists to create full length works for puppetry for adult audiences. Without a venue to regularly produce full length works, many artists won’t have an opportunity for the growth in their work that only comes by burning through the fire of creating a work and mounting it for audiences. And, we hope that over time, the Voice 4 Vision Puppet Festival will have ignited the impulse to excellence in these emerging artists.

Jane Catherine Shaw has been creating and performing in works for puppet theatre for over 20 years. She has performed in Europe and Asia as well as the US, and has premiered her original work at La Mama ETC in NY. Currently she co-curates the Voice 4 Vision Puppet Festival, now in its sixth season at Theater for the New City in New York.

Works Cited
Francis,  Penny. 2004 Animations Online, Edition 6 Winter 03/04.  What is an artform?.  Web. 13 Nov 2009. http://www.puppetcentre.org.uk/animationsonline/aosix/featureartform.htm
Little Angel Theatre. Web. 16 Nov 2009. http://www.littleangeltheatre.com/lat/
Suspense . Web. 13 Nov 2009.  http://www.suspensefestival.com

[1] In the same article Penny Francis reminds us, “Puppetry can be taught as a craft, as to the making and manipulation. There are superb makers and astonishing manipulators. Never decry the great craftspeople.”  In fact, there is a current trend in Craft Theory which seeks a separate identity from art in defining its own singular purpose. See Thinking Through Craft by Glenn Adamson, and A Theory of Craft by Howard Risatti for more information about Craft Theory.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


From Chinese Theater Works
Tiger Tales,part of the
V4V Festival in 2007
Penny Francis, co-author with Henryk Jurkowski of both A History of European Puppetry: From Its Origins to the End of the 19th Century, and History of European Puppetry: The Twentieth Century, tirelessly writes and lectures about puppetry.(Both books are great resources, by the way.)

Here are some excerpts from a lecture given at LATVIJAS JAUNĀ TEĀTRA INSTITŪTS during the Homo Alibi festival, August 27, 2008. The entire article can be found at: http://www.theatre.lv/en/index.php?parent=215

“Puppetry’s rise to the mainstream in theatre can be mainly attributed to the rise or the return of the public’s interest in a theatre that offers as much visual and musical enjoyment as verbal. It may be termed a ‘Total Theatre’ since it draws on a plurality of performance disciplines and resources.….. According to Mario Kotliar, an Israeli writer, theatre has reached the stage of "open composition", in which verbal communication no longer possesses the pre-eminence it had in the past.…. In conventional drama, the spectator is in a recognisable world. Perhaps the content of the play is personal, but its dialectical laws are universal. In visual theatre, however, these rules are suspended and replaced by a private logic, based upon artistic associations; the viewer enters the creator′s mind…. The production, moreover, requires our participation, because visual theatre provokes the audience′s own associations.                        (from Fa Chu Ebert, "Bama", Jerusalem′s Visual Theatre, "Assaph C" 1990, no.6, p.160)
 “The proposed list of criteria for the critic when reviewing and evaluating performance with puppet figures and objects:
  • Personal enjoyment/satisfaction or their opposites
  • Originality of the conception, the idea.
  • Compatibility of the dramaturgy – why did the producers use puppets or animated objects?
  • The artistic or poetic level of the text or scenario.
  • The aesthetic integrity of the whole: lighting, sound, materials, colours, scale, movement and speech style.
  • The execution: the level of visual invention, the organisation of the space, the lighting, the choreography of the puppets, the skill of the puppeteers in animating the figures and objects and convincing the spectators of their liveness.
  • The crafting skills manifested in: the puppets, the settings, the manipulation, the acting etc.
Some things to think about......

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


I propose a discussion group which will read suggested books and meet ( literally or virtually ) to discuss the history and theory of puppetry. Practitioners need to speak the language--or we risk having no voice in the recorded history of our art  as it is in this time.
Interested? Please reply:

Gearing up for the 2011 V4V Festival

As winter 2011 begins its slow metamorphosis to spring, the V4V Festival comes out of hibernation to begin  preparations for it's 6th Festival to be held in November of 2011. Now a biennial event, V4V remains steadfast in its mission to bring the work of NYC area artists who are working with puppetry into a main-stage venue. Applications will be accepted until April 1st, 2011. 

Go to voice4vision.org to the Submit Application page and download the Application and Information. Applications will be available for download on February 25th, 2011.

We at Voice 4 Vision want to go GREEN! We encourage you to submit  digital applications! Burn your images and documents to CD, and your video files to DVD and mail them along with the Application you download from voice4vision.org to: Theatre for The New City,  Attention Voice 4 Vision Puppet Festival. The full address and all details are included in the application materials at voice4vision.org