What’s Homunculus?

Homunculus is home to neuroscientist Larry Ely and other, mostly non-professional puppetry bloggers. Larry will be reporting back on his entry into modern puppetry from the same place of naive intrigue that originally sparked Puppet. Check back often to follow his explorations of New York’s puppetry scene – its shows, studios, scholars, and artists.

T F m
September 14, 2011

Sontag and Hofstadter (and Puppets)

I recently read a short essay by the late and much esteemed Susan Sontag entitled “A Note on Bunraku,” from her 2001 collection Where the Stress Falls. Her discussion focuses on traditional Japanese bunraku puppetry, which I have to admit I haven’t strictly encountered, since Disfarmer, as chronicled in Puppet, is a western adaptation of the same style. That said, it’s an interesting read at four pages – she returns several times to the dualistic nature of puppets and the way bunraku captures this so effectively. In the traditional form, the emotional content of the performance is very deliberately split between the puppets on stage and the narrator, who stands beside the stage but in full view of the audience. Traditional bunraku is apparently characterized by extremes of emotion, particularly anguish and sadness, and Sontag’s take is that effectiveness of bunraku derives from the physical separation of the silent puppet, manipulated by three on-stage puppeteers, and the narrator, who is wracked with emotion but doesn’t physically participate in the drama. Similarly, she considers the juxtaposition of two hooded and one hoodless puppeteers on stage to be vital to the dramatic tension of the show; the larger-than-life (from the perspective of the puppet) beings that alternately serve as “the puppet’s servants, at other moments its captors” take two distinct forms on stage, one god-like and visible, the other passive and hidden.

This all got me to thinking about another book I’ve been reading lately: Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. GEB is a weird book, to say the least; in short, it discusses the works of Kurt Gödel (mathematician), M.C. Escher (illustrator), and Johann Sebastian Bach (composer) and their relationship to one other, but it pretty quickly diverts this discussion to illustrate how concepts like recursion, self-reference, and analogy lead to (among numerous other things), intelligence. Hofstadter spends quite a while geeking out about the idea of “isomorphism,” defined (care of good ol’ Wikipedia) as “a kind of mapping between objects that shows a relationship between two properties or operations.” Which is where Sontag’s essay comes back in. As I understand it, an isomorphism is a way of interpreting the same concept or structure in two distinct ways. The drama and effectiveness of bunraku, as Sontag describes it, seems to depend critically on isomorphisms – isomorphism between the text of the play and the play itself, between mute but physically expressive puppet and the eloquent but impotent narrator, between the actions of the puppet which draw the audience’s eye and the black-clad puppeteers who fade from it. What’s fascinating about an isomorphism is that the same information is contained in both of its incarnations; the transformation between the two is essentially a perspective change that allows the same core concept to be considered in two distinct ways. It’s probably trivial to spot isomorphisms all over the world of theater, but in puppetry, which takes the separation of action from actor to a kind of logical extreme, they seems especially integral to the structure of the performance.

T F m
September 14, 2011

Show #3: Cantastoria

This week’s puppetry outing introduced me to the primitive theatrical form of Cantastoria, which probably merits some explanation since I had never heard of it before happening upon the show on the Henson Foundation website (which, incidentally, is a great resource for finding out about NYC-based puppet theater). Briefly, Cantastoria involves a spoken or sung narration accompanied by painted, drawn, or otherwise-rendered still imagery: you can think of it as a sort of medieval powerpoint presentation. Back in the day, these tended to be familiar religious stories, cautionary tales of immorality, &c. But like much have theater, Cantastoria has grown up quite a bit in the millennium subsequent to its founding.

Speaking of grown-up, the show I caught was called Phobia and Fetish and was put on by the appropriately titled group Cranks and Banners down at the Here arts center in SoHo. This turned out to be a pretty ideal introduction to Cantastoria, since the show literally kicked off with an introduction to Cantastoria, described in song as the lead artist of the group mapped out the history and spread of the art form on her dress, painted in exquisite detail with a map of the Middle/Far East (cradle of Cantastoria, it turns out) and complete with fold-down sections depicting historical Cantastorians and their circumstances. The way they told it, theatrical styles as diverse as shadow puppets, marionettes, bunraku, and hand puppets can trace their history back to these paintings and accompanying stories.

Depiction of Cantastoria by Dutch artist Moritatenerzöhler (totally public domain)
The subsequent parts of the show each had a unique style, making for a pretty great showcase of the flexibility of Cantastoria. One of the more striking involved a box with cranks on either end and a continuous, maybe 30 meter long piece of paper stretched between them depicting the narative arc of an Inuit who got into a feud with a neighbor over a certain yellow patch of snow. Much the way that the physical presence of a puppet on a stage creates a very different reaction in the audience than, say, a digital rendering of the same figure would, the physical process of cranking the banner across the box in time with the story was much more engaging than just seeing a video, despite accomplishing something similar. It was also clear just how delicate the paper  banner for the story was, with the cranking actors taking great pains to keep it from getting caught in the crank mechanisms.

Another favorite section involved a pair of clotheslines strung across the stage, with the narrator singing her sorry tale of injustice at the hands of love and Uncle Sam while periodically attaching paintings to the lines with clothespins, so only once the song was over could the entire sequence be observed. As expected, a couple of the tales also stuck with the more historical method of displaying paintings one-at-a-time to illustrate the stories. These were cool, but a bit less visually striking than the two I mentioned above; I think the more modern takes on the style probably just appeal a little more in modern times. Still, I recommend checking out Cantastoria if you get the chance; I’d love to catch some more of it down the road and see what other variations the dramatists and -turgs can think up.

Also:  yes, I spent pretty much the whole night trying not to make the pun, “Cantastoria? I barely know her!”

T F m
August 2, 2011

Videogames and Puppetry: Why Not?

I recently had the opportunity to attend a couple of academic panels on the topic of puppetry. The panels covered an impressive range of puppet-related topics, but the one that really caught my eye was videogames as a medium for puppetry. People make puppetry from videogames! A born-and-raised nerd with the kind of attention span for flashing-lights-on-a-TV-screen that can really only be engendered by a single-child suburban upbringing, this immediately struck me as an awesome idea. It also really surprised me that it had never occurred to me before, since it seems so obvious now that I’ve heard it. The same basic concepts of a puppet can easily be adapted to a videogame – (basically) one or more figurative objects interacting within an environment under the control of an external operator in such a way that an audience can observe them.

During the panel, the discussion of puppetry in videogames (presented by this just way-too-cool professor from LA whose name has completely escaped me) was accompanied by some clips from a short piece made using Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The clips felt very much like an experimental film (the GTA protagonist running through wispy trees and interfacing somberly with a giant, rotating bundle of flowers), but now that the concept has been pointed out I know I’ve seen this before. Remember the Red vs. Blue videos that were just, everywhere on the internet about five years ago? Those were videogame puppetry too!

Now that I think of it, videogames could be a very friendly medium for an aspiring puppeteer. They’re cheap and ubiquitous, they lend themselves to being captured on video for distribution (although they can also be used for live performances), and they have a built-in control mechanism I’d wager is orders of magnitude easier to get the hang of than a marionette’s wooden cross. Plus, videogames naturally minimize that classic antagonist of puppets – the uncanny valley. Since videogame environments are already simulacra of reality (albeit a generally cooler and more physically lenient reality), the not-quite-human faces of videogame characters don’t show up in striking contrast to the realism of their environment in a way that triggers discomfort in the human psyche.

This has me wondering a bit at where to draw the line, puppetry-wise. Many a time I’ve been playing Fallout 3 or something similarly engrossing and found my companions in the room at least as drawn into the action as I am(sometimes to the point of protests when I’ve decided I’m done playing). It’s not really a puppet show for me, since I’m the one controlling the game, but it’s not inconceivable that it is for them. I think, though, this wouldn’t hold true if I were just playing through the game in a linear story mode. The thing about a host of videogames that have gotten popular of late is that they’re open ended (examples coming to mind include Red Dead Redemption, Fallout 3 and New Vegas, the recent GTA titles), so a lot of the time players aren’t doing something pre-scripted or specifically dictated by the game’s designers. Instead, players are encouraged to explore a virtual world, use their imaginations. This type of ‘sandbox gaming’ seems particularly conducive to creating stories and interesting interactions that are completely unrelated to the game itself. So I might not be a puppeteer when I’m running around post-apocalyptic Washington DC looking for lawn gnomes to add to my (rather prodigious) collection, but mix in an overdubbed narration about my character’s breakdown into obsessive-compulsive gnome collecting as a means of dysfunctionally coping with the massive psychic trauma and survivor’s guilt of making it through the apocalypse alive, and suddenly it’s looking a lot like puppet theater, XBox 360 style.

T F m
July 25, 2011

Show #2: Don Cristóbal, Billy-Club Man

My second show, Don Cristóbal, Billy-Club Man, featured an impressive cross-section of puppetry forms. Don Cristóbal was one of those play-within-a-play type deals, where the titular Don goes from a child-sized bunraku-style puppet in the main play to an infant-sized hand-puppet in the inner play, which was a variant of those old slapstick Punch and Judy shows so popular with the medieval set. In the outer play, however, the ne’er-do-well hero puppet finds himself in complicated love with his Judy-surrogate costar. The complication being that Don is a puppet, which turns out to be something of a deal-breaker for her and turns the play into something of a bizarre and violent take on a Pinocchio story.

Don Cristóbal started with a visually-striking shadow-puppetry scene, where a scrim was lowered before the stage and the actors filed around behind it – the gaudy jester-type costumes and stilted movements made it very difficult to distinguish human from humanoid figures, and I found myself wondering just how many puppets were involved. I overestimated, as there was only the one (Don Cristóbal) in the main story, but it was interesting that the line between puppet and man became so blurry with only the colorless, 2D information of shadows available.

Speaking of the Billy-Club Man, this was one gnarly-looking little puppet – bent at the shoulders with his face twisted into a lopsided sneer, which worked quite effectively with the crotchety, Spanish-accented voice provided by his lead puppeteer. The puppeteer, incidentally, was fantastic, easily outshining the other actors with his excellent comedic timing and a knack for keeping the audience’s attention on his puppet charge. Puppets naturally draw attention, but I think a mark of good puppeteering is maximizing that effect. The coolest thing about this particular puppet’s appearance was his asymmetry, which not only gave him an endearing but decidedly ugly mug, but allowed for an impressive range of ‘facial expression,’ since the one side of his face was more cruel-looking while the other was more pitiable. As discussed in Puppet, people will project all kinds of emotion onto the by-definition lifeless face of a puppet, so giving the puppet a distribution of possible expressions naturally facilitates the process.

While it started simply enough, Don Cristóbal, Billy-Club Man got decidedly weirder and more dream-like as it progressed. The freakiest part was this slowly-moving procession of tall, masked, black-veiled beings circling the stage, which it took me a moment to realize were actors holding intricately carved masks of very, very old and pale people in one hand held high above their heads and bobbing them around, using their wrists and arms as the neck – everything else about their appearance was cloaked behind a mostly-opaque black veil. This was downright spooky.

Also, at the end Don Cristóbal winds up at the forest home of some kind of puppet-maker, who has whittled him a new heart because his old one decayed into sawdust? Or something? This may have been due to Don’s ladylove’s rejection of his plan to fly to the moon together, which, I mean, it’s hard to blame her but he takes it pretty hard. Incidentally, there’s this recurring theme of Don Cristóbal waxing poetical at the moon, which plays host to an ever-changing array of shadow-puppets and was one of my favorite aspects of the play – the projected shadows ranged from humorous and none-too-vague sexual imagery to very subtle, emotionally stirring backdrop for the play. In fact, the only thing for which I’d knock Don Cristóbal was the couple of scenes where Don ‘flew’ over to a ledge to pine toward said moon. David Soll once told me (I think he was quoting someone) that ‘puppets shouldn’t fly,’ which says a lot in a few words, I think. The job of these figures is to be a receptacle for our projected emotions and suspended disbeliefs, and while it’s cool to have them do things that human actors can’t do, altogether defying gravity doesn’t seem like the right way to go about it. The Anne Frank puppet from Compulsion had a flight scene too, and it too rubbed me a little the wrong way.

Overall, though, Don Cristóbal, Billy-Club Man was excellent, particularly for its integration of so many distinct forms of puppetry in ways that emphasized the strengths of each, and it was funny and touching to boot.

T F m
June 28, 2011

Compulsion thoughts

Taking pains since it was my first puppet show and all, I made it to The Public Theater to catch Compulsion in uncharacteristically timely fashion and got to spend a few minutes admiring the set. Dominating the stage were perhaps a dozen marionettes strung from the catwalks, looking maybe a little morbidly gallows-esque. A recurring theme in the conversations I’ve had about puppets is the human tendency to project human characteristics onto these diminutive figures, and seeing so many of them motionless and dangling from the ceiling conjured an image of mass execution that, now that I’m thinking about it, was quite appropriate for the theme of the play.

So yes, the theme of the play was one man’s obsession (‘compulsion,’ if you will) to produce a stage adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank in post-WW2 America. Anne, it turned out, was represented by a marionette the size and appearance of a small child, and the opening scene immediately showcased the talents of the black-clad trio of puppeteers operating silently in the catwalks above. Anne sat at the edge of the table, pencil in wooden hand, pantomiming the act of writing lines left-to-right, left-to-right in perfect succession as the pencil twitched up-and-down to convey her strokes. It was strikingly well done, especially considering the 20ish feet separating the puppet from her human operators. Shortly after, a voice began reading the words she was ‘writing,’ presumably quotes from The Diary.

Shortly thereafter, the protagonist and titular Compulsive entered, played by this guy I definitely knew from somewhere, who was he? damnit (my roommates, incredulous with outrage at my ignorance, later identified him as Mandy Patinkin), who’s characterization of an American Jew deeply affected by the very recent Holocaust was spot-on in that theatrical, larger-than-life reflecting-life sort of way. Our seats were pretty great, so the painstaking attention to the details of the puppets and furrows in actors’ faces were clear as crystal.

The play, with its sevenish recurring human-depicted characters, only has three human actors. While Mandy P. was invariably the emotionally unstable Sid Silver, every other male part was played by one other actor, and both Sid’s wife and an up-and-coming business-lady were played by the same actress. The effect was really cool, making Sid’s world seem almost claustrophobically small and fitting well with his borderline delusions of grandeur w/r/t this Anne Frank play he insists he’s done an infinitely superior job of writing than the one which met widespread distribution.

The play departed from my expectations in two major ways: the marionette style of puppetry and the fact that the majority of scenes were sans-puppets. I guess I had by default anticipated the same style of puppetry featured in Puppet (bunraku), where black-clad (as ever) puppeteers manipulate their charges directly rather than via strings at a distance. The challenges of the marionette style are pretty obvious, what with strings that can become entangled and the slightest jostle getting magnified down on the stage, but I don’t think I’ve encountered enough of either style (or other yet-hypothetical ones) to go playing favorites yet. Suffice it to say, subtle motions (feet dangling off the edge of a bed, kicking, or gesticulations during speech) are both achievable and quite impressive with a puppet on strings. And while there were fewer scenes featuring puppets than I anticipated, they were the most haunting – the most unsettling scene in the play wound up being one where Anne appeared to Sid’s wife while the two of them were in bed, with the wife basically pleading with Anne to leave them alone in what (I think) was the only time the ghostly Ms. Frank appeared to anyone besides Sid.

After the show, David introduced me to one of the puppeteers, Eric Wright (who appears prominently in Puppet), who gave me some interesting behind-the-scenes type insight into the creative process. Like, remember those dozen eerily-still puppets from the beginning of the play? Only four or five of them actually got used, which turned out to be because they cut down on the number of puppetry scenes in the show as it continued its apparently unusually long tour. I thought this was fascinating, since plays always seem like pretty static things to me, with perhaps a minor detail here or there changing with each iteration but not much more. Eric said that was one of the advantages to having such a long tour; they were able to hone their vision of the show to an unusual degree. Incidentally, I’ve been invited to tour a puppet-making studio in the Lower East Side, so anticipate further Homunculus-behind-the-scenes goodness some time in the nearish future.

Something David said to me is I think worth repeating: “puppets don’t make good microphones.” For all its delicate puppetry, some of the magic of the writing scene that opened the play was broken when the voice-over began reading Anne’s words. As the play proceeded, the actors on stage increasingly spoke for the puppets, with the speaking actors clearly visible behind the little humanoid figures. This turned out to be distracting – which is kind of funny, since I expected to be distracted instead by the puppeteers in the catwalks. In reality, they were silent and stealthy as large predatory cats on the prowl, and for the majority of the time I forgot the puppeteers were there at all. A puppet has a certain kind of stage presence, and while it can be mixed with human actors very effectively, giving puppets vocalizations, and especially showing the people doing the vocalizing, can take something away from the effect.

Still, the incorporation of the puppets and nuanced puppeteering throughout Compulsion were impressive and quite distinct from the central position puppets played in Disfarmer (the subject of Puppet). Instead, puppets in Compulsion served to inject a surreal quality into key emotional scenes – usually the puppets arose when Sid was especially unhinged or waxing Anne Frank philosophical, like embodiments of his mania. Lightning cracked and Sid’s wife was transformed into a fragile and damp-looking puppet standing in the rain outside the door to their home. A likeness of the The Man character with a knife in its back was flung onto a table in front of the human version to pretty hilarious effect. I look forward to seeing how different ratios of puppet/human acting work out as I continue my exploration of the NYC puppet scene.

T F m
March 10, 2011

Getting Warmed Up

Most Americans who haven’t seen Avenue Q or a big Julie Taymor show (think The Lion King) have probably never seen a puppet show of the grown-up, modern variety. These people may find the idea of watching a puppet show, if not alienating, at least a little alien. ‘Puppets?’ they inquire, scratching their watch-tan lines, ‘So, um, why puppets?’ Gentle readers, I’ve been tasked with finding out. I’m diving headlong into an ancient and admittedly kind of weird-seeming but also curiosity-piquing art form, and I’ll be reporting my experience along the way. While I can’t say I’m abundantly experienced with puppetry, I saw Puppet at its IFC Center premiere last fall, so I have a some insight into the creative process. Mostly, though, I’m just curious. Puppets are strangely captivating.  These (usually) small, (usually) humanoid inanimate objects seem like they should be a major hindrance to an audience’s ability to invest emotionally in a piece of theater. But on the contrary, I’m struck by how deftly a good puppeteer can command the empathy and suspension of disbelief of his audience to achieve, not the same effect as a human actor, but something analogous. So I’m going to check out the scene to see just what these representative figures and the people who manipulate them can do, and this blog will be a sort of chronicle of my puppet experiences along the way.

Experience #1 will be ‘Compulsion,’ a show involving a man obsessed with the story of Anne Frank. I’m not too sure about what to expect – despite my good ol’ fashioned Jewish upbringing, I’ve never actually read the relevant Diary – but David Soll (Director of Puppet) tells me that Matt Acheson and Eric Wright from Puppet are involved as the puppet designer and a puppeteer, respectively. The subtlety of the motion conveyed by the Disfarmer puppeteers from Puppet was one of the major points that initially interested me in this project, and I’m excited to see if I can spot any similarities.

So what might a kid (I’m 23, incidentally) with pretty minimal experience with anything theatrical dig about a puppet show? Why do I get so much out of it? Will I get hooked, keep coming back for more ventures into the uncanny valley?

Probably. Maybe. I have really almost no idea.

But I’m intrigued.

T F m
March 29, 2009