Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Three-dimensionality - part four(a) of five

Despite the brilliance of Anne Mitrani, Lisa Lichtenfels, and Ron Mueck, (see part three), and as "alive" as their creations are, one is still left the fact that they are not moving. One of the more delightful ways to animate a puppet is with strings. The wonder of this for me was brought home in the movie Being John Malkovich with John Cusack. The opening scene shows puppets being maneuvered so delicately, so humanly, and so sensitively that it is a jaw-dropping scene. It's worth the rental just to watch those few moments. From then on I didn’t have much exposure to that form of puppetry, so even more reason for my delight in reading a Financial Times (of all places!) article, this weekend, entitled Pulling the Strings by Sarah Hemming. It is not available online to link to you, so below I have excerpted what to me are some of the highlights.

The article states that, “Little Angel, Britain’s oldest surviving marionette theatre has had a new lease of life.” Apparently it was on the verge of bankruptcy. Loss of funding led to a six-month closure but it reopened after getting funded on the centenary of its founder, John Wright. The current artistic director Peter Glanville says, “It’s taken a while for people to realize how much skill lies in the art of puppetry and how many different types there are. It’s a six-month process to develop a puppet.”

The article goes on to explain that, “The Little Angel Theatre itself is a diminutive treasure. Today the auditorium is flanked by a workshop, where specialists carve the pint-sized casts. The stage can accommodate many types of puppetry, including ‘black-light’ (the puppeteers are obscured by lighting) and short–string marionettes (with the puppeteers on stage). But its unique asset is a ‘double bridge’ (narrow balconies above the stage), enabling puppeteers to operate long-string marionettes. Peering down over the rails—a 2 metre drop—I realize how much skill it must take to control tiny gestures. ‘Marionette work is relatively rare,’ says general manager Charlotte Bond: ‘It is so specialized and you need a bridge, so there aren’t many places to perform it in this country.’”

“The theatre is using its grant from the UK’s National Lottery to celebrate marionette work, creating a touring show, running courses and hiring two apprentices to hone the skill of making stringed puppets. It hopes to take puppetry forward and bring it to new audiences.”

“We want to create work that explores the boundaries of what puppet theatre can be,” says Glanville. He is particularly proud of a new initiative offering artists from all disciplines a chance to experiment with puppetry, ‘I get calls from chamber orchestras, from opera companies, from dance companies, all wanting to work with puppets.’”

So why this surge in interest from mainstream companies? Glanville attributes it partly to the fact that British theatre has evolved over the past 20 years to include more visual, physical drama. Also, festivals of international work have showcased puppetry traditions from elsewhere, such as Balinese shadow and Vietnamese water puppets.

It was a Japanese bunraku show that inspired Royal Shakespeare Company’s Gregory Doran to stage Venus and Adonis. In this ancient form each puppet has several skilled operators controlling precise movements. ‘This is an art form in which puppetry, narration and music are held in absolutely equal balance,’ he says. ‘I was also very impressed by the fact that the entire, very large audience was adult.’”

“Doran thinks that part of the attraction for adults is that audiences are hungry for work that emphasises its theatricality: ‘There is now more of a celebration of how theatre is different from film and television. In puppetry, you are asked to believe that a block of wood is the goddess Venus. If you do that, if you involve yourself in that imaginative leap, that act of complicity, then it becomes super-real.’”

“Having made the leap, audiences can be led into fantastical worlds. That puppets are being manipulated also intrigues adults. Doran says, ‘We like a world in miniature that we can control.’”


mefull said...

If you ever make it to Atlanta be sure to check out the puppetry museum. They have quite a collection of puppets from all over the world as well as a fine puppet theatre. Worth a visit.

I would guess that string puppet manipulation is a skill akin to a musician, you never stop learning or getting better and it takes practice practice practice.

herself said...

I really love the bit about, "...you are asked to believe that a block of wood is the goddess Venus. If you do that, if you involve yourself in that imaginative leap, that act of complicity, then it becomes super-real... Having made the leap, audiences can be led into fantastical worlds."

There a key in there for storytellers of all stripes. I'll keep it in mind. I'll look to giving viewers reasons to believe in my illusions before I try to take them anywhere else. Exciting!

Ubatuber said...

I've never heard of Vietnamese water puppets.....WOW, thanks for the exposure...maybe someday I'll try out a 'Jenny' adaptation live on water :)

Darkstrider said...

Puppet theater and live theater share a lot in common... in fact they borrowed innovations from each other - yes, some of the conventions thought of as strictly stage ideas came originally from puppet theater. Ilove a good theater show (puppets or people) - there's just something so awesome about seeing the magic happen right there in front of you. It's something I want to try to bring into puppetfilm.