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Performing Science and Performing Puppets

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Performing Science and Performing Puppets

By Grayce Hoffman.

The Spring 2015 Performing Science seminar (THAR 275 / ENGL 256) began with an eager group of students who had no idea what would come of the class. Most of us had worked with each other before, and had even studied with the fabulous Dr. Marcia Ferguson in the past. This seminar, however, was a blank canvas with only three ingredients to mix together for our final showcase: theater, science, and puppets.

The plays and texts we read over the course of the semester aided in our understanding of the overlap between cognitive neuroscience and theatrical practices, which we experimented with through a puppet medium. “Puppets” have a certain reputation in popular culture. When most people think about seeing a puppet show they think about slapstick comedies, marionette performances, or Kermit the Frog. In our artistic residency with master puppeteer Robert Smythe, our eyes were opened to the myriad of possibilities the word “puppet” presents to artists and performers. 

We began our work with Robert when he visited our class to engage in some pre-residency exercises early in the semester. He had been following along with our readings and online discussion posts, and was present for our discussion of his work about narrative theory. We talked about how human beings can fill in the blanks between presentations of distinct images, creating their own version of a story that gets characters from point A to point B. We spent time exploring storytelling, and how our own bodies work to give off certain impressions, before we graduated to giving movements to inanimate objects. Reknowned French physical theatre innovator, Jacques LeCoq, influenced Smythe’s ideas about the importance of the theatrical image over traditional elements such as plot and dialogue, in conveying the essence of  theatrical meaning with power and economy. We utilized LeCoquian techniques in an exercise called “waking for the first time.” In this activity, we first tried to embody a “symbol” of sleep—not just a version of ourselves sleeping, but something that could be generalized to indicate a universal image of sleep. We then woke from our slumber as though it was the first time we were experiencing the world. Our own hands, the room, and everything in it were foreign to us. After playing with this concept through our own motions, we set out to have a puppet “wake for the first time.”

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    • Robert Smythe

Our first puppets were constructed purely out of newspaper and masking tape. They had a head, a spinal column, pairs of arms and legs, and a "popo." In this instance, our little creations were seeing this world for the first time, as only moments before they had been nothing but a page in the Daily Pennsylvanian or New York Times. We first worked in tableaus, getting our puppet to wake one step at a time before smoothing it out to have fluid motion. We found that controlling all of the limbs of this puppet by ourselves could prove rather difficult, so we attempted a technique similar to the puppeteers of bunraku in Japan. For bunraku puppets, there are three people controlling one assigned portion of the same puppet. One operates the feet, the other the left arm, and the head puppeteer is in charge of the right arm and head.

Newspaper puppets were just the beginning. We quickly learned that most anything that could evoke emotional responses from audience members could be turned into a puppet For example, a Styrofoam ball with a hole carved in the middle was our first hand puppet. By the tilt of our finger, we could exhibit disagreement, shame, joy, anger, or embarrassment. At this stage, Robert wanted us to experiment with giving text to our puppet characters. He gave us five minutes to write a monologue inspired by topics related to our studies, which we had written on the blackboard over the course of several weeks. At first we were terrified of the prospect of composing pieces for performance, but the time crunch helped alleviate the pressure. Eventually we continued the process with a dialogue-producing exercise, and brought the text to life using hand, rod, and shadow puppets.

Our final presentation ended up containing a nice mix of each puppetry medium, with text comprised of compilations of these five-minute writing intervals, and edits based on collaborative question-and-answer sessions between the author and the rest of the class. Robert pushed us to focus on  why we needed to use puppets in the piece as opposed to human actors. How did puppets enhance the meaning of the piece, and what could the character do as a puppet that would be impossible with a live actor? The result was a collection of unique pieces that were influenced by different aspects of our comparison of science and theater. Some of the topics tackled included edited reality, mental illness, alternate universes, and the danger and responsibility that comes with new knowledge.

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After the semester ended, the smaller “Edinburgh Ensemble” began rehearsals to devise a complete play to take to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. We waked into rehearsal with the vignettes from our time with Robert and new images we felt inspired by, and got to work. We portioned out the rehearsal period into three “phases”: Generation, Consolidation, and Rehearsal. During Phase 1, we wrote more material and engaged in improvisational dialogue and movement exercises. Each nugget was recorded on bright orange pieces of paper for us to return to. During this generation period, we became very interested in protests as an avenue for pursuing our many interests. We wanted to show differing perspectives on the same event, and even conflict within an individual. Politics is certainly a subject that results in this debate. We were also interested in the mixing of universes. Thus, in Phase 2, a “deities challenge” was born. In our piece, three sisters of fate challenge protesters from across the ages to work together and create something bigger than themselves to protect the world. Once we had an idea of what we wanted to achieve, we solicited the help of Martina Plag. She assisted us in creating puppets that simultaneously worked with our vision for the protesters and fit in a suitcase. Can the characters we’ve created complete the deities’ task? It’ll take a trip to Edinburgh to find out! (Or, don’t miss our Philadelphia presentation on September 4th and 5th!) 

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View more photos from the artistic residency with Robert Smythe and a rehearsal of the Edinburgh Ensemble on Flickr>

The Edinburgh Ensemble will perform "Naked Knotted Neurons" at Annenberg Center Live on September 4th
 and 5th, 2015. Please visit the Penn Theatre Arts website for more information.

Grayce Hoffman is a rising senior from Limerick, Pennsylvania majoring in Theatre Arts with a minor in Psychology. She worked on The Heidi Chronicles and Fefu and Her Friends with the Theatre Arts Program this past year. She has also acted, produced, and choreographed shows in the extra-curricular Theater Arts Council (TAC-e) community. 

Edited by Kenna O'Rourke.