P is for Puppet: It’s Good Enough For Me

"Salt of the Earth" by PuppetCinema (Photo by Boaz Freund)

“Salt of the Earth” by PuppetCinema (Photo by Boaz Freund)

I’m a puppet person and proud of it. Sort of.  I do consider myself a ‘recovering’ puppeteer, a puppetry advocate, a professor of puppetry,  a curator and producer of new works of puppetry.  I find that there are many misconceptions about the form and field which I have devoted myself to for the better part of the last decade. A small slice of time, no doubt, but in that time, I have noticed an eerie pattern appearing in the form of seemingly innocuous questions, which when carefully examined, to me,  reveal not so innocuous roots. These are questions that I have personally been asked countless times, from strangers to obstetricians to family members and generally arise after I offer up personal information about my choice of profession or passion.

I mention the “p” word (as in puppetry, puppeteer, puppets) and let the pattern present:

“Oh! Puppetry? That’s crazy/awesome/strange!”
“Have you seen Avenue Q/Being John Malkovich/The new Muppet Movie?”
“Wow! Wait. What? No, I know what you do! It’s like Jim Henson!”
“Can you do my kid’s birthday party next week?”

To you,  these questions (or responses) probably appear banal, no underhanded insults or malintent here. However, when I start counting the times I’ve received these exact same questions or references, I have to investigate.  What is it that people are really asking me? What are they really thinking about when they hear that “p” word?  And moreover, when did waiting for or answering these questions become something I actually began to dread?

No disrespect, but why is Avenue Q the main live puppetry reference that so often gets dropped ? (Maybe it’s a simplistic answer, they’ve got great marketing!?)

Why is Being John Malkovich the representative film for contemporary puppetry and puppeteers? (Do a lot of puppeteers come across as disgruntled or frustrated artists making work that could be described as “Ken doll with his pants off”?)

And, who doesn’t know and love Jim Henson? BUT, when people mention Jim Henson, are they only referencing Kermit and the gang or a certain beloved educational television series? Which Henson are they referencing: Dark Crystal Henson, Labyrinth Henson or Fraggles Henson?

And with respect to the last question about the kiddies, which I always answer truthfully and in the negative, what is with the automatic assumption that because I’m a puppeteer I must, can or want to do work for children? (Not that there is anything wrong with that!)

So, was I being paranoid, perceiving acute marginalization between imaginary lines here? I decided to ask other puppeteers in my community to share their thoughts, so I could gather mine.

The puppeteers I connected to were open, giving and proud of their craft. They both affirmed and unsettled some of my sneaking suspicions.  But the totality of what I’ve amassed fills a Google document far too long to make Andy Horwitz edit for Culturebot! Instead, I offer this brief interview as leverage until I finish sifting… so…stay tuned…

_______

After a puppet show I curated this past fall, I found myself engaged in conversation with Cheryl Henson, President of The Jim Henson Foundation. I began by sharing with her some of my uncanny findings from the puppetry community.   An incredibly generous and articulate woman, I was fortunate to further our conversation via the phone a few days later.  Below is a transcribed excerpt from that call.

Leslie Strongwater: I spoke with several puppeteers and was astonished by some of the similar (and amusing) story lines I was hearing. Ronnie Burkett once told a woman he was ‘special ops!’

Cheryl Henson:  Ron Mueck would never say he was a puppeteer. He would say he was a plumber. It is a microcosm of the larger issues of puppetry as an art form. Julie Taymor and Frank Oz do not want to be considered puppeteers. Those are two of the best puppeteers our country has ever known but they do not want to be identified or pigeonholed as puppeteers because our culture diminishes artists who identify as puppeteers.

LS: Right! Now,  I’m reading my notes here, but Kevin Augustine says he’s a “ theater maker. With puppets.” He tries to avoid the typical response of “Oh, Interesting…” which to his mind conjures people seeing him with socks on his hands.  Can you speak a bit about the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater? There’s a conscious choice you made as Executive Producer.

CH:  It was our goal to use the word puppet. We intentionally used and embraced the word puppet. We pushed the word puppet.  We wanted to change how people thought of the word puppet. I do believe there are more people who are willing to call their work puppetry than there were 20 years ago, but it’s still a tough sell, particularly outside of the community of sophisticated innovative theater. (NYC, LA, ATL, CHI, MN) Unless someone has seen really good puppet theater, they have no idea what you are talking about.

LS: Ronnie Burkett also referenced this need. That you have to see and experience good puppet theater to know what it is. Is there a need to find another name for puppetry?

CH:  I don’t think it’s negative in today’s culture. I actually think that puppetry is a great medium to work in right now in today’s culture and that’s there’s no need to change the name. There’s no need to shy around it. Our pop culture is totally happy to embrace puppetry because it has a little bit of anarchy, it has a little bit of whimsy,  it has a little storytelling, it has fantasy and it’s counter-cultural somehow.

LS: Why then do you suppose puppetry so often gets relegated to the X-Files?

CH:  Because puppetry does creepy really well. Puppetry also does other things really well. It does ‘cute’ really well. It does ‘warm and fuzzy’ really well. It does nightmare-psycho-horror really well. But it happens to do weird and creepy really well. If you want to do something like that, puppetry is a great medium for that.

Our top priority when we were doing our festivals was to get the critics and the funders to notice it, to get other theaters, potential presenters, to notice it, to see really good work. To get people to really understand great work…. Once you’ve been touched by really good puppet theater, you keep looking for it. You want more of that. If you haven’t seen it, you don’t know it exists. And it’s easy for people to poo-poo something they haven’t seen. And for people who have poo-poo’d puppetry, it just means they haven’t ever seen anything that was really good.

LS: And to be fair, there’s a lot of bad puppetry out there….

CH: So it’s more likely that people have seen bad puppetry….so you need to raise the bar. You need to help people make their puppetry better. The good stuff will help change people’s perceptions of puppetry.

LS: The Jim Henson Foundation is currently the only granting organization in the United States devoted to supporting artists who are making contemporary puppet works. Who else supports puppeteers? To whom can they turn!?

CH:  Basil Twist has been funded by Doris Duke Foundation. MacArthur and Guggenheim have funded puppeteers but only as individual artists, not as puppeteers….there aren’t categories to award puppeteers or puppetry for puppetry’s sake. The Muppets were one of the only puppet groups that made money. Most puppet groups don’t make money. It’s not a wealthy art form. And there are art forms that need advocates and puppetry is certainly one of them.

LS: Do you suppose it’s harder for puppeteers? In life? In art?

CH: Most people don’t want to talk about what they do. Our culture tends to want to pigeonhole people within 10 seconds. First thing people say at a party, “What do you do?” Sometimes I don’t want to talk about it. I say, “What do you do?” Who wants to explain yourself to everybody that you’re having a 30 second conversation with?

LS: Lindsay Abromaitis-Smith mentioned this as well.  She said, “It’s not an everyday conversation you’re able to have with people. The moment I mention ritual theater, their eyes glaze over. Puppets are great for chewing on metaphors, for discussing the lines of the animate/inanimate, but who wants to talk about metaphors at a bar?”  I suppose you’ve read the controversy on the blogosphere? John Bell has a great series of posts called the “Annals of Performing Object History, Material Performance, and Object-Oriented Ontology” where he captures moments in the news where a version of puppetry kinda gets the shaft. The Hopi Tribal artifacts being a recent featured example – these ‘performing objects’ perceived as sacred and living spirits against much protest were put to auction in France (and later returned thanks to an independent foundation)….or another example, the mindless maligning of an MFA puppetry student by someone who had no idea what his program entailed…nor what a gifted puppeteer is truly capable of. There exists undermining assumptions that it’s just some sicko putting his hand up a puppet’s orifice. Both the puppet (as ancient and powerful as it is) and the puppeteer get no respect. NO respect, I tell you!

CH: In practice, the puppeteer gives life to something that otherwise doesn’t have life. Puppetry is a generous act. And yet there’s a popular literary metaphor of the puppeteer as a manipulator of an otherwise independent being, a malevolent character. That is just not the way it works in practice.

LS: Right, even the connotation of ‘puppet’ is negative. Puppet government…How many times have we heard the line “so and so pulls some strings in such and such show”… as if there were no other sound bite on earth for the press to use. Why is the word ‘manipulate’ synonymous with puppet?  Some puppeteers I know (okay, I conducted a poll on facebook) prefer the term ‘animate’ over manipulate..Just saying! And why is it such a depressing epiphany for a puppet when they realize they are a puppet? Philippe Genty’s Pierrot all but commits puppetcide and the John Cusack marionette in Being John Malkovich has a violent meltdown when he sees himself in the mirror. Don’t get me wrong-it’s a wonderful trope when the puppet has the ability to reference his own being and a gift of the puppeteer to be able to portray the moment when a puppet both reaches that state of self-awareness and simultaneously ceases to exist.

CH: When you use the word ‘puppet’ with certain people, you run the risk of diminishing the work, or there’s the potential for it be perceived as a diminishing of the work.

LS: Please continue.

CH: When we were publicizing the 2000 Festival, the publicist arranged an interview with a wider net to appeal to the mass market. And it was a disaster because of the assumption that puppetry is only for kids. And when we said, no it’s for adults, they jumped to the other side immediately assuming that it’s sexually explicit puppetry. You have to validate that possibility, but that’s not what we’re presenting. And a reporter asked me, “well, did your father teach you about the birds and the bees with puppets?” And I said, “No, No. Did YOUR father do that?” I laughed it off, but at the time, I was livid. How do you respond to something like that? The absurdity of it. The first thing they think of is kids…and the next place they go is ‘pervert.’ Perverting the kids. It’s interesting how quickly that movement can happen in someone else’s brain. That is not what puppetry is about. That is about them.

As Cheryl and I began to wrap up the conversation, she couldn’t resist sharing a story about some dildo puppets Mark Russell presented at the Festival as part of a late night cabaret…

LS: Puppets do dirty really well?

CH: Yes, anything that the depths of the human imagination can come up with, puppetry can probably do it better. Puppetry can visualize it in the real world better. It can do dirty, it can do weird. It can do creepy. It can do cute and poetic and lovely as well.

LS: They are so much more than a triple threat. They do it all, these puppets. So give them their due!


In her former life, Leslie Strongwater worked as a puppeteer with Kevin Augustine/Lone Wolf Tribe, David Michael Friend, Great Small Works, Drama of Works and more.  She is currently the US Producer for Israeli/American based company PuppetCinema. She worked at The Jim Henson Foundation under Cheryl Henson and since 2006 has been the curator/founder of Puppet BloK, dedicated to promoting new works of contemporary puppetry at Dixon Place in NYC.  Puppet BloK is the proud recipient of six Presenter’s Grants from The Jim Henson Foundation.  Named ‘Best Curator’ by Paper Magazine and given the BAX10 Arts Management Award from Brooklyn Arts Exchange for her work at Dixon Place where she served as Co-Artistic Director for over five years, she has directed and produced for many NYC artists, including; Mac Wellman (world premiere 3 2’s: or AFAR), Sibyl Kempson (world premiere The Secret Death of Puppets), OBIE-award-winning Peculiar Works (The East Village Fragments), and Suzan Lori Parks (365 Days) at The Public.  She currently teaches Theater and Puppetry at Gettysburg College in PA and is expecting her first baby in May.

Special thanks to Cheryl Henson for helping me with this personal puppetry investigation. Thanks also to Ronnie Burkett, Kevin Augustine, Lindsay Abromaitis-Smith, Robert Smythe, David Michael Friend, Fred Thompson, Steven Widerman, Gary Friedman,  Eric Berninghausen, James Godwin, Phillip Huber, John Bell, Jim Rose and Judy Rose. To these inspiring artists and more for your words of wisdom, insight and work, thank you.  I am proud to know you and share your love of ‘p.’

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