Symphonie Fantastique’s 20th Anniversary

Photograph: © 2018 Richard Termine.

I took Basil Twist’s puppetry class when he was a visiting lecturer in my first year of graduate school. He gave our class of ten or eleven students the sort of attention one would expect from someone whose love of their craft is unadulterated and solid, and most of the students (myself included) were initially baffled by the lack of limitations he set. “Well, what do you guys want to make?” he said, basically following us into whatever nook and cranny that led us all. By the end of term, there were shadow puppets, stop motion animation, a lifesize head-losing Pentheus puppet…

Periodically Basil would lecture on puppeteers before him, or, if we were lucky, he’d show us modified demonstrations of his own performances. One from Behind the Lid, I believe, a tall and skinny wooden puppet with no face and only as expressive as its wrist joints. Basil moved so deftly I forgot I could see the strings, forgot that Basil was right in front of us. Were I a slightly more mystical person I would certainly have believed the thin pieces of wood to have truly been inhabited. We made delicately posed hands by gluing pieces of cardboard on top of one another and bent thick wire with pliers to resemble stick figures; we took scarves and found interesting ways to throw them around and make them float.

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Basil Twist with Audrey Moyce, then.

This spring term at Stanford was on my mind as I settled in to watch Symphonie Fantastique at HERE Arts center, in celebration of its 20th Anniversary.  It’s tough to write about a piece that’s not only twenty years old, but has been seen and reviewed by the NYT’s main theater critic not once but twice, in different iterations. Not only that, but I was a tad ashamed to find that I had the exact reaction to Fantastique that Brantley found repulsive in 1998: that this was like a live Fantasia. In my defense, I was not thinking of the “balletic hippopotamuses or anthropomorphic mops” that Brantley disdains, but the abstract parts, the moving lines and shapes during Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. And now I think about it, maybe I’m also letting Fantasia blend in my mind with Disney and Dali’s Destino, as well. Setting abstract shapes to music feels strangely apt. And viewing such a pairing becomes meditative in the sense that thoughts that are completely unrelated to what’s going on on the stage can float through your head, but you can remain enthralled by images while they do.

But even the bit of Fantasia where Mickey chats with the conductor – the cutesy “Mr. Stokowski? Mr. Stokowski!” interaction in shadow before The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – found a comparison, when Fantastique’s pianist (Christopher O’Riley) employed light physical comedy and pantomime between movements. O’Riley’s elaborate sighs and stretches, his theatrical brow-wiping seemed to either give Hector Berlioz’s music its due appreciation – Twist is not the true creator of Symphonie Fantastique, he claims, just its interpreter – or it provided much-needed air time between movements for the five puppeteers (Kate Brehm, Ben Elling, Andy Gaukey, Jonothon Lyons, and Lake Simons) to prepare and get in position. I admit I found this campy and disrespectful of the True Genius that is Basil Twist, but then I thought that 1) Twist probably signed off on this, and 2) I bet I wouldn’t have responded so strongly if I didn’t know this piece in its context and for the innovations it has made.

The thing that struck me first about Fantastique was how dark it was in the theater. All of us staring at a curtain covering a huge tank of water that, inside of the theater, somehow felt small: imagine going to the movie theater and finding the screen is not floor-to-ceiling but the sort of large flat screen your richer friends have. This is not to say it made the effects less striking; merely that with the playing area being so concentrated, the darkness around it was thick and enveloping. Perhaps because I often see theater in unconventional spaces, I am used to being able to see the reactions of other audience members in real time. I take it as a given that I will be able to see my own crossed legs. At Fantastique I could not even see my own pen and paper. I found this frustrating at first, but soon noticed that this threw into sharp relief the two aspects of a paradox live art presents. On one hand, you are in a room full of other people, and there is no denying that the presence of those people changes the way you act: you feel pressure to behave in a way that does not disturb their experience; perhaps you clap and laugh louder than you would in private. On the other hand, you are having a private experience: people can see your eyes taking the performance in, but what happens behind your eyes remains personal, private, and individual. If the piece works for you, I think these two sides conspire to make the experience sacred.

My personal favorite moment of Fantastique came in the third movement, I think – my notes are unsurprisingly tough to read – swaths of blue and glittery fabric, languorously floating like lava. “Nothing happening,” I wrote in a heavy slant down the page, “but I can’t look away.” I felt a little like I had swallowed joy (how difficult it is to avoid cliche in descriptions of positive feeling), like I was vicariously moving in slow motion. I loved when I recognized a motif I had seen in photographs: a single white scarf floating in low light, revolving slowly, then dashing away behind whatever came next.

But the most striking moments of Symphonie Fantastique to me were when I saw an imperfect touch— a slightly too-human accidental jerk mid-glide. It reminded me of a small performance Basil staged the term he taught us, at a gala at the San Francisco Exploratorium. Five of us from the class did a micro-remount of a piece he had made with cardboard tubes that rearranged themselves into a star, then into a running man, then into a nameless shape, and so on. But more than that, I felt the performers’ presence in a way that was different from what I am used to: it wasn’t about eye contact, or characters relating to each other, or the physical presence of bodies at all. it was about a shared intensity of concentration on an the alive and yet inanimate objects between us.

At one early point in Fantastique, a couple (again blue, again glittery) circles appear, and then a third. Oh! I think. Is it about how we always… But then a fourth, fifth, sixth circle appear. I’m interrupted, and feel silly for my own need to make a story out of everything.  Maybe this is what the piece is about! The human brain’s need for story! My notes read: “[something indecipherable] > story.” I think it’s probably apt that I can’t read my handwriting of whatever I thought was superior to narrative in that moment, because it probably isn’t something easily named. Because why does the piece have to be about anything? I thought at last. In the program, Twist writes that much has changed since he first premiered this show, but that “we all still want and need to gather together in the dark and be swept away by enchantment, and puppeteers want and need to make things come alive.” Before I ever encountered Basil, I don’t know I would have agreed with him: not without ideas, not without intellectual stimulation. Seeing him last week reminded me that I don’t believe that anymore.

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For my own project in Basil’s class, I was characteristically indecisive. I loved learning from him, but I felt certain–frustratedly certain–that this was not “my medium.” I did know, however, that I already had in my possession a collection of trinkets: toys and large buttons, a painted pet rock and some coins to cast to consult the I Ching. I kept them all for no reason I could articulate, and I figured that Basil was always taking odds and ends and transforming them; maybe this was my trinket collection’s moment. Basil got excited as he told me about Robert Anton, puppeteer of the 70s whose puppets were tiny and whose performances occurred inside his own apartment. Basil had been given an office he never used in our theater building, why didn’t I use it as a place to stage my tiny trinkets?

Grateful and inspired, I used the office as my sanctuary from the sterility of Stanford’s campus and the academic papers I was struggling to write. I got very familiar with cardboard and duct tape. I found a little fable I’d always liked, recorded myself reading it in a funny voice and experimented with sound effects to warp it, make it sound witchy and warbly. I placed this toy here and then those random pieces of metal there to correspond to the story as it progressed. To contain it all, I made myself a tenuously constructed fort, which Basil helped me engineer to have panels that open and shut, a final weighted flap that sprung down from above to give the ending a button. The result was a micro-puppetry show for one person at a time, spanning about two minutes. On the day of our class showing, I repeated the show some 20-odd times, finding new tweaks to improve it each time. I loved being able to give all of my attention and intention to one audience member at a time, and then another, and then another. It felt the same sort of care I felt I (as well as the rest of our class) received from Basil that quarter, and it is the same sort of care Basil extends to the objects he creates, and then animates and displays for us.

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