The 63rd National Puppetry Festival of the Puppeteers of America at the University of Connecticut on August 10-16, 2015 offered its participants the series of critical discussions, “Critical Exchange.” I had the privilege to be a panelist for the discussion on the state of puppetry for children called “Child’s Play.” Before we met, our moderator had sent us an e-mail with a few questions and the suggestion that we exchange ideas to warm up before the meeting. This inspired me to record some thoughts.
I would like to share them here. I made some cuts and edits to the letter I sent to my co-panelist, and I asked two of my friends to give this text editorial attention. I am grateful to Margaret Moody and MaryBall Opie.
The discussion was introduced in the program by this short paragraph:
“In the United States and many other countries around the world, puppetry has primarilly been seen as an art form addressing children. But how does it address them? What possibilities exist for children’s puppetry that have yet to me mined?”
And now the sketch of my thoughts.
I was motivated to sign up for our discussion in large part by the popular American view that puppet theatre for children is a lesser art form. Children are defenseless against bad art. They want to like what parents or teachers want them to like, and when parents or teachers take them to see a poorly made show they may enjoy and applaud it despite its inferior quality. Nonetheless, we have many examples of the most amazing puppetry created for children, just as we have fine art, music, literature, and theatre for children of the highest artistic standards.” There is not much sense in doing or aiming toward something lesser when working for children. To approach the work for children with agreement on producing shows of condescending mediocrity would be self-destructive and degrading for an artist.
WHAT POSSIBILITIES EXIST FOR CHILDREN’S PUPPETRY THAT HAVE YET TO BE MINED?
All possibilities, those well known and those yet to be discovered need to be mined
PRACTICAL POSSIBILITIES IN MY NATIVE POLAND
This is so different in U.S. than in my native Poland. In Poland, well-supported, mostly municipal, puppet theaters, most of them with their own buildings and ensembles of 20 to 70 highly skilled artists, administrators, managers and technicians serve children in schools on a daily basis and the general public on weekends. They have actor puppeteers, director puppeteers, artists designing and artists building puppets, and other separate categories of professionals such as carpenters, set builders, seamstresses and specialist in papier-mâché, so I guess the productions look a little more like those on Broadway. In Poland, puppeteers are actors. When they get their jobs in the theatre they are often set for life. There is not much reason there to ask questions about practical possibilities. They are mostly there, in these well-supported institutions. Artists can focus on exploring artistic possibilities instead of trying to figure out where, with whom, and in what kind of circumstances to do what they want to do. Public recognition of the value of puppetry for children is strong.
In the United States, a puppeteer is a very different artist than in my native Poland where I grew up, was educated, and spent 20 years of my professional career. In the U.S., a puppeteer has to figure out how to be a puppeteer. Here we are often artists, designers, builders, directors, performers, managers, administrators, marketing specialists and technicians. We have to find or create our own place in the universe. American reality is much more flexible, maybe much more challenging, but also more open to our new ideas. A single prevailing national standard for practicing puppetry does not exist. Each of us has to carve his or her place in a fast-changing reality. We seek practical opportunities; in parallel we explore artistic possibilities. The practical conditions we confront often influence theatrical language and artistic choices in our work.
Each of our new projects and productions brings an opportunity for searching for our place, and seeking new practical and artistic possibilities.
I could only speak about puppetry as a theatrical form, but of course American puppeteers work also in settings other than theatre, among them in film and television.
COMMON POSSIBILITIES AND PRESENTING THEATRES
With Dream Tale Puppets, which I founded on Cape Cod 10 years ago, we, like many American puppeteers, perform for libraries, art and cultural centers, schools, after school programs, fundraisers and parties.
We are fortunate in Massachusetts to have Puppet Showplace in Brookline. I am inspired by my friend and performing partner Margaret Moody, and by Liz Joyce, founder of Goat on the Boat Theater. Margaret organizes a puppetry series each year and invites others to perform. Goat on the Boat presents shows all year long. Dream Tale Puppets presents other performers on the Cape during summer. We call our summer series Cape Cod Puppet Gam.
SCHOOLS AND AFTER SCHOOL PROGRAMS
The most natural audience of puppet theatre in Poland – schools – is not one which works well in Massachusetts. Dream Tale Puppets performs very little in schools.
I do workshops and often work as a teacher using a variety of forms of puppet theatre. Often I conduct after-school or vacation projects. Dream Tale Puppets is listed on the performers and teaching artists’ roster of Hartford Performs – an organization devoted to bringing arts to Hartford Schools. From contact with them, I’ve learned that schools are more interested in artists working with children and supporting curriculum than in supporting work of the artists for art’s sake. They want artists to help teachers. They are less interested in teachers helping artists who are seeking to achieve artistic goals.
On Cape Cod, theatrical workshops as an after-school activity organized by schools, cultural centers, and after school programs exist side by side with community theatre productions which involve children as actors and which are addressed to family audences. Community theaters sometimes use puppets in productions. A similar project model staffed in part by professionals and in part open to volunteers and children is used by Peter Schumann, Missoula Children’s Theatre, Sara Peattie and The Puppeteers’ Cooperative and, I believe, many other puppeteers.
OTHER PRACTICAL POSSIBILIITES
In performing in or for schools puppet theatre meets with education. But in seeking practical possibilities we could also explore areas where theatre meets other societal realities, where we serve additional purposes and border with other areas of life.
Some puppeteers incorporate puppetry in social therapy and work with disadvantaged communities, inner city children and youth. I worked with inner city children and communities in Poland.
THEATRE AND COMMUNITY AND THEATRE AS A COMMUNITY
I view the theatre more as a group and community of artists creating the culture and more particularly theatrical culture than just shows. If such a group has its locale, a home base, this kind of theatre would be operating as a culture center with many programs addressed to various audiences and constituencies. Programs for children and families could be developed simultaneously, in parallel or alternately to programs for or with youth and more mature audiences and participants; also programs, events, celebrations for bigger community where separation between children and adults loses its meaning could be created. Since a work of this nature would require support from many sources, such a theatre would need to be developed with strong connections in the local community and organizations with similar values and beliefs.
The puppet theatre center supported by its local community could serve as a venue for developing its own programs, and as a presenting organization, a hub for collaborations, explorations, education, center of work with children, youth, adults, lovers of the art and professionals. I believe that this way we could serve our communities, help each other, and strengthen our puppetry community and its place in the broader community and culture. We are saving the world with each little step of goodness, and as artists we have powers and missions very different from military units or a national education system. In developing Dream Tale Puppets, we are working with the vision of theatre as a community and center of creativity in mind.
DOES THE IDENTIFICATION AS “CHILDREN’S FARE” NECESSARILY LIMIT OR DIRECT THE TYPES OF SHOWS THAT CAN BE PRODUCED?
Every choice we make directs our actions. Each age of the children may be addressed with a very different style of the shows. A few years ago, I saw the video recording of shows for very little babies up to one year old. They were masterpieces. There was very little spoken language, but amazing visual forms with a lot of dramaturgy in motion, action, shapes, and colors. There was not a trace of condescending paternalism in actors’ actions; instead they employed rich and elegant aesthetic enjoyable for babies and satisfying for adults.
For me, ideally a show would be addressed to any age, which means it would have to be comprised of many layers to be appealing to diverse spectators. When I work on a show, thinking about the age of the children I am creating for is not the first thing I do. I think more about how I shape the process. Asking about “how” brings a style. Material used, field of pre-production studies and research determine this also. If I use a fairy tale or a text by a particular author who writes for children as a jumping board, as inspiration, or material for adaptation, this points to possible directions the work may take. I look for the interesting literary material, compelling fields of research, and an enjoyable and inspiring company of artists of notable talents, abilities and passion. The production process may lead toward the show addressed toward a more or less age-specific audience.
Usually I don’t know in advance what kind of show I will produce. I don’t limit myself. My work for children is like a dialog with the child, also with my own inner child. Do we limit ourselves when we speak with the child? Do we limit ourselves speaking with anyone? We listen to the person we talk to and with, and we try to find, or we are open for the words which will have substance for our listener. The process of finding words is to some extent automatic, or perhaps it would better to say spontaneous. We see or imagine a person and the language emerges. We see how she reacts to our words, we re-imagine who she is and the process, and the dialog continues. This occurs through listening to our interlocutor and letting our voices emerge as we create. I wouldn’t call it limiting. I could say that my listener in some way directs my talk. The language emerges between us.
I shape the language of theatrical expression to be interesting and to command attention. I don’t have lessons to give. I share with my audience my own joy in digging into the material, story, stirring sources of inspiration, asking questions and shaping the pictures, actions, characters, rhythms, and language. I create the universe which is often multi-layered, with a number of characters, each with its own life, opinions and motives for actions. I create texture, colors and architecture of the environment. Elements of the production have their sources of inspiration, and they derive their forms from meetings, conversations, reading, seeing, and listening. The show comes into being molded from elements and universes, and is open to audience interpretation. Song, picture, poem and puppet show could provide experience and opportunities to associate, understand and feel, and to expand understanding and the ability to associate and to feel.
Jack Zipes in “Fairy Tales and Art of Subversion” writes about how fairy tales were and are still used to educate, to socialize, and to program socially desirable children’s behavior. I am far from considering myself an educator whose mission is to teach children proper manners. I consider myself rather someone who brings to children language, questions, rhythms, shapes, colors, elements of narration, characters and their stories, as well as my own and my colleagues joy in explorations and orchestration of theatrical universe.
I don’t care if my audience is not able to read, see, and decipher all I put into the show. The show is rich because only this kind of work could provide an opportunity to share the passion and curiosity that I have. I am saying rich, but this does not mean complicated or overloaded. Intensive research could lead to elegant, but simple effects. A lot of stuff is thrown away just as a writer throws away words, pages, paragraphs, or chapters of an earlier draft that are not needed. Also, the richness of theatrical language could be understood by an analogy to poetry. Poetry and children’s rhymes are also good examples of this understanding. Many children’s rhymes deal with the richness of language beyond its semantic level of literal meaning. Rhymes speak through their sonorous, musical, rhythmic, melodic, and associative levels of expression, all of which address the senses and mind.
WHAT KINDS OF EXCHANGES MIGHT EXIST OR BE CREATED BETWEEN CHILDREN’S SHOWS AND THOSE FOR MORE MATURE AUDIENCES, AND HOW MIGHT CROSS-FERTILIZATIONS BETWEEN THEM WORK TO ENRICH THE ART AT BOTH ENDS OR BRING THEM TOGETHER?
To bring puppetry for children and adults together we have to have time and space for togetherness, even if this would be metaphorical togetherness.
We may need space of shared aesthetic and methodological explorations, shared communal space where children and more mature audiences meet. This concept of shared communal space is pretty easy to grasp. Considering that children when not in school are usually with parents or guardians, this sharing is unavoidable. I think we can’t ignore that parents and grandparents are part of the audience. They should enjoy the show as well.
In my native Poland, puppet theatre serves mostly children, but many theatres also produce shows for mature audiences. I would say that children’s audiences support to some extent productions for adults. I mean that theatres are established and secure in their work thanks to their mission of serving children. Ensembles are created. They could practice and polish their mastery in working for children. This potential could and is employed in producing shows for adults.
When you work on how, on the language, methodology, aesthetics, your discoveries in this field for children could inspire and inform work for mature audiences. Similarly techniques used in puppet theatre for mature audiences could be used in creating performances for children.
We work in visual arts. The broad scope of this art is universally appealing to adults and to children. The puppeteer as an actor could be compared to a dancer. Watching a dance, watching a circus act brings satisfaction to a child as much as to an adult. It is the beauty of the form and extraordinary skill of the performer which attract.
Most traditional and many contemporary puppet theaters are not interested in making the relationship between puppeteer and puppet a part of the theatrical expression. Whether an artist decides to take this aspect of puppetry into consideration or not, this relationship exists and could be and very often is of significance as a part of the expression. When we acknowledge this relationship as having expressive potential, we are acknowledging also that the puppeteer is an actor, and his body is also a vehicle of expression. This approach broadens the scope of creative explorations which could be interesting for the adult spectator and matches the natural tendency for children’s affirmation of any language as long as it is possible to decipher or project meaning into it. An aesthetically and semantically complex theatrical act could satisfy sophisticated adult spectators as much as a child for whom the theatrical act could represent the world analogous to that of make-believe play.
Dream Tale Puppets addresses its programs to children, but we believe in developing multiple dimensions in our work. We do workshops, and we are building relationships with other organizations. We explore where and how we could better serve the community by practicing our art.