Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Discovering Puppetry


Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Jonothon Lyons.


Last summer I had just finished my fourth season working for Imago and while it was an incredibly valuable time for my growth as an artist I was starting to feel that my professional experience was lacking diversity. I had continued to stay busy in New York between seasons developing some of my own work and performing in some other small projects but no other major professional work had come my way. I was trying to consider what other avenues I might explore to find work that fit my sensibilities when I received a call to audition for a show called Warhorse.

The casting notice was seeking tall strong physical performers with puppetry experience. When I researched the show and found out the details of the job I was dumbfounded. Up to that moment I hadn't considered my niche as a performer possible of bringing me anywhere near Broadway but all of a sudden I was going up for a leading role in a huge Broadway production that was exactly the kind of performance work I had been focusing on for so long.

I didn't make it into the show but I still felt lucky to have been called back and essentially invited to participate in two three-hour long workshops with the Warhorse puppets. I felt like I had given a good showing and had a sense that this experience was a turning point in my career and good things would come of it.

Sure enough two weeks after that audition I received a call from Tectonic Theater Project asking me to participate in a development workshop for their upcoming puppet opera El Gato con Botas. They had been given my name as a recommendation from someone at Warhorse. This was such a great example of something very few young theater artists understand: you're never auditioning for just one project. Everyone in the room is going to work on other projects later and also know several other people doing the same thing, so if you're not right for the show you're auditioning for at the moment that doesn't mean you won't be right for the next show.


 El Gato con Botas is a chamber opera for children and for this production the animal characters and the ogre were puppets. By the end of the workshop I was operating the cat puppet along with two other puppeteers. This style of puppetry is derived from Japanese bunraku puppetry which features three puppeteers operating one puppet. For this character I was operating the right arm and body, a second puppeteer, Stefano Brancato, was on the head and left arm, and a third, Aaron Schroeder, was on the feet.

Much like when I first began working with masks, this process introduced me to several new unique aspects of performance that were different from anything I had done before.

The most important of these new elements was the sense of collective awareness. Some form of this exists in all stage performance that has more than one performer, but when you are sharing the performance of one character between three people, you have to be extremely sensitive to what all three are doing absolutely every moment of the show.
In the beginning of the process there were plenty of times when the cat would try to walk one way but his head would go another, or he would try to jump in the air but couldn't because his legs didn't leave the ground. Our director, Mark Down, would ask us to take it very slow, focus deeply on the puppet but keep a strong periphery awareness of the other two performers and breath audibly together. It felt very strange at first but soon became second nature and eventually we began to settle into a sort of unspoken language of breath.

The three of us developed the ability to cue each other through a slight gesture of our part of the puppet, coupled with a preparatory breath, to move right or left, jump or fly through the air, walk, run, or tiptoe. It took a remarkable amount of concentration and many frustrating hours of uncoordinated movement but when we started to get it it was one of the most exciting feelings I've had performing.

The show was eventually blocked out and the movement set in place but along the way we had achieved an ability to improvise with the puppet in a cohesive and honest way. Far from just moving an object around the stage, by the end it felt like the three of us were working together in collaboration with a living character.

I remember as a young actor I would always take deep offense if a fellow actor gave me notes about my performance. It seemed totally inappropriate and only the role of the director to do so. But in this type of performance with three actors sharing a role we had no choice but to give and accept notes to and from each other. There were times when one of us would have an impulse that the others did not have and we would have to justify it or reach a compromise. A positive benefit of this process is it really keeps one's ego in check. If any one of us was unwilling to reach a collective understanding and give and take ideas and impulses, we wouldn't have gotten anywhere.

I was very lucky to follow up this experience by joining the cast of Basil Twist's Petrushka which we performed in Boston in November and is currently running through Saturday at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia. This show also features a modified bunraku style but with a different arrangement of the puppeteers: one on both arms, one on the head and body, and one on the feet. Much of the same wordless cueing occurs though and of course the performance requires a strong sense of collective awareness.

I also recently helped in the development of Tom Lee and Matt Acheson's Secret History of the Swedish Cottage at the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre in Central Park which is running through November. This was an exciting opportunity because it brought me in touch with stringed puppets for the first time, requiring a more delicate style of manipulation through a more obscured view of the puppet.

It was an exciting discovery for me that puppetry was a vibrant and popular form that features the same alternative performance elements that I've been seeking. The focus is not on the individual performer, it is often based heavily in movement, and always has a strong sense of visual storytelling.
Tomorrow I'll be talking about some experiences with Butoh dance work and Cave Art Space. 



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