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Interview: Working with Puppets

Author(s): Bruce D. Schwartz, Theodora Skipitares, Julie Taymor and C. Lee Jenner
Source: Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1 (1983), pp. 103-116
Published by: Performing Arts Journal, Inc
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Accessed: 07-05-2016 05:11 UTC

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Working With Puppets

Bruce D. Schwartz

Theodora Skipitares
Julie Taymor

Interviews by C. Lee Jenner

Bruce D. Schwartz has been writing scripts, making puppets, and perform-
ing since he was nine years old. His solo evenings The Rat of Huge Propor-
tions and Other Works (also known as The Stage That Walks) have been pro-
duced in New York at Dance Theatre Workshop and the American Place
Theatre. He has also performed at the Company Theatre in Los Angeles,
Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, and London's Young Vic. Schwartz was
the recipient of the U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission Theatre Fellowship
for Residency in Japan in 1981. He has also been seen on Jim Henson's
Muppet Show.

What drew you to puppets at such an early age?

It's my theory that puppets appealed to me as a child because I liked to do

things by myself. I think it's temperamental. One of the family stories is that
I liked to go into the closet in my bedroom, turn on the light, shut the door,
and look at picture books. I think puppet theatre lends itself to that taste.


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As you were growing up, were there any puppeteers performing whom you
particularly liked?

Burr Tillstrom. I think he is the greatest living puppeteer in the world. I

suspect he will prove to have been the greatest puppeteer of the century. He
has the biggest soul. He's sort of the Rembrandt of puppet theatre. He uses
rags, the ugliest of puppets, but they're full blown and they get to you, move
you. I have tried to catch something of that spirit with my Elizabethan glove
puppets, which are nothing but tatters of cloth.

How do you explain the renaissance in puppetry and other popular theatre
art forms?

When off-off-Broadway started in the 1960s, the movement led the new
generation to search out forms that had been neglected. People were look-
ing for something different from what Hollywood and Broadway offered,
alternatives to conventional plays. They took up pantomime, commedia,
and folk arts like puppetry which had fallen by the wayside. The whole
climate in the arts changed. It doesn't have to be a painting anymore, it can
be a quilt; it doesn't have to be a realistic play, it can be a puppet show. Our
ideas of what is worthy of our attention have been modified. The whole
crafts movement is a major influence on my work. Your word, renaissance,
is a good one, because it was through the Renaissance Pleasure Fairs on
the West Coast in the early 1970s that the folk revival touched me. You
could buy something from people who had made it with their own hands
and see others in raggle-taggle costumes up there on stage doing com-
media plays and singing madrigals. Puppetry is about as handmade as
theatre can get. I make everything to do with my shows myself: story,
characters, dialogue, puppets, scenery-everything, except I do use some
taped music. Up to now I have also acted all the parts myself, too. I think
people appreciate that kind of giving and the handmade aspects.

I got a lot of my so-called street sense working the fairs, and met others of
like mind. The idea was to take it all away from the merchants, Hollywood
moguls, TV, and the legitimate stage, and do it yourself. The Renaissance
Fair as a concept has become dated and has lost its original vitality, but
some of the spirit lives on.

You mentioned meeting "others of like mind" at the Fairs. Did any of them
have an influence on your work?

I met the two puppeteers from whom I learned about rod puppetry, Craig
Victory, a San Francisco puppeteer, and his then partner, Winston Tong.
Craig showed me that a puppet could move gracefully. Winston changed
my ideas about what a puppet should look like. Up until I met them, I'd been
doing glove puppets in a crude, scrap bag style. Winston showed me that a
puppet can be exquisitely beautiful. That was a real revelation. I have very


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little else in common with Winston. He always had an awareness of people

looking at him, whereas I have never been that kind of performer. He used
puppets to express himself as himself; I try to be as much in the
background as possible. He became a performance artist, working with
present-moment emotions. Basically, I have a backward glance, an
historical perspective. I feel that a puppet as an object is a very effective
means of evoking an atmosphere of the past. I want to recreate the feeling
of something that has vanished.

Yet, your work, at least the part of it which refers back to the bawdy,
Elizabethan walking puppet stage, has a very contemporary feel.

Sure. That's the comic side of my work, the central device of which sets
something up and then destroys it. I establish an Elizabethan atmosphere
with glove puppets and recorder music. Then, through my character, Elinor,
who is an Elizabethan actress, I destroy the illusion by undercutting it with
the anachronism of a raunchy, California sensibility.

The serious side of your work draws on Victorian and Japanese traditions.

I studied in Japan for a year. Puppetry is a revered art form there. Bunraku


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has an intensity and release which I think audiences can find liberating. The
puppets, dolls, and masked figures of many primitive societies were
mediums through which the Gods spoke to men, often to cure. That involves
the release of an emotion or exorcism of an illness seen as a foreign
presence. Japan hasn't been a primitive society for centuries, but Bunraku
is a sophisticated form that does, however, retain some of that original,
ritual purpose. The puppet can express large emotions, display feeling
publicly, that would be impermissible in daily life and embarrassing in a
human actor. You see, puppets have no egos. They can become emblems of
heightened or extreme emotional states: passion, rage, sorrow. The kind of
release provided is the serious counterpart of the laughter produced by
comedy. With puppets you can laugh about things or behavior that real ac-
tors could never get away with.

Besides giving you the opportunity to hide and to control all aspects of your
craft, why are you attracted to puppetry?

It's the transcendence of my existence as who I am. I basically think of

myself as too boring and neutral a personality to be an effective actor. I
could never successfully play a Japanese court lady by myself. Neither
could I be a ballet dancer, nor an eighty-year-old woman, nor a Chinese ivory
statue come to life. Still, I have the desire to create these characters. I want
to be them so badly,and have the audiencebelieve in them. I just couldn't do
that by myself as an actor. So, we meet, the audience and I, in the abstract
figure of the puppet.

You are never completely hidden when you perform? Why is that?

It's a paradox. I keep the mechanics out in the open because I don't want
people to pay attention to them. I don't want them to wonder "What is going
on that I can't see?" My theory is that watching me move the puppets with
my hands will become dull after a little while. When it does, the puppets will
be more interesting than I am, and audience attention will turn to them.
Also, that I am visible stresses that the puppet is not alive. I'm asking peo-
ple to come into my fantasies with me by cutting me out.

How does traditional puppet theatre differ from what we see today?

Historically, puppetry in a particular culture will almost always have an un-

broken tradition, centuries long, during which puppeteers do the same
scenarios from generation to generation in the same way with the same
kinds of puppets, expressing a popular system. It's like balladry: there is
something about ballads that has no individual personality. They express
the whole tenor of a culture, its ethos or mythos. Likewise, traditional pup-
pet forms act as mouthpieces for something that is shared. While my work
is not autobiographical, all the pieces I create come from things that I res-
pond to internally. I think that is also true of Julie Taymor and other of my


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contemporaries who work with puppets. We sometimes draw on long tradi-
tions, but as a framework to say something more personal, more individual,
about who we are and what our concerns are.

Does treating puppetry as a more individual art sap any of its original, folk

It can, but it need not. I do think it's important to remember that there is
something about puppet shows that is very comic book, sit-com, low. I like
that element of it. Even though I do think of puppetry as an art, it would be
sad if puppet theatre was deprived of its vulgarity, crudeness, and showy
tawdriness. There is room within the context of puppetry for everybody, in-
cluding those who aspire to high art, those who want to hold on to the
crudeness and accessibility of the form, and those, like myself, who want
both sides.


Theodora Skipitares is a performance artist who began to work with pup-

pets in 1980. Her work, which includes Mask Performance, The Venus Cafe,
Skysaver, The Mother and the Maid, and Micropolis has been presented at
Artists Space Gallery, Franklin Furnace, The Performing Garage, Cincin-
nati's Contemporary Arts Center, and in Holland, Germany, and Belgium.

You began your career as a performance artist in galleries. How were you
drawn from the galleries towards theatre and puppets?

I didn't make my first puppet until 1980. First I studied graduate set design
at NYU. That was in 1969. I was then and still am a sculptor, so my approach
to theatrical design remained very sculptural and turned out to be widely
impractical. For instance, one of my costumes was made out of ninety
pounds of glass. Actors couldn't move in what I designed. I turned to perfor-
mance art, but at the same time, I was attracted as a spectator to theatre in
a more general way, theatre which had a strong performance art aspect.
Part of the reason I eventually left the galleries was practical. The art world
became less and less supportive of performance. It suffered an economic
crisis, because of which it had to push things that would sell as big in-

Another part was artistic. My earlier work was autobiographical, intimate,

in a way, made for a small audience. I grew restless with it a year or two
ago. I felt I had reached the limit to which I could go in that direction. What I


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began to like about a small fringe of the theatre world, extremely visual
theatre, was that it often had a bigger vision than one person's, that more
people were involved in it, and it had an appeal to a larger audience, even
though that is only in comparison with audiences for art world perfor-
mance. You have to realize, I was always somebody who worked in a studio
every day alone. For my first puppet piece, Micropolis, I worked with an
assistant, Eli Langner. For the new piece, which is bigger, I worked with
four additional assistants. I find I love it. I don't ever again want to have my
private visions alone in the studio hour after hour.

Who were some of the theatre people whose work attracted you?

Grotowski was teaching at NYU, and the work of Mabou Mines, Richard
Foreman, Robert Wilson, and the Wooster Group helped form my vision. All
of Liz LeCompte's work, starting with the Trilogy, has been very influential,
and the marriage of performance art and theatre happened for me when I
saw Spalding Gray's first monologue. The two forms merged in such a com-
plete way that the term performance art no longer has any meaning for me.
What was wonderful about performance art while it lasted, and that
Spalding retains, was the totally fresh, off-the-wall attempt to deal with live

How and why did you come to use puppets?

My interest in sculptural figures eventually drew me to puppets. I had been

making static pieces with objects, masks, a stainless steel apron on which I
lit candles-all objects used in tableaux. Slowly the pace with which I
wanted to move from one tableau to the next wanted some kind of anima-
tion. As I came to the end of my life as a solo performer telling stories of my
life, I wanted, as I mentioned, to work with other people. Yet, I still didn't
want to bring other performers into my work. So, what do you do to include


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other voices? Puppets, little humanoids.

Describe the making of your first puppet.

The first one is the figure which became Sylvia in Micropolis. I did a
sculpture, about one-third life-size, which was a very carefully made self-
portrait of my whole body. It just sat around my studio for the longest time.
For Micropolis, I made a mold and I turned out these female forms. I used
my face on the dinosaur in the last scene, too. Even the male puppets were
adjusted Theodoras. My latest piece, still untitled, is dominated by men. My
assistant and I took a female Theodora and we slightly changed her body
and added male genitals; then we made a new mold, generating new, male-
ish Theodoras. I should add that my new piece is historical, It's about inven-
tion. Two of the puppets represent identifiable historical figures. That's a
big change both in subject matter and in using a model other than myself.

Interesting progression: first you include your real physical self in works of
autobiographical performance art; next you step physically to the borders
of your work and send in look-alike substitutes; now some of the puppets
either are not based on your image at all, or that image undergoes such ex-
tensive plastic surgery that only you could spot the kinship.

It's part of my movement away from pure performance art. Half naively I
have stumbled in my own way, in my own time frame, into my own kind of
theatre. My work is increasingly taking a theatrical direction. The puppets
did that for me. The puppets on their own do that. I feel the need in these
early eighties for didactic theatre that communicates through at least some
popular elements. For me the puppet is one of those elements.



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Had you seen any puppet theatre which influenced your work?

I was really taken by Winston Tong's work when I first saw it. What I share
with him is a unique way of mixing media. That was once a pretty clear
characteristic of performance art. For instance, I would never call Winston
a puppeteer. I don't even want to call myself a puppeteer, because that's
just one of the things that I'm working with. Winston is a wonderful actor,
there are incredibly interesting things going on in terms of the sound tape,
there are rich visual things, and the puppets.

Do you feel as if you are a part of a group of puppeteer/experimentalists?

More and more. Besides Winston Tong's impression on me, there was Lee
Breuer's Shaggy Dog Animation. When I first saw those puppets, I thought
to myself, "This is the perfect way to translate Bunraku." He wasn't
recreating Bunraku characters and plays, but putting the characters into a
contemporary story and dressing them in blue jeans. Breuer is another guy
who dared to throw together the most disparate things, wild combinations.
And then there's his strong connection to Brecht. Distancing devices
always recall Brecht to me and Shaggy Dog was just full of them. My work,
too, is beginning to be full of them. Puppetry itself is one. I'm now using dif-
ferent sizes of puppets juxtaposed: 30-inch puppets next to five-foot pup-
pets next to a live reader who reads the lines of the puppets. Maybe it's
even Piscator, too. After all, he was the first multi-media maniac, wasn't he?

What direction is your current work taking?

I'm starting to be more and more interested in using the puppets for pro-
paganda, a cross between sculpture and propaganda. I've discovered that
you can put a puppet up there and you can do so many things that you
would never be able to pull off with a human actor. Why that is I don't really
know. Maybe the ego of the actor interferes at times, casting a competitive
magnetic field.

What is the connection between your own persona and that of the puppets
you use?

I remember being amazed by the look of caring, and love, and focus that the
four or five people handling the puppets in Shaggy Dog would direct toward
the figures. That must have stayed with me, because it's happening in my
work now. In my latest piece I have five-foot puppets and several people
manipulate each one. You glance occasionally at the performers, and on
their faces there is this look of love, adoration. You see that in Bruce
Schwartz's work, too. He always seems to go into a trance at times. He
closes his eyes a lot, the better to focus inwardly. It's a tremendously in-
timate kind of thing. And then, I'm not an actor, but with puppets I think I've
found a way for me to be one by extension. I'm on stage, in shadow, with my
energy directed toward the puppet, who in turn directs toward the audience.


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That's comfortable for me.

I'm surprised you have any discomfort at all with performing. After all, your
earlier works were solo performances.

Well, yes and no. Working against those big walls, I developed a notation
system to tell a story. It was like reading a painting. I certainly was there
physically, but I functioned as someone who got objects ready to tell the
next phase of the story. I was a glorified stagehand, really, just as Japanese
puppeteers are stagehands, sacred stagehands. I was a designer/techni-
cian, functioning in front of people and I still function in that way. I don't do
autobiographical works any more, but I'm present in the works, speaking
and handling the puppets. I suspect that even though the autobiographical
impulse has almost disappeared, I still want that to be in my work as much
as possible.


Julie Taymor is a multimedia director and designer whose sets, costumes,

masks, and puppets were seen in Elizabeth Swados's The Haggadah at the
Public Theatre. She also worked on The Odyssey and Savages at
Baltimore's Center Stage, and Black Elk Lives at Entermedia in New York.
During her stay in Indonesia (1976-79), Taymor founded her own company,


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Teatr Loh, which premiered Way of Snow and Tirai, later performed in
New York.

Puppetry, magic, clowning, and other popular theatre arts have captured
the imaginations of a number of innovative theatre people in the last
decade or two. Why?

Because if theatre is going to survive, it has to do what it does best. What it

does best is the non-literal. Film and television have virtually coopted
naturalism. To compete, theatre must be more theatrical.

Puppets are naturally theatrical, aren't they?

Exactly. If you want to create a big emotion, you can have a giant woman
with one huge crystal tear. It's much more poetic and abstract. In The Hag-
gadah, for example, I used a piece of flannel cloth split down the middle for
the parting of the Red Sea. By abstraction, it became an image, a poetic
metaphor. Same thing with the Seven Plagues. By using shadow puppets to
symbolize them, I could present the essence of each one with artistic
economy and in a stageworthy way. The beauty of puppetry is that it takes
the everyday and puts it into another style so that you gain a new apprecia-
tion of it. The theatre gets boring when it's trying to do what the mechanical
media do better. Magic doesn't work on television where it could be an elec-
tronic trick. The skill of a Bill Irwin or a juggler or an acrobat or a puppeteer
is very tangible, accessible. You know it's not produced by some kind of
technology that you don't understand, so the magic of transforming a
character or locale is doubly powerful. With puppetry, the third dimension,
which is missing from camera art, is very important.

Your work tends to be large scale, doesn't it?

Yes, and I couldn't do that if it weren't for puppets. I don't have to worry
about finding enough money to pay for the hordes of actors needed for a
battle scene. I will use a scroll with hundreds of people painted on it, but on-
ly two live people paid to manipulate that scroll. And if I want characters to
be ambushed, I can use the scroll of painted soldiers to encircle them. I
work something like a film director. Crowd scenes in the equivalent of long
shot, using lots of small puppets. Then, say, for an interior monologue, I will
empty the stage and pinspot a live actress. That's like close-up. If you want
extreme close-up, you might have a huge, painted puppet face. I did that for
Savages at the Center Stage. What is key here is mixture. I don't really con-
sider myself a puppeteer. I am a theatre maker, a mixed media artist. I just
use puppets as one medium, even though I use them a lot. For example,
Tirai, the play I created with my Indonesian company, uses masked actors
and no puppets at all.

So the scale and mixing are crucial to you?


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Very much so. The change of scale, the mixture of media-live actors, next
to masked actors, next to puppets-helps you move through different
levels of reality. You can go from a normal, naturalistic scene straight into
fantasy or the grotesque just by switching from people to puppets.

When did you start to use puppets?

I played with marionettes when I was a child. Later, I was impressed by both
the Bread and Puppet Theatre and the Chinese Shadow Puppets, which
toured when I was an undergraduate at Oberlin. Then I went out to the
Society for Eastern Arts in Seattle one summer to study Javanese shadow
puppetry, woodcarving, and Japanese forms. I was intrigued with the
techniques more than anything else. My first puppets were created for a
campus production of Brecht's The Elephant Calf. About the same time I
made up my own version of Bunraku for Peer Gynt. Designing an epic like
that one with puppets really fascinated me, partly because I loved the idea
of staging a huge, complex thing with grand ideas in a simple old medium.

What did you learn from studying with Peter Schumann?

I learned puppet construction mostly. Peter's primitive style doesn't come

naturally to me. Therefore, it would be pretentious if I tried to emulate him. I
think I can achieve my own kind of simplicity in a different way, by selecting
my techniques. For instance, I used projections of IBM cards for a city
building in Way of Snow. The means are simple, but not the visual style. My
style is more complex and sophisticated than Peter's. One isn't better than
the other, just different. Also, Peter has an identity, both stylistic and in
terms of themes. I'm much more eclectic. I like to challenge myself, so I
pick my medium and technique and adapt my style according to what I have
to say. I work to develop new approaches each time.

How have you made Javanese and Japanese theatre crafts your own?

From the Japanese theatre I took the idea that there is first a form. To know
the limitations of that form is the only way you can know how and if you can
fill it. A form lets you know the end. You can see this principle in Way of
Snow. The shaman costumes are very difficult to deal with, but they give a
structure and a shape that helps define the work of the performer. You have
to look at the essence of something if you are going to use puppets. The
Woman Who Walked puppet in the same play could only walk. That's the
strength of it. It goes to the extreme of what it should do. Beyond
philosophic things, what I absorbed from Asian puppetry was, again,
technique, not style.

You majored in Folklore and Mythology at Oberlin. Did your study of

shamanism and the ritual origins of theatre influence your vision of


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Yes. I was particularly interested in masks, I noticed right off that you could
use them to break down the barriers between what is real and what isn't. You
see, I'd been involved with experimental theatre since I was thirteen, when I
joined the young peoples' division of Julie Portman's company in Boston.
At Oberlin I was working with Herbert Blau. I already knew that theatre was
based on cultural rituals, storytelling, and religion, so studying folklore and
myth was an inspiration to me theatrically.

How do you choose when to use a puppet and when to use a live person?

As soon as you put a mask on, to me you're a puppet. Puppets are

ideographs, emblems either of character, state of mind, or emotion. One
puppet represents anger, another puppet represents power-they become
archetypes, ideas. Schumann's Fatso has no personality; he represents all
rich businessmen who run the world-he's the archetype. Take Savages: I
was supposed to design costumes for Brazilian Indians, and Brazilian In-
dians don't wear anything. If you use nude people, it's distracting and it
becomes extremely personalized.

How about using puppets as a distancing device?

That's part of what I've been talking about. They objectify. That's what
Brecht was all about, and why his plays work so well in puppetry. Puppets
automatically distance you. Some people think that's dehumanizing and
anti-emotional, but I find it more moving that way. You don't get caught up
in the idiosyncracies of a performer and can focus on the essence of
character or emotion.

What else do you like to mix besides people and puppets?

Scales and styles. Tirai had dance and mask and acting styles ranging


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from traditional Asian to realism. I do it really because it's fun. I'm serious
about theatre but at the same time I want to entertain myself and au-
diences. The theatre I found in Indonesia had both those things. It didn't fall
into little boxes. There is no children's theatre versus elite, intellectual
theatre. It is all one theatre. I try to do that, too. That's why I use puppets
and other visuals so heavily. If you don't get all the intellectualization, all
the meaning behind something, you can still enjoy the raw story, the enter-
tainment part.

C. Lee Jenner is Literary Advisor of the American Place Theatre, and former
editor of Other Stages.


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