I was invited to write this entry about the response of Austin audiences to the “New Puppet Revolution.” Each word in this phrase makes me smile: “new,” because Austin is such a nourishing environment for new theater, “puppet,” because puppet theater (particularly shows geared toward adult audiences) is killin’ it in Austin these days, and “revolution,” because puppets have been aiding and abetting revolutions since people first started moving objects around. Put the whole phrase together, and I’m suddenly thinking about time, objects, and anarchy: a great crossroads to talk about puppets.
Mention puppetry to most people, and the image conjured up is of a creature, perhaps made of felt, probably adorable, with a moving mouth that’s talking to you (or your child), most likely through a television screen. There is really great puppetry like this in America—with the extraordinary Jim Henson Company topping the list. There is also a lot of other puppet work being made that looks nothing like this, and for some reason that is baffling puppeteers in caves and attics across America, audiences are starting to take notice.
Puppetry is a diverse and ancient art form. I won’t get specific on the timeline, but sometime between developing opposable thumbs and the invention of broadcast television, people began animating objects and giving them soul, voice, and intention. These objects have served as great entertainment and meaningful ritual to people young and old for a really long time. Then, very recently, the world industrialized and certain children in lucky nations weren’t an obligatory part of the workforce anymore. Someone noticed that bored children get into mischief, and started gearing puppets shows toward the little ones. Meanwhile, collective common memory in this country forgot that puppets are for grown-ups, too.
Puppetry is a rigorous art form that uses movement, timing, spatial relativity, scale, breath, and gravity to create a sense of visceral recognition in the gut of the audience. Puppets can simply do and be more than humans. They can be beasts and spirits, inanimate forms made animate, ideas made manifest. They make use of scale in a way humans cannot; they can be large in one scene and tiny in the next, which effectively changes the dimensions of the stage. Puppets can fly, breathe underwater, grow onstage; they can vanish. They can be publicly incinerated, internally lit, transparent, and show that they have “no heart” by literally carving out the absence of a heart in their figure. They make costume changes in a flash (two different identical puppets). They evade the stereotypes of the traditional actor. A tiny female puppeteer can perform a giant puppet; an aging puppeteer can play a young hero. They are a democratic, constantly evolving, revolutionary art form that can take many shapes and forms and tell stories that are whimsical, or demonic, or profound.
So there is really nothing new about puppet revolution. But the recent popular response to the puppeteer’s ongoing revolution feels new. The popularity of puppets on Broadway (Lion King, Avenue Q, War Horse) nudged people to find out what else is out there. The puppet has a special relationship with the audience. We know, intellectually, that the puppet is an object. Yet seeing an object repudiate everything our intellect knows to be true, by moving, feeling, being, invites the audience to take that extra step toward believing. Part of the work of puppetry happens in the audience, when they lend their collective imagination to the scene; when the mind’s eye erases the marionette’s string, fades out the tabletop manipulator’s body, and ignores the arm rod sticking from the elbow of the puppet. The audience is uniquely implicated in the energetic triangle between audience, puppeteer, and puppet. They are viscerally involved, part of the magic, moved to laughter and tears.
I’m the Creative Director of a little company called Glass Half Full Theatre, which was founded in France in 2004. We relocated to Austin in 2010, and have had great audiences and critical response to our original, puppet-based work since we arrived. This is in part because Austin audiences are open-minded; they are happy come to see what they’ve never seen before. It’s also because the other puppeteers beat down the path to adult audience in Austin before we got here.
In the late 90s, The Egg Family Puppet Show did illogical, hilarious puppet shows around town wherever they could pull up a scrap of land. They disbanded, but Connor Hopkins came out of this crew and started performing witty political hand puppet shows in bars. He pulled together a few stagehands and taught them to puppeteer, forming Trouble Puppet Theatre Company in 2004. By 2009, Austin took notice when Hopkins staged The Jungle in a theater with tabletop puppets, depicting Upton Sinclair’s novel about immigrants working the Chicago abattoirs as a commentary on how capitalism drains humanity from the workers.
Glass Half Full Theatre uses genres that are even further from the common understanding of “puppet.” In our show Staple Needs, the main characters are a stapler, some Post-it notes, and a cutting board. In The Orchid Flotilla, the main puppet character is a male Styrofoam wig head, which is manipulated between the puppeteers knees, such that they are both her knees and his shoulders—if this makes no sense to you, see these pictures on our website. Other characters include a puppeteer’s own foot and hand, inverted and manipulated as characters separate from the performer herself. In our current production, Once There Were Six Seasons, the environment itself is the central character, as the action focuses on communities affected by the shifting landscape of climate change. We’re always asking the question: How much object is necessary to tell the story, and how much would be so much that there’s no room left for the audience to fill in the gaps with their own hopes, dreams, and imaginations?
Austin audiences like to be presented with new ideas, and to be presented with old ideas wrought in a new way, and they like how puppetry can do both. Glass Half Full and Trouble Puppet both consistently sell out shows, and both make a majority of their income from ticket sales. We also share a common goal of presenting more diverse puppet work on Austin stages. Since 2011 we’ve co-produced The Austin Puppet Incident, which is an evening of short puppet works for adult audiences featuring multiple puppet artists, both visiting and local. We’ve brought puppeteers from New York, Boston, California, and Chicago to present short works, and featured local companies The Hey Lollies and Private Lives Puppet Theatre. Glass Half Full first came to Austin when Trouble Puppet invited us as guest artists. We never left.
The increased interest in theatrical productions featuring puppets has not gone unnoticed by the local theater awards committee (B. Iden Payne Counsel), which added “puppetry” as an awards category a couple of years ago. Interestingly, puppet productions continue to win via popular vote in categories such as Outstanding Production, Direction, Design, and Original Script. Austin companies that traditionally present live-actor theater are starting to incorporate puppets in their shows, and they are collaborating with our small handful of Austin puppeteers to do so. We’re happy to have the puppets sharing space with the “meat actors,” but please remember: puppets and puppeteers are not a trend. We’ve been around forever, and we’ll still be here in our caves and attics if everyone gets bored and moves on. But we’re betting you won’t.