Ashes and the Serious, Eerie Art of Puppetry
In Norway in the 1970s, an arsonist in the small town of Finsland—which means “End of the Land”—set fire to one building after another for an entire month, terrorizing the community. The pyromaniac was eventually caught, and it turned out he was the son of the fire chief.
A child named Gaute Heivoll, who was born in the town shortly before the fires, grew up to become a novelist obsessed with the story. He wrote a book about it, which was translated into English under the title Before I Burn. In 2014, a Norwegian theatre artist named Yngvild Aspeli created a play, Ashes, that dramatizes the book, telling the story of both the arsonist and the writer, each grappling with their own demons.
There is a subtlety to the puppeteer’s craft as practiced by such masterful, meticulous companies as Plexus Polaire in works like Ashes.
Plexus Polaire, the Norwegian-French company that Aspeli founded in 2008, has toured Ashes (entitled Cendres in French) to fifteen countries. The company brought it recently to HERE arts center in New York. It is a haunting work of theatre, peopled with dozens of characters—the arsonist, the fire chief, his wife, the writer, and many of the townspeople. What may have been the most remarkable moment in a show full of remarkable moments was the curtain call. Only three people took a bow.
One was Viktor Lukawski, the only actor in the show, who portrayed the writer. The other two were Aitor Sanz Juanes and Laetitia Labre, the two puppeteers who manipulated, along with Lukawski, the puppets that portrayed the rest of the characters—some twenty of them, varying greatly in size.
Ashes is a puppet show. It was presented in New York as part of HERE’s Dream Music Puppetry program. Overseen by MacArthur “genius” puppet artist Basil Twist (Symphonie Fantastique), this program is one of the few places in the United States to showcase what it calls “contemporary, adult puppet works.” (Chimpanzee, which was presented in conjunction with Ashes, is running at HERE through 5 May 2019.)
A puppet show has long meant something different to Europeans than to most American audiences. On both continents, puppetry signifies magic, wonder, and excitement—take, for example, current Broadway musicals The Lion King, whose three hundred puppets in a variety of forms, sizes, and traditions are arguably a major reason of the show’s success; Frozen, whose most engaging character is unquestionably Sven the Reindeer; and King Kong, whose title character—a puppet twenty feet high weighing two thousand pounds with an earthquake of a roar and a tenderly expressive face—is the main draw. One reason for the long-term popularity of Avenue Q was that American audiences were amused by what they saw as the incongruity of (Muppet-like) puppets dealing with adult issues.
But Europeans have long understood that the power of puppetry can be in service to adults as well as children in serious, socially conscious works. This understanding is becoming increasingly evident in the United States as well, thanks to events like the La Mama Puppet Festival, whose eighth iteration last November featured such works among its twenty-seven puppet shows as Food for the Gods, about the killing of black men; Exodus, exploring the current refugee crisis; and Blind, a solo work about disability. A new program within the festival, Jump Start, showcased four works in progress and demonstrated another feature of puppetry: its inventive and eclectic artistry, often incorporating dance, music, video, and especially sculpture—some of which stretches the definition of puppet.
Earlier this year, Plexus Polaire presented its latest work, Chambre Noire, at the Public Theater’s annual Under the Radar Festival. The play tells the story of Valerie Solanas, the mentally ill woman who shot Andy Warhol in 1968. Aspeli and Paola Rizza, who co-directed the piece, presented Solanas as a human-size puppet, and there were times during the performance when she was so life-like it was difficult to discern who was the puppet and who was the human manipulating her. But what most distinguished Chambre Noire was its use of puppets to suggest Solanas’ character in ways that human actors could not easily replicate: she engaged in some erotic, lewd gymnastics anatomically impossible for mere humans and later walked on eight legs like a spider.
Such spectacular invention was on display in Ashes as well. At one point, the pyromaniac’s chest appears to be ablaze from within, as if offering a window to his fiery soul. The flames look real, igniting speculation about whether they had to inform the fire marshal. As it turns out, the effect is achieved simply through video projection.
But this obvious showmanship isn’t the whole bag of tricks. There is a subtlety to the puppeteer’s craft as practiced by such masterful, meticulous companies as Plexus Polaire in works like Ashes.
At the start of the play, the stage is dark except for Dag (the pyromaniac), who lights a lighter center stage. (This flame is real.) He seems to be far away, but, actually, the puppet is simply small. We suddenly see somebody else lighting one in front of the stage to the left; this is the writer (full-sized human being Lukawski), smoking, crouching over his laptop, a pile of papers at his feet.
It’s slow going at first as the two stories are told in more or less alternate scenes—that of the pyromaniac at home with his family or carrying around a fuel can, a backdrop of houses way up in the distance, as if on a hill; and that of the writer struggling to type the story of the pyromaniac. When the writer stops typing, the figures on stage fade into darkness; when he gets back to work, the figures reappear.
The writer is dealing with other problems as well, such as his alcoholism and his father’s death, which are both represented in some elusive symbolic moments. An elk is cut open, and his father is taken out of the innards and placed on his deathbed. The writer helps him smoke, and the puppet portraying the father exhales the smoke, which curls up into the air and magically forms the text: “The last thing I did to my father was lie to him.”
At a certain point, the writer’s struggle with his work becomes a battle with his subject in a series of increasingly vivid metaphors brought to life: first with tiny Dag on his back, then wrestling with a human-sized Dag and a large wolf. The story literally heats up, and simultaneously turns chilling, when the homes on the hill one by one burst into flames in the background, and in the foreground we see the townsfolk, their faces literal masks of sorrow, carrying their children to safety.
What happens in wordless, visual theatre is that audience members project their own feelings onto the puppets.
No words are ever spoken in Ashes. Only a few lines of text are projected onto a scrim. But Guro Skumsnes Moe’s score is a constant accompaniment to the action and helps set the tone for each moment—eerie and ethereal in the early scenes, accelerating in intensity, urgency, percussiveness, alarm, and then slow and sad.
Even when we don’t completely grasp what’s going on, the music, the wordlessness, the chiaroscuro lighting all make the piece deeply affecting.
After the performance, I talked to members of the company, who helped explain why this is so. (Aspeli, the director and principal puppet designer, was touring in Europe, and planning for her next work, Moby Dick.)
Ashes begins slowly, they explained, so that the audience can become oriented to the world that has been created. It also helps build tension. The company starts with the small puppets to give audiences a literal overview. Once we begin to understand the narrative, then the characters become human-size.
The absence of dialogue is a strategy. What happens in wordless, visual theatre is that audience members project their own feelings onto the puppets. The most startling example of this in Ashes is the scene in which prison guards—the two puppeteers, momentarily acting—escort the human-size puppet Dag into the far right corner of the stage, presumably a prison cell or hospital room. Then they leave. On the other side of the stage, the townspeople appear, one by one, until eight of them are staring at Dag. It’s carefully choreographed so that they all seem to be moving at once—whispering, or turning to the left, etc.—but the puppeteers can actually only move one of these huge puppets at a time. At the opposite end of the stage, under the glare of the light, Dag seems shocked and ashamed. But of course, since the puppeteers are busy manipulating the townsfolk, Dag isn’t actually feeling anything; he’s just an inanimate sculpture.
“Having watched him be alive, the audience’s brains keep working that way,” says producer Claire Costa. “There’s interesting research into that—how people watch them come alive.” We read emotion in Dag’s stillness.
The interaction between the actual people on stage—Lukawski, Sanz Juanes, and Labre—and the puppets helps promote this illusion of life. It isn’t as easy to achieve as it looks. “If you haven’t held a puppet, you don’t realize how much work and how much weight it is, and how difficult it is to animate it and still be a character in relationship with the puppet,” Costa says. “This is what Yngvild calls the ‘double presence.’ It helps her blur the line between who’s alive and who’s inanimate.”
Lukawski finds the battle between his character, Dag, and the wolf especially challenging. In reality, he’s rolling around the floor with the two puppets he’s manipulating, but nobody sees it that way. This is where the art of the puppeteer comes in. “You have to separate yourself from the puppet. You have to be in character, play the puppets, and [create] the interaction between us.” He acknowledges it’s tough. But, he adds: “It’s also a puppeteer’s dream.”
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Thanks for your comments. As somebody whose first job, at age 11, was as an usher at Bil Baird's then-famous marionette theater, and who's sought out puppet shows ever since, I am aware that there has been serious puppetry in the United States for many decades. Even Margo Rose, the co-creator of the Howdy Doody Show, made a point of telling me that her work for that TV show was just a small part of the puppetry she and her husband Rufus Rose did over many decades. Indeed, she chafed at being known only for that show. The point I was trying to make in the article above was about audiences, not about the artists. And I was careful to write that "most" American audiences (not all), have defined puppet shows differently than Europeans do. Yes, as I wrote, there are signs that this attitude is changing, but I don't think the old American view persists just in the "commercial theater bubble of NYC." It kind of proves my point when you write that Germans have two words for puppet shows, making a distinction between those for children and those for adults. Americans make no such distinction in our language.
A clarification: Basil Twist won a MacArthur Fellowship, the five-year unrestricted grant given by the MacArthur Foundation. It's popularly known as the "genius grant," and so I identified him in the article above in shorthand as a MacArthur "genius."
Thank you for bringing more recognition to Aspeli's work! Ashes debuted here 2 years ago at the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, then went on to the Puppeteers of America Festival in Minnesota and the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta; she also has perfomed Chambre Noir in Chicago--(Director Blair Thomas deserves the "Genius" puppeteer credit in this case for introducing her to American audiences).
I think the Euro/American puppetry dynamic is much more nuanced than what's presented here, especially when you look outside of the commercial theater bubble of NYC. American companies working in the hybrid puppet-art-theater context, what the Germans call "Figurentheater" (Figure-Theater) rather than "Puppenspiel" (Puppet Show), has been practiced across the U.S. throughout the 20th century, especially in the midwest as part of the little theater movement. In addition to the NYC Henson Festival of the 1990s (the precursor to La Mama's current work), puppet theaters in Boston, Connecticut, Atlanta, Philly, Minneapolis, Chicago, Vermont, Austin, LA and many other localities have sustained this sort of work. (I recommend Dr. John Bell's works on American Puppet Modernism as a reference, as well as the publications of Puppeteers of America and UNIMA-USA).
I would love to see critical narratives around American puppetry take this context into account, moving away from self-deprecation ("We're so far behind Europe") and and superficiality ("Puppets aren't just for kids anymore!"--A headline I see at least once a year, and I've been in the field for about 20 years). I hope the visibility of Aspeli's work in the U.S. and her critical acclaim in major publications help us move the discussion in that direction.