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Puppetry and Disability Aesthetics

The art of puppetry can push forward the imagination, conversations, experiences, and aesthetics of illness, dis/ability, and disability justice. The extraordinary language of puppetry animation holds within it a unique capacity to disrupt and interrogate the able-bodied gaze and normativity. It can open vivid aesthetic and affective responses in audiences that have the potential to widen and deepen how beauty, body, and being are perceived.

My lifelong non-apparently disabled body-mind has been the source of deep questioning in my artistic practice, research, teaching, and scholarship. I celebrate the beauty, strength, knowledges, and profound love of disabled communities, yet I don’t pretend there is one common universal disability experience, what has been called disability essentialism.

On the left, a woman in a blue shirt and white overalls is bending down over a puppet that has a blue flower head and green spine body. She is pulling a pink string through its spine. The background is deep blue lighting. On the right, the same puppet is in the center of a circle of people, who are all holding pink and orange strings that are connected to three points on the puppet body: pelvis, chest, and neck. The skeletal flower puppet is suspended in the center of the circle by the strings.

Puppet by Marina Tsaplina. Photo by Franklin Humanities Institute/Health Humanities Lab, Duke University.

Disability’s Many Meanings

Disability is complex. Being born without a limb may hold a different story than losing a limb to chronic illness, to war, to purposeful maiming into silence, to poverty, to race-based violence, and beyond. Each hold profoundly different histories that are brushed over by that single word. I sometimes find myself resisting using “disability” without contextualization due to the endless amount of preconceived ideas, discriminatory attitudes, and lack of understanding of the many worlds this word holds.

My hypothetical example of living without a limb touches only one easily identifiable physical disability and ignores the unique languages of cognitive diversity. Yet it illuminates how each story of a body-mind demands its own structure of telling. And, given the historic and continuing stigma and oppression of disabled people, its own retelling. While words can at times be limiting, art and poetic thought can move us to a much deeper engagement.

I began to articulate the knowledges that arise from living with disability through puppetry and physical theatre performance in 2013. I brought my work primarily to disability and clinician communities across the United States and Canada. I developed a pedagogy for clinician training, Embodiment and Puppetry, and was selected to be a Kienle Scholar in the Medical Humanities for my interdisciplinary artistic research. Until 2018, I insisted on working nearly exclusively in medical contexts. I realized medicine had taught me a broken, ableist relationship to my body-mind.

My driving purpose was to awaken imagination, feeling, and disability consciousness within medicine through the arts and to create change. Yet I began to hunger for the freedom of the stage, for the purity of artistic articulation that does not have to be constantly in reference to the medical gaze. I now work across artistic, medical, academic, and activist circles. Each space has its own unique challenges, possibilities, and limitations.

Puppetry for disability aesthetics and justice is expansive, and the last thing I would want to do is write a set of proscriptions for artistic work. What follows are a few guiding principles for artists to consider when approaching puppetry work that can help avoid disability essentialism and the ableist gaze. First, though, I must acknowledge the visionary work of Sins Invalid, which centers queer, non-binary, and trans people of color with disabilities. They are foundational in pushing forward cultural organizing, intersectional disability arts practice, and the principles of disability justice.

The extraordinary language of puppetry animation holds within it a unique capacity to disrupt and interrogate the able-bodied gaze and normativity.

Defining Disability Aesthetics

Disability aesthetics is reimagining the fabric of what is meant by “aesthetics” altogether towards the goals of disability justice. This aim “recognizes the intersecting legacies of white supremacy, colonial capitalism, gendered oppression and ableism in understanding how peoples’ bodies and minds are labelled ‘deviant’, ‘unproductive’, ‘disposable’ and/or ‘invalid.” It is a fundamental reimagining of moral equality, worth, and beauty. (I also recommend reading Tobin Siebers’ Disability Aesthetics.)

One way to think of disability aesthetics is as artists embracing and incorporating elements into their practice that are often excluded from able-bodied assumptions and biases about bodies, minds, and beings.

A recent staging of Not I, part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival this year, is a brilliant theatrical (non-puppetry) example of this. In performer Jess Thom’s reimagining of Beckett's fifteen-minute stream-of-consciousness play, she actively incorporates her mouth that must at times shout; her Tourette’s is interwoven into the foundation of the performance. She then further actively disrupts the able-bodied gaze through what happens post performance, which includes getting the audience to watch a video. As a Slant reviewer noted: “It’s only during this [video] section of the performance—a few minutes in which Thom herself is not visible as she sits in the dark—that I reverted to experiencing Thom’s tics as disruption or interruption.” This awareness was not an accident, but the result of the specific choices made by the artist. Thom wants audiences to become aware of their able-bodied gaze and affective responses to her body-mind, and she succeeds brilliantly. Her choices challenge, disrupt, and reimagine cultural, artistic, and medical responses to disability.

A puppetry performance that I staged on chronic illness and loss, The Invisible Elephant Project, works along similar lines. At the height of the twenty-two-minute solo performance, I as the puppeteer quietly but visibly remove one of the puppet’s legs against the puppet’s will. The puppet then later kicks off its other leg. When I played it in 2017 at a hospital to a room of clinicians, caregivers, and people with diabetes, someone in the audience gasped “that’s disgusting” in response to this moment.

If the response of disgust is elicited at the removal of a puppet limb, what does this say about the relation someone can hold to their own body or the body of another? How does this response shape practices of care? I don’t think it needs to be said that disgust and violence do not live far from one another. I was aware of the complexity and depth of what I was opening by staging that moment. In part because I myself live it, because of the time I have spent listening to the experiences of others, and my commitment to disability justice.

It is my artistic duty to push and pull against the able-bodied gaze and elicit these questions. Like Not I, The Invisible Elephant Project incorporates carefully facilitated reflective conversations to unpack what was awakened during the aesthetic experience of the performance. That is where the work of social change occurs.

Daylight lighting. The puppeteer, dressed in black, is sitting on a short black cube on a grey stage in front of bookshelves. The puppet, with white body and light blue costume, is sitting on the puppeteers knee. The puppet head, bald and painted off-white, is blocking the puppeteers face. The puppet's right leg is separate from the rest of its body, connected to the right leg and toes of the puppeteer. There is a large space between the two puppet legs. The gesture of the right hand of the puppet is raised

Puppet by Marina Tsaplina and AchesonWalsh Studios. Photo by Eric Barstow.

Able-bodied Assumptions about Disability

“Disability rights law has failed to change public hearts and minds about people with disabilities,” writes Jasmine E. Harris in an article for the Columbia Law Review, “[because] the aesthetics of disability trigger affective processes… and some emotions, such as fear or disgust, make it hard to recognize, respect, adjudicate, and enforce the rights of people with disabilities.” A real-life example of this was Harvey Weinstein’s use of a walker to feign disability during his sexual abuse trial. His choice to “appear disabled”—which he did to illicit pity and fragility—worked off of a deeply ingrained ableist perception of people with disabilities as being helpless. But it is this attitude that is more often what is so disabling!

Weinstein’s use of a walker builds on the ableist preconception of disability as pitiful. In the work Amanda Leduc has done on fairy tales and disability, she helps illuminate how “so many of the preconceptions that exist around disability today derive in many ways from how the disabled body is conceived of in these stories that we’ve told for generations.”

This includes the tendency to focus exclusively on an individual “overcoming” their disability either through being good, working hard, or something else. The stories don’t focus on how the world needs to change to become inclusive to disability. They don’t consider how the experiences of illness and disability might teach and shape both the individual and the community in very profound ways.

Another problematic structure is using disability metaphorically, reinforcing the idea that, as Leduc states, “the happy ending only comes to those who are abled and healthy.” Puppetry, folk, and fairytales are historically connected forms, so it’s unsurprising that many puppetry artists will often recreate these tropes. But puppetry is uniquely suited to contribute a radical language for imagining new territories. The act of animating constructed, material bodies and worlds is a ground of infinite possibilities for exploring disabled embodiments and the multilayered meanings of bodies. Yet this is only true if we puppetry artists are rigorous and attentive to our artistic choices and their implications. Maybe most importantly, we must deeply care for the community, struggle, and history of disability justice.

When one understands what disability aesthetics seeks to do, these kinds of artistic choices and audience responses are troubling.

Puppetry and Metaphor: Its Problems and Possibilities for Disability

I often quote puppetry artist and scholar Laura Purcell-Gates and disabled puppeteer and scholar Emma Fisher: “Puppets, as bodies that are materially constructed, can both reinforce and rupture [cultural] constructions of the disabled body.”

This point can’t be rushed past, because this reveals the complexities of puppetry and disability aesthetics. Over the past two years, I have seen several puppetry productions in New York City that either spoke to or were billed under the category of “disability.” Unfortunately, they repeated the kinds of problematic disability story and image structures as some of the old fairy tales.

In one of the pieces—which included many masterful moments—the central visual throughline was the de-bulging of a body: the body of the solo performer started as “deformed” and by the end of the piece it read as “normative.” The physical bulges functioned as metaphors and drove the meaning of the piece. But disability is not a metaphor. I did my due diligence as a fellow artist and spectator and went to see this piece twice. During the second viewing, I quietly scribbled notes in the dark of the moment-to-moment action and construction of the piece. Afterwards, a woman sitting behind me said to her partner: “What a performer! They didn’t even sweat.”

When one understands what disability aesthetics seeks to do, these kinds of artistic choices and audience responses are troubling. I believe this piece reinforced ableist perceptions and attitudes about body-minds, and the audience comment about the performer’s (lack of) a sweating body points to how the piece reaffirmed able-bodied perceptions of fitness, ability, and normativity.

A bulging body being a metaphor for spiritual poison is an image that arises from an imagination of ableism. This becomes an interesting challenge for the formation of puppetry and physical theatre work. Of course life marks the body. The feeling of pride swells the chest; my Linklater voice teacher showed me how, in fact, a “stiff upper lip” is a very real phenomenon.

Those of us in physical theatre spend years honing our bodies, minds, and voices to be able to carry and express the nuances of thought and feeling. My great mentor Kari Margolis calls this “the physics of theatre.” Yet the relationship between affect, spirit, and physical form is not linear. It is far past the time to begin to develop new metaphors, images, associations, and possibilities for the expressive body—ones that do not further cement ableist, discriminatory misperceptions in our collective imagination.

Two black pen drawings on white paper. On the left, a close-up of Albrecht Roser's marionette from the front. The face is cocked somewhat to the side and downwards, its eyes dark slits. It wears a hat, and the right hand is on the handle of the music box hanging on the puppets neck. On the top left corner of the page the puppets peg-leg is drawn and labeled. On the right of the page, a full-body sketch of the puppet is shown. The puppet is fully in profile, looking to the viewers left, with the peg-leg rest

Sketch of video footage from the NY Public Library of the Performing Arts. Photo by Marina Tsaplina.

The Materiality of the Puppet: The Puppet Is Not a Representation

The very material of a puppet body/performing object creates an opportunity to cross normative borders the way few mediums can. Listening to the materiality of the form allows for the puppet to not represent anything other than itself.

There is a short four-minute piece by one of the most revered marionette builders and performers of the twentieth century, German puppeteer Albrecht Roser, called “The Organ-Grinder.” It is one of the few pieces in the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center archives that has a puppet with a visible marker of disability: a wooden peg leg. In an interview with Jim Henson, Roser described the performance as “a portrait of a certain human being”, after World War II, who was “completely … frustrated … and he had a huge distance [from] all that was around him … the absolute loneliness of the man.”

In the piece, there is something at play made possible through the way Roser heightened the materiality of the puppet’s wooden leg. Like the hammer of a piano key, each step the puppet took on his wooden leg made sound as it hit the ground. This sound was a demand that we pay attention. It marked the invisible unspoken external structures of war, of violence, of our immense capacity for cruelty, and it was in opposition to the way the rest of the puppet body slumped as it stood still, only its hand turning a music box into seeming infinity. As the puppet stared at us through its facial mask, the puppet and gesture of its body communicated intense isolation, rejection, and aloneness while the moral demand of the leg pulled against this despondence.

Through these contrasting forces that pulled on the puppet body, there was a call to us, the viewers. It was a call for care, interconnection, and interdependence that is so fundamental to disability justice. Roser described his aim as: “To give all the feelings, which are possible to express, through just simple steps.”

Disability was not invoked as a metaphor in this piece. This puppet and its world appear like a capsule of a very particular time and place, while also speaking to this contemporary moment. Yet this puppet was not a representation of anything other than itself. Moreover, it became “a figure of conscience,” which theatre director Peter Sellars described in 1992 as “the highest service a puppet can render.”

If you are able-bodied, mind the gap between what you think you know about disability and what disability communities are saying.

Closing Thoughts: A “Grammar of Animacy” for Disability Justice

In the spirit of a set of guiding principles, I offer a starting list for puppetry animation (what I call “animacy”) for artists working with disability. I welcome further suggestions, especially from the disability arts community:

  • If you are able-bodied, mind the gap between what you think you know about disability and what disability communities are saying. The knowledges that arise from living with disability are profound. Center artists with disabilities in your work.
  • Become aware of your own assumptions about body-mind normativity and how these inform your puppet construction and performance choices.
  • Be attentive to the existing ableist perceptions about disability in our culture and look critically at your work to see how it may be reinforcing these discriminatory preconceptions.
  • Be careful about using disability metaphorically. All metaphors function in relation to concrete forms. Disabled lives are not metaphors. This includes “blind/seeing” metaphors, which are common in puppetry work.
  • Life marks the body, and our bodies hold distinct histories across gendered, classed, and racialized lines. Be conscious of the story you are telling and how the puppet is able to both embody and witness these stories.
  • The puppet does not need to be in a wheelchair to represent “disability.” Embodiment can be explored in fascinating and radical ways through puppetry much beyond naturalism. Engage a deep, full-bodied listening to the material of the puppet: its body, how it is constructed and animated, the world in which it is placed, and the world that it invokes within you and for you.
  • Think of accessibility as a vital creative challenge that informs how you structure your work.
  • The intrinsic nature of the puppet being only itself means there is a vast space of experimentation of body and being that is uniquely possible in puppetry.
  • Push the form. Try. Experiment. Be wary of moral certainty. Take Risks. But be respectful of the history you are pulling against.

As puppetry artists, we are responsible for that which we invoke. Artistic choices have consequences. Undoing the ableist gaze—like the racist, sexist, and colonial gaze—is every body’s responsibility. Ableism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and neo-eugenics are all deeply interwoven.

I believe the duty of artists in every generation is to birth new imagery and possibilities, revel in ambiguity, and remember forgotten histories in order to meet the task of the moment we are in. Our art form, which is so deeply rooted in the pre-colonial ancient past, can help animate a new way forward in terms of what it means to be a body in the world. To engage this responsibly, we must always be attentive to the positionality of our own bodies and minds, and to how this informs our imaginations.

Disrupting responses of fear and disgust; reimagining beauty, dignity, and worth; and calling us to conscience is a tremendous space of social change in which the arts—and puppetry specifically—have a singularly powerful offer to make. Let us make it. All we as artists can hope for is that, one day, our offers will be received.

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This article is brilliant! I am developing a cultural project using puppetry for and with a small disabled community. And so this material is very helpful.

This article was great! I'm constantly looking for new ways to explain ablism to the abled community. This is helpful.

Thank you so much for reading and commenting. It's great to meet on this platform. Ableism is so deeply ingrained- one of my goals in writing this essay was so it could serve as a teaching tool to #CripTheArts and educate about ableism. :) If you have other arts-specific articles that you've found helpful in this regard, maybe post a link here? Can be a nice way to pool resources.

Another resource I really love is Bodies in Translation <--- they explicitly state: 

"Projects that speak to experiences of disability must be led by disabled people or people who have lived experience of the intersections of embodied difference."