When people gather around a statue of Columbus, entwine him with ropes, and pull him down, what is it if not an act of puppetry? It’s a performance between human and nonhuman, and its meaning is greater than the sum of its parts. This is an act of solidarity, not with the ideology or ideas behind the monuments, but with the objects themselves as they fall, break, sink, or are covered over with paint of possibilities.
A puppet is both inherently human-like and other-than-human. Even the most realistic, humanoid puppet can never overcome its thingness: we see its rods, strings, and other tell-tale signs of human-assisted movement. Likewise, commonplace objects like a scrap of ribbon or bit of cardboard can convey complex emotions through puppetry. In January 2020, I saw Pùnkitititi! performed at the Salzburg Marionette Theatre, directed by Doug Fitch. In it, a washed-up opera singer (played by a human actor) returns to his hotel room. While he is in deep despair, his room and the objects in it begin to come alive, and it is through those interactions with objects that he rediscovers that life is worth living. Articulated objects like chairs, drinking glasses, and hats are made to bow, walk, and gesture in human expression. Even as clearly defined objects, puppets become tools to express human experience and relationships between human and nonhuman.
My hope for this series on puppetry is to showcase a myriad of shapes and styles—hand puppets, rod puppets, nearly two-dimensional paper mâché forms, wearable cardboard constructions—and the ways in which these puppets, whether representational or abstract, can form solidarities among humans. In turn, this series examines how these solidarities change our relationships to ourselves, other humans, human constructs, animals, the environment, and all nonhuman life.
This series goes beyond puppetry’s potential for human self-examination to show that puppetry, as a relationship between human and nonhuman, gives us the chance to examine our relationship with nonhumans–objects, animals, and others.
Puppets For Justice formed in 2020 to create content that helps parents talk to children about big topics like police reform. In one skit, Intern Kitty gets stuck in a tree. A police officer is unable to help because the only tools at his disposal are a taser, a baton, and pepper spray. With the help of a human scientist named Walter and a computer system named The Reimagination Station, the characters imagine several different scenarios that might help fix this problem in policing: Should there be no police? Should there be more police? What other alternatives are there? In skits like this one, puppetry provides a Wonderland-esque mirror through which our very human structures of power and inequality play out. Humanoid or not, puppets can reveal our relationships to power. Puppets help us form questions we are not yet able to ask and envision social change. Intern Kitty’s experience is central to the skit, and Walter demonstrates the power of listening to, believing, and working in solidarity with puppets. When we form solidarities with puppets, that relationship is instructive for both human and more-than-human.