Creating Puppet Solidarities
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.
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. For instance, Boxcutter Collective devised a paper puppet show called “How to Overthrow a Statue” that captures and celebrates the many ways Confederate and Columbus statues were removed from public spaces during the summer of 2020. In “How to Overthrow a Statue,” paper puppet statues are overthrown using household objects—scissors, a cord, and a drill that becomes a makeshift crane. From the jump, this work acknowledges the power of objects to oppress by showcasing statues as agents that must be overthrown. In this way, Boxcutter Collective’s puppetry gives the same weight to collective protest action that removed statues by force as to decrees by local governments.
What most interests me about puppetry is the possibilities opened by the assemblage of human and nonhuman parts. In A Thousand Plateaus, philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari define an assemblage as something that is more than the sum of its parts. They explain that the assemblage of a warrior welding a sword and riding a horse is greater than the sum of its parts. The horse increases the power of the sword and the warrior. The warrior increases the usefulness and accuracy of the sword. The sword increases the potential for harm against others. When we form solidarities—commitments to partner as equally important components —with puppets, what can we create that is more-than-human and more-than-puppet?
In these examples—and in the examples that Ian McFarlane, Laura Stinson, Denise Rogers, Leda Farrow, and Eli Nixon contribute to this series—puppetry is an ongoing renegotiation between human and nonhuman. As those lines are blurred and renegotiated through performance, puppetry becomes an act of solidarity with the nonhuman world. In those moments of action, something more-than-human allows us to explore power, violence, ourselves, and our positionality outside a singular, anthropocentric experience. Puppets play out the way things are, but also the way things can be; and in that regard, they allow us to see our positionality and imagine new realities—worlds beyond ourselves.
When we form solidarities—commitments to partner as equally important components —with puppets, what can we create that is more-than-human and more-than-puppet?
Studies on Solidarities
In the next essay in this series, Ian McFarlane and Laura Stinson’s North Barn Theatre uses a cast of “more-than-human” circus performers to demonstrate the potential for breaking free rather than replicating oppressive social structures. In their travelling show, Troubling Joy: A Bicycle Puppet Circus, animal circus performer puppets are pushed to their limit by their human ringmaster. No longer willing to participate in a performance that replicates the colonial perspective of animal subjugation to humans, the puppets revolt and strike out on their own on a touring bicycle show. In a sort of contemporary Animal Farm, North Barn Theatre offers spectators a look at joyful troublemaking and highlights the deep relationship between theatre and activism. Their work is nostalgic; you can imagine seeing a bicycle touring performance one hundred years ago in public parks. In today’s climate, their humble bicycle traveling show takes on an activist role by bringing theatre to rural Canadian communities that are underserved in the best of times and further distanced from theatrical performances by COVID lockdowns. In performance, the animal puppets’ touring circus and the real-life touring show becomes entangled, and Troubling Joy traces those entanglements to encourage audience members to ask themselves what social structures in their own lives deserve some troublemaking. Here, nonhuman puppets reveal their humanity and agency by making a difference in their world. But can the act of puppet solidarity do more than give a narrative guide for social change? Can puppet solidarities ever change our perspectives?
Denise Rogers’ work with Bread and Puppet Theater demonstrates that solidarities between humans and puppets can do more than help us raise questions about our lives; they can be a training tool to develop the muscle memory needed to decenter oneself in community work. In “Ground Lessons: Performing with the Potato People at Bread and Puppet,” Rogers uses her experience performing with puppets meant to represent crowds of everyday people to explain puppetry’s ability to dampen ego. In contrast to traditional performances meant to showcase and highlight individuality, this work involves paying close attention to others, moving together, and making space for other human and non-human pairs. This kind of work forces puppeteers, especially those who are able-bodied, to use all their senses in new and different ways. They must move without sight, lead by stepping aside, listen for others, and move together. Puppeteers behind Potato People focus outside themselves and practice new ways of orienting in society. This solidarity is one in which puppeteers must defer to the object and to others. They are learning, developing, and practicing a different mode of being in the world, one in which individuals make space for the collective.
Next is this series, we consider puppetry’s innate ability to depict violence. The clattering of marionette bodies smashing and striking into one another during Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi comes to mind, but we must view Intern Kitty’s experience of being sprayed with paper spray an act of violence, too. Stock characters like Mr. Punch or Kasperle, both hand puppets, seem to carry with them a penchant for this darkness. Once on our hands, these characters embody an archetype of our basest selves. In “The Brutalities of Mr. Punch,” Leda Farrow considers Punch’s ability to expose or perpetuate violence. She asks puppet practitioners to consider the relevance of Punch as a canvas for human violence and suffering in contemporary performance spaces. Leda traces the 350-year history of Punch as a provocateur and trickster who says and does the most vile and inappropriate things. Mr. Punch’s mockery does not fly in the face of humanity’s restraint and caring, but in the face of our assumptions that we have progressed beyond it. Maybe Mr. Punch persists because he can, because violence persists under the measured surface of diplomacy and modernity. As stock characters, Punch and Judy don’t reflect us as individuals, but as a society. What is exposed through this solidarity is how some humans dehumanize others through violence and power.
Can puppet solidarities ever change our perspectives?
Solidarities can humanize more-than-humans in ways that reveal the narrow scope of human-centered experience. Eli Nixon asks what worlds we might create if we celebrated cardboard holidays marking, not presidents or military victors, but our nonhuman cousins. In their essay, Eli suggests that a holiday that centers creating and communing with the likeness of a horseshoe crab can challenge our human-centered points of view, connecting us back to ancestry over 450 million years. Eli lauds the transformative power of cardboard, suggesting that movements and expressions in a cardboard exoskeleton can help humans connect to nonhuman life, forging solidarity between human and nonhuman. As Eli describes it, this is a practice of “anthropomorphism in service of unsettling anthropocentrism.” These aren’t Aesop’s anthropomorphic animals meant to teach us lessons in humanity, but primordial lessons in time before, around, and after humans. Eli’s concept of using cardboard cutouts to create a holiday rather than a performance is an important one because a holiday is a celebration without a product: it is open ended. Puppets and people can continue celebrating from and into time immemorial.
Puppets and Positionality
This series examines how relational experiences among humans and puppets can challenge and change our relationships to ourselves, other humans, human constructs, animals, the environment, and all nonhuman life. When we turn toward, lift, hover over, or wear puppets, we create a relationship in which we work alongside something that is nonhuman. Inherent in these puppet solidarities are our beliefs that we can create meaning by imagining revolution with circus animals, working collectively as Potato People, exposing power through Mr. Punch, and respecting our small place in Earth’s long history by celebrating the complexity and importance of the nonhuman world.