October 13, 2008
Tempest #5 — Why Puppets?

[Next posting: Monday, Oct. 20]

For me, every show should begin conceptually with questioning of its media. Why live actors? Why film? Why claymation? It’s fair to guess that Elizabethan acting style was much more fully expressive, both vocally and gesturally, than today’s realism-based performance; and these plays weren’t written for puppets. Producing a very text-heavy piece in a medium that’s predominantly visual is tricky. So why puppets? Thoughts are these:

* To express Prospero’s self-alienation in literal form, splitting the full-size human presence that’s his inner being from his puppet “action figure.”

* To capture the “dream” texture of the piece through the fluidity and the tight, focused concentration of visual image & audio texture, shrinking an epic action to the size of the inner mind’s eye. A frankly illusionistic theatre that doesn’t dissipate the illusion with physical scale.
* To harness puppetry’s capacity to make the human being “strange” in Brecht’s sense of causing us to see the commonplace with new eyes. The puppet’s life is based on surprise, the shock of seeing an inert thing suddenly come alive and even the most casual gesture feeling, somehow, remarkable.
* To allow a more organic gestural life for the spoken text. With our Macbeth, the visceral dynamic of our puppets (large heads on short rods, the actor’s other hand serving as the puppet’s hand) allowed a gestural style much broader — and for me much more organic to Shakespeare’s text — than what would be acceptable with live actors in a conventional staging.

* To eliminate the artificiality of equating actor with character. Absolute focus on the character as ”created” by the story.

* Shakespeare’s magic. The puppet can fly, transform, change heads, disassemble, plunge suddenly into a metaphoric image (e.g. the human Prospero suddenly grasping the puppet Ferdinand’s head to render him helpless or Ariel leading the clowns through a swamp of enveloping black plastic). In the world of puppetry, there ”are” literally higher powers.

* Shakespeare’s realism. These characters have concrete faces. Without radical adaptation you can’t do an abstract Tempest. The scenes are reality-based, and a Gonzalo needs to look like Gonzalo. I can answer this challenge (with a budget for five actors in a region with a limited talent pool) only by literally “casting” my characters.

* And because I want to.


Watched Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books. Extraordinarily imaginative & boring film, unique in having no dramatic progression whatever but remarkable for its imagistic extravagance and Gielgud’s presence. Fascinated with the moments of fluttering pages, cutaways to the magical books, inscribing Shakespeare’s text in beautiful calligraphy. And last week saw a FoolsFury production with a set background of huge paintings and a paint-spattered floor. These experiences reinforced a concept for our visual setting.

My strictures are these: 1) We want to use our aluminum tubing cube, 10 ft. x 8 ft. x 8 ft, with all lighting instruments attached; easily tourable; large enough to allow a scope, yet concentrating the action into a tight visual field. 2) We want to use moving rear projections to coordinate with music in the transformative feel of the island. 3) We need places from which the puppets can emerge. 4) We need a place where the human-size Prospero is separate from the action he induces.
So I’m thinking about a field of tattered, weathered canvas, suggesting the sails of ships. Squares glued on larger swathes, different shades, but all white to cream to tan, and with fragmented phrases of text from the play inscribed. Canvas twisted around some of the aluminum pipes. Rear projection screen center with irregular shape, sometimes open, sometimes covered by canvas on a track. The feel of a fragmented, wastepaper island out of which different realities are conjured: to one it’s a jungle, to another barren rock. It catches a frontal shadow-play of the moving puppets that complements the shifting projections. And it’s an island constructed of that most powerful human agent of magic: words.

First rough sketch. I’ll probably go from here to a larger watercolor, then to a model. But that’s all dependent on the evolution of the character dynamics evolving scene-by-scene as the workshops proceed.
And then there’s this. On my birthday, Oct. 8th, I had an appointment for a colonoscopy, had the delight of finding that I have a very healthy gut. My doc was kind enough to gift me also with six cute little photos of my innards — which is “me” as truly as any of my head-shots.
No, I don’t see this as a viable setting for The Tempest, but there’s something about it that connects. Maybe remembering my first shock at seeing Lennart Nilsson’s stunning photos of the body’s inner landscapes. Something about that tunnel vision, the foreignness of what’s inside us, that’s akin to Prospero’s inner journey. Reflected somehow in the projections? We’ll see.
–Conrad Bishop