Barry JC Purves is an OSCAR and BAFTA nominated animator and director, who also directs and designs for theatre and teaches the art of animation. In this, the second of a series of insights, he considers the appeal of puppetry on stage and screen, and the special relationship between puppeteer and puppet. [Read part one here.]
In the theatre puppets are now being allowed to be puppets, and are revelling in their very artifice – and they are everywhere. This is not just due to the respect given to the ‘War Horse’ characters but also because digital technology is becoming so extreme that we are not sure what we are watching, and many of us are tending to enjoy more obviously handmade arts.
It’s telling that the Royal Exchange’s production of ‘Little Shop of Horrors’, from two years ago, finally gave Audrey II the ability to race round the theatre’s stage by putting the puppeteers outside the plant, and having their performance very much part of the show. Before the puppeteers were hidden inside Audrey, giving her a very stolid presence.
We know special effects are an effect but a naïve thought crosses out brain, muttering ‘ah, computers’, and whilst computers can do anything, that lazy thinking denies the craft and skill of the computer artists. Some of the wonder has gone now there are no limits. But that is part of the point, computers can do anything and thus not everything is surprising or interesting. Increasingly digital projections are used as scenic elements on stage, and whilst our collective jaws are on the floor and we are dazzled, part of us, part of me certainly, feels disappointed that these effects were not achieved through good old scenic design skills. This is the same disappointment that we feel when seeing our favourite model’s before and after Photoshop’ images, not to mention the feeling of being cheated. The camera never lies – like heck it doesn’t!
This is not being resistant to technology, but it is about enjoying and being part of the trick, and a trick must have a limit to work. You have to show the top hat is empty before you can produce the rabbit. To some extent, you have to show the mechanics and limits of a puppet. Many a child had their life changed by a magical transformation scene at their first pantomime. A digital scene transformation is impressive but it is cold. On stage we are presented with an empty box but within those limits we see luscious visions transforming before our eyes. We know the limits and yet we are astonished. Take those limits away, and we are all a bit ‘meh!’ Watching the overdose of digital scenic effects at this years’ Eurovision was like having a head full of exploding candy and equally as unsatisfying. If only there was an element of physical stagecraft. The hand, the human…
With a puppet, we are always aware of it being a puppet, and yet aware something else is happening. We are moved, shocked, outraged or whatever. It matters not that we see the cast of ‘Avenue Q’ holding their puppets or that we see Nina Conti’s hand clearly manipulating her Monkey puppet, in fact it would be a lesser act if the Monkey was presented as a complete, separate character. The puppet is the device, and the whole point actually, that allows her to be many things that perhaps she may not be off stage, and seeing a physical connection emphasises the essential point that you can’t really have one without the other, as they are both sides of the same coin. There are dozens of photos of animators, puppeteers, and sculptors staring lovingly at their creations – we could almost be looking at Hamlet and Yorick again. Perhaps they are all looking at themselves. Alter egos, conscience, therapy, cathartic devices – we are bound to our puppets, and they are unforgiving reflections of ourselves. They are our true voices.
And we are back with Shakespeare and his fools. Their role in the world of the play, through their folly, is to be able to say the truth, totally unhindered. They have a license to be true. Lear’s fool is almost an invisible friend, as he has so little direct involvement with the other characters.
Richard Haynes’ illustration from my book, of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Jack Point.
He tells Lear the absolute truth, and only when Lear accepts this, does the Fool fade from the play, his work done. Lear’s fool is Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket, and Harvey, or even our own teddy or pet. We confide in them and make sense of our days. I love that fools, too, usually have a folly stick, a puppet, so they can comment further, and who can blame their provocative speeches on an innocent puppet?
My favourite example of this has to be the film of Mary Poppins. The poor Banks family are very damaged, and the more earthly nannies incapable of healing, but upon the children’s request, there arrives the enigmatic Mary from nowhere. Over the course of the film, she heals the family, and then, when the wind changes, she is ready for the next family. The Banks are too wrapped up to say goodbye, and this hurts Mary, even though she is practically perfect and this is as it should be. It takes her parrot umbrella, a puppet no less, to voice her true feeling. He is quickly silenced for being too honest.
Illustration of Mary Poppins by Richard Haynes
for my book ‘Stop Motion – Passion Process Performance.’
Everywhere, we storytellers have to find this external device to constantly reveal our characters inner voices. The film is called ‘Mary Poppins’, not ‘The Banks’, and what little we know of her comes from the umbrella or the equally odd chameleon like Bert. The umbrella serves much the same purpose as Yorick’s skull. Though the skull is a seemingly inanimate object replete with resonances, Hamlets often act out a scenario with it – a performance, and that is what suddenly makes this a puppet. Without the element of performance, the puppet is just a doll or a prop.
It seems the more basic the puppet, the more we can read into it, and the more potent it becomes. Simple Kermit, with the hand barely hidden, is still the most rich and complex of muppets. A glorious live action /animation short, ‘Little Face’, has Adam Buxton come face to face with his childhood invisible friend, who is little more than a floating yellow balloon with spindly legs. Through this balloon, which no one else acknowledges, we learn how all Buxton’s aspirations have come to naught.
In the last article in this series of insights, Barry will discuss the art of artifice and stop motion animation as a puppetry form. Read further insights and information on the art of stop motion animation in his excellent publications. Find out more about his film and theatre work at his website: www.barrypurves.com