Joni-Rae Carrack
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Articles

Little Nuggets of Life: Puppetry and Thingness

(Originally written for my M.A Advance Theatre Practice Sustained Independent Project: Critical and Evaluative Commentary, 2015)

 

In this essay, I will attempt to define ‘thingness’ in relation to puppetry using Elizabeth

Grosz’s essay “The Thing” as a basis (Grosz, 2009). Using this definition I will evaluate

two instances during the process of #WATERLOOBRIDGE where I believe an awareness

of an object’s ‘thingness’ could enhance the performativity of the puppet: One, the

development of our purpose-made puppet, the other, a sticky-note that unstuck and fell

during a work-in-progress performance.

As a puppeteer, I am constantly faced with the challenge, and the joy, of animating the

inanimate; not just by physically moving them but by giving them the perception of being

‘alive’. This was of particular importance in my most recent project #WATERLOOBRIDGE,

devised with Rebecca Robinson, which considers the subject of male suicide through

puppetry. The creation of the ‘life’ of the puppet was essential in this piece, to create an

empathetic figure for the audience to explore these issues with and also to show the

possibility of ‘death’. Puppets have long been known for their ability to die during

performance; Adrian Kohler of Handspring Puppet Company explains articulately that the

puppet is “basically a dead object… An actor struggles to die onstage, but a puppet has to

struggle to live.” (Kohler, 2011) This can be problematic; for a puppet’s closeness to ‘death’

to be convincing so does its closeness to ‘life’. My work has been focused on finding new

ways of creating this ‘life-force’ for the puppet, to push the boundaries of puppetry and to

solve problems faced by smaller companies who have fewer hands to puppeteer. My

investigation led me to the philosophical concept of ‘thingness’, an idea centred around

perception and the realities formed in relation to objects.

 

When presenting our explorations to an audience of our peers, we were met with diverse

perceptions of our puppet. Our initial design and manipulation made the puppet seem too

objectified and was seen by some as unidentifiable and unemotional (Fig. 1). The puppet’s

next incarnation (Fig. 2) was seen as ‘too human’ and did not stretch its potential as a

puppet performer. Our final redesign (Fig 3.) engaged our audiences as a character, an

object but foremost a puppet (Carrack, 2015).

Reflecting back, I can see the need to appreciate the unique qualities of the puppet

performer by considering the properties of the object of the puppet and not just relying on

its figurative human representation. Pia Banzhaf approached puppetry from a cognitive

point of view to explain how we process this division of the animate representative figure

puppetry presents and the inanimate object the puppet ultimately is. 

 

FIG.1 #WATERLOOBRIDGE, FIG.2 #WATERLOOBRIDGE, FIG.3 #WATERLOOBRIDGE,

SECOND SHOWING (2015) INTERIM REHEARSAL (2015) PUBLICITY PHOTO (2015)

 

She clarifies that, while “‘ambiguity’ implies a state of indecisiveness between two perceptions …

“neurologically “ambiguity” means… oscillating between two equally plausible

perceptions.” (Banzhaf, 2014: 11) Puppets have the unique property to be perceived as a

representation (with life) and as an object (without life), however the brain can only

process both these concepts separately, in a constant back and forth. This suggested to

me that to boost the puppetry to its potential, I had to appreciate both the representation

and understand the object of the puppet.

‘Thingness’ is a complex concept that escapes easy definition. While there are many

theories put forward by philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Bill Brown,1 I will be

understanding the term as theorised by Elizabeth Grosz. Grosz approached ‘thingness’ by

taking inspiration from Darwin’s evolutionary theory, proposing that, instead of just seeing

‘things’ as us (subjects) and them (objects) separated by distance, the way we perceive

‘thingness’ is a way of categorising what is “interesting” and also has potential to help us

navigate the world around us (Grosz, 2009). For Grosz, “the thing is the real that we both

find and make” (ibid., 125); it is something that we actively discover and have agency in

creating for our own personal experience of reality. It provides “the obstacle, the

question” (ibid., 25) that prompts us to act with and against the object, and to react in

response to it.

 

As we delve into Grosz’s thinking, we can see some intriguing parallels between the

potential ‘life’ found in puppets and the ‘thingness’ of objects. This ‘life’ is what we find

“interesting” about the puppet and understanding that helps us navigate the world within

the performance. It is a performative reality that is found through a period of playful

devising with the object of the puppet and is a real that is made through considered

manipulation. Howard Risatti, when discussing the ‘thingness’ of craft objects, notes that

objects “reveal themselves” not just visually but also through haptic means as they

“encourage active physical engagement” (Risatti, 2007: 146-7) much in the way a

puppeteer will tactilely engage with the material of the puppet (its size, texture, weight etc.)

as they discover the most effective way to form its ‘life’. It is also something that needs to

be found through the audience’s perception of the puppeteer’s performance and is made

in their active participation with the puppet. Kenneth Gross observes in his book Puppet

how “A puppet in its very stillness and abandonment may be charged with potential

motion, becoming an object of reverie, patiently awaiting some further life.” (Gross, 2011:

66) Potential motion could be what is to be found and made by both performer and

audience, whilst prompting questions; how will the puppet come alive? How will it move?

What character will it have?

In the case of #WATERLOOBRIDGE, we spent much of the devising process discovering

the life and the materiality of our puppet, something which prompted his subsequent

redesigns. Our first puppet (See Fig 1.) was made entirely from polystyrene packaging and

was made to be self-standing. Through our explorations of the balance of ‘life’ and ‘death’,

for our second showing we chose to experiment with leaving him without a puppeteer to

manipulate him, returning to him only intermittently, while also referring to him in our text

and projecting animations onto him. In the final moments of this showing, we slowly raised

the back of the table he was standing on until gravity impelled him to fall to the floor. Some

of our audience struggled to connect emotionally to the puppet and they instead focused

on the materiality of the polystyrene, which clashed with their senses (Carrack, 2015). One

audience member said that “the puppet was less alive when you insisted it

was.” (Robinson, 2015). It appeared that, as we decided to leave the puppet without a

puppeteer from the beginning of the piece, we neglected to “charge” the puppet with ‘life’

through manipulation. If we go back to Gross, he observed this charge coming at the point

of “stillness” but also “abandonment”, suggesting the puppet was controlled before being

left. Without this “charged” life the puppet was perceived as an object; the ‘thingness’ of

the polystyrene on its own was too much of an obstacle for our audience to connect with. It

was seen as cold and not relating to the life we were trying to imbued it with (Carrack,

2015).

It appears that ‘thingness’ is not strictly equivalent to a puppet’s ‘life’, even in the context of

a puppetry performance. Although the polystyrene puppet held our interest, provoked

questions, obstacles and the potential for finding and making, its ‘thingness’ could not be

relied on to carry the ‘life’ of the puppet in a way that offered the audience a chance to

discover and make. Nevertheless ‘thingness’ cannot be discounted. Grosz continues to

describe ‘thingness’ as having “a “life” of its own, characteristics of its own, which we must

incorporate into our activities in order to be effective, rather than simply

understand.” (Grosz, 2009: 125) Here she reinforces that ‘thingness’ is active and

productive, seeing it as a resource for our needs and next actions that we can

accommodate for. This may explain that, instead of allowing our polystyrene puppet to be

alone in its ‘thingness’, a more successful choice would have been to blend the ‘thingness’

of an object with the ‘life’ of the puppet.

Instead of harnessing the ‘thingness’ of an object to enhance the ‘life’ of the puppet, we

can consider how the object of the puppet provokes its own ‘life’. “The thing is the

provocation of the nonliving, the half-living, or that which has no life, to the living, to the

potential of and for life” (ibid., 125) This provocation is the essential character of puppetry;

the role of the puppeteer is to understand the potential of “life” of the puppet, while

recognising it’s lack of life. Although I understand Grosz is referring to the advancement

and evolution of human life, I believe it is probable to see how this ‘life’ could also be

conceptual and offered to the object itself. By acknowledging how ‘thingness’ offers the

potential of life, the puppeteer can discover how to take that potential and literally realise it.

This provocation leads to an impulse of movement, from a big gesture to a subtle

breathing, suggested by the weight, centre of gravity and articulation of the object’s

‘thingness’. We can see ‘thingness’ as a “provocation to action” whether that is to react

against it or to respond to it, but we can see it also as “the result of our action”, a back and

forth between performer and object (ibid., 125). As the puppet can loose its ‘life’ at any

moment during a performance, (a tension that exists between any puppeteer and puppet)

either from a lack of focus or an accident of manipulation, every movement and breath is a

moment of realising the offered ‘life’. There is an assurance that being provoked by the

‘thing’ will lead to a new provocation, this is because ‘thingness’ “also functions as a

promise, as that which, in the future, in retrospect, yields a destination or effect, another

thing” (ibid., 125). The puppeteer needs only to respond to these provocations much in the

way an improviser responds to impulses.

However, is ‘thingness’ perceived by what we discover in a object/puppet or is it also

where we encounter it? If ‘thingness’ is about personal perception, then the atmosphere of

an environment, the social rules, the expectation and the state of mind that it places in one

must effect what becomes of interest to us. The theatrical environment of any puppetry

piece holds the expectation of objects becoming the focus of performance. In her essay

‘The Death of “The Puppet”’, Margaret Williams remarks on a piece that involved a small

ball moving through a “complex machine…a series of different planes and inclinations,

bounced off various surfaces, made sudden changes of speed… until it finally dropped

and abruptly stopped” (Williams, 2014: 22). She notes how the audience responded with

sorrow for the ball’s sudden ending, but wonders whether the circumstances of the piece,

the designs of a postgraduate student set within a studio at the University of New South

Wales, primed the audience to respond not just to the balls ‘thingness’, provoking its life/

non-life perception, but to analyse its movements and also to create ‘life’ for it. In a

theatrical performance, the “context sets up certain expectations, and expectation moulds

perception.” (ibid., 22) and an audience are ready to accept the performative reality they

are being presented with. In a puppetry performance we must be especially aware how our

audience is being primed with the use of ‘alive’ objects.

 

For example, in #WATERLOOBRIDGE, a theatrical device we used were sticky-notes that

had the sentence ‘He is the one…’ written on them; The sentence are individually

completed for a man that we personally knew (See Fig.4). During a work-in-progress

showing at Upstair Arts Theatre as we fixed the sticky-notes onto an upright table they

unstuck and fell to the floor (See Fig. 5). This was unplanned and happened randomly

throughout the performance. Most of our audience perceived the sticky-notes as men

falling to their deaths. The prevailing subject matter of the piece (suicide), along with the

established representation of the sticky-notes as men, when the sticky-note unstuck and

fell toward the floor, it became a puppet for a brief second. When an object does not

function the way we expect it to, “the relationship between subject and object is

renegotiated… a space opens where we put our our subjectivity onto that object.” (Marx,

2009: 236) The ‘thingness’ of the sticky-notes, incorporating its flimsy, practical and yet

disposable characteristics, charged with the life of the men, provoked the audience to see

its potential for “life” and to discover and make a narrative journey. It took us as

performers, as we carefully picked up the sticky-notes and placed them back on the table,

to signal the acknowledgment of the sticky-note’s subjectivity, as an object with a brief ‘life’

allowing the sticky-note to became more noticeable through its malfunction. But would this

have had the same significance in a non-puppetry performance?

If we return to our initial understanding of ‘thingness’ from Grosz, that it is an evolutionary

beneficial process of finding what we need, we could argue that the audience’s senses

would be attracted to the ‘thingness’ of an object that best suited our needs in a particular

environment. Grosz see’s this process as a distillation of what is important about an object.

She notes, “Our perception carves up the world and divides it into things…perception,

intellect, cognition, and action reduce and refine the object, highlighting and isolating that

which is of interest or potential relevance to out future action.” (Grosz, 2009: 128) The

‘thingness’ of the puppet is highlighted because of the expectation of the audience that

their ‘thingness’ is of importance; that potential, in this context, is extended to all objects.

After facing the challenges of the puppetry devising process of #WATERLOOBRIDGE, I

wanted to understand what I could do to push and develop the puppetry in future projects.

The phenomenon of ‘thingness’ is not the ‘life’ of a puppet, and ‘puppet-ness’ does not

necessarily equal ‘thingness’. However, ‘thingness’ can act as an offer, through materiality

and provocation, that puppeteers can choose to invest in. Nevertheless, there is the threat

that an object can loose its ‘thingness’ through being puppeteered and given a

representative ‘life’. Risatti argues that art objects, (he does not refer to puppetry

specifically but does so to sculpture) cannot have ‘thingness’ because it is concerned with

human representation and communication, and relies on signs rather than on function

which he suggests is where ‘thingness’ lies. (Risatti, 2007). We have to accept that the

function of the material of the puppet, for example polystyrene (See Fig. 1), is not the

function of the puppet; polystyrene protects, puppets communicate. However to ignore an

object’s ‘thingness’ when it is puppeteered is to ignore the “oscillation” between the

representation and object that Banzhaf proposed above.

I propose that, instead of harnessing ‘thingness’ we should develop an awareness that

informs the decisions made in puppetry and the relationship between puppet/object,

puppeteer and audience. I would like to be aware of the drive to find and make provoked

by ‘thingness’ and will consider incorporating that into my devising process to discover new

qualities of the object of the puppet that can be use. I also need to be aware of the

unconscious attraction to ‘thingness’ heightened by the audience’s expectation of a

puppetry show; either to ensure it is not distracting, or to successfully utilise them, even

through malfunction. By understanding ‘thingness’, we can create a reality for the audience

that only exists in the context and environment of the performance.If we understand

Grosz’s proposition on how we perceive ‘thingness’ and why we are attracted to it, we can

help facilitate a imagined performative reality; a real that has been found and made

through the collective engagement with the puppet.

 

Endnotes

1Heidegger utilises linguistics to analyse ‘thingness’ (Söderqvist and Bencard, 2010: 98) which he

demonstrates in his essay ‘The Thing’ (Heideggar, 2009) by dissecting the “essential character” (ibid., :118)

of a jug and the tendency for objects to also become verbs (a hammer hammers,  a refrigerator refrigerates ).

Brown meanwhile looks at the shifting nature of ‘thingness’, in regards to it’s social context, environment and

its relationship to the various conceptions of the subject. (Brown, 2011)

 

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Illustrations

Figure 1. Sampley, Rachel (2015)#WATERLOOBRIDGE, Second Showing [Photograph]

Figure 2. Carrack, Joni-Rae (2015) #WATERLOOBRIDGE, The Interim

Showing [Photograph]

Figure 3. Sampley, Rachel (2015) #WATERLOOBRIDGE Publicity Photo [Photograph]

Figure 4. Carrack, Joni-Rae (2015) #WATERLOOBRIDGE, - He’s the One… [Photograph]

Figure 5. Gokcek, Emine (2015) #WATERLOOBRIDGE - Upstairs Arts Theatre

[Screenshot]

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