Enlivening the uncanny : on existential mirrors and the anthropomorphic impulse in adult puppet theatre

2017-05-18T02:21:11Z (GMT) by Guy, Rachael Wenona
To watch puppet theatre is to watch performers bringing dead matter to life. An animated object can command and sustain the attention of an audience, and evoke as much delight, empathy and disquiet as if it possessed agency. As well as housing the apparent miracle of life in the inanimate, puppets also act as existential mirrors, reflecting back to us the precariousness of our own condition as living subjects. In order to understand the creative processes behind this phenomenon, I set out to examine how anthropomorphism conditions human perception to be receptive to imbuing the inanimate with life. Rather than examine the question within the context of contemporary puppet theatre, I chose instead to centre my research on my own practice as a visual artist and theatre maker, and examine the ideas, motivations and aesthetics that have shaped my work with puppets. The research investigation comprised two parts: making an adult puppet show entitled Hutch and writing a dissertation reflecting on the processes of research, analysis and performance experiments focused on anthropomorphism and its centrality to the effectiveness of puppetry. Hutch, a puppetry work for adults, is a 45-minute piece for solo performer, puppet, and live musician. It is a non-verbal work of visual theatre with semi-improvised music played in response to actions as they evolve and unfold on stage. It was performed as part of the inaugural Tarrengower PuppetFest and played in a disused goldmine known as Cannan's Tunnel in the Central Victorian town of Maldon in 2012. The performance piece served as a vehicle to test some of my central questions about the durability or fragility of the audience/performer/puppet relationship. The work played with the margins between animate and inanimate by consciously blurring the line between moments when the puppet lived or returned to being a lifeless object. It experimented also with ways in which the anthropomorphic impulse, which facilitates belief in the life of the puppet, could be employed or exploited in order to sustain or destroy the suspension of disbelief. The dissertation is adapted from a series of essays I wrote for a blog over the duration of my candidature as a way of chronicling and reflecting on the processes of researching the making of Hutch. The original essays have been largely expanded and reworked for the purpose of this dissertation. It consist of four chapters each exploring a key aspect of the investigation. Chapter one includes explores the questions central to my research, provides a provisional definition of puppetry as an inanimate object that comes to imitate life through the projected animation of a performers own body. Included also, is a short examination of my own practice of making and performing with puppets. Chapter two investigates the processes, ideas and methodology behind the making of the research performance Hutch. It describes the ways in which my initial ideas evolved and shifted within a collaborative framework and how the work itself came to be shaped by the physical and technical constraints imposed by the performance location. Chapter three examines the thoughts and associations that arose in the aftermath of making this work of puppet theatre. Included are reflections on audience responses and a self-critique of the successes and limitations of the work. Chapter four explores the personal and familial implications of puppets as existential metaphors. It examines the inevitability of anthropomorphism and the way it shapes not only our understanding of the world, but how it also defines what is creatively and intellectually manifested throughout our lives. In analysing the phenomenon of the suspension of disbelief, the differences in the positions of the artist as opposed to the spectator are acknowledged, along with the responsibility entrusted to the artist who invites an audience to witness the illusion of life through puppetry. Underpinning the notion of puppets as mimetic objects, mirroring our human predicament is the awareness or denial of mortality and the way in which objects, acts of theatre or interpersonal communion affirm or defy our impermanence. Ultimately I have acknowledged and investigated the subtle and elusive nature of puppets and their effects upon maker, performer and audience.