Where does your mind go when you read the word “puppet”? You're probably thinking of Kermit the Frog, or Pinocchio, or maybe that crusty old shark-faced oven mitt you used to play with while Mom fixed dinner. It's tough to say why, but for the average American, puppetry is securely snuggled in the realm of kiddie entertainment. And that's a sad reality for an art form whose origins are far nobler than story time at the local library.Almost every culture worldwide has a form of puppetry in its artistic history, including millennia-old Javanese shamanic traditions of shadow puppetry, pre-Renaissance marionettes in the Czech Republic, bunraku puppet theatre from 17th-century Japan and Punch & Judy in late-18th-century Britain. Pre-literate Christians used puppets to perform morality plays based on Bible stories; more recently, Eastern European countries oppressed by communism turned to puppetry to spread subversive messages under the guise of harmless entertainment.Unlike its close cousin, animation, contemporary puppetry hasn't quite found its hook with adult audiences, though you've probably gleefully consumed some grown-up puppetry lately without even realizing it. If you saw Avenue Q (the Tony Award-winning musical), still like to watch Labyrinth or have ever shared a laugh with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, you've caught a glimpse of the potential power of puppetry.While Europe apparently has a thriving population of experimental adult puppetry artists, San Diego's puppet scene is largely youth-oriented. But the local folks pulling the strings have plenty of puppets up their sleeves just waiting to entertain and educate adult audiences—you just have to be willing to watch.Creating Goldilocks: The Nursing Home Version was a bittersweet endeavor for Lynne Jennings. After being witness to elder abuse, Jennings—she of the artfully employed stage whisper and lover of the word “magical”—promised her dying mother she'd find a way to make something both positive and humorous of her final days in a nursing home. The show was indeed funny—it's not every day one sees a naked octogenarian puppet drinking from a bedpan—but was also equally dark. Grandma-puppet gets tricked into signing her own Do Not Resuscitate order and is suffocated by the Evil Nurse. Evil Nurse gets her comeuppance in the end, of course, but only after she strips all the elderly residents of The Woods of most of their valuables—and their last shreds of dignity.Goldie, as Jennings refers to it, featured hand-carved tabletop foam puppets, shadow puppets and stop-motion animation. Full of action but sparse on dialogue, the plot was moved along by a singing narrator and animated Scrabble tiles on a screen above the stage that rearranged themselves to spell out characters' sentiments. When it comes to live theatre—as opposed to televised puppetry like the Muppets, for instance—Jennings firmly believes puppets function better in silence.“The shorter your speeches, the more you can get with a turn of the head, a hunch of a shoulder, a very short gesture,” she says. “The more words you put in, the more static the puppet gets. Why even use a puppet? Why not use a live actor?”Chair of the board for the nonprofit San Diego Guild of Puppetry, finding the time and resources to produce an adult show was a major undertaking for Jennings. Most of her energy is spent making sure the guild gets enough grant money to stay afloat; the money, however, is intended for educational outreach programs and arts curricula in local schools.Though she's nothing short of exuberant when she speaks of the work the guild does at Elisabeth Freese Elementary School in East County, she still has dreams of bringing the local puppet scene to a level that's more adult-inclusive.She speaks of the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Ga., with awe. A thriving puppet company with a multi-million-dollar budget, their “magical” facility houses workshops, a museum and a hefty rotation of puppet performances for children, teens and adults.“Any good puppet piece takes, for a simple piece, a good four to six months if you want to have something that's really professional,” Jennings says. “And that's full-time occupation. You really have to work on it, and you're not getting paid any of that time. So we don't do as much of that as we'd like to.”She rises momentarily to retrieve her coffee from the microwave. Settling back into her chair, she describes the elements of puppetry that enchant her the most.Not only can puppets get away with things that people can't, she says, but they enable people to step completely outside of themselves without becoming vulnerable.“Anyone of any size, of any age, of any color, of any creed can play any part if they want to, and that's something you can't do in regular live theater,” Jennings says. “It gives everybody that wants to a chance to do almost anything.“Am I addicted to puppetry?” Jennings asks herself. “Yeah!” she laughs. “Sorry about that.”Solitude suits Dori Smith. She tinkers alone in her garage workshop, accompanied only by a radio playing soft classical music, precision power tools and boxes overflowing with disembodied puppet parts. “Age and Treachery Will Triumph Over Youth and Skill,” proclaims a faded piece of paper taped to the wall. It seems a rather wicked affirmation for a talented craftswoman.Smith tends toward the reclusive; the art form seems to appeal to her because it allows for total independence and a degree of invisibility.“When you start to operate a puppet, people will forget you very quickly,” Smith says softly. “And that's what we always want. We want to disappear.”Though she's skilled at carving puppet bodies from wood and sculpting heads with clay and latex, she has a keen eye for spotting ordinary objects that can bring a puppet extra life.She points out how the delicate metal of an umbrella skeleton is an ideal ready-made elbow or knee joint. Though she's clearly skilled at construction, she's always on the lookout for the next household item she can transform to give her puppets a new range of motion or expression.“When you see this, you buy it,” she says, holding up fistful of umbrella joints. “Then it's in your mind that these things exist, and then the ideas you have will be different from someone who never saw that and never thought about that.”Smith, who has worked as a Spanish/English interpreter and a computer programmer, has spent the last decade making a living from performing her marionette circus—a brilliantly colored, beautifully sculpted carnival of human and animal puppets.For Smith, like Jennings, the show is all about movement. The puppet itself—an exquisitely crafted one—is only the beginning.“People take in a puppet very quickly,” Smith says. “This puppet that took you weeks to make, in about five seconds they've got it. So what is it going to do?”
Gladys, the puppet she's working on today, is being designed to perform a function that's a total departure from Smith's work up until this point.
A tabletop puppet operated by rods instead of strings, Gladys is the first puppet in a cast of characters that Smith will take to do human-resources training for local corporations. The puppet has an enormous knobby nose, a toothy grin, a matronly bosom and long red fingernails. Her hair is fashioned from plastic kitchen scrubbies, her body carved from wood, and she's able to stand upright independently—a major accomplishment for Smith.“To me it's rather exciting just to see her standing there, to know that she can walk,” Smith says, demonstrating the little wheeled mechanism she devised that enables Gladys' legs to move on their own. “It's something I've been wanting to do for ages.”
Since Gladys' mouth is static, dialogue will be only a small piece of the presentation. Smith will listen to 80 or 100 pieces of music before she chooses the one that best fits the mood of a piece and she plans to make printed banners and signs the puppets can carry to help them express their feelings.
Still, creating a puppet show for an adult audience—especially in this particular context—comes with its own challenges. Children's imaginations are more nimble, Smith points out, and puppetry requires mental audience participation.
“You have to bring part of yourselves to puppetry, because you are the one that's bringing that puppet to life,” says Smith. “You think it's the puppeteer, but if you don't have the capacity, it's not going to mean anything to you.”A shy but headstrong woman who hasn't owned a television since 1977 and lives alone with four rabbits and a cat, Smith has a fittingly pessimistic take on mainstream entertainment.
“A lot of people aren't able to stop long enough—they're moving so fast that something has to be extremely already pre-digested,” she says quietly. “So it's not just the way that they see puppetry. I don't know if they see anything.” Her cynicism notwithstanding, it seems her faith in her craft is enough for her to keep on creating.
“That's what the arts do,” Smith says. “Even though they're puppets, the paradox is that puppets may help you get in touch with your own humanity.”
Max Daily scampers around his backyard, stirring a tub of papier-mâché mixture with a golf club and applying it to a series of druid masks strung from a clothesline. He's busy putting together his next puppet show, though it bears the least resemblance to what most people conceive of as puppetry.
Daily's puppets—tiny paper cutouts pasted onto sticks, an old-fashioned form of puppetry known as toy theatre—will be only one element in the performance-art/noise show he's staging Oct. 25 in the woods behind the Che Café on the UCSD campus. The paper druid puppets will come to life, he explains, and live actors wearing masks will sneak up behind the audience, then capture Daily and cut off his head.
For Daily, the arc of the story takes precedent over the tools he'll use to tell it. “That's what I am, a storyteller,” he says. “It just happens that puppets are easy to deal with.”
Much easier to deal with than, say, other people.
“That might be why people do puppets,” Daily muses as he stirs brown sugar and soymilk into a fresh cup of tea, “'cause you're controlling everything.”
When he's not working as one of the nearly identical mustachioed doormen at the Starlite Lounge, Daily makes a living—surprise!—staging puppet shows for children at the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater in Balboa Park.
A recent Saturday matinée found Daily dashing around the stage at the children's theater, nary a marionette or hand puppet in sight, setting up elaborate toy theater sets and knocking them down again just as quickly. The children were captivated by his flea circus—a miniature circus set he manipulates with strings to make it look like the (invisible) fleas are actually performing—but their parents seemed even more entertained by the sheer absurdity of it all.
Many of the festivals Daily's been to in Europe, he says, feature mostly experimental puppet theater, and he hopes his shows might help broaden people's understanding of what puppetry can be.
“You should call [my show] a puppet show,” Daily says, “Even though it's not what you're expecting. It's more like for people to see that there's something different. It doesn't have to be the same.”
As excited as he seems to be about expanding the boundaries of contemporary puppetry, he can be equally dismissive about it in the same breath.
“If it was just the puppet show, it would be really boring to me, and I think to people, too,” Daily says. “I'm not thinking about puppets all the time. My whole goal right now is to sail around the world. I think [a sailboat] is like a giant marionette.”
Entering Iain Gunn and Bridget Rountree's University Heights bungalow is like passing through a curtain and going backstage at a carnival of the absurd. Theirs is a lair where puppets dangle in nooks and crannies, the vacuum cleaner wears a baseball cap and the giant ape head lolling on a workbench in the backyard doesn't at all seem out of place.The ambiance is fitting considering that the couple shares a combined background in photography, painting, printmaking, sculpting, drawing, gymnastics, stilt walking and fire dancing. Over time, however, they discovered that puppetry was an optimal way to combine their passions for fine art, movement and performance.
“Puppetry is just this magical mix, really, of everything,” says Rountree. “When you're doing puppetry, you're writing scripts, you're sculpting, you're making costumes, you're doing lighting, you're directing—it can be highly physical. It's the ultimate.”
They perch around their dining-room table, amicably debating the finer points of their craft and alternately springing out of their chairs to fetch puppets they picked up during this summer's cross-country tour of puppet festivals. But most people outside the festival circuit, Rountree acknowledges, have a hard time with the concept of adult puppetry.“When you say ‘adult puppet show,' the first thing people say is, ‘Oh, you're going to do some kind of strip thing with puppets,'” she says. “Like it's either dirty or for kids. Come on! There's so much more to it than that.”
That may be the case, but their need for food and clothing requires them to spend more time working in children's theater than pushing the envelope for adults. But their imaginations, of course, span far beyond the realm of performing The Ugly Duckling in elementary-school cafeterias.
Gunn also specializes in crafting giant puppets, a skill he honed during a residency at Bread & Puppet, a radical puppet theater company in Vermont. Giant puppets, explains Gunn, have traditionally played a big role in protests and activist circles: picture enormous effigies of political figures carried by teams of protesters. He's particularly excited about the idea of “giant puppets in the streets marching to take the power back” but explains that they've become a lot less common in the years since 9/11. The long, thick poles required to operate the giant puppets are now regarded as weapons, he explains, and are banned from most organized protests and campus rallies.
Still, his penchant for puppetry—both giant and otherwise—is fueled by his belief that it has the potential to do more than entertain.
“I like to make characters that instill joy in people, because I don't think we have enough of that in this world,” says Gunn. “Mostly the stories we tell are about desires for peace, for love, for understanding, for compassion.”
He pauses to give movement-based puppetry it's due, describing how a puppeteer from one of the summer festivals created magnificent marionettes of both a woman breastfeeding a child and a butterfly landing on a horse's tail. The audience was awestruck and transformed, he says, by the man's display of avocation, tenderness and attention to detail.
In that case, “you're capturing and freezing something, or distilling it down to its essence,” he says. “That's not exactly our style; we're more the Punch & Judy style. We practically want to hit people over the heads.”
That's the cool thing about puppets, says Rountree—they can get away with saying and doing so many things that real people can't.
“It just creates this little opening that I think is amazing,” she says. “I mean, that's what you're hoping for—to actually change the way people think.”