Viva La Evolucion!
by Andrew C. Periale
Anyone who has been watching the lineup of shows on Broadway over the past few years, or has taken a gander at preprandial Public TV, has seen an explosion in the use of puppetry- to educate, inspire, and enchant audiences of all ages. Traditions and genres within the world of puppetry, though, are a little bit like the families and genera of the Animal Kingdom: each "species" is distinct, and they come and go over time based on their response to the forces around them adapting, evolving, flourishing, or simply disappearing into the shifting sands of time.
There are many forces at work on puppetry economics, political oppression, religious prohibition, changing tastes, changing technology. In order to withstand these forces, a puppet company must be adaptable, resilient and flexible. Some strengths can also be liabilities- a company dependent on the vision of a single artist, no matter how charismatic the individual, is unlikely to survive a sudden loss of leadership. Other theatres or entire genres once so woven into the fabric of a society that their survival was taken for granted, have been wiped out by the unlucky confluence of several large events.
This is what happened to the dinosaurs a changing climate and the evolution of new furbearing species (coupled with the impact of a largeish meteorite) and Tyrannosaurus Rex was Tyrannosaurus "Ex." I would love to have seen a real live dinosaur. It is one of my few disappointments at having been born into the modern era. (The Jim Henson Company made some dinosaur puppets for "The Flintstones," but by the time "Jurassic Park" rolled around, CGI technology had already made those creatures extinct! A case in point.) Scientists tell us, though, that to see a dinosaur, we need look no further than our own birdfeeders. My little chickadee may not look much like a pterodactyl, but the dinosaur lives on in her blood, her bones, her victory over gravity. And in those squishy puppets who live on "Avenue Q," or in the dazzling dexterity of Ronnie Burkett's marionettery are the bones of our ancestors the fertility puppets, the leather shadows, the god masks.
These then are the questions which so many puppeteers have asked themselves: To evolve, or not to evolve? To eke out a living on society's margins, or flourish in its great halls of culture? To adapt to current tastes (or other external forces), or simply throw in the towel? There are countless variations possible, depending on the time and place in which the options are being considered. Puppeteers who avoid the question, though, do so at their peril, leaving some conniving Claudius or vengeful Laertes to answer for them:
"Not to be!"
In this issue, then, we look at the ways in which puppeteers and puppet theatres respond to the forces around them struggling like protozoans on a petri dish in order to survive and (quite literally) preserve their culture. Our struggle as artists is not merely to move good DNA into the next generation, but to preserve our cultural identity, to enrich both the intellectual and emotional lives of our public, to be the "keepers of the lore" and tell a few good jokes along the way, in short, we must "take arms against a sea of troubles" and let the chips fall where they may.
Some of the most regrettable losses seem to come from third world countries with unstable governments, and cultures which are moving almost overnight from water buffalo and elephants to satellite phones and highspeed modems. Puppet companies which were virtually unknown to the outside world have vanished with scarcely a trace. In other places, longstanding theatre traditions which were on the verge of extinction have returned to good health, and we have many examples of these in this issue: Chinese shadow puppetry, Italy's Opera dei Pupi and Pulcinella, and a glove puppet theater from Kerala, India. Wayang Arja is a Balinese form combining opera and shadow puppetry. A mere decade after its debut in 1976, it seemed to be breathing its last until a student took it on as a project and, after a little "genetic engineering" to make it more engaging and less strenuous, it seems to be recovering nicely.
The Soviet Union is now a lost world, and its many state sponsored puppet theaters- giant behemoths which once ruled that part of the earth are much diminished. The new theatres there have had to adapt to changing conditions, and they compete with the new species like Kung Fu movies and Rock and Roll in order to find their niche. St. Petersburg's Puppet House Theatre is one such oasis where a handful of artists does everything needed to make wonderful theatre.
Finally, Stephen Carter brings Gustave Flaubert's Temptation of St. Anthony out of obscurity and translates one of the old fairground texts which inspired it .
Would I love to have seen those old Sovietstyle puppet
theatres? You bet! I would love to have seen a Brontosaurus, too. When I am tempted to mourn such losses, though, I have only to look around to remember that they live on in all the brightly feathered beauty which surrounds me.