Playing with Dolls in the West Bank

 Photos and text by Clare Dolan

I am a puppeteer, but I also work as a nurse in the intensive care unit of the small regional hospital that serves my corner of northeastern rural Vermont. I know that there’s a generally accepted belief among many of my art-making colleagues about the power of art to shape culture, and culture to catalyze political change–the kind of change that “saves lives”– but as a nurse I have developed a practical understanding of what kinds of things save lives, and this makes me skeptical of assertions about the importance of art to the nuts-and-bolts survival of the human race. I find I am continually needing to convince and re-convince myself of the potency of art making and puppetry against the crushing mechanisms of political power. For me, making things, particularly ethereal things like performance, and foolish things like puppet shows, feels intimate and personal – a way of thinking through a problem or communicating a feeling or reacting to a circumstance that I encounter – rather than a practical tool for real social change.


But as a veteran of the Bread & Puppet Theater, having spent the better part of my 20’s and 30’s performing with the company in political street parades, demonstrations, politically-themed pageants, circuses and puppet shows, I am often asked about the relationship between art and activism, the role of puppet theater in the struggle for social justice. “Why bread?” “Why political theater?” “Why puppets?” are the all too familiar questions asked by many a journalist, eager young theater student, not-quite-convinced activist, or friend of a friend’s mother. Why indeed. What can a puppet show do for a cause? What does a papier mâché tiger or horse, a giant washer woman, or a fabric boat have to do with the hard work of fighting an unjust law, unmasking a racist institution, exposing a corrupt legal system, or dismantling a misinformed, ignorant set of beliefs? How do objects speak to people, and how can interaction with this certain kind of object – a puppet - alter human experience and create change? Over the years I have been forced to think into and around these questions again and again, but nowhere has the relevance of the serious and not-so-serious art of puppetry to real problems of social justice so thoroughly come under scrutiny than the times I have been involved in puppetry projects in the West Bank.

I’ve worked in Palestine three times in the past 11 years, each time as a representative of the Bread & Puppet Theater, each time with my B & P colleague, Genevieve Yeuillaz, a French actress who lives in Paris, but who has had a long and deep working relationship with Bread & Puppet since 1976.  The first time we worked together in Palestine, in 2007, we were assisting Bread & Puppet Founder and Director Peter Schumann, who had been invited by Ramallah’s Ashtar Theater for Training and Performance to build and direct an original outdoor puppet show with Ashtar’s company of actors and theater artists. The second time, in 2009, we returned alone, to build puppets and create a parade with arts academy students for the Festival of Arab Culture taking place in Jerusalem and Ramallah. In 2014 we returned again, to work in Beit Sahour in collaboration with the activist group Combatants for Peace, to build puppets for use in demonstrations and create a parade/street action in a town near the separation wall.

The West Bank is, obviously, a complicated place, and the first time we went there so many basic things took time to understand – the strange web of restricted highways surrounded by high concrete walls and chain link fences twisting between settlements and cities, on which only people with certain IDs are allowed to drive; the network of small roads and byways that snake under and around these highways that the rest of the population must use; the checkpoints that turn what should be a fifteen minute drive into a half day commute; the featureless cement separation wall, winding its way across the landscape, slicing towns in half and cleaving farmers from their fields; the exigencies of a state in which a man could wave to his brother’s family living in the apartment building within sight across the street on the opposite side of the Wall, but could not walk across the way to meet and hold his new nephew. I was struck by the contrasts: olive groves and garbage dumps, the empty, dusty hills in the distance against the construction cranes everywhere in Ramallah, breaking up the sky. Gradually these “contrasts” resolved themselves more clearly as symptoms of a fractured, multi-layered reality – different sets of rules and probabilities applying to different sets of people in the same space, every street, every building, every field, each rocky hill containing within itself multiple names and multiple meanings and histories. How to navigate creative collaborations in this situation? Luckily in each of our workshops the obvious way to get started was to build puppets together.

The hands-in-the-dirt task of working with materials rather than words, proves to be one of the most useful gifts that puppetry has to offer. Our 2014 Beit Sahour workshop/collaboration involved about twenty Palestinian and Israeli men and women, from the activist group Combatants for Peace. They had lots of previous experience working together planning political actions and demonstrations using a painstaking, thorough discussion process to work through their differences and form consensus. Initial discussion sessions in our workshop were formal, respectful and tight-lipped. However once we agreed on a list of puppets we wanted to create and began the rough-and-tumble activity of making things, a new kind of breathing room opened up between all of us. To be sure, conversation (and inevitably arguments) continued over the pots of papier mâché paste, but together our bodies were engaged in the shared activity of building something new. Ultimately the thrill of that engagement allowed for exchange on a different level, which became clear in many small ways. For example, during initial discussions there were men in the group who objected to the proposal made by one woman to build a bunch of larger-than-life Palestinian Women puppets. For some of the men, representing women in particular didn’t have anything to do with the overall struggle for Palestinian human rights or for a lasting peace. They just didn’t see the point. However, by the end of the week, one of the strongest objectors ended up totally absorbed in painting and decorating one of these puppets, collaborating with the same woman he had argued with earlier, both of them erupting in shouts and applause when they attached their finished puppet to its 14 foot pole and lifted it aloft for the first time. This speaks to the empowering property of materials – making something together out of nothing as a fundamental experience of agency and collective action.  In our 2009 workshop, the Arts Academy students in Ramallah created their own version of the Mediterranean Sea, which they could see from the city but never reach because they lacked the permissions to pass through Israel to get there.  Like any people their age, they dreamed of being able to enjoy a simple day at the beach and they literally built their dreams – cardboard waves, papier mâché fish, boats, the sun – turning desire and longing for change into something concrete, visible, public and “real.”

ramallah workshop.jpg

But making things visible is a tricky business. At Bread & Puppet (and in all puppetry I would argue) we tend to use metaphor; instead of recreating realistic documentary-style depictions of a thing, we tend to let things stand in for other things – a giant foot crushing a house rather than a bulldozer, a cardboard cut-out painted to look like a business suit-wearing bureaucrat flying through the air, rather than a puppet that looks just like a real B-52 bomber. The unexpected metaphorical object enters our brains via different pathways, and in some situations can move us more than the expected mimicry of real life is able to do. But under certain circumstances it becomes clear that metaphor – or even a puppet pageant itself– is a luxury. On the last day of our Beit Sahour workshop, some of the older members of Combatants for Peace joined us. I watched them climbing out of the cars that had brought them, stupidly surprised as I noticed how many were missing body parts – one an eye, another a leg, a third had a twisted, crippled arm.  These men looked with great skepticism upon everything we had built. “Why don’t you make soldier puppets,” they asked, “and show them beating up 10-year-old boys? Why don’t you show what really happens? This way we are living is serious, not a situation for playing with dolls. What is the point of playing like this?”

Moments like these highlight some of the precariousness of being an outsider bringing a “skill” to share in a situation in which one has little or no first hand experience. No matter how carefully we tried to structure the work such that the participants “owned” the process and content of what we were making together, we still found it necessary to continually interrogate the questions what are we doing here?  and  what do we have to share? and why is this helpful?  Cultural differences also complicate the mix. For example in a culture in which the role of women and feminism looks very different from ours, what is the best way to explain that I do know how to use a power tool after it has been preemptively taken out of my hand by a male member of the group, or how do I demonstrate something about giant puppet construction to a group of men who are uncomfortable with a woman in the role of master builder? But these difficulties are so much more easily navigated than the more complex issues contained in the larger question of why use puppets in the first place. “Playing with dolls” becomes hard to explain indeed when I come face to face with the very real daily tragedies of the occupation, as a person living in the safety and ease of life in the richest country in the world. I return to this question again and again.

On the other hand, in a context where the imagery repeatedly replayed in the media is already owned and exploited by both sides of the conflict, some other kind of imagery seems desperately needed. The power of poetic intervention became clear early one morning when Genevieve and I went with members of the Combatants for Peace group to one of the weekly demonstrations in Al Masra. We walked with the small group of Palestinian, Israeli and foreign activists up the hill to the place where a line of young Israeli soldiers stood waiting for us. Week after week this encounter took place, the Palestinians with their flags and megaphones, the Israeli soldiers with their flag and their guns, facing off in the expected manner. One of the leaders of the demonstration began yelling through a megaphone at the soldiers, who stared past him into the distance with vacant, television-watching expressions. This went on for about half an hour. A soft drizzle started falling out of the grey sky. Suddenly, from behind we heard a confusing, arrhythmic clattering, and the clanging of small bells. Coming up the hill was a jumble of sheep, moving quickly with the hungry certainty of animals on their way to a customary pasture. They easily cut through the small crowd of demonstrators who fell back to make way for them, and they did not slow down as they approached the line of soldiers. The startled soldiers parted to make way for the sheep and closed ranks seamlessly again after the animals had passed through. And in that moment there was a pause in business as usual, an acknowledgement of the animal reality that for a second took precedence over the “stuckness” of the human moment. We all became unstuck. There was a second of almost-laughter on both sides, and then quickly the faces closed again, the drone of the megaphone resumed, the demonstration carried on. The moment was remarkable for what it afforded: a disruption of the fixed positions, a startled recognition of living and breathing life outside of the rigid confines of fixed power relations.

This, I would answer to the war-weary Combatants For Peace members (and also to my doubting self) is exactly what playing with dolls can also do. And as it turned out in Beit Sahour, the “dolls” managed to speak for themselves. After some persuasion the older members of the group joined our workshop team as we took our creations on a small “practice parade” down the road towards the next town. A giant fabric boat with an olive tree sail led the parade, followed by giant women figures dancing to the singing of their operators. Kids and grown ups in wings and bird masks “flew” in circles around a big line of people carrying pieces of our cardboard version of the separation wall. Giant white birds on tall sticks swooped and dove behind them. Across the valley from the ridge on which we traveled was another hillside clustered with buildings and some small streets – a neighboring village. As we moved down our road people began coming out of the buildings in that town across the way and watching us.

ramallah 2.jpg

“Look, they see us!” members of our group started shouting to each other. “Let’s do our show!” Suddenly there was great surge of energy, even the older skeptical men were pointing excitedly over to the spectating village, impressed as more and more viewers amassed on the hillside. Our impromptu audience whistled and waved and shouted to us. The power of puppets to capture attention, draw a crowd, and excite a response in the viewers became very clear to everyone in that moment. Participants experienced firsthand the particular powerful elixir of being seen.

Being seen is something disempowered people so often do not get to enjoy. In the context of a street demonstration or parade, puppets afford a way of being seen that is transformative. The experience of attending a rally or standing and listening to speeches feels almost passive next to the experience of manipulating an object (a puppet), telling a story with that puppet, employing a kind of powerful visual “speech” of one’s own. The body is utterly engaged in the often strenuous activity of moving or dancing with an outsized papier mâché sculpture. Spectators take notice. This is a different kind of action, a powerful way of being seen.

And putting on the disguise of a puppet also allows the wearer to enjoy the benefits of temporarily getting to be what one is not. Academy students in our 2009 workshop enjoyed playing the parts of sea-side swimmers and fisherman – which they were never able to be in real life – and 2014 workshop participants loved “becoming” the giant birds who could fly over the separation wall.  But the pleasure of shape-shifting like this isn’t only about simple indulgence in fantasy. Even more than swimmers and birds, participants wanted to operate the puppets that represented the objects that they struggled with most in real life. In 2009 the academy students created stiff cardboard costumes that looked like individual cards in a deck, and gave them spears and helmets. A particular group became devoted to these puppets and devised elaborate clown-like choreographies for these characters to perform, transforming the endless bureaucratic oppressions of the checkpoint authorities into ridiculous dances. They threw themselves into their performance, repeating their dances throughout the long parade, getting giddy and collapsing in laughter by the end – drunk, maybe, on the feeling of untying the knot of state power again and again with their bodies. In 2014, the relationship of the puppeteers to the flat cardboard puppets representing the drab separation wall was similar. Each held a piece of the wall and they moved in a long chain, blocking stretches of the street, surrounding and then releasing other puppets in the parade, arranging themselves across from the watching soldiers lining the route of the march. In unison they flipped over their cardboard “wall” to reveal a painting of wide open, unencumbered landscape. In later demonstrations they dispensed with the landscape, simply dropping the wall puppet to the ground and stepping on top of it. Being the wall is different from talking about it. Embodying the properties of this wall (to surround, to obscure, to bar passage) temporarily seemed to transfer its power, and the satisfaction of trampling it underfoot offered a quiet kind of catharsis. All this was possible because the puppet is a physical thing, with dimension and weight and movement. The “thingness” has its own energy.

The power of the object is apparent, too, in its impact on spectators – whether they are the soldiers or police assembled to contain the demonstration, or activists who have come to support the rally or passersby who happened to be there by chance. The sudden appearance of something utterly unexpected – a giant woman figure, a piece of the separation wall marching on human feet, short-circuits the status quo, creates a momentary slippage ­– What is this thing? How can it move like that? What is holding it up? What is it about to do? At the end of our first long street parade in 2014, one of the Israeli activists who had helped organize the workshop gleefully “flew” a giant white bird puppet out of the area we had delineated as the end of our parade, to a spot directly in front of a cluster of Israeli soldiers, inches from them. He simply flew the puppet up and down in place over their heads, laughing. They turned their faces towards the sky, watching the bird move with expressions of confusion. What is an Authority to do when faced with a puppet? Take it seriously? Not take it seriously? The wobbly place in between those two choices is where those soldiers had landed at that moment.

In fact the hard work of political puppetry seems to take place in what could also be described as a “wobbly place.”  The wobbliness makes for difficulty, but also possibility. Even as we interrogate our own positioning and struggle to relate our dolly waggling to abstract structures like Justice and Power, even as we are forced to figure and re-figure our participation in communities engaged in mourning, protest and celebration, the puppets themselves often declare the benefits of the shifting marginality of our practice. However, I also cannot escape the fact that in practical terms the situation in the West Bank and Gaza has only gotten worse since 2014. Israel’s Parliament recently enacted a “basic law” (something with the weight of a constitutional amendment), which omits any mention of democracy or the principle of equality and no longer includes Arabic as an “official language,” an incendiary piece of legislation officially codifying the position of the most hard-line ultranationalists. This May our President celebrated the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, recognizing the disputed city of Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel, in a move roundly condemned by the United Nations. This January the Israeli government gave final approval for 352 new homes in settlements in the West Bank, and advanced plans for 770 other new settlement homes. No amount of bird puppets or poetic parades or papier mâché has altered that.

But being mindful of these realities also doesn’t mean distrusting the truths and possibilities of papier mâché. To put it simply, building and wielding puppets in the West Bank in the name of social justice was a nuanced tangle of really really hard work. It brought to mind anthropologist Mick Taussig’s description of the concept of “assemblages”:

ways of connecting things in a nervously nervous nervous
system that keeps changing as you focus.
Wholes decompose and recompose along new lines.
Things connect and disconnect. It’s messy. It’s real-life,
wallowing in the thingness of things where subjective
objects meet with objective subjects

I can’t think of a better way to describe doing this work of political puppetry, particularly in the West Bank.  

Clare Dolan is a Painter, Director, and Performer of Cantastoria, Toy Theater, Outdoor Puppetry, and Stilt Dancing, while simultaneously living a secret double life as a nurse in her small Vermont town.  She’s a veteran of the Bread and Puppet Theater, and founder of The Museum of Everyday Life.