by Andrew C. Periale
I was in the Theater program at the University of Maine back in the early 1970s. Al Cyrus designed all the sets for mainstage productions back then. As an aspiring actor, I presumed that a designer's work was a mix of stylistic and practical considerations:
"We need a door here…an eighteenth century Colonial door," or "This is an abstract set, we'll just use a door frame…and some black cubes!"
Al also taught all the classes in Stage Lighting, Make Up, Set Design and Construction. In his Design class he'd start out by showing us lots of examples. "Look at this," he'd say, showing us the floor plan and elevation drawings for a set. After an attempt at analysis on our parts, he'd continue. "No, really look. This play is all about watching. The characters are always observing, or being observed by others. The design calls for mirrored panels here, here and here so that characters can see each other without being seen. Three mirrors, which correspond to the three main characters…" and so on. Light bulb! Eureka! A set, I understood in that moment, is not just an actor's rumpus room. It is the playwright's intent expressed entirely in physical terms. My Earth moved. My paradigm shifted.
Around that time we were visited by Al's mentor, Henry Kurth. Then at Case-Western Reserve, he had also worked with Martha Graham, Paul Taylor and Isamu Naguchi. As we pored over his gorgeous renderings on greyboard, I heard someone say: "[Kurth] doesn't design sets, he designs space."
When we proposed a "Puppets in Space" issue, these are the questions we were hoping to answer: What are the spaces in which puppets play, who designs them and what are their guiding principles? I imagined traditional playing spaces as no more than a footnote to contemporary "designed spaces." Articles began arriving that quickly stretched my notion of "Space." For one thing, the Punch booth and shadow screen are still very much with us, both in their original forms and in countless modern mutations. To this is added cinematic space, implied space, virtual space and even literary space.
There are also buildings designed for puppet performances, including Scotland's Biggar Theatre [page 18], and The Puppet Company's new theater at Glen Echo [page 20]. Brad Clark considers two very different institutions where puppeteers perform in view of the audience—Japan's regional ningyō jōruri theaters [page 22], and Atlanta's Center for Puppetry Arts, in a recent production of Anne Frank: Within and Without [page 32].
Even our book reviews can be thought of in terms of design and space. Marc Estrin and Ron Simone have produced a book about Bread and Puppet —a company that typically fills enormous "found spaces" with its gigantic puppets. Rainer Reusch's new volume on Shadow puppetry, the third in a series, is an excellent look at how a traditional playing space has been thoroughly and repeatedly re-imagined in modern times.
Puppeteers are a creative lot. You cannot go to a puppet festival without seeing a show set in a new space—a shoebox, a washing machine, a parachute. As we consider "Puppets in Space," though, let's remember not only our innovators, but our mentors—those men and women who once sat down with young actors, and puppeteers, and said: "No, really look."