Friday, April 1, 2011

Jim Henson and I have the same birthday.

When I was little I most wanted to be Jim Henson, to play with all those fuzzy and warm Muppets who told jokes and never fought without humor and had fascinating guests come visit them, and who had plenty of colorful friends to sit next to in the theater.  What a great job, I thought as a college student, to be surrounded by all that soft, bright fabric, building puppets, imagining creative ways to blow up chickens, picking great songs for puppets to parody.  It must be fun to work with an entire group of creatives, and have spans of days where your biggest challenge is how best to flatteringly light a diva Piggy in a ball gown.

Later I wanted to use puppets for peace and things got more complicated.  I wanted lots of people involved, and they needed to be trained.  My puppets needed to say something, have a purpose.  I don't think my senior show had any intentionally funny moments.  I wanted my puppets to touch people, to reach across from their inanimate and symbolic state and infect the hearts of unsuspecting adults, to break those hearts with a surprising visual, something that resonated deeply, and shatter them.

I still want to build a giant ethereal turtle and float it gently, iridescently, over the heads an audience, to have all the adults feel small and blessed, like a tiny hopeful community.  I'm not interested in the hippies - they already get it - it's the folks who think they're too busy, who grew up without noticing, whose skull sutures are too tightly fused, that I most want to dazzle with colors and movement.

I saw a show in San Francisco once that was internationally renowned for some fool 'art' reason, in which the puppeteers waved bits of gauzy fabric around synchronistically in a glorified fish tank.  I thought it was crap, an hours-long, slightly-more-interesting-than-a-TV-test-pattern excuse for a puppet 'show', and I was embarrassed to have subjected my friends to it.  I felt tricked - puppets do not belong in the post-modern medium.  Puppets are supposed to convey some story, some shared bit of humanity, and those bits of fabric which moved like banners in the wind spoke for no one, said nothing, and meant nothing.

A few days later I saw a kids' show at a local library, and fell in love with a tiny caterpillar whose body was inched along via attachment to a clothespin - absolute genius.  In that inanimate object was a soul, a story, something to get attached to.  That show was free, and the puppeteer stayed to talk with the kids, and me, afterwards.

Claes Oldenburg said, "I am for an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent... I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself."  I find myself nodding vigorously in agreement.  What is puppetry that doesn't make us wonder and laugh at ourselves?  The beauty of puppetry is that it can embody that coarseness, bluntness, and sweet stupidity so clearly, that it can bring us face to face with our various essences, that it makes us laugh at ourselves.  Puppets are embodied object lessons, and puppeteers are messengers, seers, wise women and men.

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