Thursday, January 15, 2015
Puppetry Week: #4 Sometimes it's just a puppet
You can, of course, think about this stuff too much.
I was reading Kenneth Gross' artful critique Puppet (University of Chicago Press: 2011) and as much as I admired his turns of phrase, the "fundamental strangeness" of puppets, their air of "something very old and very early," as I neared the end of the book, I felt he had sort of missed the point. A writer, of course, is entitled to define his subject, and if you want to wax poetic about puppets by giving far more attention to Russian puppeteer Sergei Obraztsov than you do the Muppets, so be it.
But just as, at some point in your exegesis on chocolate cake, even the most scrupulous scholar should admit it simply tastes good, so one shouldn't unspool a puppetry week—or a book about puppets—without a nod to their essential goofiness, their inherent sweetness, so that even under glass, with no animating hand, like my pal Kukla above, with his dark tomato nose, cherry cheeks and matching gown, well, he's funny. You shouldn't speak of the "wild, monomaniacal appetite of the Cookie Monster," as Gross does, without at least whispering that he was a riot to watch. Otherwise, it seems a willful obfuscation. No matter how sophisticated your analysis of the social-mechanical dynamics of schoolyard play, it's still hopscotch.
Puppets are also commercial. As sweet as Kukla and Ollie were (Fran, being human, we'll leave out, for now) as manipulated by Burr Tillstrom, they were also designed to get kids to pester their parents to buy television sets, and they worked enormously well.
While puppetry can be accomplished with enormous skill, as those attending the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival will no doubt discover, puppets can also push product, do the heavy lifting and cover for a lack of talent on the part of the puppeteer. I'm thinking of the Puppet Bike, a crude moveable stage spied around town where basically threadbare hand puppets bop to recorded music. That's it. Their central skill is dancing with each other and encouraging children to get money from their parents and stick it in a slot. My buddy Mark Konkol caught up with the Puppet Bike's inventor a few years back, describing the project as "a way to help an out-of-work friend make a few bucks."
No shame there. Not everyone can be artists, and more puppets are adjuncts to beggary than cultural touchstones. Somehow, I thought perhaps local puppet acts would be buffing their shoe button eyes, practicing their best stuff and attempting to shine in the festival, looking for their big break, puppetwise.That is the romantic in me. The truth is, it's a hard world out there, and if putting a sock on your hand makes the passerby stop and maybe fish for a stray buck, well, that's what you do.