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Unlike almost everywhere else in the world â€“ where puppets are embedded in religion, folk crafts, and high art â€“ America has long thought of puppetry only as a childrenâ€™s medium, relegated to sock puppets and kids television. Since the nineties, however, serious, adult puppetry has exploded in the United States. Although it still sits at the fringe, there has been a marked increase in press coverage of the puppet world and every year sees more high-profile productions featuring puppets. On Broadway, in the avant-garde, and even at the Metropolitan Opera, puppets are suddenly on the American mind.
Puppet consists of three main threads that are woven to bring viewers inside the world of New York and American puppetry. We see a verite presentation of a puppet show in development over two years, we take a look at the strange history of American puppetry, and we jump into the contentious debate surrounding puppetry which asks: are puppets more interesting than actors?
- Show treatment
Unlike almost everywhere else in the world â€“ where puppets are embedded in religion, folk crafts, and high art â€“ America has long thought of puppetry only as a childrenâ€™s medium, relegated to sock puppet shows and kids television. Since the nineties, however, serious, adult puppetry has exploded in the United States. Although it still sits at the fringe, there has been a marked increase in press coverage of the puppet world and every year sees more high-profile productions featuring puppets. On Broadway, in the avant-garde, and even at the Metropolitan Opera, puppets are suddenly on the American mind.
Recent articles (attached) include:
-â€œLifelike: Puppets in New York,â€ Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, March 23, 2009.
-â€œPuppet Plays Hit Off Broadway,â€ Sam Thielman, Variety, November 14, 2008.
-â€œThe Emerging Puppet Renaissance,â€ Franke Episale, PAJ: A Journal of Performing Art, May, 2007.
This â€˜puppet renaissanceâ€™ suggests a key question for the film: Why was puppetry first marginalized in America, and what does it mean that weâ€™ve returned to this ancient form? Some have argued that the explosion of puppetry is part of a larger reaction against technology and digitization. As puppeteer in the film puts it, â€œCan you take apart your iPod and fix it? Of course not. But you can fix your bicycle.â€ In other words, puppetry symbolizes a yearning for mechanical, analog, basic interactions with the world. Others have suggested the disappearance of puppetry in the West was in line with the ascendance of realism, and thus the reemergence of puppetry signals a decline in realism. Is it possible that puppetry is a symptom of a culture-wide backlash against these pillars of the modern era?
This new form of puppetry is distinctly American: it is a composite of disparate international forms, reinvented through the lens of self-education, irreverence and entrepreneurship. The styles of Indonesian shadow puppetry are paired gleefully in the same show with European marionette and Japanese bunraku, creating a dynamic community of diverse New York artists, sharing styles and techniques. At the same time, there is almost no funding for this kind of work, and the puppet scene has begun to thrive in spite of, as Joan Acocella (The New Yorker) puts it the film, â€œthe rough and cruel economy of American art.â€
PUPPET consists of three main threads that are woven to bring viewers inside the world of New York and American puppetry. We see a verite presentation of a puppet show in development over two years, we take a look at the strange history of American puppetry, and we jump into contentious debate which asks: are puppets just a random trend, or could they possibly be more interesting than actors? The three threads illuminate and contextualize one other as the film uses points of overlap to switch between them.
Dan Hurlin, a New York puppet artist, has spent his career making experimental theater for small audiences. His most recent show, â€œHiroshima Maiden,â€ was hobbled by a scorching review in the New York Times which left him wounded and his show undervalued. We meet Dan as heâ€™s beginning to construct puppets for a new production based fittingly on an outsider artist, a Depression-era portrait photographer named Mike Disfarmer who changed his name to Disfarmer to show his distaste for and shun the rural farming community in which he was raised. Dan enlists his favorite puppeteers to work with him as â€œCreators,â€ with the show being developed through improvisation with the puppet, based on what little is known about Disfarmerâ€™s life.
We follow Dan and his writer, Sally, to rural Arkansas where they research Disfarmerâ€™s life and work. There, they interview locals who have spent their entire lives in the Ozark foothills, people who have no experience with serious puppetry and with whom Dan and Sally are in Capote-esque culture clash. Nevertheless, theyâ€™re able to navigate the quirky locals to find inspiration for their puppet show.
Early rehearsals are held in residency at Danâ€™s puppet studio, a renovated church he owns in upstate New York. The puppeteers have an easy and fun rapport, and their collaboration in these rehearsals show exciting chemistry. In the Japanese-style Dan is using, hree puppeteers work together to operate a single puppet, and the three heâ€™s chosen are in perfect sync with one another. They are able to improvise without speaking to each other, and the puppet appears to move as if directed by a single mind. Itâ€™s a remarkable spectacle considering one operator commands the head and right arm, another works the left arm, and the third controls the feet.
But funding is scarce and the company is forced to take long breaks, spacing out rehearsals over a period of months. â€œDisfarmerâ€ is finally brought from upstate New York to a rehearsal space in New York City and the company enters an intensive phase of rehearsal in which Dan carefully choreographs their movement, down to the subtlest gesture. Resentment begins to brew amongst the puppeteers, who feel they are being over-directed, over worked and underpaid. â€œDisfarmerâ€ is performed by arguably the most talented group of puppeteers in America, and yet for eight hour days, seven days a week during rehearsal, they are paid only $440/week, hardly a living wage. The lack of resources that trouble â€œDisfarmer,â€ one of the more well funded puppet productions, shines a light on the state of noncommercial art in America. By the time the show opens, tension between Dan and his puppeteers has replaced the easy, fun energy of the first residency, two years earlier.
â€œDisfarmerâ€ opens to a large audience in New York with wildly varying reviews. The exquisite, clockwork nature of the performance awes spectators, and the majority of the audience, having never seen puppetry of this kind before, are shocked that they can feel so moved by â€œa block of wood.â€
Woven into â€œDisfarmerâ€™sâ€ story are the legacies of Jim Henson and Peter Schumann, two towering figurers of twentieth-century American puppetry. Jim Hensonâ€™s Muppets were at once the icons of childrenâ€™s puppetry, where the medium continues to sit in the view of most Americans, while also using sophisticated humor to introduce puppets for the first time to older audiences. Around the same time, Peter Schumann fathered Bread and Puppet Theater, the prototype of the sort of radical, left-wing protest puppetry which gained traction in the late sixties. Henson and Schumann separately created the two most recognizable icons of American puppetry: Hensonâ€™s Kermit the Frog and Schumannâ€™s The God Head, and together they opened the door to the current â€˜puppet renaissanceâ€™.
We further examine the contemporary puppet scene through interviews with practicing artists, historians, theorists and theater professionals. We see a mosaic of the American puppet world, with its compelling, unusual imagery and explore the differences between puppet artists, some of whom have rigid ideas of the â€œcorrectâ€ way to do puppetry, bringing them into conflict with modern puppeteers. Then there are the critics, some of whom just find puppetryâ€™s recent rise trendy and irritating. To them, what some call a renaissance is just another silly fixation standing in the way of serious theater.
The claims made in the discussion of puppetry are at times hyperbolic, provocative, and funny. In addition to its powerful niche appeal, PUPPET will attract an audience interested in quirky, obscure subject matter made compelling. It will walk a path tread in some ways by films like Helvetica, In the Realms of the Unreal â€“ Henry Darger, Rivers and Tides â€“ Andy Goldsworth, Protagonist and How to Draw A Bunny â€“ Ray Johnson, but it includes a verite component which invites viewers into the lives of the characters in a more intimate way. The interactions between puppeteers are lively, funny, and self-deprecating, which will disarm audiences who may otherwise be skeptical of puppetry. But, it still begs the question, how much can you really feel for a block of wood?
- in post-production
- David Soll ... Director
- Prod. Co.
- Burnside Films
- United States
- Years of Production
- New York City, NY; Hudson, NY; Little Rock, AR; Heber Springs, AR; Los Angeles, CA
- Prod. Partners
- Jared Ian Goldman
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