The Mahna Mahna Phenomena
Theatre is an enigma of society and no matter how deeply it is studied, it will always hold secrets unbeknownst to the rational world. People tend to live their lives in realistic, understandable ways-wake up, go to work, eat food, sleep, and repeat. This life is comprehensible, comfortable, and predictable; it’s reality. However, in very specific situations, people are willing to throw all sense of reality away and forget about the current moment. This occurs when theatre is being created. No matter what role someone plays in a performance-performer, director, audience member, etc, as long as they are witnessing a performance, specifically a live performance, they no longer exist in a comprehensible space-they have been transported to an unreal reality. It is astonishing that people are willing to accept theatre as an authentic situation, especially knowing all the while that it is merely an imitation. This very mind-boggling statement is all to say that there is an extremely fine line that exists between “genuine” and “imaginary” in a performance setting. Furthermore, there is an arguably finer line between “inanimate” and “alive” in a performance setting. It is the theatre artist’s duty to explore the infinite realms of these concepts and present them to willing audiences in a dramatic manner. First, it is important to understand at which point a major theatrical tool-the puppet is “alive” and “inanimate” and how that applies to a theatrical setting.
One of the many outlandish aspects of the performing arts is puppetry. Puppets are not “real” in the traditional sense, but they still hold an incredible amount of power and in the theatre setting, they are portrayed as living beings. Understanding the human-to-puppet relationship first requires an understanding of what constitutes a “puppet”. Puppets are not limited to Kermit the Frog-like felt hand puppets, they can be wooden marionettes, human-sized creatures made of sticks, or simply inanimate objects such as a water bottle, broom, or napkin. The possibilities are endless when it comes to crafting and experimenting with puppets-they can convey so many different emotions and ideas. Anything inanimate can be animated with a willingness from the puppeteer to put their energy into the object. Throughout history, artists have experimented with the possibilities of puppetry. The craft began as a tool for ritual or religious ceremonies, spanning back all the way to the 5th century B.C. Rod puppets, hand puppets, shadow puppets, marionettes, and flat figures are some of the most well-known early forms of puppetry. Unique puppetry, such as bunraku, which originated in Japan, is also a prime example of puppetry in history. Puppets can be as small or smaller than a finger or larger than a human. Puppets were used to tell stories before theatre was even a developed art-it essentially paved the way for storytelling. From puppetry, performance theatre blossomed. As defined in the article, “The Theatricality of Objects: Object Theatre Beyond the Puppet” by Åndi Hanske, “The term ‘object theatre’ emerges from the world of puppets. It describes a form of puppetry that utilises found, or real, objects in puppeteering, to create anthropomorphic characters or to symbolise figures, places, landscapes or metaphorical ideas.” This form of theatre is more widely experimented with today and it is revealing incredible discoveries for performing artists. Any form of puppetry is capable of creating incredible art-the only requirement is that the artists and viewers keep their minds open to its possibilities.
An important aspect of puppeteering is understanding that puppets will only care as much as the puppeteer lets them, meaning they will only move with the same amount of effort that the puppeteer has. After all, a puppet’s personality is only projected through them, not necessarily fulfilled by the object. However, people sympathize so deeply with puppets that it is difficult to imagine these characters as mere objects. This kind of strain between the two worlds of puppetry is precisely what makes it so compelling. As said in the article, Between Human and Object: Performing Artists on the Possibilities of Puppets”, “the crucial point about puppets is that they are real and unreal at the same time.” People know that the puppets are not alive, but they connect with them when another human projects emotion into them. A wonderful example of this kind of deep connection comes from the article, “Power in Puppetry ” by Miranda Wright when she states, “In order to make good on his promise, the puppet offered to provide a demonstration of death itself. He offered to die in front of us. When the moment came, I couldn’t breathe. As the puppeteer behind the curtain lifted his hands from the puppet’s body, I realized there truly was no life left in my new friend. I watched a life end, and sat in the theater crying.” This kind of deep, emotional reaction makes it clear that a performance is successful once the artist has put their effort into it, but even more so, once the audience has allowed themselves to accept the performance as real. Wright had this experience because she saw the marionettes “breathe” and “come to life” and she accepted that as natural. She kept her mind and heart open to the possibilities of the performance and it touched her deeply. Scott Cummings describes this idea perfectly in his article, “Puppets: Still Very Much a Thing”, when he states, “The puppet lives in the audience’s imagination. We try to steer that, and perhaps persuade it to go somewhere exciting, but to be honest we don’t have a huge amount of control over it.” So, that fine line between “inanimate” and “animate” in the theatre is indeed tricky to understand but it relies on a working relationship between the puppeteer, the puppet, and the audience. All three must be working in harmony and be open to learning new things because that is when the real magic happens.
Cummings, S. T. (2019, December 30). Puppets: Still Very Much a Thing. AMERICAN THEATRE. https://www.americantheatre.org/2015/06/24/puppets-still-very-much-a-thing/
Eprints.worc.ac.uk. (n.d.). Retrieved October 21, 2021, from https://eprints.worc.ac.uk/5218/1/The%20Theatricality%20of%20Objects.pdf
Wright, M., & Wright, M. (2016, August 3). Power in Puppetry. Getty Iris. https://blogs.getty.edu/iris/power-in-puppetry/