Story posted April 18, 2005
Libby Marcus wasn't at all surprised when Avenue Q, a puppet-populated musical, won a 2004 Tony Award. The Bowdoin adjunct lecturer in theater went to puppetry school with one of Avenue Q's creators, and says: "Puppetry is very popular right now - people are looking for new approaches to theater-making and puppetry has captured their imaginations."
During Spring 2005, Bowdoin students have had the opportunity to learn this traditional art form. Marcus, a veteran puppet designer and performance artist, is teaching a 200-level course in puppetry that blends performance and visual art. It will culminate in a public student performance on May 9th.
Marcus has spent a lifetime making theater out of papier maché and imagination. From Punch and Judy to Bunraku, she has studied and plied her art at venues around the country. Recently, she spoke writer Selby Frame about puppetry, her life in the theater, and the importance of performance in a liberal arts setting.
SF: What got you started in puppetry?
LM: I started out in the '70s doing mime and clowning - I took an early workshop with Tony Montanaro at the Celebration Barn. Then I toured with a tented circus for a season, called Circus Kirk, out of Pennsylvania. I was a clown and a sideshow puppeteer. I did a Punch and Judy show, which I was taught how to do in a couple of days. They threw this ancient set of puppets at me and said, 'You'll get 15 bucks more a week if you do this before the main show.' So I did. Punch and Judy is a street thing; it's fun and raucous. The crowd is yelling at you all the time and you ask them to tell you whether the dragon should get the one-two, or where a character is. That's where I really fell in love with puppetry.
SF: Are there many places where you can study puppetry?
LM: There are places for formal study and people also can learn by themselves. For formal training, UConn at Storrs has a graduate program in puppetry; California Institute of the Arts has a very forward-thinking puppetry program and a puppetry center. Sarah Lawrence has a great program, as well as the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Ct., where I studied.
SF: What are the beginnings of puppetry and how do you account for the ongoing popularity and evolution of the art form?
LM: The origins of puppetry are fairly speculative, but we do know that it goes back to Ancient Egypt and Rome. I believe it goes back as far as the impulse to express oneself through performance. Picking up an object and animating it is primal. It's about understanding the human condition, understanding who we are in relation to the rest of the world, why things happen to us.
SF: But why not simply act things out? Why use an object?
LM: There are some things that can be expressed in puppetry that you can't express any other way. There is something about it that is different from a live actor, or masks or dolls -- or more recently, the cinema. It somehow fills in us a need to see ourselves removed from ourselves, something a purely human form can't do. Puppets allow us to tell stories that are archetypal or fantastic, spiritual, conceptual. I wouldn't necessarily want to do Sam Shepard using puppets ... but you can do Samuel Becket with them because of the existential nature of the material - and you certainly can do Wagner.
SF: So, are you saying that puppets are actually more expressive than people?
LM: No, not at all. Puppets are just a different instrument of human expression. Puppets allow an audience to understand a story, characters, and text in new and unusual ways. There's something truly remarkable about the way, for example, Peter Arnott - the late Tufts Classics Professor - could mesmerize an audience with his solo puppet shows of the Greek classics. It was magical.
SF: Is there something different that happens to audiences during a puppet show?
LM: The relationship between the audience and the puppet and the puppeteer can be quite complicated. In Avenue Q, for example, there are actors on stage at all times working the puppets, so you go between actors and puppets constantly. You find yourself investing in both emotionally. Puppets are not mere props. They can be manipulated for different effects, which is what is so fun and challenging about them. The way puppets work, the audience often engages in a less visceral, more thoughtful way than when watching live actors. You often find that the interplay between puppet and puppeteer, or puppet and audience, takes a on a life of its own and you have to decide if it's the direction you want to take artistically. In Avenue Q they're telling stories of puppets and actors both, which is not done very often. I think that's why it captured the imaginations of the audience so much; it was such a surprising take on telling a story.
SF: You have been teaching an introductory performance course at Bowdoin for several years. What led you to start teaching a puppetry class?
LM: I love puppets. I think they are an important and often under-recognized part of theater. I am excited about sharing the art form with other people. One of the most important things about this class is that it is cross-listed in both theatre and visual arts. That allows students to expand their thinking about making art and to look at performance from another point of view.
SF: I'm wondering how many of your students have actually done theater before?
LM: In my other class, Making Theater 101, about 60 percent of students have had some experience and the rest have none. In Puppetry, about half come from visual arts, with no performance experience, which means they feel much more comfortable with the materials and puppet building. Once they get up to actually perform it's very new. The other half of the class is unfamiliar with making things and the idea of creating an object worthy of performance is daunting. It's a great dynamic - the students each bring distinct strengths and weaknesses to the class and it's mutually beneficial.
SF: How do you start leveling the playing field?
LM: We start by animating inanimate objects. You can take any object and tell a story; it doesn't have to be a puppet. A broom, mop, hammers, chopsticks, just about anything. One of their first tasks was to make a theatre piece out of things that were smaller than eight inches in any direction. For the other group, it had to be larger than 18 inches in at least one direction. They came in dragging all these objects and made some very successful theatre. I think they were surprised and delighted by what they could do.
SF: Do you still get delighted by the process of making theatre?
LM: Absolutely. I love sitting in a darkened space as a performance unfolds and feeling that circularity of human connection. I also love the collaborative element of theater - the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. And the fact that, given space, time and some encouragement, students will leap into the creative process and make some very interesting work.