Arts & Culture

Paper dolls inspire human emotions

Staff Writer
Monday, January 30, 2012

Put away your Muppets lunch box and say goodbye to Kermit — there is a new kind of puppetry in town.

The Puppet Summit, hosted at the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts Jan. 26-29, showcased four plays that explored a lot more than the woes of being green — namely, the emotional responses, or lack thereof, to genocide.  

“Puppets have been given a bad rap because they’ve been infantilized and co-opted by do-gooders, but historically puppetry is much more morally ambiguous and capable of a deeper range of expressions,” said Erik Ehn, head of the graduate playwriting program and professor of theatre arts and performance studies, who wrote all four plays. Their ability to push the boundaries of empathy, he said, is part of why puppets are so well-suited to the difficult subject of genocide addressed in his four plays.  

The four segments previewed at the summit are part of a commemorative cycle of 17 plays by Ehn entitled “Soulographie: Our Genocides,” which aims to “enlarge a meditative space around the perpetrators and victims of genocide” and open a discourse about how these atrocities have shaped the modern world.  

“Genocide is not an emotional uproar,” he said in a Q&A after Sunday’s final performance. “It’s very systematic and often has an economic purpose.”

“The thesis of Soulographie is that we need to improve our witness — we need to be more present to each other and not turn away,” Ehn told The Herald.

“We’ve been conditioned to not care about people killing each other,” said Laurie O’Brien, a professional puppeteer involved in designing and staging the show. It’s often easier to empathize with puppets than it is with humans, she said, which makes puppets an ideal medium for eliciting empathy.

“If we go with the idea that a puppet is  an object with which we take great care and to which we pay close attention, then that object can be anything,” Ehn said.

The wide variety of puppets at the summit included dogs made of compressed newspaper, papier-mache hands, a colorful paper doll and shadows projected onto sheets.  

Ehn’s plays also feature more conventional puppets, but they bear little resemblance to the fuzzy friends of popular children’s shows. Controlled with rods running through their bodies and attached to their arms, the puppets’ black marble eyes and sculpted faces are haunting. But artfully manipulated by the puppeteers, they create moments both eerily sinister and vulnerably tender.  

Faculty and students had a chance to share in the creative process in workshops on Jan. 26 and 27, as well as in a preview performance on Jan. 28.   

Several Theatre Arts and Performance Studies students presented a segment about a Salvadorian nurse at a bus stop, who tells the tragic story of her life by alluding to the tales of Yerma and Medea, two famous literary antiheroines. The segment was created to pay tribute to the homeless women involuntarily sterilized by the Salvadorian government.  

Kym Moore, assistant professor of theater arts and performance studies, encouraged her TAPS students to participate in the summit. Moore hopes to bring “Soulographie” to the Main Stage at Sock and Buskin next fall, said Chantel Whittle ’12.  

“I would love to see Brown become a puppet powerhouse,” Ehn said.  Select classes in the TAPS department, such as the Solo Opera class he will be teaching next fall, already include elements of puppetry, but he said he would like to see Brown develop a clear and independent puppet track.  

In the meantime, Ehn said he was happy to have the input from the workshops, which were instrumental to the development of the final performance of “Soulographie.” It will premiere later this year at La MaMa Experimental Theatre in New York. 


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