Arts & Culture

Puppets illuminate stories of genocide

Contributing Writer
Monday, February 13, 2012


“Las Voces” is a show about monsters. But though the play presents a fantastical space where a yellow jackal-dog and three-headed puppets interact on stage, the true monsters of the production are the people currently inflicting violence in Colombia.

The play tells the story of a man kidnapped by the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, who use kidnapping ransoms to fund their revolutionary agenda. His daughter, played both by Sophie Netanel ’12 and Emily Oliveira, a junior at the Rhode Island School of Design, can do nothing but record messages to her missing father to then be broadcast on the radio show “Las Voces del Secuestro.”

The penetrating and poetic language written by Oliveira allows the more mystical elements of the play to seem natural. The set, constructed of textured fabric draped on a wooden table, sits in front of a large mural painted by Oliveira and provides the perfect space for the puppets she also created.

Beyond making nearly every aspect of the piece, Oliveira also taught the actors the intricacies of working with puppets. 

“There is something about a puppet that is a little bit like a burn victim,” said Erik Ehn, head of playwriting and professor of theater arts and performance studies, who held a puppet summit earlier this semester. “They require constant care. You’ve got to be so careful with a puppet.” 

TAPS Assistant Professor Kym Moore, who directed one of the shows for the summit, similarly pointed out the importance of the actor’s willingness to listen and trust the puppet. 

But Oliveira was already well aware of these challenges, as she puppeteered for Ehn’s puppet summit and interned with a puppet theater over the summer.

“I definitely chose people who are very present and are very good at sitting back and being a witness to what the puppet is doing,” Oliveira said. This was clear while watching the puppeteers’ performances. The astounding level of attention and care administered by the puppeteers made the violence of the play more palpable.

By mixing performances by live actors with puppetry, the show was able to more effectively illustrate the inexpressible horrors of the trauma inflicted by the political kidnappings. In the first scene, the father is played by live actor Zach Segel ’13, but after his kidnapping he is only seen in puppet form, articulating the dehumanization process in a more tangible way. The puppet is also, at times, puppeteered by members of the FARC, which more concretely conveys the lack of agency a victim experiences.

Somehow the puppets’ distance from reality actually makes the heinous acts seem more real. Oliveira said she believes because the audience is so aware that the actor goes home at the end of the day, the violence inflicted during the play is less powerful. 

But Ehn said, “We as audience and puppeteers as operators endow these objects with life.” The extent of the puppets’ existence is only this violence, this trauma.

“The puppets do create a world of their own,” Moore wrote in an email to The Herald. They “allow us to suspend disbelief in a way that (makes) the subject matter more palatable and harder to reject out of turn because ‘we can’t relate’ to that person’s experience.”

But while Oliveira likewise finds puppets to be a useful way to communicate the reality of these unspeakable acts, she admitted, “We’ll never understand. And that’s the thing we have to resign ourselves to: that we will absolutely never understand what it was like to be in Rwanda during genocide and things like that.” 

The dynamic between people living in first-world countries who are watching violence happen around the world and the victims of said violence connected Oliveira to the subject matter of “Las Voces,” she said. This relationship mirrors that of the kidnapped victims and the families who can do nothing more than “send these messages out into the ether,” she added.

“I think monsters are how we separate ourselves from violence and separate ourselves from the idea that we are also capable of violence,” Oliveira said. “It’s scary to own that. To own that we are a part of a world that creates violence and genocide and all of these terrible, violent things.”


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