The secret art of the puppeteer

Please welcome a guest post from Irina Niculescu who conceived and directed The Dragon.

“ …We build fragile castles of cardboard, of wood, and of light, where the actors will exchange words for the others, they will create poetical images and will transmit to their public the metaphor of the human existence, both in its glory and in its fragility; for the joy, the knowledge, the doubt, the love and even the anxiety of experiencing together the greatness of feeling human.” Giorgio Strehler

Many words have been said already about our new version of The Dragon by the press and by the patrons who have come to see the show. I am very touched by the surprise and the enthusiasm with which the public reacts during and after the show. It was a big adventure and a challenge for me to take a team formed by two theatres: designers, fine artists, actors, and musicians, and guide them through the complicated labyrinth of puppetry. I appreciated immensely their courage to take risks, the curiosity, and ambition with which they dove into the work.

This is why I decided to share with you what puppetry means to me, and why I chose to do puppet theatre.

Why puppets – Directing Puppet Theatre

Puppet theatre is for me an itinerary in the world of shadows, imagination and of fiction which re-creates reality. It is my life itinerary. I tell stories which talk about the fragility and the strength of our human condition. My shows express my thoughts about life, my joy, my questioning, my fears, and utopias. I created projects inspired by old myths like Gilgamesh, The Burning bush, The Firebird, by classic writers such as Cervantes, Horacio Quiroga, Dante, and composers such as Mozart, Rossini, De Falla, Stravinsky, and by contemporary writers in Romania, Norway, and Switzerland. I adhere completely to Giorgio Strehler’s words:  “directing means above all loving and understanding.”

I am often asked what drew me to puppet theatre and if I directed other kinds of theatre. I have directed other kinds of theatre and taught directing. But I mostly staged puppet theatre. World puppetry is currently experiencing an exuberant renaissance. I belong to that generation of artists who began this movement. We were the ground breakers who took the puppet out of its booth and placed it next to the actor. This gesture gave birth to a new conception of the space, a new use of proportions, and a new relation between the puppet and the puppeteer, bringing a new range of theatricality and meaning.  I was fascinated by object animation and the illusion of life that is given to the object. I explored the source of wonder and I discovered that for me, the magic relies on the capacity of the puppet to transmit emotions, which practically means the relation between the puppet and the puppeteer. It is the actor and puppeteer manipulating in view or hidden, who projects and invests oneself in the puppet. Without the actor, the puppet is just a sophisticated object.

I approach puppetry in its diversity of forms; I draw inspiration from traditional sources and I explore new forms which break the boundaries and bring together puppets, actors, singers, musicians, dancers, shadows, and sometimes virtual imagery. The choices I make are guided by the quest to create the best environment for the story to unfold. The puppets of The Dragon are inspired by German expressionism. I wanted their faces to express how they feel, rather than how they are. In my shows it is generally the puppet which bears the destiny of the hero. The puppet leads us into an imaginary world, which becomes for a moment, more real than reality itself.

The most difficult moment in my directing is when I choose my orientation in relation to the text, music, or another kind of dramatic material I stage. This choice will determine all the other choices. For it I associate my imagination and my critical rigor.

And the puppeteer in all that

For me, the puppet has a tragi-comedy essence, because it is always tied to the visible or invisible hands of the puppeteer because it is the metaphor of the human condition. The puppeteer has to master the technique of manipulation, which is their main tool; but the technique alone will never be enough to create the magic moments. Animating puppets has its mystery, but we sustained it with training and experimentation on how to extend oneself into the puppet. How do you make a puppet talk? How can one be present and invisible at the same time?  The relation between the puppet and the puppeteer is a permanent source of inspiration. It adds to the effect of innocence and irreverence, with which the puppet charms us.

The relation between the puppet and the puppeteers is essential for the puppet to transmit an emotion. The puppeteer works with the fragile border between animate and inanimate. They learn to project oneself into the puppet amd through a puppet. They work with movement and immobility, words and silence. In The Dragon, this relation is ambivalent. The act of manipulating in view, as well as the interdependence between the puppet and the puppeteer are a source of meaning. The visible presence of the puppeteer, as well as the relation between puppets and musicians, and between puppets and actors are sources of contrast and of tension. Working on The Dragon, we touched on the complementary relation between puppet and puppeteer, and we gave life to the expressive world the designer and I planned and built.

Who is who?

It is clear to everyone that Lancelot and the Dragon are actors and the citizens are puppets because the citizens are manipulated. The Dragon is a metaphor standing for all evils which determine our fears; in this play the social-political evils as well as our hidden ambitions for power. Fear is human and submission is human. But why are the citizens afraid? Why do they submit? Could they survive differently?

If the Dragon is the manipulator and Lancelot is the liberator and potential manipulator, who are the puppeteers? I left this question to the end because the answer is ambiguous. We wanted it this way: the people in black are serving the Dragon, taking the puppets to them, but they are also the shadows of their characters. They are hiding behind their little puppets, dissimulating their faces under the black hats. Who are they?

”Everybody should know freedom,” says Lancelot. Will they? Will Lancelot become a manipulator ? Will people’s compliance transform him into a Dragon? These are the questions that I hope my staging of The Dragon will raise.

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One thought on “The secret art of the puppeteer

  1. This is a fabulous and eloquent post explaining in grown-up terms the simple question that is asked of me every time I go to a party: Is the puppet real?
    My answer is always yes, of course the puppet is real, the puppet may not be a real dog/monkey/fairy ( that would be scary if a dog really spoke) but the puppet ( the combination of the imagination of the puppeteer and the audience and the conversation that ensues) is. This is often a conundrum faced by an audience when I bring the puppet out of the booth and they see me close up operating it.
    As a party entertainer, I often get ” But I can see your mouth moving!” from some of the adults and I gently explain to them that I’m a puppeteer not a ventriloquist.
    This distinction is very important to me. I don’t do magic because I don’t lie easily. For the same reasons I do not want to deny the relationship that exists between me and my puppet when I bring it to life by trying to hide my mouth movements.

    I really enjoyed your post , thanks so much!

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