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Theatre Du Soleil Puppetry

by on December 4, 2012

In last year’s module my presentation group and I gave a presentation on the French theatre maker/stage director, Ariane Mnouchkine. In 1964 she set up an avant-garde theatre company and experimented with Asian theatre and puppetry. One of her performances, “Tambours sur la Digue (Drummers on the Dike)” shows ‘puppets’ who are actually humans pretending to be puppets, playing musical instruments and being controlled by puppeteers. Influences of the Japanese bunraku puppetry techniques can be seen and the cross over of having human/puppet hybrids makes for a unique style of performance. There is something uncanny about  the way these ‘people puppets’ move-their make up is designed to look mask-like and there is a lack of facial expression which leaves doubt as to what exactly they are. They look very robotic at some moments and the way one of the men is playing the drum (from 1.09-1.20) looked so difficult to do: although there are puppeteers his arms are not attached to strings so I think he must have been doing it all himself.

Here’s a clip of the strange things in action:

And here’s a review which explains in slightly more detail how the puppets work and what stylistic choices have been made:

Leading on from this, I’ve been considering throughout the course how and what constitutes an object being regarded as a performing object. We discussed art in one of our sessions and whether or not something needs an artistic intention behind it in order to be classed as art. I think I would agree that it does but would argue that certain things can have artistic qualities without necessarily being art in themselves until put into an artistic context, for instance in a museum.

I thought the presentation about the performance artists Orlan and Stelarc highlighted the idea of objectification in performance and of people in society. Stelarc chose to suspend himself from hooks and strings, turning himself into an object: a performing object. I can’t say that I have ever come across an inanimate item in a non-artistic or non-performance based environment and regarded it as a performing object: puppets and robots are designed and manufactured by humans and are manipulated and programmed to operate also by humans. There is always some human element behind these objects that has given it its essence of performance: for instance Emma mentioned in her blog that the dolls she played with were part of a performance that she was creating when she played with them but left just sitting there with nobody touching them, can they still be said to be performing?

Somebody mentioned the idea of robots completely replacing actors on stage one day and this resonates with Edward Gordon Craig’s idea of the Ubermarionette. Even if this did happen though there is still human input. I don’t believe that performing objects can ever be separate from this human attachment. I can imagine that robots performing on stage may one day be a strong possibility, although I don’t think they would replace human actors altogether, but I think it is the ‘feeling’ and intention in the mind of an artist or a performer which is ‘essence’ of performance and what gives it life. Without having a life or an emotional, mindful intention I cannot imagine that robots or other performing objects would ever be likely to entirely take over the stage because I think what we value in a performance or work of art are these unique life-like qualities behind it and the effort, mastery and time taken to develop performative skills, something which robots and puppets do not have to do.

Another thing I’ve been considering is self-awareness. When animals and humans perform they are aware either mentally, physically, or both, that they performing a series of choreographed actions which have been rehearsed and memorised. Robots, puppets and other performing objects have no mind or self-awareness (as far as we know). Therefore even when there is human intention behind their movements and programming, maybe this still does not count as a true performance but perhaps mimesis of performance. The puppet does not know it is performing; it is being made to demonstrate elements of a performance previously defined in human terms.





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