Politicizing Puppets at St. Ann's Warehouse
By Emma Wiseman
Great Small Works’ International Toy Theater Festival is in its 10th year of celebrating miniature puppet works of all kinds. The last two weeks saw the festival transform St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO, Brooklyn into a family circus-style labyrinth festooned with hand-painted banners, dividing the space into several individual makeshift theaters supplementing St. Ann’s usual venue.
The festival program describes toy theater as “a do-it–yourself storytelling form which can be elaborate yet simple, grand yet inexpensive, full of deep critical thinking yet accessible to all.” A toy theater piece is typically self-contained within its own mini proscenium and in general is characterized by its small size. In an age of CGI and 3D printing, there is a certain nostalgia and familiarity to be found in all styles of puppetry, though perhaps more so in toy theater, evoking as it does childhood living rooms, scissors and tape, and the excitement of putting on a show for the grownups.
The work on display at the festival, which closed on Sunday and included both live shows and a “Temporary Toy Theater Museum,” arrived from all over the country and from several cities around the world. While all could be categorized under the umbrella of “toy theater,” many of the pieces took that concept and exploded it, incorporating other puppetry and performance styles. While I wasn’t able to see all of the performances, I did catch several wonderful pieces and some pretty stunning examples of just how effective this medium can be.
Erik Ruin and Maryann Colella of Providence, Rhode Island presented One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin, an exploration of several different disasters — notably the San Francisco earthquake and fires — and the coming-together of affected communities in response to these events. The construction of the piece was in classic toy theater style with a stand-alone proscenium arch piece, made instantly eye catching by a bold, almost Art Deco looking image of two figures holding hands. Ruin is a prolific printmaker with a striking visual style that pervades One Touch… Rather than individual figures moving through the space, the puppets of this piece are large fragments of landscapes, all done in complex lines that reminded me of woodcuts. These pieces are hung from the top of the proscenium and fit together in a dense collage, capturing both the crowds of a city or town as well as the chaos of a major disaster. Both performers narrate the story, with Ms. Colella helpfully pointing out individual figures and images within the dense artwork.
One Touch… stood out to me among the other shows in its particular program, all of which shared the theme of “Disaster!” Great Small Works, the presenting company for the festival, grew out of a collaboration with Bread and Puppet Theater, and as such has an activist vein running through much of their work. Whether it is their influence over the art form or that there is something about toy theater, and puppetry in general, that complements political dissent, some of the Disaster pieces made me want to call out “I’m sorry!” Overt, talk-y messages about the dangers of global warming and the evils of government were washing over the audience like a Superstorm surge. I believe fervently in the importance of theater to a larger political discussion, but the nuances of that is a conversation for another day. Suffice to say that One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin, by taking a historical view and by making well-executed performance its first priority, was a compelling breath of fresh air in a program hot with indignation.
Claire Dolan came to the Toy Theater Festival from rural Vermont, where she works as a nurse, she explained in a disarmingly un-theatrical way at the beginning of her piece. She also brought her neighbors along to help her tell a “very simple story.” Elephant has a narrative woven from Dolan’s personal experiences in Shanghai, her changing relationship with her mother in the last weeks of a mentally debilitating illness, and actual facts about elephants. Specifically, the piece explores the nature of memory: in Shanghai entire neighborhoods have been razed to make way for more modern buildings, which in turn are torn down in favor of fake historical buildings for tourists; tribes of elephants mourn over the dead body of a companion and then return much later to the same place to actually cradle the bones with their trunks; a mother ceases to recognize her own daughter. I was utterly charmed and transported by the work, which, while in reality being far from simple, was presented in a clear and measured way by performers with a sincerity that I actually think receiving a BFA can often kill. Ms. Dolan was also appearing as a representative ofThe Museum of Everyday Life, for which she serves as the Chief Operating Philosopher.
I was completely surprised at the parallels I found between Elephant and Beth Nixon’s Lava Fossil, which was presented in a different program. For one thing, both pieces were inspired at least in part by the death of a parent. Nixon presented her story using several suitcases containing pop-up sets, taking a traditional toy theater format and running with it. She talked about the death of her father and mused on the nature of time, and a dead person’s place in it. Her childhood dentist also made an appearance, as did some passionate dinosaurs, Pompeii victims and several different types of volcanoes.
I was struck by the way in which both Ms. Dolan and Ms. Nixon constructed their stories: juxtaposing seemingly unrelated topics and coaxing out significance, breaking down an idea into layers of meaning and sifting through. Puppetry is particularly powerful when it is used in this way; not simply as a visual aid but a method by which ideas can be furthered and explored. Furthermore, I think that creating artistic work out of personal pain is a complicated affair that can often slip down a theater-as-therapy path, and I was very moved by each of these pieces, both of which were incredibly well thought out and artfully composed while remaining intensely individual.
Zach Dorn, from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, performed Five Excruciatingly Ordinary Toy Theater Shows, one or two in between each of the other live performances in his program. Each brief, hilarious piece came from a diary entry in a “particularly boring notebook” that Mr. Dorn found among his belongings. One of my favorites was entitled World of Poop. His cartoon-y sets and figures were very small, and he used a handheld camera to direct the audience’s attention. Mr. Dorn’s work brought smallness to the forefront, as did Kevin P. Hale’s Poe-Dunk, which examined the life and works of Edgar Allen Poe with puppets stuck to matches and matchbook-sized sets. In these situations especially, a screen above the stage that provided rock concert-like close ups of the work via a live feed camera was invaluable, though for most pieces in the festival it was still a helpful perspective.
Janie Geiser’s The Reptile Under the Flowers was presented in one of the festival’s makeshift individual theaters to which audience members were admitted eight at a time, every fifteen minutes. The piece comprises twelve scenes, each of which lives in its own stand-alone light box-theater and describes part of one family’s history. It was the miniature Sleep No More of the Toy Theater Festival. Some of the scenes only allowed for two audience members at a time to peer through eye-holes, creating a unique and intimate viewing experience.
I found the Toy Theater Festival to be thoroughly enjoyable in the way that a difficult yoga class is. The theater was a million degrees, some shows were harder to sit through than others, and I started to recognize the diehards who were coming back day after day. In terms of the scope and breadth of the work there is really nothing like it to be found in New York, and for $10-$15 it’s the most cost-effective way to experience the great St. Ann’s Warehouse.