Master of Puppets

04/11/2012 4:00 AM |

Talk about some of your early puppet works.

My first big piece, Age of Invention, had 300 puppets in it. I mean, I’ve made hundreds and hundreds of puppets. These big themes captivated me—like invention, like a musical on the history of genetics. I did a large piece about the history of medicine that took place in thirteen different places within the large La MaMa space.

So, you were not only playing with scale in terms of the puppets, but also experimenting with space and scale?
Definitely, and that was wonderful. I mean, there were practical downsides to it—you couldn’t have more than fifty people at a time. But the excitement of it was that you could be twelve inches away from a miniature tableau or you could be in a kind of simulated operating theater from the Renaissance looking in on an operation. That was really fun. Then I did a piece on the history of women in prison, also in that style of audiences walking around. By the year 2000, I went to India for six months on a Fulbright and I looked at all kinds of performance, but mostly traditional performance forms. It was really a life-changing trip.

In what sense?

My work up until then was not as interested in contemporary narrative. Storytelling didn’t interest me, except in the sense of a kind of intentionally raw collage—juxtaposing scenes, one against another, seeing what kind of impact they had as a montage. But when I came back I was so taken by the really old, incredible narratives in India, like the Mahabharata the Ramayana. And I began to look at ancient Greek texts, which I had avoided. My parents came from Greece and I grew up in a pretty traditional Greek household in San Francisco. But suddenly I looked at these texts, which now I see as fragments—they’re fragments that have been reinterpreted and retranslated into so many different versions. I looked at the fragments and I became interested in storytelling. And I owe that to India, really.

That was a huge change in my work and it took a few months for that to sort of sink in. But I went back to the Greeks and I was fascinated by how I could use, at first just the ancient myths, as material for puppetry. Then I went to the actual plays and the first one I went to was Euripides’ Iphigenia, which is such a beautiful play. And I devised a one-person puppet that an actor wore. Suddenly I was no longer casting and hiring puppeteers, I now needed actors who could speak text who were also, if not experienced in puppetry, had a talent for it. These puppets were connected to the body, one puppet per body. They were almost life-size and they were connected at four points—the waist, the shoulder, the headband, and the hands. That pretty much marked my work for this last 10-year period, from say 2000 to 2011. And then I seem to be shifting into another style now.