Janaki Ranpura

If you’re thinking about writing a puppet play

This description of Haruki Murakami’s fiction aptly describes what you can achieve with puppetry:

The story and surface together sound both hokey and random, which points to the most perplexing part … [the] fictions are so consistently transporting. Not every time, but often enough that it seems like another mathematical impossibility. Reality dials in and out, and the work respires with genuine emotion, and this happens within and not despite the clunky structures.
(from Harper’s, Oct 2014, “The Monkey Did It,” by Rivka Galchen)

WHERE TO BEGIN?

If you’re new to writing puppet plays and are thinking about it, consider: are you happy thinking in contradictions? Puppetry is a perverse form. Not puppetry for children—they are already perverse: they live in a hallucinogenically animated world. For adult-centric puppetry, ask whether you are served by the following contradictions:

  • High and low. Puppetry might be described as an avant-garde folk tradition that blends technology and crud.
  • Life from non-life. The greatest kernel of vibrancy in the form flows from a puppet’s inanimation.
  • The writing desk is the stage. For puppets, it goes making-writing-making-making-writing. Each of the dashes equals a period of time working on movement. (I did not score sloughs of despondency, for which I recommend additional calendar-flex.)
  • A non-language poetics. Puppetry is centered more around design—the look, the material, the sound, the sway—than around dialogue. Nevertheless, a script is important.
    • In writing for puppets, your text functions as the instruction set for the drama and the design. The design—how-it-moves and how-it-looks—is integrally semantic, not an elaboration of an already intact meaning (as is more traditionally the case with a playscript).
    • A way to minimize the conundrum of writing for non-words is to borrow a formal, historically well-established aesthetic (e.g., Federico Garcia Lorca’s Billy Club Puppets used the then 300 yr-old established British form of Punch & Judy shows); this way you don’t have to invent an aesthetic within the script, but just employ one with existing norms.
  • Shy performers. Puppeteers are tender people who, when they have what all humans long for—a lot of attention—they give it away. To a thing. Are you willing to negotiate with this kind of benevolent psychosis? Because you can’t write work for puppets without using the help of puppeteers to figure out the script.

Punch puppetsClockwise from bottom left: Lorca in front of a puppet stage, a traditional scene from Punch & Judy, a Victorian Punch & Judy show with its portable set and stock characters, Blair Thomas’ contemporary Punch & Judy in “Hard-Hearted Heart”

HOW TO DEVELOP AN IDEA?

Not all script ideas are suitable for puppetry. Here are some thematic impacts that could jumpstart research for a script:

  • Charm. Is there a note of puppy-dog awwwh you’re looking to hold? (Paula Vogel’s Long Christmas Ride Home)
  • Pathos. Is your piece about the fragility of life? (Handspring’s War Horse)
  • Awe. Are you using ritual, tapping into archetypes of the collective unconscious, or aspirations of transcendence? (Royal de Luxe, Heart of the Beast’s Mayday Pageant, Red Moon)
  • Location-evocative. Does a traditional form, one that is obviously hand-done and coming from a specific locale, suit your story? (Larry Reed, Julie Taymor). Do you want to create a new location-specific idiom? (William Kentridge)
  • Fantasy. Is there an imaginary world to inhabit? (Lee Breuer’s Peter & Wendy)
  • Academic. Are you trying a visual lecture? (John Bell, possibly Basil Twist)
  • Crazy dirty. Do you want to try insane things that push the limits of what you permit yourself to show onstage? (Michael Sommers, Julian Crouch)
  • Violence. What about Grand Guignol, French Revolution-level beatings? Please use puppets. (Blair Thomas à la Lorca à la Punch & Judy, where babies get thrown into the audience)
  • Politics. Do you want a production aesthetic that is political, as in, do you want to exhibit production-chain choices by using blatantly cheap props? Animated crumpled newspaper is great. (Genius grandaddy of this style that has conflagrated all over the US, influencing Minneapolis’ Heart of the Beast Theater as well as all the way to the Fremont Solstice Parade in Seattle: Peter Schumann, rock-star genius of the well-turned piece of molded paper). Do you want to puncture the self-seriousness of certain congratulatory and over-worn lines of sociopolitical questioning by playing with dolls (Paul Zaloom, esp White Like Me)? Are you addressing serious topics that are sensitive and can best use humor if employing people-substitutes? (Avenue Q)
  • Trans-species. Are there talking animals? A lovable purple dinosaur or a giant hapless yellow bird are the kid versions, but there’s another, far more serious vein to mine here: post-human trans-species discussions. Look at Sibyl Kempson’s bold contemporarily-surrealistic playlets “The Secret Death of Puppets (or) How Do Puppets Die (or) Puppets Die In Secret.” We are talking shamanistic death-crossing transinvested beings. Does your play have that? Use puppets.

HOW TO REHEARSE?

In a puppet play, design develops action that develops language. Puppets have their own exigencies that lead to a poetics that is specific to that object-creature. The writing and form marry best through a long rehearsal process.

Successful puppet work begins from an intuition born of experience, an inkling of an idea that, when paired with an image or a movement, could mean something greater than its parts. Language, object, and circumstance in cahoots bring the story into being. The process juggles making and rehearsing and writing throughout the rehearsal period.

KEEP IN MIND WHILE WRITING…

  • Puppets are character prototypes (or protoplasm). You have the object; find its humanity. And then find its super-humanity. Puppets are the most interesting if they shit themselves and transubstantiate in the same play.
  • Have confidence in the puppet. See what it can donate in terms of meaning, through its materials and movement.
  • The writing desk and the rehearsal studio are both necessary to development. You cannot make a puppet play without having manipulation technique or enlisting someone who has it—it’s useful not only after, but during, a script’s development.

THROUGH HUMILITY, GLORY

In performance, puppet theater encourages a group of people to believe life can be made from things that are not life. Stage theater, on the other hand, encourages the belief that things are not what they seem. Achieving a group belief in not-life can have the following ramifications:

  • Ecological. Cultivating empathy for things that cannot care back.
  • Ecclesiastical. A shamanistic muscling of life into non-life; evidence of making a wonderful life from scraps.
  • Technologic. Robots are puppets and sometimes vice versa, with& wide-ranging application.
  • Technocratic. Puppets as spirit mentors for our in-pocket app-’n’-object fetish.
  • Utopian. Collective belief implies belief in what is collective.

Working with puppets gives you the opportunity to make of these concerns a piece of writing that is vulnerable, helpless, has the power to inscribe all four dimensions at once, exudes holiness, stinks, and can be a conduit for us to make the most of our humanity.

About the author
Janaki Ranpura

Janaki Ranpura is a Playwrights’ Center Affiliated Writer.