Puppets are powerful tools for political expression. Perhaps more than other art forms, they teach us how human endeavors are accommodated in or resisted by the non-human world. The puppeteer is often figured as a person who masters his inert object-performers, but as John Bell explains, different materials “talk back” and dictate the movements, gestures and stories they will carry out. While digital technology executes our commands frictionlessly, puppetry reminds us that working with puppet performers is a negotiation with the agendas of other things, in much the same way that construction or environmental management must see human intentions as part of an assemblage of persons, materials and ecologies. The art of puppetry trains us to see the potential agency in things through the capacity of any object to take on life and become a performer. At the same time, puppetry is a “poor art,” and therefore provides instruction in the human-object interface when resources are scarce. Puppets can be made out of everyday objects or even refuse. They flourish where other art forms are censored: they appeal to a broad audience, they can be built and taken apart quickly, and puppet performances can be mounted anywhere.
Activities in 2017-2018
Activities in 2016-2017
During the past year, Handspring Puppet Company, in collaboration with the University of Western Cape, has conducted intensive puppetry workshops and parades in Barrydale, a historically disadvantaged village in the Karoo region of South Africa. Through the construction of and care for puppets, Handspring works to cultivate practices of nurture and responsibility among young adults while also enabling artistic approaches to slavery and other incendiary topics through the medium of object performance. Through a collaboration with Handspring and the University of Western Cape, the Jackman Humanities Institute will investigate how puppetry as civic engagement in impoverished communities might inspire similar initiatives in Toronto.
Barrydale Puppetry Festival, December 2016. Puppet elephant/Premesh Lalu, Director, Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape. Photo credit: Sonia Norris.
Our second proposal for a seminar on puppetry and material performance was accepted at the American Society of Theater Research. Last year, Veronika Ambros and Larry Switzky co-chaired a similar seminar with Dawn Brandes and Claudia Orenstein; this year, Larry will be co-chairing with Dassia Posner, Dawn, and Claudia.
"Profile on South African Puppetry." Edited and Introduced by Veronika Ambros and Lawrence Switzky, with contributions by Lara Foote, Adrian Kohler, Sonia Norris, and Jane Taylor. Puppetry International 41: African Puppetry (Spring/Summer 2017).