Saturday, September 15, 2018

Puppet Uprising — now more than ever

In '77 I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a hippie. It didn't matter what the returned prodigals were saying before submitting to baptism, hippies were still doing all the cool stuff. They'd given us Sesame Street, H.R. Puffnstuff and Lidsville. Hippies brought us Star Wars, and the Muppet Show. And these cats all knew the rat race just produced more rats. They were gonna change things, we still had a generational revolution taking over, you just had to seek it out with greater fastidiousness and commitment —
Wait: this ain't Lidsville!
Eyeh. No need to go any further down that yellow brick road.

My childhood church didn't have many hippies. But it had a puppet troupe.
"Praise the Lord with clashing cymbals, with felt-clad hands and googly eyes..."
Actually our church had a number of super-cool youth initiatives, courtesy of the youth pastor Ken Dalenberg (quietly indefatigable) and his wife Sharon (the very definition of vivacious, and who should have been paid for her contributions — which were considerable — but never mind).

It was the mid-70s and hippies were returning to the fold, eschewing past misadventures with poverty and stench and consciousness-altering substances of dubious quality (with fellow travelers of dubious quality) and introducing disruptive ideas and dynamic modes of expression to the staid worshippers who had remained in the pews — and youth pastors like Ken were receptive. So our church took over a condemned property and put together a haunted house for Halloween. And none of this “Hell's Gates” bullshit. I'm talking a proper haunted house, with monsters and ghouls and giant spiders and Tussaud's usual gallery of physical torment — only with real people screaming.

The admissions line stretched around the block. Letters to the local newspaper shut that down pretty quickly and rescued the kids from all that satanic stuff.

But Ken and Sharon had other projects that caught fire — coffee houses with entertainment that used actual electric guitars; the usual bevy of hay-rides and wiener roasts; a choir with enough pop infusion to attract teens who genuinely wanted to sing the songs...

...and a puppet troupe.

Operating a sanctified muppet at the age of 12 was indeed a transformational experience — for the puppet, somewhat, but moreso for me. For a performance art, puppetry is surprisingly free of ego-related angst. As a beginner I was predictably inert. But that didn't matter — the puppet was cute and attracted all the attention. I became better at manipulation, but there was no singular “genius” at work. These puppets were interacting with each other, and many of them required more than one person to bring them to life.

It sounds wacky, but if you've been behind the curtain you know what this means — the puppets communicate with their handlers more intimately than they do the audience. The more attuned to the puppet the puppeteer becomes, the better the performance. And by the end of the show, the puppet receives all the adulation, while the puppeteer is the same Peter Parker schmuck everyone knows on the street — but he has that magical, near secret modality, that creative intimacy in which he can get lost.

I miss that.

Anyway — in an alternate universe there is an alternate version of myself that met this universe's Peter Schumann and joined his Bread & Puppet Theatre.
“We are the Bread & Puppet Theater because we offer good old sourdough rye bread together with a great variety of puppetshows, some good, some not so good, but all for the good and against the bad. The art of puppetry helps women, men and children alike to overcome the established order and the obsessive submission to its politics and consequent brutalities.” 
– Peter Schumann
Schumann's gig is belligerently artistic in a manner that eschews FINE art — “These puppets are all made from garbage.” It is political in its horrified response to the damage political identity wreaks on individuals and community. It is religious in its reverence for the sacred and its impatience with formal ritual.
I have probably surpassed the age of guru-submission, but I thoroughly grokked David Cayley's Puppet Uprising: The Art of Peter Schumann's Bread & Puppet Theatre, over here. I will not be running off to join the circus, but I could envision a road trip to a remote museum filled with garbage.

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