Telling stories through puppetry: the Who's Hungry project

Currently the Executive Director of Silvermine Arts Center, Leslee Asch served as Producing Director of the Henson International Puppet Festivals from 1992 to 2000 and remains a member of the Board of the Jim Henson Foundation. She is a collaborator on this NEFA Expeditions tour of Who's Hungry

Why use puppetry to tell these stories? There are many possible answers to that question. For one, puppet actors are created actors – designed to fit a specific role and to illuminate the essence of a character. As each of these stories belongs to a specific individual, why not create the actors to fit them exactly – and go to the essence or heart of their story, where stories become more universal?

Puppets can exist in any form or scale, from larger than life, to diminutive. Reflecting upon why he chose to tell this story through puppet theater, Dan Hurlin, the creator of the puppets for Who’s Hungry, explained that he chose to make the puppets small in scale because “humans are kind of hard-wired to adore and empathize with small things. No matter where it comes from, the impulse to adore and protect tiny things is in us all, so I think this is in play when talking about how puppets draw an audience in, and make the stories more vivid for the viewer. We adore these beautiful, defenseless objects, and so we are drawn to them. And when we get drawn into their painful stories, their size makes it all the more heartbreaking. Dan Froot and I are, of course, hoping that heartbreak can or will lead to community action.”

For me, there is another equally subtle reason. Puppet theater is innately interactive. The words “willing suspension of disbelief” are often used to express the idea that the audience accepts the characters as real, knowing full well that they are inanimate objects given the appearance of life through human intervention. So, as we invest the puppet with life, we become willing participants or co-conspirators. The more we breathe them to life, the more invested we become in their plight. 

This connection creates an openness and receptiveness which can allow subject matter that, if told by actors, might be too intense, causing audience members to shut down, or tune out.  The experience, mediated through the inanimate puppet is close – but not too close – and the meaning is able to be absorbed. One of the most provocative examples of this phenomenon was seen in Handspring Puppet Company’s “Ubu and the Truth Commission.” In this piece, which was based on the actual testimony of the South African Truth Commission, examining atrocities committed under apartheid, puppets were used to give the testimony of parents who had lost children, repeated in dead-pan voices by the interpreters. The testimonies were so heart-wrenching, that the audience may well have found them too vivid, and therefore easier to ignore, if told by flesh and blood actors. Somehow, these rough-hewn wooden actors brought the audience closer to the testimonies. This distancing, to allow oneself to get closer to the subject, is utilized to great affect in Who’s Hungry. We are at once enthralled and engaged. We again find a sense of awe.

This, I believe, is why puppetry was lost for so long as an adult art form and was relegated to childish entertainment. Sadly, in our society only children have been allowed to maintain the capacity for wonder, awe, and fantasy, which opens the doors to this co-created act. In the hands of a skilled actor, a puppet – which may be no more than a carved wooden head attached to a piece of cloth – moves, speaks, and acquires a personality. To our unending amazement, an inanimate object comes to life.

Throughout the centuries, the power of this transformation has engaged significant writers, painters, musicians and theater artists including Alexandra Exter, Manuel de Falla, Paul Klee, Federico Garcia Lorca, and George Sand.  And, while puppetry’s history is often divided into two “camps” – political/ social change, with roots from Punch & Judy to Bread & Puppet; and high-art, the dichotomy fades in a piece like this, which not only represents the highest degree of artistic articulation but is the most engaged community action I’ve seen.

The word “puppet” comes from the Latin pupa, meaning “doll.” But puppets are more than dolls, for in them is the illusion of life. They are symbolic mirrors in which we are startled – and sometimes delighted – to see ourselves reflected. In Latin, pupula, a diminutive form of pupa, means pupil, as in the pupil of the eye. Are these figures powerful tools to help us see? I believe they are.

Inherently multidisciplinary and drawing on the universal language of images, puppetry crosses international borders and bridges diverse cultures. At its very heart it is a fusion of art forms: all elements of the visual and performing arts are employed, including painting, sculpture, text, music, movement, and technology. Puppetry is the perfect union of the theater, which puts ideas into action, and the visual arts, which give them form. 

So, sit back and stay open to experiencing and co-creating these tales, in recognition of our common humanity…

More about Who's Hungry and upcoming tour dates and cities on NEFA's blog.