QN: Tell us about your previous puppetry experience - how have those experiences informed your work on Passion Play?
PK: I have been a puppet designer for the past 5 years, but had previously trained in props design. For my BA in Theatre, I concentrated in set design and stage management. Puppetry did not enter my life until my junior year at the University of Maryland. At the time, UMD had a Henson Grant [as in, Jim Henson] that brought in professional puppeteers to teach a winter course once a year. I took Steven Kaplan's class, where I was introduced to shadow puppetry and to my artistic partner in crime, Matt Reckeweg, who a year later co-founded Pointless Theatre with me. We realized in that class that puppetry was a brilliant combination of painting, sculpture, design, and engaging movement. It was a challenging, endless area of study that seemed to bring the most variety of options to explore storytelling. For the past five years, with Pointless, we have been able to find a group of people that can indulge in this study of form and style, and in the childish yet provocative imagination puppetry can offer. This collaborative mentality very much informed my work on Passion Play. I've work with Michael Dove many times and there is a sense of common vocabulary we establish to talk through ideas. He had a clear image of what those fish represented in the script, and it was my job to visualize and construct them accordingly. Puppetry is uniquely dependent on performers to bring them to life. The best puppetry has to take into account performance as much as it does aesthetics.BC: We've done a good bit of stylized puppet work at Synetic over the years, though it's not our main focus. I had the pleasure of working on Imagination's BFG a while last year [their remount is playing now] and got to witness some very effective puppet work, while having to engineer a lot of "human puppeteering" (actor manipulation of other actors). The most influential work has to have been my work with Synetic -- a lot of learning about how lines and shapes interact with symbols and bodies and minds onstage to create meaning. [Ben's work on BFG earned him one of his six 2015 HHA nominations, that one for Outstanding Choreography in a Play in the HAYES category.]
BC: It didn't change much, though the switch from a school of living fish to a parade of dead fish was a small switch for my mind. To me, it was always about not just the fish themselves but how their presence places us underwater, trying to get a sense of switching Pontius from a stage to a sea floor.
PK: I imagined giant silver fish that flopped around the stage, morbidly gliding. What happened next is that we began to quickly embrace the DIY aesthetic written into Passion Play. There was a clear use of the "meta-theatre" experience that Ruhl incorporates into the script. The outer layer of the story revolves around a troupe of actors putting on a show, the Biblical passion play. Those actors play characters within their characters. The scenery is the visceral environment of a working theatre. Tools are out, and paint cans cover the scaffolding. Costumes and props are repurposed and materials like canvas, metal and wood are presented as exposed raw materials that progress the story and heighten relationships between characters. For these reasons the fish were made out of canvas - to mimic the materials on Gabriel's wings and the sails on boats. They have a large red slit on their bellies and are sometimes carried as carcasses, almost reminiscent of coffins. They have just enough movement in their satin fins to glisten and suggest a ghostly swim. This conceptual change came out of a need for compromise between the fantasy world of giant dead fish puppets and the other more grounded elements of the show.
BC: I think the obvious answer would lead us towards some discussion of religion and its potential to manipulate people, but I don't think this is it entirely. I think it has more to do with how we carry symbols and ideas within us, to the point where they take on a life of their own.PK: Relationships between the characters in Passion Play are strung together by a politically and socially induced hierarchy of power and manipulation, though. The introduction of monarchs and fascist leaders, or jealous bickering cousins are all examples of characters who crave control in the each other's lives and their own. There is something about religion, and the concept of faith in general that makes people feel powerless and vulnerable. You are taught to trust blindly, and that even suffering is all part of God's plan.I think there is a reason why the character who plays Pontius Pilate is the one who most wants and is (in his mind) able to manipulate things as erratic as the winds or sails on a boat. Within puppetry exists that theme of power and control, and I see the use of puppetry in Passion Play as a device to really elevate the emotional inner struggles for Pontius, specifically. In Act 1 he kills fish all day, and dreams of them haunting him. In Act 2, though we don't see it, they seem to follow him as he runs through the bloody trenches of WW2. In Act 3, as a traumatized veteran, he stretches to find something to grasp onto when his faith is gone. He finds comfort in the wind and dreams of sailboats surrounded by glistening fish because they symbolize, in a sense, him coming to terms with his trauma, and embracing his ghosts as comforting shadows he interacts with. The fish puppets in particular have always symbolized, to me, life and death. They are narratively intertwined with fantastical religious imagery like walking on water, imagery that often reminds us of our mortality and divine power. Translating these moments into puppetry makes sense, because with puppetry who can get away with anything. There are no physical or metaphorical limits on how to animate these sequences. Puppetry allows for the heightening of visual imagination, defying traditional sense of scale, proportion and movement.
PK: Its hard to pick favorites with puppets I've built, because they are like children. If you pick one, the others get jealous. With that said, I have favorites for different reasons. Minnie, the protagonist from Pointless's production of an original jazz-puppet-spectacle Minnie the Moocher, was one of my favorites to watch in performance. Sometimes puppets can be beautifully sculpted, but if they don't do justice movement-wise to the story, in a way its a failed attempt as a designer. This show was one long musical number, an hour-long dance, where the puppets needed to run around and get a bit wild. Minnie was a half-puppet, half-human, in the sense that she had a head and upper body that was strapped onto the performer's neck hanging like a giant necklace. She had legs. The legs of the performer were the complimentary puppet legs. We had the puppeteer wear the same color purple leggings as the puppet's skin was painted, and they had matching 1920's bob haircuts, dresses and make-up. At times, during the show, you couldn't tell they were the performer's legs because they blended so perfectly in the blocking. And other times, there was a clear distinction between puppeteer and object. There was something fascinating that happened visually with this kind of range, and that style of puppetry became an optical illusion for audiences that heightened her character's emotional rollercoaster within the show.
BC: Oddly, it's more similar to using weapons and tools onstage. A weapon is an extension of the body, and delivers force for a specific purpose in a way the body can't alone. A good swordsman uses the blade as an extension of the self. The object becomes infused. When I've done work with puppets, it is this infusion, but to a greater degree. There are worlds of possibilities with this, but at the basic level I think it is about the infusion of personal energy into the object to the point that it takes on a life of its own. All stylized work has this transformative quality -- you can turn your body into a chair, or turn a chair into a person, it's all related.But an outside eye is necessary, whether it comes from a performer or a choreographer, especially as you're creating, because infusion isn't something you can just do or feel...if you want to share it with other people in an understandable way. This is where technique comes in (as well as sanity).Shadow puppetry is extremely technical, because the relations of the image to the screen and the light source and the audience must all be accounted for in order to make an understandable image. This puppetry is different -- there is nothing hidden about the puppeteers, so the image of puppeteers itself is a part of the performance.
PK: Hmm, that's a very difficult question. I'm not sure I have one. The muppets will always be a childhood favorite, but recently I also have begun to appreciate the more experimental puppetry that has been flourishing the past few years. Not to sound cliche, I would even include Disney's Lion King in the latter category. I saw that show when I was ten and was blown away by the puppet engineering, the mask work and make-up. The most impressive to me were the giraffes on stilts and the way the performers had to walk and crouch to make the animal silhouette. Amazing.BC: Yoda. There's never been a wiser puppet. And no, the animated version doesn't count.
Quill Nebeker is a Season 11 Directing & Production Intern with Forum Theatre, and an assistant director on Passion Play. Look out for his work as a director in the 2015 Source 10-Minute Play Festival.