On the write track: Exploring puppet narrative at O'Neill conference

Jim Kroupa, master artist, and Pam Arciero, artistic director of the O'Neill's National Puppetry Conference, during last year's conference.
Jim Kroupa, master artist, and Pam Arciero, artistic director of the O'Neill's National Puppetry Conference, during last year's conference.

It goes without saying, but we'll say it anyway: Puppets used in theater aren't encumbered by the same limits human actors are.

People are bound by gravity. They always stay the same size. They have to walk through space to get somewhere.

Puppets? They have none of those restrictions. So someone writing for puppet theater enjoys much more freedom.

That, says puppet artist Robert Smythe, is actually the challenge for a writer. It becomes a question of: If you could do anything you wanted, what would you do?

Smythe is leading sessions on "Writing the Puppet Narrative" during the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's 23rd Annual National Puppetry Conference, which culminates in public performances Friday and Saturday.

Often, Smythe says, the biggest problem in writing for puppets is not thinking big enough and not being daring enough. To counter that, Smythe asked participants in this year's O'Neill pre-conference to spend five minutes penning a scene - and to make it as big and bold and outrageous as possible.

The results, he says, "were full of incredible things." When he asked the students which element of those scenes they thought was too much, they all replied that there wasn't anything. They realized that they didn't have to think a certain way or play by the normal laws of physics.

When it comes to playwriting and puppet theater, Smythe knows whereof he speaks. He studied playwriting in graduate school, and he founded and ran Mum Puppettheatre in Philadelphia for about 25 years.

While there, he created original work and helmed interpretations of existing plays, such as Friedrich Dürrenmatt's "The Visit" and Ianesco's "Rhinoceros." Those were stories, he says, that "explore possibilities of environment and of world that go beyond the scope or realm of normal human experience. What was exciting about them was, because they had started as plays, there were very specific ideas that were present in them that could be interpreted through producing them or directing them with puppets."

For instance, "The Visit" is about a very wealthy woman who returns to her home village and offers the town a billion dollars if they will kill the man who raped her and forced her to leave town. This morality play, written after World War II, deals with what happens when an alien point of view comes into a world where everything seems to be known. For Smythe's production, the villagers were represented by hand puppets carved out of wood. The rich woman was personified by a Japanese bunraku puppet, performed in that style. As the characters became more lured and seduced by what the woman had to offer, they became more Japanese and she became less so, until, eventually, everything was assimilated.

This is Smythe's sixth year at the O'Neill puppetry conference. At first, he taught manipulation but then suggested that, given the fact that the O'Neill first gained renown for its playwriting conference, writing be brought back into the puppetry conference.

In writing a puppet work, Smythe says, "If we want to emphasize the director's point of view - this particular piece of action, information, whatever - we can do it. Puppets give us a lens, not unlike a camera, to say to the audience: this is all the information you need right now, either because it's revealing or it's hiding stuff you need to know later."

Indeed, when he's making a puppet, Smythe says, he is showing the audience an edited version of reality.

A puppet pretends to be alive, but, obviously, a puppet version of something is not the same as the real thing.

"And if it's not the same," he says, "what becomes interesting is what's being included and what's being left out. What details are we giving the reader of the story that is essential for them to understand it?"

National Puppetry Conference, performances 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, Great Neck Road, Waterford; $28; (860) 443-1238, theoneill.org.


Puppetry projects

The O'Neill's 23rd Annual National Puppetry Conference features a wide range of projects that are being developed. Among them:

• Sandy Spieler and Larry Siegel are working on "Wonder?!," about the roots of puppet theater as transformative ritual.

• James Godwin and participants are exploring "Puppets, Performance and the Archetype of the Trickster."

• Phillip Huber and Jim Rose are leading the marionette segment.

• Martin P. Robinson is directing "Puppet Performance: The Halloween Project," using "large-scale marionette/rod puppets of truly hideous creatures in an exploration of the Hansel and Gretel story."

Puppet artist Robert Smythe
Puppet artist Robert Smythe


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