Out of the dollhouse
A marionette lies limp, facedown, on a box the size of an upturned milk crate, in the middle of a crowded room. Strains of Louis Armstrong issue from a source hidden inside the box, and slowly the marionette begins to crawl. He has few distinguishing features to speak of, but it’s clear in an instant that he’s seen better days. He moves slowly, achingly; he never makes it up off his knees. Is he dying? Drunk? Heartbroken? Stricken with some kind of curse? He crawls from one end of the box to the other, transfixing a circle of gathered onlookers. It is a short and arduous journey that seems to encompass all the sorrow of mankind.
Then the figure goes limp again and the mantle of sorrow vanishes. What had been a man on the edge of an abyss is suddenly just a few scraps of fabric and wood, held precariously together with string.
It is a routine that puppeteer Eli Presser has been performing for a decade, usually on the street, guerrilla style, in the hope of inspiring a sense of mystery -- the feeling, in his words, “of some other world coming into ours.” On this particular evening in March, performing alongside more than a dozen others at a benefit for a puppetry organization called Automata, he may have been preaching to the choir, but the effect was no less wondrous.
Founded in 2004 by Janie Geiser and Susan Simpson, Automata is an itinerate nonprofit on its way to becoming a hub for L.A.'s small but vibrant experimental puppetry community. It is a subset of the city’s artistic life that relatively few are aware of but one that’s rapidly coming into its own -- and producing some of the most innovative and enchanting work of late.
The productions tend to be intimate in scale, elaborately crafted and tenderly executed. The artists hail as often from the visual arts and experimental film as from theater or performance. They make use of puppetry’s traditional forms -- marionettes, hand puppets, rod puppets, bunraku, toy theater, shadow play, contestoria -- but often in conjunction with other media, such as video, animation, installation and music. Automata captures the spirit of the impulse succinctly, declaring its intention to “radically redefine and re-contextualize the notion of puppet theater.”
The night of the benefit offered a captivating cross section of the work: Paul Zaloom appeared with “Punch and Jimmy,” a hilariously irreverent gay adaptation of the classic routine; Laura Heit performed one in her delightful series of “matchbox shows” -- so named because they are literally small enough to fit into a matchbox -- with footage of the action projected on a screen behind her; Kate Dollenmayer patiently hand cranked her film, “Walking in an Imaginary Landscape,” through a single lens apparatus for one viewer at a time; and Geiser presented a diorama the size of a small aquarium in which puppets moved among sculptural elements and tiny video projections from her upcoming project, “The Reptile Under the Flowers.”
Geiser’s show, which premieres in its entirety next weekend at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, is an especially ambitious example of the painstaking complexity these productions tend to involve. A father-son narrative inspired by the lead character in Ibsen’s “John Gabriel Borkman,” the work is presented as a walk-through diorama performance of about an hour involving puppetry, peep shows, shadow plays, mechanical performing objects and miniature projections, with 15 individual stations and the assistance of no fewer than 14 puppeteers. For all its “radicality,” however, these works are often strikingly sincere. Puppetry is difficult, labor intensive and hopelessly unprofitable (at least on this scale). Few arrive at it but by pure passion, and that passion is infectious, engaging audiences to a degree rarely encountered in, say, the gallery world. It may be also that there is something fundamentally poignant about puppets that, when skillfully harnessed, bewitches puppeteer and audiences alike: their miniature scale, their ties to childhood, their relation to the body, their imitation of life, their evocation of death.
“The idea that the puppet is just a fragile provisional being that you have to kind of hold together all the time seems relevant, somehow, to how I think of people,” Simpson says. “How they hold their own identities together and how they present and think of their own coherence or lack of coherence, or the effort that goes into any kind of coherence.”
It is the poignancy, she adds, “of watching something that is fragile but that with extreme effort maintains a sort of life. I continue to find that really moving and interesting.”
A distinct history
There is a substantial history of puppetry in Los Angeles, from the vaudeville-rooted theatrical institutions of the mid-20th century -- the Turnabout Theatre, in the 1940s and ‘50s, and Bob Baker’s Marionette Theater, still in operation after 48 years -- through to the television legacy of Jim Henson and the ongoing presence of puppetry in film and the special-effects industry. Talent from these latter circles spills over from time to time into cabaret-style performances like “Puppet Up! -- Uncensored,” a sketch comedy stage show (for adults) produced by the Jim Henson Company and appearing monthly at the Avalon Hollywood.
The history of the experimental puppetry movement is somewhat distinct, however. The landmark in this history was the establishment of the Cotsen Center for Puppetry and the Arts at California Institute of the Arts in 1998, under the direction of Geiser. (Simpson, an early graduate of the program, now teaches in it as well.) The program, which accepts two to three graduate students a year, is one of only two in the country devoted strictly to puppetry and is generally viewed as the more avant-garde in its principles. (The other, at the University of Connecticut, has stronger ties to television.) As more students come, and more students -- like Simpson and Presser -- another alumnus -- stay, a community begins to form.
Another factor has been the development in the last decade of a sympathetic network of offbeat nonprofits, around which an engaged audience has been gradually building: difficult-to-categorize institutions like the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the Velaslavasay Panorama, Farmlab and the Institute for Figuring that exist at the intersection of art, science, history, literature and environmentalism and challenge conventional boundaries in their programming.
Geiser and Simpson looked to the Museum of Jurassic Technology as a model when laying the institutional groundwork for Automata, and brought Jurassic founder David Wilson on as a founding member of the board.
It inaugurated its program in 2004 with “Frankenstein (Mortal Toys),” a dazzling multimedia toy theater adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, created by Geiser, Simpson and experimental playwright Erik Ehn. It’s gone on to host a number of experimental film screenings as well as to present the ongoing marionette serial “Sunset Chronicles,” created by a collective known as the Little Fakers.
In 2007, Automata spawned the Manual Archives, a 22-seat storefront theater in Silver Lake, operated by Simpson, that’s presented work in various media by Perry Hoberman, Alison Heimstead, Christine Werthheim, Peter Yates and others. In April, it presented the third and final installment of Simpson’s elegant “Concrete Folk Variations,” a lesbian noir detective serial set in McCarthy-era L.A.
The goal now is to raise the money for a permanent space, larger and more flexible than the Manual Archives, though still conducive to intimate viewing. The hope is to give CalArts graduates and other puppet artists a reason to stay in Los Angeles by offering a venue and financial support for the development of new work as well as creating an accessible center in the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, the work continues to flourish in the city’s nooks and crannies: at the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Panorama; at more traditional institutions like REDCAT, the Music Center and the Santa Monica Museum of Art; in theatrical companies like Rogue Artists Ensemble and in a largely unchartable array of cabaret and burlesque shows as well as in the work of theater and performance artists who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves puppeteers.
What distinguishes this work, artistically, is the formal and conceptual sophistication with which it builds on long-standing, marginalized traditions.
The draw, however -- the magical quality -- may be primal. Even Paul Zaloom, a longtime puppeteer known for his sardonic wit, gets a little tender when he talks about it.
Speaking in the living room of his West Hollywood home, a one-bedroom unit crowded -- like that of most of the puppeteers I spoke to -- with a dizzying miscellany of objects and artworks, he points rather sheepishly to the bedroom, where a small stuffed animal lies tucked neatly beneath the folded coverlet. It is a curious sight in the home of a grown man.
“There’s some kind of magic in dolls and stuffed animals,” he says. “We can’t help imbuing them with characteristics of living things. You know, when I’d go into my daughter’s room and see a doll facedown I’d be like, ‘No, it can’t be face down!’ You know? I don’t really think they’re living -- but I do. I mean, in my rational mind I don’t, but in my emotional life, I definitely do think they are.”
Presser, who actually looks a little like a marionette when he speaks, with long, slender limbs and loose, delicate gestures, points to that strange dual consciousness as a kind of metaphysical opportunity, a portal through which the puppeteer and his audience gain access to another world.
“I think a lot of the appearance of death that comes with puppets comes because you’re trying to make an object that looks human,” he says. “It will always fall short. Whereas if you make a puppet that has its own reality, that exists in this other world -- maybe it doesn’t have hands, maybe it doesn’t even have a mouth -- every gesture will communicate so then that you’ll understand that. It’s a different reality, and that way the puppet can be truly alive, in this other world that you’ve created with it.”
‘The Reptile Under the Flowers’
Where: The Foshay Masonic Lodge, 9635 Venice Blvd., Culver City
When: Thursday to next Sunday
Price: $6 to $15
Contact: (213) 842-8355; www.brownpapertickets.com/event /66268