Puppetry: Transcript

Oscen
You guys talked about this a little bit before, but I wanted to talk about the use of puppets in your show; how that plays into the show and its themes. You talked about the non verbal aspect, so I was wondering how that ties into using puppetry and what it was like rehearsing with that: Was it a new experience?

Nikita
My first proper experience with puppets was at Bread and Puppet in Vermont. For me, it was the first time I was opened to the world of puppets. A lot of the stuff we did over there was a lot of really intense political activism with puppets, and when you’re dealing with really controversial topics, it can be really confronting for people. But there’s something really beautiful about using puppets because it’s not really a person. It’s an “inanimate object”. When there’s something that’s really confronting you’re not sure about it, but when you put a puppet in its place it’s really…

Chye-Ling
Charming.

Marianne
Playful.

Nikita
Charming, endearing, I don’t know: It’s something really beautiful. You can’t judge a puppet; it’s not a person! Ever since I was a kid I loved personifying inanimate objects: Like a screaming kettle was really just going, “Ahhh, I’m really hot!” You know, just playing around. And it also creates a world of surrealism with no bounds. I really love in theatre when things start in a certain place but then it goes to a place you would not expect. So there’s an element of surprise. And so when I realised I wanted to do puppetry — and also having done some shadow puppetry for Chinese Theatre Works, and also seeing how easy it was to make shadow puppets out of trash — something might look like trash but then behind a screen it’s creating something really beautiful. Which kind of goes with the theme, which is like Chinese culture and what appears on the outside isn’t necessarily what’s going on behind closed doors. As soon as I knew I wanted to work with that, of course I knew I wanted to work with Chye-Ling because Chye-Ling’s a really fantastic puppeteer. And then after our first or second workshop I was like, I need another puppeteer, and Benjamin Teh was like, “Marianne Infante”.

Chye-Ling
I grew up quite analogue as a kid, so I didn’t have much TV or movie or any kind of video games in my life because my sister has OCD so we just didn’t really do anything that exacerbated it. So as a result, I think we just played with toys and used our imagination into quite late into our childhood — like, awkwardly late. That, I think, has been the foundation for my entire theatre career, that kind of imaginative analogue mindset which I think goes hand in hand with puppetry. I was working with a guy called Ben Anderson, who has a company called The People Who Play With Theatre who now works in Melbourne. So he would make a puppetry show like every year, and he would just use kind of whatever he had in his house. Bamboo sticks was the only thing he probably purchased from anywhere. But he was an incredible maker and we just really gelled.

Then I did some training with Peter Linz and Mike Schupbach who are puppetry professionals on that side of things from the States with another company last year. But yeah I think the same as Nikita, I’m on the same boat of you can’t judge a puppet, and that’s why it’s so powerful as a tool for theatre because it’s really easy to judge actors and try and see a life behind the actor, and you know all the politics around who the actor is and if their performance is good enough, et cetera. A puppet really transcends all of those boundaries. It’s kind of the impossibility of what it is. You kind of have to buy into it, and it makes you work twice as hard but at the same time you’re believing things that you never thought you would. It kind of just lifts a different part of your brain. I think it’s a really subtly powerful tool that not a lot of people really realise can be used in that regard. Puppetry is a great way to kind of lift the story into a kind of surreal, in-between space that’s kind of magical and exists in its own world, which is sort of where we feel this conversation sits.

Marianne
My experience with puppetry — I’m the same, my parents were the kind of parents who’d tell you you could only watch TV an hour, or computer for half an hour, and it’s dial-up, so you’re doing something for five minutes and waiting for the other twenty five minutes. You know you get those — you pop the paper out and you get a little paper doll and you dress them up? I liked the draw, so I used to make my own paper dolls, and because I was so excited to have a younger sister and we have a five year gap, I felt like I was always directing our make-believe worlds. My best friend fully believed that I was gonna be an actor from the age of five which was when I met her. I’m a very visual person. It’s so easy for me to ignite things. For me, I’m not as experienced as Chye-Ling but it’s so great for me to learn in terms of how a puppet breathes and the pace and the patience and the concentration and the focus that needs to, you know, for the thing that you’re manipulating with your hands—what that thing absorbs from the person that’s controlling it. It’s definitely magical for me because this thing can’t think, therefore I can’t judge it. I did a bit of clowning, a bit of mask work, how to triangulate with my Unitec training so, yeah, it’s a skill.

Chye-Ling
I feel like puppetry is always perceived as, like, The Muppets. Marionettes. Gah, I hate marionettes! When I was working with The Finger Players, which is a Singaporean company—they’re predominantly puppet-based, and the stuff that they do is wild. One of the best shows that I saw was where they had a deathly, almost skeleton-like horror vibe, and it was set in a Singaporean flat but it was all open. You know one of those bars instead of walls and it was just the most terrifying thing when the puppet clampers up with their creepy hands. I think people don’t really think of puppetry as this adult story-telling mechanism and that puppets can create fear or mysticism and surrealism and grief — and because of the unpredictable nature of puppetry as you said before, it can turn from one thing to another. Something happens and it can take the wind out of you — you’re literally seeing something that’s being transformed right before your eyes like a humanoid creature that changes entirely.

Nikita
Because there are no bounds, you have no idea what’s going to happen.

Chye-Ling
Exactly. The western ideas of puppets are the muppets and that’s exactly what we’re trying to break — this kind of binary of what puppetry is. Whereas I think in Asian cultures it’s way more connected to spirituality.

Nikita
During our workshopping stage, and especially when I was in Japan last year, our dramaturg is actually from Singapore — she agreed to help out with our script and so she is our script advisor for the show. We collaborated on a couple of shows but she did an introduction with a puppet but it was very… disturbing. It was like this old woman that lived her life backwards. I can’t really remember, but it was mask work. I think a lot of people don’t realise that mask work is also puppetry.

Oscen
‘Tide Waits for No Man’. What does it mean to you?

Nikita
It was first a song, ‘Tide Waits for No Man’, and the song title was about the great-uncle that passed away. It was a wake-up call for me — the Chinese or English proverb, whichever you believe, basically means that time will always keep coming and it will not wait for you and so what came to me was whether or not I was ready to learn about my culture or start accepting it or start owning it, whether or not I’m ready: tide won’t wait for me. I think when something big happens like when someone is born or passes away, it gives you perspective and shows you what’s really important and so that’s the reason of the title. It has nothing to do about men, it’s just that’s what the proverb is. In Chinese, it’s not “man”, it’s “person”. In English, “man” is like “mankind”.

Oscen
It is nice how it’s three women.

Nikita
It was always definitely how the show was going to be. When we workshopped, we workshopped with Benjamin Teh. He’s a really good friend, an Asian creative, and a writer as well but I always knew I’d have only women on the show, given the content.