New York, NY —It's human nature to use our imagination. From a very young age weBuild little worlds in sand on the beach, and put the staplers next to eachOther so they can go to sleep at night. We can pick something up, move it, and suddenly the mind decides it is not what it is.
PROFESSOR EILEEN BLUMENTHAL: When any inanimate object is imaginatively endowed with a life force and then cast in a scenario, a puppet isborn."
Eileen Blumenthal is the Professor of Theater Arts at Rutgers and anexpert on puppets.
PROFESSOR EILEEN BLUMENTHAL: "Puppets range form the low tech, to thehighest tech... You can still have a fabulous puppet show with grapesslit-- so that they have mouths that open and close...or computeranimated puppets with four handlers..."
CHERYL HENSON: "Even 3-year-olds know the difference between a livingcat or dog and a puppet--?
That's Cheryl Henson, she's Director of The Henson InternationalFestival of Puppet Theater.
CHERYL HENSON: ?--but they enjoy the fantasy. They enjoy theimagining-- believing for that moment... It's a funny game we play withourselves..."
KERMIT THE FROG: ?Hi-Ho. Kermit the Frog here.?
Although most children grow with small pieces of a made up world aroundthem, Cheryl Henson grew up surrounded by the entire cast of theMuppets. Her father Jim Henson, who created Kermit, is a luminary inthe puppet world.
CHERYL HENSON: "One of the extraordinary things about.. puppet theateris that you know it's just an object, you can... see it's beingmanipulated... but still enter into the character, still appreciate it, enter into thestory...Nobody's trying to pull the wool over your eyes, or fool you intobelieving that it's something living, because that's not what it is. It's a meansof telling a story or conveying ideas."
HANNE TIERNEY: ?Where is Salome? Where is the Princess??
Puppeteer, Hanne Tierney, is on the far edge of experimental theater.
HANNE TIERNEY: ??Wherefore did she not come when I commanded her?? ?Youlook at her too much.? ?My dear, noble Herodius, it is the moon that I look at.??
Her puppets, made up of what appear to be various materials purchased onCanal Street, act out Oscar Wilde's Salome. A long, stainless-steelcoil is John the Baptist, and a sheet-size piece of metallic cloth isSalome. To perform the passion of Salome for the righteous John theBaptist, with nothing more than fabric and metal would seem to ask toomuch of the imagination... But watching Salome slide, shimmering, overthe coils of John the Baptist, it appears that the imagination doesn'tback down from any challenge.
HANNE TIERNEY: "This luscious fabric begins to movetoward him andreaches out and touches the coil and says, "Yokannan, I am enamored ofthy body."
Salome-- the cloth-- is urgent, calling him by his Hebrew name,Yokaanan...
HANNE TIERNEY: ?And the coil begins to shake unbearably. "BackDaughter of Babylon, Daughter of Sodom, Back!"
Tierney insists that it's only obvious gestures she's giving thesepieces ofcloth and coil, and that we, the audience, are reading life into them.She believes that even a construction rope can express an emotion we allrecognize.
HANNE TIERNEY: "If you have some terrible sorrow and you put your handto your forehead, it's a pretty universal gesture-- you read this assorrow or sadness. And if I can make this gesture with a constructionrope, or anything, and you can read it as sorrow, I feel that is thegreatness of our imagination, that we transcend these particulars...?
Batoto Yetu is a dance troupe of Cape Verde-Portugese andAfrican-American children. For their performance in the festival theywear African-style masks made of foam on top of their heads like largehats, and bright costumes. With the child hidden, the wide, impassivefaces of the masks lurching back and forth and tiny dancing feet-theyappear as strange creatures, and it is this that Artistic Director,Julio Leit?o calls the puppet. Leit?o, who was born in Angola, says hewanted to find a way to summon the spirits onto the stage, as it?s donein African rituals.
JULIO LEIT?O :"When you in a ritual and you have a figure that comes by,You know --logically you know there's a person, but in that ritual you don't feel the person. You feel something greater than you that is there, that is going to change the world or that moment for you."
Whether a puppet is animated by the tenacity of our imagination, orgestures and humanity that we recognize, or spirits... somehow somethinghappens--- somehow these bits of wood and found objects and cloth posessmore life than would seem logical.
PROFESSOR EILEEN BLUMENTHAL : "In human experience, there are very few opportunities to be just at the fulcrum where living and non-livingintersect. The places you can do that are at death, at birth and whenyou imaginatively endow an object with spirit. And something that'sreally a first cousin to that happens every time a puppet come alive."
The Henson Festival continues through September, and audiences will beable to experience puppets coming alive at venues all over Manhattan.
For WNYC I'm Tara Geer.