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Monan Professor John Bell’s puppetry workshop
It’s two weeks before the premiere of an original play at Boston College’s Arts Festival, and the 14-foot-tall protagonist needs clothes and a head. In a cramped room in the Middle Campus service building—the classroom for John Bell’s Workshop in Puppet and Object Performance (CT346)—Tim Kopacz ’13 guides a muslin sheet through a sewing machine to craft a size 40 dress. Bell, the 2012–13 J. Donald Monan, SJ, Professor in Theatre Arts, finds a cardboard box, staple gun, and box cutter, and in five minutes sculpts a three-foot-tall cranium. “By using whatever everyday materials you have lying around,” he counsels, “the process becomes more inventive.”
CT346 is the hands-on sequel to Bell’s fall history course, Traditions in Puppet and Object Theater. In that course, through texts including Bell’s Strings, Hands, Shadows: A Modern Puppet History (2000), the students surveyed puppetry forms from the 10th-century Javanese wayang kulit (leather shadow puppets) to 20th-century Dada masks. In March, the workshop’s three seniors and two juniors built shadow puppets and performed a borrowed script. Now they have a month to create their own script (and music), construct characters and a set, map choreography and blocking, and rehearse the class’s final production.
“Puppets become repositories of all sorts of meaning that would be impossible to associate with a human being,” says Bell. “It’s harder for a human,” he says, to represent an idea, “to be a way station.” Bell speaks from extensive stage experience. A veteran of the Vermont-based Bread and Puppet Theater—known for its political activism and six-man gigante puppets—in 1995, he cofounded the avant-garde New York–based puppet troupe Great Small Works.
Each student pitched stories in early April for the April 25 Arts Festival show. After sifting through many that Bell said were rich in dialogue but suited to humans more than puppets, the class went with a proposal from Eliott Purcell ’14: They would tell the story of Kenyan forestation revolutionary and Nobel Peace Prize–winner Wongari Maathai (1940–2011).
As Bell folds a queen-sized sheet into a head wrap atop 14-foot “Maathai,” Purcell ties the rubber-band hinges that will give her bamboo arms a range of motion. Maggie Kearnan ’14 sits behind them at a plastic table and draws 3×5-foot, craft-paper storyboards that will be shared with the audience. The plot begins with a drought that has forced rural Kenyan women to range far for food and firewood. Kearnan borrows a 16th-century storytelling method Bell introduced in the fall: cantastoria (Italian for “sung story”), in which a narrator points to scenes drawn on a poster and sings their captions. Seated on the carpeted floor painting construction-paper trees, Christine Movius ’13 says, “People often think of theater as a multi-million-dollar endeavor. It’s refreshing to grab some paint and scissors and create a show that’s real.” Next year, with a Fulbright Scholarship, Movius plans to work puppets into her lesson plans as an elementary English teacher in Malaysia.
By the end of the two-hour class, the group has taped, stitched, drilled, knotted, and glued the supporting cast (out of cardboard, to half human-scale). These include Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi, painted in watercolor with a toothy glare; Maathai’s female protégés, dressed in bright red, green, and blue, some of them fixed in permanent tree-planting poses; and the faceless three-headed male who represents Moi’s government. Next will come the challenge, says Katie Donnelly ’13, of “finding the personalities of our puppets.”
Two days later, eight days until show time, the class rehearses on the lawn outside Campion Hall. Against a steady wind, Kearnan (controlling the body of Maathai with a bamboo pole) and Purcell (controlling the limbs) navigate the puppet’s grand entrance while hidden behind her skirt. As Purcell, with a bamboo pole in each hand, stretches his arms, Maathai’s arms extend to the wingspan of a hang glider.
“It seems like she wants to dance more,” says Bell. He teaches the students to not control the object but “figure out what the puppet wants to do.”
“In an open, childlike sense, you have to play,” he says. Purcell tries clapping Maathai’s 18-inch-long cardboard hands together. “Too hokey,” Bell decides. Kearnan tries raising and lowering Maathai’s body. “Too rigid.” Then, as Kearnan gently tilts the body forward, Purcell glides the arms out, and Maathai looks like she’s about to embrace an entire audience. “Brilliant. This is what she wants,” Bell says.
A few minutes later, as passersby stop to watch, Donnelly determines how to operate the police puppet, who arrests Maathai. “In jail you will learn to be a proper woman who respects men and stays quiet,” Movius narrates offstage, as Donnelly shakes the puppet in front of her.
“Can he be more threatening?” asks Bell. “It’s commedia dell’arte: You create your character with your gestures.” Movius repeats the policeman’s line, but this time Donnelly seesaws the policeman and swings his hinged arm toward Maathai, as if relishing his authority. “As an actor,” says Movius afterwards, “you’re very aware of what your body can do, because you’re in full control of it. But when you’re operating puppets, you have to discover their kinks.”
A week later, during dress rehearsal on Stokes Hall lawn, Donnelly (controlling the planting women) and Purcell (the government) rehearse an exchange. As Kopacz bangs a tribal tambourine offstage—Purcell’s cue—Purcell turns toward the women to harass them, revealing his body and breaking the puppeteer’s illusion. “We need a menacing gesture that works in two dimensions,” he says. Donnelly and Purcell experiment with eight different movements before landing on a duet. The government quakes in anger and slams diagonally toward the women, and the women cower diagonally downward, creating what amounts to a representation of the gender-bound Kenyan hierarchy that Maathai worked to flatten. “What a tableau,” Bell shouts.
Read more by Zachary Jason