There are objects all around us. Some to use, some to look at, some to be with, some to take help from and some to give away. From furniture to utensils, toys to artifacts, clocks to mobile devices, clothes to shoes to hats and more - Objects complete us in multiple ways. We invest time, energy and money using the many objects we do. Objects come into our lives, serve their duties and disappear. How would it be if these lifeless objects that are so intrinsic to over lives come alive?
"The only rule in puppetry is to bring to life inanimate objects" (Francis in Ganesh Ram: 11.11.2012). The thought of possessing the power to 'bring to life' is fascinating. The magic of making anything and everything speak, move, walk and talk seems like a bestowed boon of sorts, waiting to be explored and experimented with. Mark Down, Puppeteer from Blind Summit, focuses on breath and its importance in completing the illusion for audiences through puppetry. Breath and bringing to life go hand in hand. Neither can exist without the other. Though they complement each other, they are essentially one.
"'Breath is the engine of all emotion"(Down, 2012). All living things; plants, animals and humans breathe. They breathe to exist and to serve a purpose. A purpose that ensures the status quo. Though breathing is involuntary, it can be controlled. A controlled breath has the power to bring to life objects that can therefore influence. This brings alive characters, plots, stories and situations that transport us into another world, shaping our imagination and creating unique experiences using space, form, rhythm and time. That is what puppetry can deliver. An experience that uses the audience's imagination to construct a new reality. Down also explains that Puppets coming to life is based on four distinct breath oriented functions.
"Inhale. Suspend. Exhale. Suspend. Most action occurs on the suspended in-breath, or if you prefer in the controlled exhale: speaking, signalling, starting to walk. The in-breath is literally the inspiration for action, or the intention. The exhale acts as brakes for the movement, and the suspended out-breath is when we assess the action and the results. When the breath pauses, the action is suspended. The scene pauses, but it does not stop."(Down, 2011)
The Hindu Yogi science of breath qualifies life as a series of breaths. A toddler inhales the very first life inducing breath and releases it in an long wail while life ends for the aged in an faint gasp, when they cease to breathe. Life and death are both an action and function of breath. Adrian Kohler of Handspring Puppetry relates this aspect to acting, puppetry and theatre. "An actor struggles to die onstage, but a puppet has to struggle to live. And in a way that’s a metaphor for life." (Kohler, 2011)
According to Penny Francis, 'The term puppetry denotes the act of bringing to imagined life inert figures and forms (representational or abstract) for a ritual or theatrical purpose - for a performance'. (Francis, 2012: 5). To enable that imagination successfully, an audience have to see, hear and feel a puppet breathe, move, communicate and therefore live. This life is bestowed on a puppet by its operator, the puppeteer. The puppeteer is truly the mother of a puppet, feeding it and nourishing it to stay alive.
''The puppet is an entity which absorbs its operator's energy and is thereby able to convince the spectator of its vitality. It is a matter of transferred, not duplicated kinesthetics. If the puppeteer is projected 'into' the puppet character, it cannot but be the cynosure, it cannot make a wrong gesture; it cannot produce the wrong voice.''(Francis, 2012:28)
In the case of 'hands on' or 'hands in' puppetry, a medium where the puppeteer is in contact with the puppet's body in some form or the other, the puppeteer is breathing with different parts of his body to enable life in the puppet and make this life visible to audiences. Nikki Tilroe terms this as 'Muscle respiration' and it being a critical technique to create an illusion of life in a puppet. (Tilroe, 1988: 18-19) Based on the puppet, its form, size, shape and desired attitude, the puppeteer alters his breathing speeds, rhythm, size and form to communicate the story and create the illusion of life, motivating the audience to suspend their disbelief. Basil Jones, co-founder of handspring puppet company believes that breath is a crucial indication of the puppet's life on stage.
" The audience can see and feel you breathing and therefore see the puppet living. The rhythm and the a-rhythm of the breath and the way it changes is a very important emotional indicator as to the thoughts and the feeling of the puppet being manipulated." (Jones, 2011)
Jacques Lecoq believed that every emotion can be achieved with a push or a pull action. "I push or I pull. I push or pull myself. I am pushed or pulled."(Lecoq, 2006: 22) Breathing functions similarly. A push or a pull in breathing can communicate different emotional responses. Rhythm in the simultaneous push & pull of breath is central to perceiving the state of the puppet. "Shock and surprise for instance are achieved by the inhale action at different speeds."(Tilroe, 1988: 19) The emotions pain and exhaustion can be achieved through an exhale of the breath. Emotions such as joy and sorrow can be achieved with both inhale & exhale. However, the way a puppet moves in relation to the breath is also important in fulfilling the desired illusion. A puppet would mostly move backward to portray shock and move forward for exhaustion, while it could move back and forth for joy.
In bringing a puppet to life, the role of the puppeteer and the relationship with the puppet is vital in making effective performance. Tadeusz Kantor, a visionary Polish theatre-maker and designer propagated that "There must be a very close, almost biological symbiosis between an actor and an object. They cannot be separated. In the simplest case, the actor must attempt to do everything for the OBJECT to stay visible, in the most radical case the actor and the object must become one." He calls this state a BIO-OBJECT. (Kantor,1993: 240 in Francis, 2012: 20). Francis adds yet another dimension by involving the audience into the equation and introducing a relationship that is shared between the puppet, the puppeteer and the audience. "A delicate triangle of projected energy and response from the puppeteer through the object to the audience has to be formed, but is rarely sustainable for long." (Francis, 2012: 18)
This triangle of energy also indicates a shift in focus of the viewer from puppet, to puppeteer to the technique and back to the puppet. "This changing focus is evidence of an alternating belief and un belief in the puppet's autonomous existence. This condition has no scientific label that I can find, but has been described (poetically) as the 'Opalisation effect' (Jurowski, 1988: 41-42) and (confusingly) as 'double vision' (Tillis, 1992: 59). Probably the most accurate word 'oscillation', is used by TA Green and WJ Pepicello (Green, 1983: 157)"(Francis, 2012: 21) To the initiated, the confluence of the puppet, puppeteer and the technique will create the illusion. To the uninitiated, the invisible equation will still facilitate illusion, but they may not be in a position to appreciate the aspects at play.
In National Theatre's War Horse by Handspring puppetry, life sized horses are represented using puppets. Three puppeteers, one playing the face and neck of the horse, the other the heart and fore limbs and the third playing the hind limbs and tail, together create the illusion of the horse breathing, moving and reacting to stimuli through the performance. This demands harmonious coordination between the various puppeteers, including breath, movement, rhythm and synchronised reactions that together create the bigger picture for the audience as well as for other members in the performance. Miniscule movements of the horse, the way its body twitches, the up and down action of the body indicative of breath, is clearly visible even from the last rows of the performance auditorium. This is the precision that can be achieved with puppetry. Little did one know that cane and fabric bunched together artistically could come alive as war horses, puppeteered diligently.
As a medium, puppetry also offers the unique advantage of portraying situations that are beyond human reach in a performing scenario. Explicit Murder, brutality and other grotesque realities that may be difficult to portray using one's own body, may apply puppetry techniques to show and soften the impact that the performance may render to audience sets. Dancer and performer Dan Hurlin in the context of comparing dance and puppetry says "While Dance pushes the body to its limits, puppetry can explore what lies beyond those limits." (Hurlin in Animated Bodies, 2009: 7)
In essence, Breath and therefore breathing is a starting point to almost any form of creative practice that one chooses to undertake. Puppetry uses the operators breath and the object strives to make it its own and therefore comes to life. The human therefore is the technology that the puppet employs to spring to life. As actors or performers, our own breath, its controlled rhythm, size and variation sets our energy levels on stage and outside of it. Apart from contributing to successful artistic creation, breath and its control can be critical starting points in training for personality development, communication skills and voice practices too. Breath is that engine that runs our body, mind and what the combination of body and mind can achieve.