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Looking at light and shadows: the embrace of artifice in film and puppet theatre paves the way for the creation of ephemeral attractions.

Film and theatre are both ephemeral forms. Film exists inside our minds, as the brain combines and decodes a succession of reflected images. Theatre exists only for a particular moment and then vanishes from our view, as the audience and performers reenter the quotidian world. Film is a disembodied form--it lives only as intangible, projected light. Like the Invisible Man in the 1933 James Whale movie starring Claude Rains, film is in the room and yet has no physical substance.

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A puppet, on the other hand, is entirely substance. In performance, we project life onto this physical object, in a kind of reverse of film. In puppet theatre, the artifice is visible, but it disappears, like a film in its can, when the performance is ended, becoming an artifact.

Film and the puppet theatre have a long, intertwined history. Before film's official birth in 1896, pre-cinematic attractions involving projected imagery were found in many of the same places as puppet theatre: not only in theatre establishments but in parlors, storefronts and fairground booths, as well as in the arcades and sidewalk attractions of the city. Magic lantern performances--projected, flickering, dramatic presentations--had been popular since the late 18th century. Shadow-puppet spectacles had been a part of both ritual and popular drama since before written history, and shadow theatre was extremely popular in the cafes and cabarets of late-19th-century France, the birthplace of film. All of these attractions had elements of the uncanny, the magical and the artificial.

Since its invention, film has found a place in theatrical works--artists from Dziga Vertov and Vladimir Mayakovsky to the Wooster Group have found the theatrical use of projections to be highly evocative, often confrontational, illuminating and dramatic. When I began working in film over a decade ago, my primary impulse was to incorporate film scenes or separate episodes into a theatre piece. As I continued to experiment, film became more integrated into the physical drama. Instead of sections of the narrative, film shared the stage with the performers and objects, acting as a scenic element, reflecting a visual or narrative counterpoint, or providing another scale to the image.

The film might be projected onto the set or onto a scrim to create an illusionary sense of space. In Night Behind the Windows (1998-2000), two identical female puppets were separated by a horizontal wall of scrim, on which a scrolling forest was projected. The figure behind the scrim was lit from the side and appeared to be a part of the film fabric itself. In Ether Telegrams (1999-2001), I used film in a similar way, with a projection on scrim of a dollhouse interior, blown up to 20 feet wide, with a masked actress behind the scrim, moving through the rooms. In the same piece, based on the ghost stories of Edith Wharton, I projected film on the actress and the large cloth screen behind her, as she walked in place on a filmed path through the woods. Re-photographed from a videotape of a black-and-white film noir, the film, with its scrolling roll bars, acted as a charged, rhythmic light source that seemed to change the pace of her walking and even the expressions on her mask.

Melding film and theatre in this way has led me to experiment with different kinds of dramatic structures. The two forms push up against each other, forging new ways of making images and meaning. A more montage-based approach to theatre narrative has emerged, influenced by film editing: In staging Ether Telegrams, for instance, I cut back and forth between scenes from three different stories, all inhabiting the stage simultaneously. My non-theatre films, on the other hand, have been freed from plot. In the film The Fourth Watch (2000), I superimposed film images of black-and-white figures from silent horror films with color images of the interiors of a 1940s tin dollhouse, shot in natural light. Shadowy figures move through the constantly dissolving rooms, suggesting less of a narrative than an emotional state.

I don't think I would have been led to discover the satisfying results of mixing film and video if I had not adapted these techniques in my theatre work. I am currently developing a new theatre piece titled Invisible Glass, which will incorporate a variety of puppetry forms, film projection, actors, a highly artificial painted set and original music to create an atmospheric world of escalating tension, where appearances are deceiving and no one can be certain of anything. Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's short story "William Wilson," Invisible Glass will explore the idea of the doppelganger, or the spirit double made flesh. The title refers to a kind of glass that is polished to eliminate reflections. I plan to use film and video projection in several ways: as a light source for shadow imagery, as a reflection of the main character's inner state and emotions, and as a scenic device to completely change the way we view the set (for example, to make an interior suddenly feel as if it is outside, or simply floating in the air). The use of film can heighten the sense of disorientation and break up the stage image, mirroring the emotional progression of the characters. Film can provide a close-up view from another angle, as we see what the character is not seeing.

Film and video have emerged as major parts of my aesthetic voice, and, in my puppet-theatre works, have continued to expand my vocabulary in ways that are surprising, challenging and, at times, quite eerie. In the worlds of film and puppetry, artificiality is assumed: We are outside of time, not in the real world of fact and consequence. We are in the realm of the uncanny.

Janie Geiser is a director, designer and filmmaker. She is currently the director of the Cotsen Center for Puppetry and the Arts at the California Institute of the Arts.
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Title Annotation:Janie Geiser, Cotsen Center for Puppetry and the Arts
Author:Geiser, Janie
Publication:American Theatre
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Feb 1, 2004
Words:982
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