The Intrigue of Animating the Inanimate — Three Puppeteers in Radar L.A.

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"Dogugaeshi" by Basil Twist and Yumiko Tanaka. Photo by Richard Termine.
“Dogugaeshi” by Basil Twist and Yumiko Tanaka. Photo by Richard Termine.


Next week, Radar L.A. will offer puppetry performances that defy the frequent American misconception of puppets as kids’ play. Two of these deal with very dark, emotional subjects, while a third re-imagines centuries-old craft with a modern spin. These projects feature artists from Los Angeles, New York and Paris — each with a collaborating team. They explore objects as a magical link to our own immortality.

Clouded Sulphur (death is a knot undone)
by Janie Geiser and Erik Ehn

Veteran puppeteer and filmmaker Janie Geiser pairs with playwright Erik Ehn for the third time with her production of Clouded Sulphur — inspired by a true crime story of a missing teenager in 2002 Los Angeles.

Sulphur features bunraku puppetry, a form made famous by the 17th-century Japanese playwright, Chikamatsu Monzaemon. Considered Japan’s greatest playwright, Chikamatsu wrote more than 100 plays for both the bunraku puppet stage and kabuki theaters. One of Chikamatsu’s most famous themes — the love suicide committed to maintain the honor of star-crossed lovers — was something that really happened in 1600s Japanese culture.

Janie Geiser
Janie Geiser

“I thought that would be really interesting to do but with a contemporary story from LA,” says Geiser. “I was interested in crime, loss and what happens when something bad happens in a family…I came across the LA database of unsolved crimes which is just a huge, sad, tragic online database of all these people who have been killed and they haven’t found the killers.”

Geiser was eventually drawn to a particular Jane Doe whose body had been found in the San Bernardino Mountains. More research led her to discover that she was eventually identified as 15-year-old Brenda Sierra, who disappeared sometime between her home and her journey to school one October morning in 2002.

Sierra’s case reads like a parent’s nightmare. The well-liked, studious 15-year-old left for her Montebello high school and never arrived. Due to a series of random events — including her teacher marking her present at school — the girl’s disappearance went undetected until much later in the day. Police had to be urged by the family to look for her before the customary 24-hour waiting period for a missing persons report. The next morning, Sierra’s body was found and positively identified by the family. Persons of interest have been cited in the case, but no arrests have taken place.

In spite of its tragic and gruesome origins, Geiser says the story focuses on relationships and loss rather than ambulance chasing. She says Ehn spoke with Sierra’s family members while working on the text and received their blessing for the creation of the piece.

“This is not a crime story,” says Geiser. “What we were more interested in is how you deal with absence, especially when there is no resolution. What is that emotional journey in the acceptance of loss?”

Sierra’s sister has played an active role in pursuing the killer(s). Participating with television shows like America’s Most Wanted, the family has actively worked to engage the public in finding new leads.

"Clouded Sulpher" by Janie Geiser and Erik Ehn. Photo by Amanda Shank.
“Clouded Sulphur” by Janie Geiser and Erik Ehn. Photo by Amanda Shank.

Ehn’s text leads Sierra and her sister through the journey of the story. Geiser had the luxury of first performing the piece in February, making adjustments and nuances for the current presentation. She describes Ehn’s text as the perfect companion on a journey that is more poetic and intuitive than a step-by-step retelling of events. Ten puppeteers and two narrators manage the puppets, which are between 12 and 24 inches tall. Three puppeteers move together to create one puppet’s physicality.

Getting the “deceptively simple” story on its feet also revealed important artistic aspects of the environment to Geiser, particularly the relationship of the physical space to the puppet characters.

“The landscape was very important to me,” says Geiser. “We came back to the idea of working with dirt and burying things and uncovering them. In fact the set [created by designer Sarah Krainin] is an equal player in the space. It’s more an installation than a set. Sarah was instrumental in the realization of the piece.”

Sulphur will be performed at Automata, a Chinatown home to both experimental film and object performances, where she is the co-director and where she presented the show’s February debut. Krainin has brought in large quantities of dirt to create the playing space.

Geiser admits many of her object and puppetry projects lean toward dark subject matter. But she finds the two compatible for practical reasons, primarily because of how she processes story for the stage.

“I’m often more interested in the smaller events that happen and then spiral out,” says Geiser. “Puppets are just amazing at expressing emotional stories. It would be hard for me to imagine an actress becoming Brenda. The puppet is Brenda. She’s not a human imitating Brenda. So as an audience you watch these figures and you’re not thinking about who they are before they walked into the room. They don’t have any other life than the one we’re giving them as the performer.”

"Clouded Sulpher"
“Clouded Sulphur”

The bunraku tradition may be more than 400 years old, but Geiser believes its power — and the power of all puppetry — will always be part of the performance canon. She describes how most puppetry is often far more interactive than even some audiences realize, with the performers keenly aware of not just their technical task but also their function as actors. Puppeteers provide the direct emotional conduit between audience and object. The audience’s belief in the puppet’s life is imperative to the illusion.

Puppetry also invites the possibility of fantastical storytelling through low-tech means such as defying gravity, manipulating scale and traveling to unlimited settings in a single playing space.

“[Puppets] also live in the luminal space between life and death,” says Geiser. “I’m very fascinated in that space. For that moment of their activation they are alive. There’s something primal about it — such a direct relationship between mummies and puppets. The way we as humans deal with death and life, [puppets] remind us of both. They allow us to enact that transition while we’re alive.”

by Basil Twist and Yumiko Tanaka

“When I was a kid I was always into puppets,” says puppeteer Basil Twist. “As a kid I’d rather have a puppet than a teddy bear because I could make it come to life.”

Based in New York, Twist has spent 20 years refining his craft as an award-winning puppeteer, designer, director and performer. His work not only tours throughout the world but also makes special repeat appearances — such as his enormous Halloween spider puppet performed from a library clock tower as part of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in New York. An innovator in his field, Twist prides himself on seeking new ways to manipulate and transform the inanimate.

During an international puppetry festival in the 1990s, Twist saw an old, black-and-white film showing a brief episode of sliding doors pulling away to reveal additional panels. The visual effect — a tradition from Japan called dogugaeshi — piqued his interest and he set out to learn more about it. His research led him to Japan, particularly the island of Awaji where the ancient dogugaeshi was performed in its day but is now all but extinct in practice, relegated to museums and historians.

Basil Twist
Basil Twist

He visited Japanese scholars and puppeteers, learning all he could about the form which he describes as a “Zen-like meditation” as much as a performance. He even found some of the original panels he had seen in the short film.

While visiting Japan, Twist met traditional shamisen musician Yumiko Tanaka. Bonded by a shared interest in the performance origins, they collaborated on creating the current production of Dogugaeshi as a commission from the Japan Society of New York in 2003. They’ve been refining and performing the show (between periods of creating their own individual work) for the last 10 years.

Tanaka’s involvement as a musician was an important component for Twist. Besides being a master musician of the shamisen and other traditional Japanese instruments, she also provides expertise as an accomplished contemporary musician. Similar to the physical performance created by Twist, Tanaka layers contemporary sound on her traditional score. Twist believes they have made the form their own.

“To a degree I try to re-create the tradition or my homage to it with my sensibility,” says Twist. “The show is also a little about my journey, so it’s non-linear. It even begins with what looks like the small black-and-white film I first saw.”

The collaboration on Dogugaeshi has also spurred Tanaka’s interest in puppetry. Twist is currently helping her develop skills as a puppeteer. She’s even creating her own performance piece. Twist finds Tanaka’s transition a natural progression.

“Not very many people necessarily have formal puppetry training,” says Twist. “So many people come to the discipline from other places, and I’ve had a lot of success with musicians. Basically a person who can transmit energy from their hands often has a leg up on another kind of performer when it comes to puppetry.”

Even though he describes the show as “very low-tech” in its presentation of sliding panels, Twist admits that the show makes up the difference in the physical agility required during performance. Multiple panels are manipulated and configured in a constant revealing that creates a false perspective, with much of the design inspired by the traditional art form.

Having toured the work in Japan and the United States, Twist often invites audiences to see the insides of the rigging to understand the relationship between the complex effect and such a simple visual concept. It’s those mechanics that keep Twist hooked.

"Dogugaeshi" by Basil Twist and Yumiko Tanaka.
“Dogugaeshi” by Basil Twist and Yumiko Tanaka.

“I like that I get to be a performer and a designer and an inventor,” says Twist. “I feel like I’m a musician in that I’m playing a huge instrument. I’m also aware that when you make an inanimate object come to life, it’s extremely powerful for people.”

While Twist rarely likes to approach two projects in the same way, he has noticed the elements of layering seeping into his artistic process. His last work performed in Los Angeles, Arias with a Twist (REDCAT in 2009 with Joey Arias), also incorporated a layering technique, what he thinks is likely an influence from Dogugaeshi.

Twist also sees his work becoming larger in scale as he moves forward. Already known for creating large-scale projects as well as intimate performance experiences, Dogugaeshi has opened him up to more possibilities in animating entire environments rather than focusing on individual puppet-characters. In fact, he’s beginning to think of the intricate rigging of the space as a puppet in and of itself.

“I’ll always be a puppeteer,” says Twist. “I’ll always consider that the soul of what I do. But my most recent shows are more like kinetic set design. Some of them are almost hard to call a puppet show.”

Like Geiser, Twist believes the intrigue between the animate and the inanimate creates something unique to the medium that is difficult to replicate elsewhere. “It wakes up a sense of wonder in people,” says Twist. “That’s a big part of it.”

by Gisèle Vienne, Johnathan Capdevielle and Dennis Cooper

Gisèle Vienne and Basil Twist were trained at the same school for puppetry, École Supérieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mezieres, France (Twist is the only American to have ever graduated from the school.) And although an ocean divides them physically — Vienne currently lives in Paris — the two share a passion for exploring their chosen form and thriving off creative collaborations.

Gisèle Vienne
Gisèle Vienne

Vienne met collaborator (and Los Angeles native) Dennis Cooper in 2004. Cooper, born in 1953, has led an eclectic creative life as a published author of poetry, novels, short fiction and various publications. He has also lived extensively abroad, exploring performance work and writing. Vienne and Cooper first collaborated in Paris in 2005. Their project for Radar L.A., Jerk, didn’t even start as a puppetry performance but as one of Cooper’s 2008 novellas that was requested to be adapted into a radio play.

“We were very excited to work on that text,” says Vienne, “though it needed to have some things changed. Of course, Cooper was able to do some re-writes and we moved forward.”

The novel itself tells the story of a puppeteer performing. The catch? The puppeteer is also an accomplice to a famed serial killer, with plenty of secrets to share.

As a story, it seemed a simple transition to a puppetry performance, but there were adjustments to be made. Originally written with marionettes as the puppets, Vienne wanted to use glove puppets for the performance. She cites the history associated with the more “subversive” glove puppets often used to say controversial or taboo things — think Punch and Judy in 1600s Italy and England. Vienne was also interested in the puppets having a closer connection to the body in performance.

“Glove-puppetry connects the puppet and performer in an intimate way,” says Vienne. “Where the actor is playing a ventriloquist and he himself is also playing a man listening to these voices of the puppets. It feels very interior.”

Through the rehearsal process, Vienne also became inspired by the idea of “stumbling upon” this single puppeteer who then spontaneously reveals his story. The solo performer of the piece, Johnathan Capdevielle, carries the action from start to finish. Vienne also emphasized a homemade look to the puppets through the design concept. Working with Capdevielle and Cooper helped Vienne solidify both text and performance.

"Jerk" by Gisèle Vienne, Johnathan Capdevielle, and Dennis Cooper. Photo by Alain Monot.
“Jerk” by Gisèle Vienne, Johnathan Capdevielle, and Dennis Cooper. Photo by Alain Monot.

“I have always been interested in the figure of the puppeteer,” says Vienne. “Somehow this figure goes through literature as a bit of a social outsider. I also work from a choreography vocabulary that works well with puppetry.”

But don’t expect a completely dark and tense experience. Moments of levity were also part of the rehearsal process. In fact, Vienne feels the ability to find humor is the best way for artists, as well as audiences, to handle such morbid topics. Like Geiser, she also feels it shows the command of puppetry in exploring violence, death or any difficult subject.

“Still in the 21st century this very archaic tool has a very strong power,” says Vienne. “We always have some kind of confused relationship to a puppet. We don’t have these connections to other objects like a table or a chair. [The puppet] has this strong, suggestive power.”

As with Geiser’s Clouded Sulphur, Vienne emphasizes that Jerk is not about the sensationalized subject matter but instead a very human story that anyone might relate to.

Jerk is often described as the accomplishments of a serial killer,” says Vienne. “But I think the heart of the piece is more about a failing of expression. I was very interested to have this fiction about a man who tries to express himself. There are things he finally manages to tell people, but there are other things he feels more comfortable to say through the puppets.”

Vienne says Jerk is a bit more linear than the work she usually creates. But she believes the story’s connection to recognizing truth is important to the way events unfold for the audience, especially because of the subject matter.

She’s pleased that Jerk performances will be presented at Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) during Radar. She feels the piece is more at home among works of modern art than in a traditional theater space.

“In non-linear structure you’re not sure about what is true and what is fantasy,” says Vienne. “I think it is much closer to how we perceive the world. Jerk is a sometimes confusing piece because we describe it as inspired by a true story, but it’s all invented. What’s on the stage is all an invention.”

Vienne also echoes Geiser’s attitude about the importance of the audience when it comes to puppetry on stage. In Vienne’s experience, audiences project multiple fantasies and emotions on the blank forms of the puppets. She feels this phenomenon can lead each audience member to an even more personal experience in performance.

“Forbidden things or scary things seem to lose their power when they are staged,” says Vienne. “It seems that the suggestion is working so much more powerfully than literally showing things. And the puppet is one of the great tools for suggestion.”

Clouded Sulphur, Automata, 504 Chung King Court, Chinatown, Los, Angeles 90012. Sep 23–29. Mon-next Fri 7:30 pm, Sat 3 and 7:30 pm, Sun 5 pm.

Dogugaeshi,  REDCAT, Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, 631 W. 2nd Street, downtown LA 90012. Sep 26 – 29. Thu 9:30 pm, next Fri 3 pm, Sat 7 pm and 10 pm, Sun 2 pm.

Jerk, MOCA GRAND AVENUE, 250 South Grand Avenue, downtown LA 90012. Sep 27 – 29. Next Fri-Sat 10 pm, Sun 7:30 pm.

Radar L.A., many venues in LA and one in Culver City. Officially opens September 24. Through October 1, although some events continue. Tickets: $25; $75 for five-show pass. 213-237-2800.

Amy Tofte

Amy Tofte