Animating Bodies and Minds:
L.A.’s Experimental Puppet Theater

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[dropcap]In[/dropcap] a scene from Janie Geiser’s Clouded Sulphur (death is a knot undone), a character named Fabiola Saavedra walks gingerly along the hilly terrain of a foot trail in the San Bernardino National Forest. She plants her shins on the dry dirt, extends her bare hands, and begins to dig.

Behind Fabiola are three puppeteers, obscured by black hoodies and gloves. With looks of deep concentration, they mobilize her metal-hinged wooden limbs and delicate, ovular head.

Fabiola is on a quest for answers. Her story is based on a real-life tragedy: in October of 2002, 15-year-old Brenda Sierra, Fabiola’s sister, disappeared from their East L.A. neighborhood. Shortly after Fabiola submitted a missing-persons report to the sheriff’s department, Brenda’s body was found in the forest with signs of blunt-force trauma to the head. Shocked, bereaved, and frustrated by a lack of information, Fabiola morphed into an amateur detective, searching for clues — whether through interviews with neighbors or at the scene of the crime — to help her and the investigators find justice.

Puppetry may strike many as an unusual medium through which to express experiences as complex and intensely emotional as Fabiola’s. In the popular conscious, it’s rarely considered a serious medium. Rather, it bears connotations of the saccharine and didactic: children’s entertainment, whimsical humor, and neatly packaged moral messages. But to an experimental pocket of Los Angeles artists, it’s capable of much more.

“Visual artists might work in objects, films, performance, writing–I think the lines between forms are really fuzzy right now… We want to contextualize puppetry as part of all of that, rather than a separate form within a form, a little wing of theater.”

Geiser, a visual artist with a focus on dance and theater, is perhaps one of the original members of L.A.’s network of alt-puppeteers. She studied the art form while living in Atlanta in the 1970s and ‘80s, where she first beheld the work of contemporary object performers like Paul Zaloom (perhaps best known as the star of the educational children’s series Beakman’s World) and became involved with the Center for Puppetry Arts, a local experimental venue. There, she discovered the puppet’s potential, prizing it as a cipher through which to communicate thoughts, feelings, and challenges.

“The kinds of stories you can tell are pretty wide open,” she says. “Every time you start, you can create a whole world. You can create the characters in whatever scale you want to.”

Geiser’s work eventually brought her to CalArts, where she served as director of the Cotsen Center for Puppetry. There, she met fellow-performer Susan Simpson, with whom she began to perform at venues like Culver City’s Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Velaslavasay Panorama, a small theater and exhibition hall near USC. As more of their students graduated, the two realized the need for a setting where puppet masters could work and showcase their pieces. In 2004, they founded Automata, a nonprofit they hoped would fill that gap.

“We wanted to find a context where experimental puppet theater made sense. It seemed important that it was contextualized in a way that people understood because puppetry is something that has a lot of assumptions that weren’t really true about what we were doing,” Simpson says.

Originally housed in a 300-square-foot theater in Silver Lake known as the Manual Archives, Automata now has a more spacious home on Chung King Court in Chinatown. There, the organization hosts the work of puppeteers throughout Los Angeles and beyond, from Alexis Gideon’s stop-motion video operas to the shadow puppetry of Zaloom and Lynn Jeffries.

A figure from Janie Geiser’s "The Reptile Under the Flowers" (2011). Photo by Janie Geiser.
A figure from Janie Geiser’s “The Reptile Under the Flowers” (2011). Photo by Janie Geiser.

The organization’s goal, according to its creators, is to “redefine and recontextualize” object performance. Puppetry is largely perceived as a vehicle for traditional storytelling, a form of entertainment reserved for safe, linear themes. Geiser and Simpson seek to challenge this notion, championing puppets not only as capacious vessels of expression, but as an integral part of the scope of contemporary art.

“Visual artists might work in objects, films, performance, writing — I think the lines between forms are really fuzzy right now,” says Geiser. “We want to contextualize puppetry as part of all of that, rather than a separate form within a form, a little wing of theater.”

Occupying another spot on Automata’s roster of collaborators is Eli Presser, who currently serves as Technical Director at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. Originally from Chicago — another hub of experimental puppetry — Presser practiced the craft at the city’s storied Redmoon Theater. In the late ‘90s, he moved west, enrolling at the Cotsen Center and soon bewitching the streets of Los Angeles with a series of single-marionette performances in neighborhoods throughout Los Feliz, Downtown, and the Westside.

In Presser’s untitled street routine (which he has more or less retired), a skeletal figure crawls and bows laboriously, its knees never rising from the hard surface as it drags itself to the other edge. The context of the puppet’s depleted state is unknown, and there’s no overt goal to be accomplished. Without a narrative designation, Presser says, the performance gave the audience members a blank canvas upon which to paint their own mental pictures.

“There were periods when the story was about a person or a sense of the world I yearned for. There were times when I don’t know if I yearned for anything; it was more a sense of dread over my finite nature,” he says. “But members of the audience would frequently tell me stories of what they thought was happening in the show. People filling in those gaps in the story and creating a richer narrative through their own experience in the show was, in the end, the narrative in that show.”

Inspired by these experiences, Presser joined with three other object performers to establish VEM, a for-profit company that aims “to bring puppetry to more people,” in 2012. (VEM, Presser says, stands for a variety of things, among them veritas ex machina and vita ex machina: “truth from the machine” and “life from the machine,” respectively.) One of their greatest ambitions is to create an itinerant performance venue — a sort of food truck for puppetry — hosting shows throughout Los Angeles and beyond. Presser speaks of the project dreamily, envisioning a vehicle complete with odes to 1920s and ’30s America: Art Deco aesthetics, vaudeville-tinged shows, and the Works Progress Administration’s ethos of creating works for the greater good.

A puppet kneels during an untitled street performance by Eli Presser. Photo by Richard Ragsdale.
A puppet kneels during an untitled street performance by Eli Presser. Photo by Richard Ragsdale.

Amid the evolution of their community, their audience, and their definitions, puppets will likely always retain a fundamental sense of humanity. Tangible, malleable, and delicate, they’re a reflection of their creators: material objects made by labor, emotional forces made by experience. As their careful corporeal efforts mirror those of their makers, they become symbols of the tapestry of human existence.

“You’re giving life to these charged objects,” Presser said. “For me, building puppets is very difficult, but the act of bringing them to life is wonderful. It’s very therapeutic. I love the moment of finding how this object is going to come to life, whatever it is.”

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Julianne Tveten

Julianne Tveten

Julianne is a journalist in Los Angeles.