Murder, Tradition, and a Nine Tailed Fox
Experimental theater directors Gisèle Vienne, Janie Geiser, and Basil Twist present tales of lost children and a rescued theater at RADAR L.A. an international festival of contemporary theater from September 24th through October 1st. Essays and Interviews by Brian Getnick
In the summer months, I remember seeing a little theater box being trolled around behind a bicycle in downtown Chicago. Once parked the puppeteer pushed out a pair of small cat and a dog puppets from behind dish-rag curtains. The two were then frantically waved in the air as if the hands inside them were shoeing the mosquitoes away. When their little heads accidentally smacked together the small crowd laughed. Here the anarchic weirdness of glove puppetry reared its fist-sized head. Glove Puppetry, typified by the Punch and Judy shows seen in French marketplaces and town squares, sometimes presented risqué and newsworthy stories. More often, they heaped one act of transgression upon another. Punch was regularly eaten by an alligator and tormented by a red devil. He delighted in beating Judy with a large plank until she drooped off the side of the box only to spring back later equipped with her own weapon, a rolling pin.
The glove puppets created by French director and visual artist Gisèle Vienne for “Jerk”, a six year and counting collaboration between herself and writer Dennis Cooper, enact episodes of rape and murder based on the true story of serial killer Dean Corll and one of his young accomplices David Brooks. Together they murdered over twenty five boys in Texas in the early 1970’s. The glove puppets in Jerk have a specific crudeness to them both appealing and weird. Perhaps because of their simplicity, and certainly through the facility of performer Jonathan Capedevielle, the puppets attract gruesome projections from the audience. According to Vienne: The most disturbing element is what you imagine. The puppets are very basic so the horror you think you’re seeing is actually what you’re making up in your head.
Jerk by Gisèle Vienne, Johnathan Capdevielle, and Dennis Cooper. Photo: Alain Monot
Friday, September 27, 2013 to Sunday, September 29, 2013 at MOCA
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Brian Getnick: Most of the puppets you make in your visual art practice are obsessively detailed little girl and boy figures. In contrast the puppets in “Jerk” are relatively crude.
Gisèle Vienne: Yes, in “Jerk”, I wanted these puppets to seem as though they were possibly created by the character David Brooks who wouldn’t have been a great visual artist or puppeteer. The puppets are charming but they had to be simple. They are glove puppets. Glove puppets historically were these market puppets like Punch and Judy. They played out extremely subversive material, both grotesque and funny. I thought it was interesting to play with this idea of tradition. Tradition is often equated with conservatism but I want to point out that Glove puppetry was always used in relation to contemporary events. I’m using a traditional form to enact a contemporary play so you could say that Jerk is traditionally subversive. The puppets are basic and archaic and they can be funny but their whole strength is in their suggestive power; what you project on them more than the way they look.
BG: Does that power also lie in the actor’s projection?
GV: Yes the power of the actor’s projection is a very strong element. Jonathan Capedevielle is playing the puppets on his knees so his lap is the puppet theater. I was even more interested in the character of the puppeteer than the character of the puppets themselves in this case. “Jerk” is all about a guy who finally managed to create some distance to a horrible event that occurred in his life. He was the accomplice to a terrible serial killer and rapist. The serial killings did happen but the fact that he’s doing a puppet play comes from the fictional story by Dennis Cooper. The actor can talk to the audience or through the puppets but there are sections in the show where he says these parts I’m not capable of telling to you, but I wrote them down and you can read them during the show. Then the show goes on and it’s about him failing. He crashes. The most dangerous part of “Jerk” for me is when you can’t tell if the actor has any distance to the character he plays.
BG: The puppeteer is being played.
GV: David Brooks is failing, and you wonder if Jonathan is failing. At these times audiences have become really worried for him. Towards the end of the piece he plays as a ventriloquist. He forgets to play with his dolls. He is performing several voices at once as a ventriloquist and he himself is listening to these voices and at that point we reached something close to a pathological scene where you feel that the actor is a schizophrenic.
BG: “Jerk” is a very naked performance, just a guy with some puppets sitting on his lap, but in order for it to work, the audience has to project the horror, to fill in the gaps. In an interview for the show you did with Dennis “Late Spring” at the Whitney you said We need to face horrible things. Were you speaking about the horrible content of the story or the act of projection?
GV: The most disturbing element is what you imagine. The puppets are very basic so the horror you think you’re seeing is actually what you’re making up in your head. I think it’s different for each play but somehow we create an interior, intimate dialog between the audience and the play. The audience not only has to face what is on stage but actually has to face his or her interiority. People have different approaches to things they are afraid of. Dennis Cooper writes terrifying stories but somehow he’s actually fascinated and scared by what he writes about. It’s a very ambivalent relationship. Facing your fear is captivating to the audience.
When I said that quote about facing horrible things I thought about the classical role of Theater. In Greek Theater you have a great catalog of fear and taboos that were staged. I like to insist on this function of art and theater because there is something hypocritical about our relationship societally to our bad thoughts. Horrible things that you can find in the news are commodified. Serial killers sell magazines. We live in a society where it’s important to maintain that we think cleanly but it’s not true. You can be a normal citizen with bad thoughts. It’s important that we face these taboos and horrible things in art. These days when you do it in the art people say “oh you’re just doing it to be perverted, why are you doing these dark things?” Because it’s necessary to do it in society.
BG: We’re talking about different arenas for presenting dark content. In media you suggest that the way they talk about the symptoms of rape and murder is meant for seduction and also gives us a moral high ground so as to not implicate us in the perversion, we can simply enjoy it. Within art, and within what you’re presenting, there isn’t this moral high ground, there’s a decided ambivalence. You provide no moral framework through which the audience can judge the character, this accomplice to rape and murder. Instead, you’re bringing us into the state of mind of the accomplice and once there, it’s far more difficult to judge. And because so much of the gruesome aspects are filled in by our imaginations, we become accomplices also.
GV: The performances we are doing are suggestive. They are almost shy performances, not trashy. Yet we put signs that stimulate the imagination very strongly and in a way that can be very uncomfortable.
BG: Any further plans for the project. Where does “Jerk” go next?
GV: Jonathan has played this part for the past four and a half years. He’s become David Brookes hundreds of time, so it’s time to wind down. This is our last tour. He’s going to perform very rarely next year, just for special occasions.
BG: Like at a children’s birthday party?
GV: Well I think that would accelerate the maturing process a bit too fast.
“Clouded Sulphur (Death is a knot undone)”
In “Clouded Sulphur”, (Death is a Knot Undone) Janie Geiser and Erik Ehn bring to half-life the character of Brenda, a murdered teenager whose body was disappeared in the San Bernadino mountains. The puppeteers that stand behind her figure, though plainly visible, operate her limbs and head with such intense focus and smoothness that their presences, while never completely disappearing, become spectral. In preparing for the piece Geiser led several workshops training the puppeteers through a modified version of Bunraku, a traditional Japanese puppet theater in which large puppets are operated by up to 3 persons at a time. In Japan, apprentices to the form took over thirty years to work out the intricacies of the left hand and feet before they were allowed to take the stage as the main puppeteer. It took Geiser and Ehn’s cast two years to carefully tune the puppets’ movements in the undulating sculptural landscape (created by Sara Krainin) to the equally intricate and hallucinatory story. To one of these workshops Geiser brought in a box of dirt and the image of Brenda burying herself in it for the performers to consider. Says Geiser: When we tried that I knew we had a play. That was our central image, disturbing and beautiful at the same time. She buries herself, goes underground.
Clouded Sulphur by Janie Geiser, Erik Ehn and composer Valerie Opielski, Photo: Amanda Shank
Monday, September 23, 2013 to Sunday, September 29, 2013 at Automata
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Brian Getnick: The title “Clouded Sulphur” is so evocative, where did it come from?
Janie Geiser: “Clouded Sulphur” is the name of a butterfly and the subtitle “Death is a knot undone” came from my collaborator Eric. It’s a literary allusion: when there is a death in the family it unties everything.
BG: Clouded Sulphur’s narrative is based on the actual event of the murder of a teenager yet the story is frequently interpenetrated by mythological creatures and storylines. What were your sources for both?
JG: The particular story is of a girl in East LA who was kidnapped and murdered and the murderer was never found. While I was researching I kept coming upon her sister Fabiola who doggedly kept the story alive. She continues to speak about it out of concern that there are children out there who could disappear again. She’s very clear about that. She doesn’t want anyone else to lose their life. And some of the language that Eric put in the script is verbatim from the interviews with her. She says at one point: Please, I don’t mean to be selfish, but please let somebody else be dead before they find Brenda. It’s like a Greek tragedy. As far as the magical elements, Eric brought in the Lynx. I’m not sure why he brought the Lynx in but it became a larger than life figure. It moves back and forth between life and death like the Anubis of Egyptian mythology; both sinister and protective.
BG: Is this characteristic of the way that you approach stories? When do you leave off the telling of a recent event and introduce a magical creature like this Lynx that resurrects itself?
JG: Pretty much right away. There is a real story and that’s the starting point. That real story is something we all respond to and we all imagine things out of. Everyone thinks, what if that was my daughter, my sister, my son? It’s essentially a small story. There are a lot like it unfortunately. But how do we respond to these horrific events? This is something I return to a lot in my work. Fabiola is tenacious and powerful and yet, she still can’t bring her sister back. She has to go through a journey of accepting death just as Brenda takes a journey through the various stages of death. It’s like going through the Bardos in the Tibetan book of the dead and that is something I don’t know anything about in the real world: what really happened to Brenda and what happens to anybody when they die. Puppets are useful in exploring these unknowable landscapes because they’re so able to traverse the animate and inanimate.
BG: How does working with collaborators effect your imagination and process?
JG: This is the third piece that I’ve done together with Eric and this is the first that we wrote form scratch. I trust him, I like how he brings in all these elements that I then have to respond to and research. The characters he brought in from Norse mythology like Gudrun and the Noh play he inserted in the middle. I’m fond of that play because it brought a measure of stillness to the piece. I also worked closely with Sara Krainin on building the set. At one of the workshops leading up to the performance I brought in a box of dirt and said, I see Brenda burying herself in dirt. That one box of dirt just kept growing into the mountain that Sara made.
BG: During “Clouded Sulphur” the puppeteers’ bodies are exposed at all times like a traditional Japanese Bunraku. What is your relationship to this tradition.
JG: That was the other starting point for me. I love Bunraku and I was re-reading some of its history. The main playwright Chikamatsu drew his inspiration from the lives of the townspeople he was around and that wasn’t being done in Japan at that time. Most plays at that time were written about Emperors, mythology and Samurai but he wrote about the events that mattered to his audience.
BG: Is there a favorite scene in the piece, one where it all comes together?
JG: Well no, It’s all one thing. We all love the Noh play because it causes you to stop and reflect. The Lynx, Fabiola and Brenda have separate arcs and when they come together but I can’t pick a favorite per se…
BG: Well, I have one. It’s when Brenda digs herself into that hole.
JG: In the workshop when we tried that I knew we had a play. That was our central image, disturbing and beautiful at the same time. It said something about her death. I don’t know what it says exactly but it puts her in a whole different plane in the play and it’s something that humans can’t do but a puppet can do well. She buries herself, goes underground. The puppet doesn’t need air.
BG: Three’s an anarchic potential in puppets, they can fly, they can be beaten against each other or a wall, their limbs can come off and on.
JG: They can defy gravity and have many fewer limits than we do. There’s also the scale of these puppet figures against the mountain. They can inhabit the landscape and suggest something really big is around them, that it’s really far from that one end of the set to the other. And we increase that separation with the lighting. We lit either end and kept the middle dark. It’s like when you travel up a mountain and you come to those areas that are pitch black before you get to the town or the national park. There’s something about those dark transitional spaces from city to nature that we wanted to bring in.
BG: Through Automata are you interested in imprinting something about puppetry in the larger performance culture of Los Angeles?
JG: Susan Simpson and I founded Automata because we were both artists working in puppetry and there weren’t any places that were specifically for the form. We wanted to create a focal point, not a center, a focal point for experimental puppet theater and related forms here in LA. People are coming to us and saying I do this. There is a lot of puppetry going on in the world and artists from other places are gravitating towards us too.
BG: After “Clouded Sulphur” concludes what’s next at Automata?
JG: We were donated these two really cool old doll houses and were putting out a call for people to create shows inspired by them, using them as characters, or staging a performance inside their rooms…you should come see them.
Both Geiser and Basil Twist site traditional Japanese puppet forms and stage craft as being inspirational to their performances and as a subjects in themselves. For Twist, the title of his work is taken from a nearly extinct stage craft called Dogugaeshi, an elaborate mechanism that slides over eighty-eight screens back and forth bringing the viewer ever deeper into the recesses of a palace. For Twist, the constant act of revealing is one of the most compelling forces behind the project. It’s that basic gesture of the curtain going up or a door opening and going through it. If you only opened the door a crack, when does the image snap together and you understand what’s back there? The act of opening is a fundamental excitement. And it mirrors his own journey to the Japanese Island of Awaji where Dogugaeshi originated and where only broken vestiges of the once flourishing stagecraft remain. At one point in his research he discovered the collection of an old puppet company complete with a fantastic 9 tailed fox puppet sitting on top of boxes and screens. Twist created a replica of this very fox to dive through the shifting portals in Dogugaeshi which he will soon present on the Red Cat stage. The fox is our guide through the inner chambers of this nearly vanished theater.
Thursday, September 26, 2013 to Sunday, September 29, 2013 at REDCAT
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Brian Getnick: At the center of “Dogugaeshi” is the shifting, many paneled stage. Could you talk about the tradition this centerpiece comes from?
Basil Twist: Years ago, at a puppet festival in France I saw a Japanese film that featured a stage that had these multiple sliding screens opening, closing and flipping and I never forgot it. When I was invited by the Japan Society to make a piece I said I would love to explore this tradition. The title “Dogugaeshi” takes its name from a type of stagecraft that came from the Japanese island of Awaji. I went to Japan to unearth this tradition and as it turns out there are very few traces of it left, just a few destroyed and old set pieces.
Historically, on Awaji, they developed these very elaborate sliding screen set changes that were used to suggest visiting a palace. In most Japanese puppet stages, representations of palaces were limited to just a few screens but on Awaji they used hundreds. Puppet theater companies would compete with each other for the most spectacular set change. Adding more and more sliding screens became an art from in it’s own right. These are very difficult performances. The companies had to travel with a lot of stuff packed in their horse carts and it’s totally understandable that at some point they would give it up…that plus the ravages of the twentieth century. So it’s not seen anymore. My show is an homage to the form, a recreation, but it’s also my story. For instance it starts with a small black and white film of that I first saw in France, and then it goes through the water to these islands, and it builds to a re birth of the tradition where we rebuild and present a spectacular Dogugaeshi. It has eighty-eight different stage pictures of abstract patters, fish, trees or dragons but never humans.
BG: Does the story arch in your performance follow your own uncovering of the form?
BT: It’s not a direct narrative but I look at the folk tradition from a bird’s eye view, people traveling and carrying heavy loads, which is what we’re doing right now as I speak to you. We’re in a truck transporting my set to New York City where were going to perform it before we do it in LA. All this stuff! I’m a performer who has all this stuff.
BG: It’s interesting that you are re approaching these traditions in an age where artists are carrying their studios in their iphones. Here you are carrying truckloads of puppets and sliding screens.
BT: I feel like I’m coming from a different time.
BG: So one of the points of origin for this form is the constant revealing of what lies behind otherwise private walls. Even better, these are the walls that the wealthy hide behind. Is the action of revealing by itself content for you?
BT: It’s that basic gesture of the curtain going up or a door opening and going through it. What’s hidden is revealed. What’s behind door number two? If you only opened the door a crack, when does the image snap together and you understand what’s back there? The act of opening is a fundamental excitement. I think the tradition is based on it.
BG: And yet, what’s behind door number eighty-eight is not strictly speaking, a story.
BT: That’s true. The audience has to project their desires and fears into each opening.
BG: Then there are these fox puppets that fly around between the screens.
BT: When I went to Japan I kept following the thread of the missing theaters. One day I happened upon a massive collection of belongings from a puppet theater, complete with their props…and I discovered that the screens in this place were the exact screens I saw in that film I saw in France. It was a Eureka moment. In that collection of objects was the most gorgeous puppet I had ever seen; a creature with nine white tails sitting on top a bunch of boxes and screens. It was part of that thrilling moment for me to first seeing that film and finding the screens from the film and the fox was there protecting them or waiting. So I made a replica of it and he acts as a guide throughout the show.
BG: The world he guides us through, this stage, sounds like so much more than an effect.
BT: It feels like a living being. When I created this show I took it to the region where it was performed. That layer of meaning remains with the show. It keeps that. It has more weight because it’s been to Japan and back.
BG: And Yumiko Tanaka?
BT: I met Yumiko when I went to Japan. She is an authorized master of the shamisen and is also trained in narration and vocal forms, very respected as a traditional musician. She is also an audacious contemporary musician. She created the entire soundscape and performs live during the show. In fact the stage itself is like a musical instrument. We tune and play it for the performance.
For more information on these and other performances happening during RADAR LA’s experimental theater festival:
Brian Getnick is a performance artist and curator who, with Tanya Rubbak co-directs Native Strategies, a journal and platform for performance art in Los Angeles.