Through years of teaching, I have talked about the notion that when you wear a mask, you are both the character and the puppeteer, manipulating the character. This is a way of approaching the fact that donning a mask requires self-awareness, and the development of a “third eye.” You must ensure that your movement is right for the character, your stance is right and your rhythm suits the soul of the character. So it has become fairly common to talk as if an actor wearing a mask is like a puppeteer controlling the physicality of a puppet character.
A recent conversation with my old friend Erhard Stiefel has made me wonder whether it is more accurate to say that working with masks and working with puppets are opposite sides of the same coin. Erhard, a fellow Lecoq graduate and a world-class artist, has been the mask maker for Ariane Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil, among others, for decades. He contends that a mask must possess the individual actor – so the soul of the inanimate mask imbues the actor with the right physicality. With a puppet, it is the puppeteer who must imbue the inanimate puppet with life.
One can see this in the tradition of Bunraku in Japan. This is an ancient art in which stories are portrayed by puppets (some of the themes originating in Kabuki). Seated to one side of the action is a single narrator, providing all the voices of the characters as well as singing and narrating the story. He is seated next to one, two or three musicians.
Each puppet is animated by three puppeteers. The lead puppeteer controls the head and right arm of the puppet, the left arm only by one other puppeteer, and both feet by a third. The sequence of learning these positions is long: ten years learning the feet, then “graduating” to the left arm for another ten years – and then finally attaining the responsibility of animating the head and right arm. The puppeteers are dressed and hooded in black, making them effectively invisible to the audience. Sometimes the lead is not hooded, but to see him is not to see him, as he is in a kind of trance. The head and arm are constantly expressive and emotional, much like a ventriloquist who tries to appear invisible while the doll speaks. But in this case the voices are coming from the narrator at stage left, in full view of the audience. Everything is tightly coordinated with movement, voice, texts and musical accompaniment.
This extraordinary ancient art has an undeniably spiritual impact. I first witnessed it in Ottawa in the early ‘70s and have never been the same. Some recent companies, like Handspring Puppet Company, also invoke the magic of collectively bringing inanimate puppets to real life. This is different from a single performer animating a mask, but the magic of “possession” is the same.