In the 1970s and 80s, puppeteers like Julio Molnar, Katy Deville, Roland Shon, Christian Carrignon and a few others did something quite strange. They put down their puppets and picked up battered, banal, seemingly useless objects to tell stories.
One of the earliest remembered performances was by Julio Molnar called Tre Piccoli Suicidi starring himself, a glass of water, some sweets and an Eno type digestive tablet. The sweets became characters as he made them talk in different voices and then, intermittently, broke the illusion by un-wrapping them from their shiny wrappers and eating them! The audience was amused and shocked at the sudden reminder that the sweets were actually nothing but sweets. Finally the Eno tablet was popped into the glass of water. And we all know what happens when Eno is dissolved in water. When I watched a recreation of this show on video, I thought the poor Eno tablet had committed suicide. My friend thought it had been drowned. And neither of us was wrong.
Because that is what Object Theatre does. It presents before you propositions through images or sensations, leaving it up to you to read into them.
The idea that objects can be more than just props in the theatre actually germinated much earlier, in the 1940s and 50s, with puppeteers playing and exploring with items, toys, articles more fundamentally ‘dead’ than the puppet. But it took the form a good 20-30 years to come into its own.
And the possibilities are far from saturated.
The thing is, objects are what they are. They are not useless, but they are not characteristically dramatic either.
A roll of plastic sheet.
A few carrots.
We are familiar with their uses and appreciate their contribution in our lives. But whether we are always conscious of it or not, objects hold associations for us.
Depending on its length, thickness and how it is being used, a piece of rope can arouse in me feelings of claustrophobia or constraint. But to someone else it can suggest something very different. Security? A tie? A bond?
Objects are store-houses of emotions and associations for us; influenced by our history, culture, geography, customs, personal joys and traumas, current trends and fashions. Or as Christian Carrignon puts it - like little “memory boxes”.
And the best of Object Theatre seeks to open these little boxes to create one of the most uniting and participatory forms of theatre that one can experience. Through the symbolism or allusion of the objects the performer and the viewer come together to unravel a story that is as universal or as diverse as each person’s mind.
I don’t remember the first time I heard of Object Theatre or exactly when my fascination for it grew. I’d spent a few years dabbling in puppetry and many more years as a stage actor. Some place in between these two lay an area aching to be explored. I just didn’t know how to start. And then, like one of those wonderful coincidences that come along just at the right time, the Institut International de la Marionnette in Charleville Mezieres, France organised a workshop called ‘The Actor and The Object’ in August-September 2010. The Institute is a leading Puppetry school (the Oxford of Puppet Theatre - as my puppeteer friend Anurupa puts it) that organises Professional Workshops (as they are called) for mid-career professionals every summer. The workshops, usually for advanced specialisations in puppetry techniques, are expensive and very, very intense, enabling you to practice and hone what you have learnt there.
The Institute was started in 1981 with the vision of the renowned and revered puppeteer Jacques Felix, and has grown into a pioneer training institution, research base, resource centre and library, and home to one of the largest annual puppet theatre festivals in the world.
After all the stresses and heart-aches of a much-desired application and visa process, I landed 3 hours by train outside Paris in the little town of Charleville Mezieres with its 17th Century architecture, one market complex, 2 department stores, 1 museum, 1 tanning centre, 1ancient haunted villa and 1 puppetry institute. The ancient haunted villa would be my home for the next 20 days.
There were 15 of us at the workshop - 8 French, 1 Polish, 2 Israeli, 2 Brazilian, 1 Iranian and 1 Indian. Our teacher was the renowned Belgian Object Theatre artiste Agnes Limbos. We’d all carried with us our bags of things to play with at the workshop. So we were quite a mix of people and objects. It is because of this diversity that I realised the peculiarity of our associations with various objects and images. And it is because of this very diversity that I also realised the universality and power of non-verbal, non-stated images.
Theatre d’Objet is essentially the creation of a series of images to tell a story, a mis-en-scene. Hence it derives a lot from the language of cinema. It can zoom from wide-angle panoramic view to minute focus from one frame to the next. It can also shift contexts and visual language in an instant. The objecteur places an object on the table. A little paper boat. The objecteur/actor starts to sway with the movement of the sea, and the boat immediately transforms from a thing into a place. The audience has no trouble making the connection between the boat and the swaying actor, particularly when the actor starts to get sea sick.
Usually two parallel forces are at work in Object Theatre. The language of the story or the plot that is being told; and the common associations with the Object in use. Sometimes the plot and the object are harmonious to each other, thus creating a smooth forward narrative. And sometimes, the object and the story are incongruous to each others’ presence, giving rise to humour and a flash of impertinence in the performance. And I learnt that these flashes are the strongest images, both in luminosity and longevity.
The objecteur places a fish-bowl on the table as a metaphor for the deep blue sea. The sea is about to be storm-ridden throwing the little paper boat in chaos. The objecteur points a hair dryer at full blast into the fish bowl and the little paper boat drowns.
The ordinary, the commonplace, the ‘everyday’ has replaced the sacrosanct and the tale now arises from one’s own kitchen, one’s cupboard, dressing table, bedroom, bathroom or any other place you might keep your hairdryers!
It is crucial to elucidate here that the definitions and illustrations I present before you is simply one of numerous ways of using Objects in the theatre. Anything that I identify here as generically being Object Theatre, could be a little like identifying the Big Dipper as the entire Solar system. Or salmon as the only fish in the sea. Or Kath-Putli asthe only form of puppetry.
Object Theatre is the result of an organic branching out from Puppet Theatre. Christian Carrignon had once called it the rebellious first cousin of Puppet Theatre. The first practitioners were their own guides. In various parts of the world, artistes evolved various styles and, I suspect, continue to do so even as we speak.
With a background in puppetry and no practical exposure to its cousin, the workshop was particularly challenging for me. After my first solo presentation, Agnes calmly and firmly informed me that what I had just performed “is puppet theatre, not object theatre”. And before an extremely talented bunch of participants, I was utterly and thoroughly crushed.
And a good thing too…otherwise I would have returned from an object theatre workshop, a more skilled puppeteer!
The workshop did not uncomplicate or simplify the methodology for me. It didn’t even present answers to my confusions. The fine line between Object Theatre and Puppet Theatre eluded me even after my return to India. I avoided dolls for a long time because with them the line got more confusing! Since dolls are animated to make puppets, how do you animate a doll and not make puppets out of them?
What the workshop did was open doors wide enough for me to make discoveries and realisations about this very new performance form on my own. I organised a workshop in my living room with a few friends to iron out these doubts and bought a whole bunch of dolls to deal with the problem head-on. The workshop was productive and tremendous fun. It provided a little headway but still no clear answers.
Then I guess the only solution is to dive into the deep blue sea. A 25-minutes long play culled out of Homer’s Odyssey starring 4 actors/objecteurs, a little paper man, a little paper boat, a fishbowl, a hairdryer, a miniature rocking chair, some hairpins and buttons, a toy fire engine, an electric heater and other such objects. Called Nostos or Homecoming.
The little paper man was not a puppet. It was a little paper man representing Odysseus along with an actor beside it.
Most of what I’ve written in this article are post-performance realisations.
The energy of the object. The participation it demands from the audience. The individualism and the collectiveness of the story told through it. And its quirks.
I guess it goes to prove that anything can be taken into the theatre and theatre can be made out of anything.