Puppeteering is rough business.
I discovered this when I joined my family in the annual Honey for the Heart parade, which takes place in my hometown of Athens, Ohio, on a Saturday night near Halloween each year. Honey from the Heart is a project led by two local community art activists; each year they commandeer a warehouse space close to campus, and fill it with a range of homemade and reclaimed objects, all for the purpose of creating wearable puppets, with a an emphasis on the outsized. (There was a dragon that required four people to animate it; the ten-foot grasshopper, tied to a man’s arms and legs, looked like something out of a Japanese horror movie.)
The month before the parade is an open invitation to build masks and puppets, and my nine-year-old daughter had spent most of a week there after school, working on—what else?—a giant pink bunny mask. Going to the warehouse was like entering an art maker’s dream—if that dream looked a lot like a papier-mâché junkyard meets costume shop. Materials were everywhere for the taking; my daughter spent every available minute with a hot glue gun in her hand, adorning her mask with tufts of cotton and shiny beads. Elsewhere, the same was happening, except on a grander scale, with costumes to be worn and manipulated, giant puppet heads to be toted, carts to be decorated and rolled.
So when it came time for the parade itself, I imagined myself as a mere documentarian, snapping photos of my family with a shaky iPhone. That is, until fifty people were lined up in their costume rags and puppet glory, and someone asked the suddenly urgent question, “Who is going to wear the goat?”
Philosopher Tzachi Zamir asks, “What kind of object is a puppet and what modes of spectatorship does it mobilize? What manner of art is the puppeteer presenting and what is the source of its prevailing charm?” These two questions capture why it is so difficult—for me at least—to think clearly about puppetry. Is it about the puppet? Is it about the person behind the puppet, or inside it, or underneath it, or hovering above it?
Or is it about the audience member, who sees both questions being enacted at once, in combination or in competition with each other, while wondering at the same time, how the whole thing works in the first place? As Eric Bentley notes, “The theatrical situation, reduced to a minimum, is that A impersonates B while C looks on.” How much more complicated, then, in puppet theater, when C is watching A, well, not impersonate B, not exactly, but something else?
In any case, the relationship between puppet and puppeteer is never simple. At the core, there is always the issue of what Zamir calls the “power relations between puppet and operator.” The operator makes the puppet come to (seeming) life, move about, make sounds and gestures. But that pseudo-life suggests the possibility of autonomy, independence. Even rebellion. Charlie McCarthy mouths off on television. Pinocchio runs away. Resistance or wish fulfillment? Zamir again: “The vexing freedom of flesh, and the friction involved in controlling one’s roles as they become autonomous.”
So I agreed to wear the goat. First I was fitted with a yellow hardhat to protect my delicate scalp as the goat was lowered over my head. The goat was massive. In truth, it was (mostly) just a papier-mâché goat head, but it covered the entire top of my body, resting warily on the hard hat, steadied by my hands. As with most of the charming but hastily made Honey from the Heart puppets, I had to wear its imperfections as well. Staples stuck, pointy end out, from where its joints came together. It was lopsided and difficult to balance. And I couldn’t see anything except my feet.
Here then, was the goat’s flaw. It was equipped with two arcing horns, a full beard, and an expressive, large face, but: no eyeholes. If I had a knife, I could have cut through the fabric around the nose and torn myself a peephole. But I did not have a knife. (Note to myself as future puppeteer: come armed.) So I tried to tear. I took a staple to the meat of my hand. I tore; I bled; I gave up. Then the parade started, and I was walking, counting the bricks in front of my feet.
Honey from the Heart precedes one of the largest yearly public events in Ohio: Halloween in Athens, when college students from all over the state descend on our small university town and attempt to out-party each other. (One year’s highlight: a man punching a police horse.) These students lined the parade route in their skimpy costumes and their Ugg boots, their men-dressed-as babies and their sexy nurses, their store-bought outfits and their last-minute cardboard contraptions. Maybe being a goat wasn’t so odd, after all.
At first I walked dutifully along, balancing the goat on my hard hat and trying not to bump into anyone. But I wanted to see. I wanted to see my daughter in her giant bunny mask, waving a papier-mâché crow. I wanted to see my son, who had grabbed a drumstick and a pair of failing wings and was banging on a pot lid via a rolling, tipping percussion cart. I wanted to see the people seeing us.
As an amateur, and amateurish puppeteer, I couldn’t lose myself in the goat. It was too heavy. I had to tip it to the side just to shift the weight. It hurt to carry it. Every time I looked out people were smiling at me, at the giant grasshopper and the ten-foot puppet heads, at the small children in their oversized masks, at the carnival trombones and the clanging pot lids and the thumping drums. Then we turned a corner and it was over.
In Hebrew, the word for puppet, bubah, is the same as the word for doll, a point that Zamir makes when he reminds us that “on some nonerasable plane, puppetry involves an adult playing with dolls.” The pleasure of manipulating puppets, as a grown-up, pulls us back to our earliest manipulations: the stuffed animal who nods in agreement, the plastic soldier who charges across the floor, the overused superhero in shredded cape who can still follow the arc of our arm to fly over our bed.
A few days after the parade, with her giant bunny mask now propped in a corner, once again clearly just an object, my daughter dressed up her three American Girl dolls for a trip to school. She brushed their hair and chose their outfits and stood them in a row to await the bus. Where were they going? To art school, she informed me, and I left her to wait for the school bus with them, inanimate things that were paving the way toward one possible future.