What do Puppets, Masks and Control have to do with each other? I’ll bet you a set of carving knives that the common thing you are thinking of is something creepy or scary. And you’d be right… but maybe not in the way you are thinking creepy/scary.
Puppets are scary. When something that is supposed to be inanimate becomes animated, it is pretty creepy… or joyful. It depends on how you look at it. There are several horror movies that play on the fear of “sweet and innocent childhood things” that are “not acting at all sweet and innocent.” Puppets, dolls, clowns and kids fall into this category – see Magic (1978), Child’s Play (1988), and Puppet Master (1989) for some great examples. However, I have always loved the magic of animation and secretly believed my toys came to life when I was out of the room, but in a sweet way… like in Rankin & Bass’ “Island of Misfit Toys” from Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964) or Buzz and Woody in Pixar’s Toy Story (1995).
For the record, historically puppets were pretty violent and anarchist. Some forms of puppetry may have originated as long ago as 3000 years BC. In fact, puppets are older than actors. Ancient man worried acting things out to tell a story was dangerous, and invited bad luck or demon possession. Puppets were thought of as sacred objects and used in rituals. The French word Marionette came from the mid-16th century Medieval time period when a Mary effigy was used in Catholic ceremonies. Later the word’s use expanded to include more types of petite figures.
The French have a long history with puppetry. The Guignol (who hit the French puppet scene around the early 19th century) is a funny little Punch-and-Judy-esque fellow whose main pursuit is going around hitting people with his signature baton. In France, laws can be broken if a puppet is doing the offense. This is probably where they got the idea for the Great Muppet Caper (1981). And yet while French theaters remain shut because of the pandemic, live puppet shows for young audiences (kids in schools) are still allowed. Unlike theater, puppet shows are nimble. A cast with 20 characters doesn’t need 20 actors, and an entire show can fit into 2-4 boxes.
When you mention MASK today in the pandemic, people will think you mean a protective mask to keep you from becoming infected and infecting others with COVID-19. But as a puppeteer, when I think of “masks” I think of puppets. Historically, masks were a device allowing a human to embody an otherworldly spirit or character… just like puppets!
Giving up control to the puppet, to the mask; mask protects you from the spirit – masks protect us from the virus. In performance, when we wear a theatrical mask, we are giving up control to the character that is the mask and exist in a space between the real world and spiritual world. Wearing a mask in the real world also allows us to enter into a world that could be dangerous, but with some protection. Wearing a mask we give up control. Tying to control an environment you can’t control… so wear a mask.
Commedia dell’arte — or “comedy of the profession” — was an Italian form of comedy that was especially popular in the 16th to 18th centuries. Commedia troupes would travel from town to town (and eventually country to country), performing in the open air. It was an ensemble genre, and built its comedy around physical humor and the improvisational skills of its actors.