As playwright Octavio Solis tells it, in the puppet world playwrights are the "low men on the totem pole." Why? Because this is a world in which the power and the prerogative belong to either the puppet artist--the all-encompassing puppeteer/playmaker/director/guru--or to the puppet company, the collective of artists working for a common mean, whether that be political assertion or children's amusement or creative expression. Puppet theatre began, in all likelihood, with the cave man: It was a tool of pageant and ritual, a pure experience. Puppeteers today are traditionally hidden behind a box, scrim or black hood, trying to convince an audience that the inanimate things they hold actually breathe with life. Story and dialogue (if any) are not seen as central. Rarely, in the history of puppet theatre, have playwrights been the driving force behind the creation of puppet works.
It wasn't until the 19th century, in fact, that puppets engaged the imagination of dramatists. The Belgian poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, under the spell of Symbolism and fascinated by mysterious forces, wrote three plays for puppets in 1894. Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, which was performed in 1898 with puppets by the French painter Pierre Bonnard, created a stir because the play's brutal simplicity and its grotesque puppet-like central figure challenged the sacred cows of both Naturalists and Symbolists. Among modern playwrights, only Federico Garcia Lorca seems to have experimented with puppets. Like Goethe, Garcia Lorca rebelled against the realistic theatre of the middle class by writing such lyrical and mocking puppet plays as Titeres de Cachiporra (1949) and El Retablillo de Don Cristobal (1938).
Outside the realm of the puppet artist and puppet company, mostly director-auteurs (like Edward Gordon Craig, Ping Chong, Julie Taymor and Mabou Mines's Lee Breuer) and agit-prop ensembles like the Vermont-based Bread and Puppet Theatre are the primary agents who have seen the power of puppets and incorporated them into their experimental work. The perception remains that these are still the parameters of puppet theatre and that there is little room in the equation for the giant literary ego that is the playwright.
The following roundtable discussion, however, might change that impression. Five stouthearted American playwrights convened by telephone, on the eve of last Halloween, to testify that playwrights, too, can play in the puppeteer's sandbox--that it is a misconception that only puppet-makers and puppeteers can animate puppets. Speaking from New York, Pulitzer-winner Paula Vogel talked about The Long Christmas Ride Home, her puppet play with actors that uses bunraku-style puppets designed by Basil Twist to tell the sad and funny story of a dysfunctional family on a holiday trip. San Francisco-based playwright Erik Ehn elaborated on the recent Los Angeles productions of two loosely related adaptations: Frankenstein, for Theatre of Yugen, which utilized a variety of forms, including shadow figures, toy theatre and doll-style puppets; and Mary Shelley's Santa Claus, for Cornerstone Theater Company, with shadow puppets created by scenic and costume designer Lynn Jeffries. From San Francisco, Octavio Solis spoke about his play The Seven Visions of Encarnacion, an enchanting allegory of mission-era California, played out in shadows cast on an enormous screen and directed by Larry Reed, artistic director of the company ShadowLight Productions. From Minneapolis, Kira Obolensky explained how she conceived and scripted Quick Silver, and even made some of the object table-top puppets herself. Developed in workshop under the auspices of 3 Legged Race and the Playwrights Center (where it was presented last November), the play is a poetic look at the harsh underbelly of American capitalism that features three actors who speak and manipulate puppets. Lastly, Crystal Skillman of New York City discussed her writing process for The Ballad of Phineas P. …