on a masterclass
with Joao Paulo Seara Cardoso,
artistic director of Teatro Marionetas do Porto
Niamh Lawlor, Púca Puppets (Ireland)
Puppet Centre Trust’s first Masterclass as part of its ACE-funded
Continuing Professional Development Programme for Puppeteers was
a practical masterclass for experienced puppeteers exploring some
of the unique aspects of the work of internationally acclaimed company
Teatro Marionetas do Porto, who appeared for the first time in the
UK at Visions 04. The masterclass took place on October 27th 2004.
The day-long workshop opened with Joao Paulo introducing his work.
He told how his experience ‘apprenticed’ to the last
descendant of an itinerant troupe of puppeteers still influences
him, although he uses many new media also. His talk embraced many
ages and movements, from how theatre once aimed to commune with
the Gods, with performers using masks etc to appear God-like, to
the Brechtian nature of puppetry, the use of a ‘synthetic’
performer being itself an ‘alienation effect’, as the
medium is inherently open about the fact that it is a means of telling.
Joao Paulo spoke of how he feels the more effortlessly naturalistic
media of television and film have robbed, or liberated, theatre’s
ability to represent that way. As a result he feels theatre has
lost its way, and accordingly, is losing audiences. He insists that
what theatre needs to focus on is its liveness, its interaction
in the moment with the very present audience. This is what he likes
to put at the heart of his work - having seen his company’s
performance of Nada – Ou O Silencio de Beckett’ (a homage
to Becket, translating the literary into visual theatre) the night
before, and finding it enthralling, I can say that he has succeeded.
Before we could become lost in theory, we were up and participating
in a series of exercises illustrating the practical root of his
work, and another vital question in puppetry, the relation between
puppet/object and its operator. Having woken up our bodies first
by inviting us to tie eyeballs to various parts of them and play
with how this makes us move, he brought us through a series of exercises
using sticks and balls in both abstract and figurative ways. We
took it in turns to work or to observe, and he asked us to consider
rhythm and dynamism of movement.
At times communication was difficult, he used an interpreter when
he felt his own English was insufficient, yet I felt that some of
what he was trying to communicate would take longer than a day’s
work to grasp fully. His sincerity and passion for his work was
communicated despite language handicaps however. A breakthrough
of understanding came for me when we worked with puppet heads using
our clothing, bags, whatever, to give them some kind of body and
to explore a non-passive, dynamic relationship with the puppet.
After a while, he asked us to look at one participant work. In the
habitual way of most puppeteers, she was attempting to put all focus
onto the puppet by her neutral face and physicality, he asked her
to begin to be more active physically herself, and create dynamic
shapes with the puppet, and before our eyes the puppet became more
expressive too, liberated as it was from its repressed ‘anchor’.
In a paper that he gave us as a supplement to the class he speaks
of how he feels the human body is more and more ‘mechanised’
by society. In his work he tries to make metaphors of this with
the actors’ bodies while at the same time humanising the mechanical
bodies of the puppets, concluding: “The tension this creates
can be very beautiful and moving.” We saw this in the workshop.
After lunch Teatro Marionetas do Porto showed us video extracts
of their extraordinary work. Joao Paulo explains that he prefers
a five-month rehearsal period, and this showed in the quality and
richness of their productions. Puppets are used as just one part
of the whole armoury of theatrical effects, alongside actors, dance,
film, lighting, music etc. He moves freely from one form to another,
choosing whatever he feels best suits the moment. The performers
from the show were beginning to arrive at this stage, and joined
in a discussion that grew naturally from seeing the videos. When
he said that he feels a puppet has a more poetic way of moving than
an actor, that it cannot but be metaphorical, a representing object,
Marta Nunes, the actress from the show, chipped in with: ‘a
puppet can fly but it cannot talk’.
When one of the other participants asked if a puppeteer wasn’t
like a God controlling a human, Nunes insisted she feels like she
is dancing with a puppet, not controlling it. This reminded me of
a touchstone of my own practice, the belief that you need to converse
with your materials (both in making and performing) so that neither
dominates, but a conversation ensues where each teaches the other
what can be said and how. I can see this in good work in many different
disciplines, and of course, in theatre this ‘conversation’
is three-way, including the audience.
After this, the actors brought out the puppets so that we could
have a chance to see how they were made and operate them. They are
‘bunraku’ – table-top puppets - with long rods
on the feet, angled to create startling realistic foot movements.
They were quite heavy with naturalistic costumes, and cast heads
and hands: they showed how they brought spares on tour in case of
breakages, and took one out of its mould to show us, playfully claiming
we were witnessing the birth of a new hand. During the rehearsal
period, the puppet-makers are on hand to adapt and make the puppets,
he told how during rehearsals for Macbeth they kept on shortening
the rods until they removed them altogether.
It was a very valuable day for me, and has already had an effect
on my own work. I am still mulling over what I learnt, and still
being re-visited by moments from the show. Let me try and leave
you with one. A playful section where bowler hats and hands, and
feet in hats, and all sorts, popped playfully in and out of circles
cut in the raked table-top, gradually calmed down to an image where
three bowler hats with a little tree on top of each, suddenly came
to be seen as a Parisian boulevard. Rain fell (beautiful under the
lights, the sound so genuine) and in the breath-held silence when
it stopped, I completely believed a smell of freshness on the quiet
street. Then a little figure, representing Beckett as an old man,
came cycling out and around the trees, the bend of his back with
the slow push of the pedals flooding me with personal memories and
half dreams, so that I was moved to tears. Visual poetry indeed.
For further details of the PCT Continuing Professional Development
Details of the next phase of the programme will be posted on this
website in autumn 2005.