A dozen students enter the Studio Theatre at William & Mary’s Phi Beta Kappa Hall. Amidst the general clutter of the rehearsal space — chairs, desks, extraneous lights, an oddly placed ironing board — they prepare for the Puppetry in Performance class, which is being offered for the first time at the university.
When the first lesson involving large puppets begins, the objects are transformed. A cardboard box rollicks across the tile floor. A janitor’s broom nestles with a long orange extension cord only to be ensnared and wrestled away. The ironing board floats, circles, seems to flirt with the walls.
Dressed in their black rehearsal garb, the students become invisible. Their objects, now puppets, continue to probe and prod in the process of developing distinct personalities. The instructor, Mark Lerman, coaches. “Remember, you are exploring, breathing, focusing on gaze,” he says. “You are experiencing the world through the eyes, through the senses, of the puppet.”
From a distance, it looks as if it is play. Lerman embraces the observation. “What’s wrong with that?” he asks. “We need to embrace play because a lot can happen with play that is valued. It gets into how we value the arts, the performing arts and entertainment, in general.”
The students, in fact, are exploring “object manipulation” and “object animation.” Although a puppet can be any object, some objects are simply objects, Lerman explains. “Puppetry is the process by which the inanimate becomes animate,” he says. “A puppet is used to tell a story.”
Lerman delves further. Much puppetry refers to Plato‘s “Allegory of the Cave,” he says. While people in the cave are seeing only shadows, reality is the object behind the shadows. “What I’m trying to teach the students is to acknowledge that your reality is not always what you think it is,“ he says.
The second session begins featuring feathers as small puppets. Individually, each feather arcs and flutters in an attempt to establish rhythm and space. After their initial flurry, they are instructed to return to their nesting space, a chair in the center of the studio that happens to be occupied by a human.
The feather puppets approach, circle, examine the occupant, gently exploring, ominously driving the human from the seat.