A 2 ½ hour long Soviet farce using puppets? You’ve got to be kidding!
Three years ago, I stumbled across a Russian play that had a picture of a puppet with a gun on the cover. Written by Moira Buffini and entitled Dying for It, this new adaptation updated Nikolai Erdman’s 1928 farce called The Suicide, which had been banned by Stalin for its unflattering depiction of Soviet life. I thought this would be great fun to do at Sam but, knowing that the period set and costumes required might be too much for our Showcase’s schedule and budget, I thought I would propose it as a puppet play.
The problem was that I didn’t know anything about puppetry and, if I were to direct this, then I had to learn. So, I submitted a proposal to the O’Neill Theatre Center; it was accepted, and I attended the 2010 National Puppetry Conference, where I discovered that puppetry was much, much harder than I had expected; it might look fun and simple, but the “magic” results from technical skills that I didn’t possess. Feeling a bit intimidated, I put my proposal on the backburner for the next two years.
Then I ended up in Europe for most of 2012 as a Fulbright Scholar to Kosova, a tiny country that had been part of (Communist) Yugoslavia before undergoing a terrible civil war and finally achieving independence. Overall, the experience was incredible, but the working conditions were very, very challenging. I realized that, if I could survive and thrive there, then I certainly could attempt a puppet play back at Sam, so I resubmitted Dying for It, and it was approved. I knew we would go the tabletop route akin to Japanese Bunraku, but, other than that, nothing else was decided.
I returned from Europe the week before the fall semester began. I was uncertain how we would begin until Kris Hanssen offered to have her pattern-making class build the costumes—if I could provide the puppets by mid-term. I made several paper-and-tape prototypes like we used at the O’Neill but quickly realized they wouldn’t work for Kris’ class, which needed something more like dolls. So I started free-styling patterns for the torsos, which then were cut, stitched, and stuffed. Next came arm and leg “sausages” that were attached using fishing gear. The result was something like cloth marionettes, which, fortunately, were finished by mid-term. As promised, Kris’ class had the costumes built before we left for the holidays.
When we returned from the break, a new team of students led by Liz Freese began working on the visible puppet parts: heads, hands, and feet. How to make them and what materials to use proved to be a trial-and-error process which, in the case of our puppets’ arms and hands, still isn’t resolved. Similarly, Craig Brossman’s team experimented with scenery, tables, and furniture for this miniature world with a correspondingly miniature budget.
Though often feeling like the blind leading the blind, the process has been (and continues to be) a fascinating rollercoaster ride with lots of learning curves. Thanks for taking the ride with us!