Long-time political media consultant David Soll’s documentary debut, presents a brief history of and insight into the renaissance of the puppet arts. Following a vaunted puppeteer as he brings his latest full-scale production together, Soll builds a larger narrative about the trials faced by artists whose work exists on the fringes of acceptable art.
Similar to what Amir Bar Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That did for modern art, Puppet provides an excellent primer on the history of puppetry, its key players and the pushes and pulls within their peculiar community. Puppet attempts to understand what it is about expressing themselves through intricate blocks of wood that puppeteers find so appealing.
Around the world and throughout history, puppet theater has been revered as high art (allegedly, in Indonesia puppeteers are considered prophets). But in the United States, the grind of capitalism and the insularity of professional art has banished it to the realm of children’s entertainment. As a result of never being taken seriously, struggling puppet artists can have trouble differentiating between when to stay true to their vision and when to absorb valid criticism.
Puppet follows Dan Hurlin, a leader in the field of puppetry, over the course of two years as he produces his new show “Disfarmer”. For Hurlin the stakes are high; his last effort, “Hiroshima Maiden,” told the story of two young women who survived the bombings and were later pressured into appearing on an American talk show in exchange for corrective plastic surgery. At the live taping they were presented with the "surprise guests" -- two pilots of Enola Gay who had dropped the atomic bomb on their country. Hurlin spent years adapting the story for stage and opening ticket sales were strong. But when an extremely negative review ran in the New York Times, the production was shuttered within a week and the blow to Hurlin’s pride is one that clearly still haunts him.
Hurlin’s latest work is based on another true story about Mike Disfarmer, an eccentric portrait artist who documented rural communities in Arkansas in the 1950s. The play takes place the last week of Disfarmer’s life, as he wastes away from old age alone, reflecting upon his life and work.
The vitriolic (and utterly delightful) theater critic David Sefton makes the diagnosis that many fringe artforms are dominated by craftsmen and lack enough storytellers. He goes on to explain that if artists are too in love with the process of their chosen field, then the results are inevitably something esoteric and/or precious.
Soll clearly agrees with this description for what’s missing in Hurlin’s work; he shows us a lot of moments of Hurlin hemming and hawing over minor details while joking about how threadbare the actual content of the story is. The puppeteer desperately trys to force ill-defined ‘collaboration’ out of his puppet operators who would clearly prefer simpler, stronger direction. If Hurlin is, as one of his key funders suggests, the most vital voice in puppeteering today, he probably should be able to better express his emotional connection to the work he’s doing. But instead he cocoons himself in details. No “spoilers” here about how the show goes or how it’s received, but it probably provides a good learning experience for participants and viewers alike.
As a whole, Puppet is a thoughtful exploration about the the artistic process that also captures some of the nuances about how we relate (and react) to human experiences being conveyed in unfamiliar ways.
Puppet makes its world premiere at DOC NYC November 6th and 9th.