With strings, servos, levers and gears; wood, plastic, stone and cloth, puppeteers inscribe the basic elements of life — motion, breath and emotion — onto the crude, immotive geometries of the material world.
Hannah Miller, a junior sculpture major, is a puppeteer who took up puppetry seven years ago after she stopped touring with her band. This year, she won one of the five $2,000 J.R. Hopes Art Scholarships for her work with puppets.
"My personal art is a lot different than what a lot of people are executing with puppetry," Miller said. "I come from a performance-art approach. I've made puppets that are completely abstract, that look like weird little eggs and embody concepts of otherness, something that goes beyond merely human."
Like many puppeteers, she crafts her own puppets — a process that can take approximately 60 hours. She incorporates found objects into her puppets, using materials that were discarded or once owned by others.
"Here we have these objects that have passed through the lives of so many people — they've survived them and they'll likely survive me, too. Using objects like these, giving them life through motion and breath, is a way of speaking to the concepts and emotions of the world that we can't actually address in words," she said.
Miller's work represents the vast diversity of forms encompassed by the art of puppetry. The traditional image of stringed marionettes herky-jerking across a small-scale stage is but one small example of an art form that includes advanced servo-driven animatronics, massive kite puppets and kinetic stage elements controlled by remote operators.
"There's a term called performance objects, which includes puppets," said Vandy Wood, an associate professor of scenic and lighting design. "Generally, people define puppets as a human or animal figure that's controlled or manipulated by a human, but it can be [any] object that's manipulated or given a life. There's a video online of a bag moving in the wind that feels alive because the way its moving or dancing. Many people will say, 'Oh, that's not a puppet,' but I have a very broad perspective on the matter."
Wood said the true test of a puppet is how well, and how realistically, a puppet performs the few tasks it was specifically designed to do.
"A huge part of designing a puppet is based on what movement requirements or stunt requirements it has," Wood said. "Early on in a play, you need to decide not only aesthetically what that puppet is [and] what that character is, but what the puppet is capable of doing. With a puppet, you're engineering it to do what specifically it needs to do. If I asked you to climb a ladder on stage, as a human, you'd find a way to do it; but ask the same of a puppet, for example, and you'd need one that was designed for the task."
Here in Orlando, the puppetry scene consists of three major players: Disney, whose widespread use of animatronic characters attracted the likes of Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets; IBEX Puppetry, run by the daughter of Jim and Heather Henson; and the Central Florida Puppet Guild, a community of artists that includes professional and amateur puppeteers alike.
But while a new preoccupation with live effects in theater and film has sparked a kind of renaissance for working puppeteers, making a living off of puppetry alone remains a tenuous proposition.
"There's a perception that puppetry is only for young children, but it used to be mainstream adult entertainment," said Sean Keohane, executive director of the traveling puppet troupe Pinocchio's Marionette Theater. "It's only in the last century or so that puppetry was relegated to children's theater, primarily because puppeteers in early America had to make a living.
"But puppetry is an ancient art; it stretches all the way back to the crusades and beyond. We're just trying to keep the art alive."
Bernard Wilchusky is Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow Follow him on Twitter at @facilesweater or email him at BernardW@CentralFloridaFuture.com.