A couple of days after the election my wife, Jennie, and I found ourselves teaching a master class at the Expressive Arts Therapies Summit in New York City. The class, an exploration of the uses of puppetry for clinical and social change, was an all-day affair, and we were teaching the afternoon portion. In the room with us were a group of long-time mental health clinicians and a few students and educators. All were artists as well.
Jennie and I had worked all summer on a brief toy theatre/object theatre performance that we hoped would introduce the group to some of the key concepts and concerns we wanted to share with them. The “play” was about the efforts of a village to resist loosing their beloved land to ruthless politicians and developers. Unfortunately, we could not decide on an ending, although we tried many. With each new idea, the structure of both the set and the play changed; this became a grueling process.
The day before the class we were sitting in a restaurant across Central Park from the Met, having breakfast, when we settled on the idea that, rather than having an ending, we would stop the performance and shift into Forum Theatre, in which the audience is invited to come up and try out a number of alternative endings. Sure enough, audience members gleefully presented a series of very satisfying endings, most of which we had not thought of.
Jennie then announced that as there seemed to be a good deal of angst in the room, we were, with the permission of the participants, going to teach less and focus on facilitating their creation of short performances. She reassured everyone that whatever happened and whatever was said was to remain in the room. Immediately a woman in the back of the room stood, introduced herself as an experienced clinician, and said, “I just want to get an AK-47 and start shooting people.” There followed a collective gasp. (Wow! What a brave person!) Jennie asked whether others had similar thoughts, and many hands went up, mine included. Suddenly, there was breathing space in the room!
The discussion that followed made room for tears and fears, much anger, and a tiny bit of hope. There was also a good deal of laughter as twenty-five clinicians of diverse ethnicities and sexual orientations compared post election notes. A couple of hours later five groups of clinician-artists presented the plays they had spontaneously developed. The creativity, visual engagement, and deeply held feeling of the pieces resulted in works of rare beauty and power.
At the conclusion of the class, participants spoke with us about the palpable relief they felt in being able to safely put aside their clinician role and give expression to their raw experience. Others stopped us in the halls the following day to share similar thoughts. Clearly, playing with puppets had allowed much healing.
We were not surprised. Puppets have long held a special role in many cultures, freely saying and doing much that would be dangerous or forbidden for mere humans. They carry a sense of the uncanny, seeming to act independently from, and often, in spite of, their human collaborators. Puppets have a propensity for truth telling that can leave the observer moved, mirth filled, and/or dumbfounded. They seem inherently suited to healing.
We have put away the set for our puppet play, although if we can find an ending that works we may take it out and make a video. We’re talking about creating the next piece of toy/object theatre. For the moment though, we are still processing the events of the past few months. I wonder whether those experiences will feed the next play, or whether the piece will arise from something we have not yet encountered or imagined. We’ll see.
© text and photo, Michael Watson