I recently filmed a scene for a training video. The other character in the scene was portrayed by a puppet.
At one point we were improvising dialog and I realized I was responding to the puppet as if it were a person. We were, in fact, having as lively a conversation as I’ve had with some human beings of my acquaintance.
In the movie Lili, Leslie Caron’s character is charmingly childlike when she interacts with a puppet. She treats it like a person—and I realized I was doing that too.
How had I slipped from awareness of the stuffed-cloth mechanism being manipulated at my side to accepting its “humanity”? To some extent, I was doing what an actor does, getting into a state of performance as if the puppet were human. The skill of the puppeteer was crucial also. The voice he used was close to a real human voice; his skill at improvising dialog was good. He also gave the puppet human-like reactions: when I raised my voice a couple of times, the puppet flinched.
I enjoyed puppets as a child and remember inflicting my own puppet shows on relatives. Dolls, which my female cousin had a lot of, were interesting only when you made them characters in a narrative. But dolls, too, are a remove from reality, which makes them safe. They are similarly capable of being animated by the imagination, helped along—in the case of marionettes and shadow and hand puppets—by the puppeteer’s work.
There are societies in which images are said to be deities or ancestors, which may be the source of a degree of fearfulness in our response to puppets. Some puppets are villainous or scary—think of the Devil in Punch and Judy shows—or even pornographic. But the ones we love and identify with have childlike voices and though they may have adult identities, they are essentially sexless and sweet.
I can’t help thinking this is a good objective—to maintain connection to something that gets animated by your imagination, from words on a page to sounds on the radio, characters on a stage, or pictures on the wall.
Or the puppet with whom you’re having a profound—and animated—conversation.