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  • How to think a puppet
  • Melissa Trimingham (bio)

There is a growing awareness of the relevance of cognitive neuroscience to performance studies, but little attention has been paid to puppetry in this context. In an attempt to open up the field of puppetry to McConachie’s’ ‘cognitive turn’, a cognitive approach is here taken to Blind Summit’s ‘The Table’. The solo puppet protagonist Moses is described here as a ‘brain on legs’, a lively, funny and poignant figure who hovers on the brink of epic greatness but remains forever fixed to his table top. ‘The Table’ is analysed from three angles: firstly the use of environmental ‘affordances’ in James Gibson’s sense; secondly kinesthetic empathy as described by Antonio Damasio, Shaun Gallagher et alia; and thirdly, intimately linked to both, emotion. It is by virtue of Moses’s limitations that we are able to glimpse our own potential as human beings, richly embedded as we (and his operators) are in a world of limitless ‘affordances’ or ‘opportunities for action’ in James Gibson’s sense; and able to grow cognitively and emotionally through our contact with others.

The opening up of performance to cognitive studies was prepared towards the end of the 1980 s with the gradual turn from reliance on semiotic analysis of the stage towards phenomenological approaches as a tool for the rigorous analysis of first person experience.1 During the same period, cognitive neuroscientists turned their attention to consciousness and began to study subjective experiences of the mind2. Panksepp, a leading affective neuroscientist and perhaps the best known researcher into emotions through his practical research into the neural circuits and chemical changes in the brain, describes the need for flexible approaches to understanding the whole person in relation to the problem of consciousness:

… science only clarifies functional parts of a complex phenomenon. Other disciplines, from art to philosophy, are needed to reconstruct an image of the whole …3

(emphasis in original)

As neuroscience started to listen to other disciplines, a reciprocal field of cognition studies opened up that takes account of developments in hard (neuro)science, and this field embraces psychology, philosophy, anthropology – indeed potentially almost any humanities discipline, including, recently, performance studies. These scholars are interested in neuroscience for what it tells us about how we may cognize our being in the world, tending to draw on controversial essentialist insights into how the mind works4. This dialogue promises to advance embodied understandings of the mind deriving from philosophy, by using firmer evidence from neuroscience about how our consciousness is formed.5 While the dialogue is perhaps rather one sided currently,6 in performance studies it is becoming evident that, in the face of cognitive understandings, many writers may have to modify well-worn theories rooted within psycho-analytic and social constructivist thinking.7 Scenography and puppetry have always yielded more readily to phenomenological, rather than (for example) Freudian or Marxist interpretations, and it seems a natural development to examine more closely the ‘first person’ approaches within cognitive neuroscience, in [End Page 121] an attempt to tease out key aspects of how meaning emerges on stage through its visual and haptic components. One key aspect, and increasingly so in the contemporary theatre, is puppetry.

Steve Tillis, in 1992, made an exhaustive critique of the then current and largely semiotic definitions of the puppet and what he judged to be the hitherto unworkable taxonomies based either on variations in manipulating techniques or on diachronic categorisations through history, geography, or both.8 His study illustrates the difficulties in defining the enormous and diverse field that is puppetry and warn against any assumed definition of a ‘puppet’: these include rod, string, glove, ‘table top’, and Bunraku puppets.9 Moreover Tillis’s book dates from 1992, before digital puppetry and computer aided design had been developed, all of which further complicate notions of what a puppet is or might be.10 To these varieties of ‘2D’ puppets we might add simple cut out, shadow, and UV puppets.

Jurkowski offers perhaps the most useful definition of a puppet, since he acknowledges the semiological and ultimately dramaturgical impact of what he describes as variations in the ‘power sources’:

…[T]he speaking...


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pp. 121-136
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