- The Routledge Companion to Puppetry and Material Performance ed. by Dassia N. Posner, Claudia Orenstein, John Bell
The Routledge Companion to Puppetry and Material Performance, the “most expansive collection of English-language puppetry scholarship to date,” spans a myriad of traditions and techniques, from wayang to War Horse (1). Its 28 essays encompass a wide range of critical approaches: from the philosophically reflexive (Margaret Williams on the illusion of life and death, to give but one example) to the practice-oriented (Rike Reiniger’s experiments in postdramatic children’s theatre); from rituals (Jane Marie Law on Japanese rites of mourning) to traditions (Lisa Morse on Sicilian opera dei pupi and Kathy Foley on Korean rod puppetry), to politics and ecologies (Peter Schumann’s poetic manifesto and Eleanor Margolies on food and clay performance). These essays collectively illustrate the complex, interdisciplinary terrain that the performing object traverses, challenging the long-held bias that puppetry “is intellectually and artistically less substantive than theatre in which text or the live body of the actor is central” (1). [End Page 173]
Moreover, the Companion is a welcome and timely addition to the growing theoretical discourse on materiality and object-oriented criticism in theatre and performance scholarship. As Claudia Orenstein argues in the book’s introduction, material performance is especially relevant in contemporary society, where “human flesh and material constructs intermingle in an endless array of configurations” (3). Positioned within material performance, puppetry can potentially destabilize conventional distinctions between the human and nonhuman, allowing scholars and artists to imagine forms of interdependency and agency outside the subject-object binary. Viewed through the lens of new materialism and Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory, the age-old understanding of puppetry as “the human infusion of independent life into lifeless, but not agentless, objects in performance” takes on new meaning (5).
The editors have organized the essays into three clearly defined parts, each of which consists of a brief preface and two sections. Part 1, “Theory and Practice,” prefigures the book’s over-arching editorial goals by fostering dialogue between those who witness puppets and those who make and operate them. Notably, “Perspectives from Practitioners” is the largest of the book’s six sections with eight essays, forming a solid backbone of firsthand experiences and accounts that inform processes and productions described in other chapters.
In many of the articles included in part 2, “New Dialogues with History and Tradition,” artists and scholars attempt to think beyond the rigid framework of tradition in response to pressing factors such as late-20th-century multiculturalism, government policy, tourism industries, and UNESCO’s problematic Intangible Cultural Heritage designation. Although they are somewhat disconnected from the predominantly aesthetic and philosophical concerns of the rest of the book, the essays in part 2 rehearse an important and ongoing discussion on how repertoires and cultural heritages negotiate change, drawing from a rich selection of historical and contemporary performance forms for its case studies.
The influence of postdramatic theatre is most evident in part 3, “Contemporary Investigations and Hybridizations.” The essays under “Material Performance in Contemporary Theatre” provide readers with a sense of how artists have innovatively approached puppetry and object-based performance in recent years, while the final section, “New Directions and Hybrid Forms,” documents groundbreaking experiments beyond the conventional stage, in which the principles of illusionistic puppetry merge with new technologies in robotics, motion-capture digital animation, and automated puppeteering systems. In offering a glimpse of puppetry’s future, the final chapters question the introduction’s invocation of the presumption that puppets rely on the “human infusion” of lifelikeness. Interestingly, while the most striking examples of contemporary material performance openly highlight the interaction and interdependency between human and nonhuman agency (what Paul Piris, in one of the volume’s earliest essays, calls “co-presence” ), the cutting-edge “hybrid forms” of section 4 return to an older idea of puppetry in which the “puppeteer” (in this case, motors, sensors, and computer algorithms) remains out...