Puppets, defamiliarization, and realism

I recently went to a talk by South African writer Jane Taylor who, among other pursuits, is involved in the Handspring Puppet Company. The subject of her talk was the evolution of puppets in the plays this company has participated in. She started with pictures of marionettes, then moved on to a puppet that was half-attached to a human body and half its own body, and finally to puppets where the puppeteer walks around holding it. It is amazing how beautifully the puppets are carved and how masterful the puppeteers are at making them feel human, but the whole time I kept wondering: why not just use actors?

I am definitely a realist. Art that gets me excited–in any medium–is art that approaches real life. Actors are more realistic than puppets, so my natural choice would be to use actors. In writing, I look for characters, situations, and relationships that are as real as possible. If two characters interacting have a particularly amazing moment where they don’t say what they mean to say, I am super, super happy. That’s why I secretly-not-so-secretly love the old reality show Newlyweds, which basically followed Nick Lache and Jessica Simpson around all day; we got a glimpse into a real life relationship, and there were a few moments where I really did think to myself about the dialogue, “That’s some beautiful writing there.”

But I was reminded recently of one of the basic theories of writing (and a theory that, I’m sure, extends to the other artistic media). Defamiliarization is the idea of portraying something regular in an irregular way so that the recipient can see it in a new light. We read essays about this concept in two of my intro writing classes because it’s that important.

This, I’m sure, is the theory behind the puppets. Sure, they could tell their stories with human actors–and in fact, many of the plays have both human and puppet actors–but using puppets emphasizes the defamiliarization. It reminds the audience that actors are only representations, too, while also tricking the audience into thinking the puppets are the actors. Jane Taylor also mentioned that it can remove the issue of race, particularly potent in South Africa, because the skin color is just whatever color the wood is.

This was a good reminder for me. In my quest to write realistically, I sometimes want to record everything exactly the way it would be, but that’s not what is important. What matters is to make the mundane new again to make it interesting and to say something with it. Even in realism, I have options for how to do that. I can defamiliarize things through the order of how words, observations, or events are recorded, or in the reasoning behind why certain things are recorded and certain things aren’t. However I do it, whether I remain a realist or suddenly become a surrealist, defamiliarization is the heartbeat behind the art. It is the difference between a grocery list and a poem; it is what makes our words a message.

And here is the trailer for Handspring Puppet’s claim to fame, the puppeted play War Horse

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