[Interview] Puppet Origin Stories: Same Puppets, New Stories

L-R: Becca D’Bus (drag queen), Tan Wei Ting (film-maker), and Hairi Cromo (movement artist) / Photo courtesy of The Finger Players

As a company known for including puppets in its productions, The Finger Players has amassed an impressive collection of puppets. However, most contemporary puppets are created specifically for a production and are almost never used once the show is over.

In recent years, The Finger Players has been looking into sustainability in puppetry through programmes such as The Maker’s Lab. In its latest production, Puppet Origin Stories, co-artistic directors Ellison Tan Yuyang and Myra Loke invited three artists from various disciplines to breathe new life into the puppets and tell new stories.

I interviewed Becca D’Bus (drag queen), Tan Wei Ting (film-maker), and Hairi Cromo (movement artist) to find out more about their relationship with puppets and inspiration for their pieces.

Prior to this production, what does puppetry mean to you?

Becca: I grew up watching Sesame Street and listening to Victor Khoo and Charlie, so puppets have always been magical and fun for me. Later, I participated in my first protest action when I was in college in Boston mostly because it offered me an opportunity to operate a giant puppet down the street. For the most part, puppetry is not something I’m great at; I lack the hand-eye coordination. 

Hairi: To me, puppetry is magic. Puppetry has the power to create illusions by bringing to life the inanimate and the imagination.

Wei Ting: Before this production, I feel like I haven’t had enough of an encounter with puppetry to give it any real thought. I did watch many of The Finger Players’ shows because I am quite a fan of their works.

Becca D’Bus, Deonn Yang, and Mitchell Fang will perform in Suck Sweat Dry, Baby! by Becca D’Bus

What inspired you to create your piece?

Becca:  I fear that as a queer person, I live in a moment where we are not imagining hard enough and are insufficiently ambitious in what we want for ourselves, and I include myself in this. Suck Sweat Dry, Baby! is my attempt to paint a picture of what it feels like to be in this moment. 

Hairi: Jabber is inspired by my own childhood struggles. Upon recent reflection, I have recognised as an adult that these childhood experiences have affected me and my sense of self. This piece is in some part an attempt at coming to terms with these reflections, but ultimately it is inspired by the desire to have the emotional struggles of children be heard and validated by adults that would eventually help them overcome their insecurities. 

Wei Ting: At the start of the project, Myra and Ellison brought the three artists together to share with us all the puppets that we could choose from which are part of the Puppet Origin Stories. I remembered vividly that they laid out what looked like 20-30 puppets, and spent the first hour (or two) telling us the backstory of every puppet: how they were made, what shows were they part of, etc. Throughout the briefing, all I could think of was: “Can I play already?” That was the genesis of this piece.

It further crystallised when I met Tan Beng Tian for an interview. Beng Tian is the puppeteer who first worked with AH MA (the puppet I chose), and is who AH MA is sculpted after too. At the very end of the chat, I asked Beng Tian: “If you were a puppet, what puppet would you be?” At first, she said, “I think I will be a traditional puppet, so I can be preserved eternally in the museum.” She then quickly changed her mind and said “No! No! I think I want to be a contemporary puppet, so I can always be moving.” I think this piece, AH MA, is pretty much inspired by her.

The puppets used were created for previous productions by The Finger Players. Which puppets have you chosen for your piece and why?

Becca: I picked Samsui Woman, Sponge Girl and Moon Baby. I was looking for an incompatibility of size and aesthetic, and I liked the idea of puppets without faces. In part because I knew that they would appear in a VERY different context than their debuts. 

Hairi: I chose Peng and Faceless Maiden. I was the puppeteer of Peng in a recent performance by The Finger Players and have an understanding of the capabilities and potential of the puppet. Thus, I would like to explore him further.

As for Faceless Maiden, I have never manipulated a puppet of such a structure before. I was intrigued by its possibilities, particularly with my intention to include movement and dance elements in my process. I felt she would be an interesting tool to incorporate into the exploration of body physicality. 

Wei Ting: I chose a rod puppet, her name is AH MA. She is very fun to play with. She has this piece of thing in her head, when she drops it accidentally, she will temporarily forget parts of her memories. She was designed for a community show (A.i.D, Angels in Disguise) as a character who lives with Dementia. 

I initially chose it because I read that she was sculpted after the likes of Beng Tian, who is an actor-puppeteer whose craft I respect and admire a lot. After talking to Beng Tian and finding out more about her relationship with puppets and her journey as a puppeteer, I eventually wrote Beng Tian into the play, which she then graced with her presence as one of the performers of the piece!

Tan Beng Tian and Yazid Jalil will perform in AH MA by Tan Wei Ting

How has the process on working on this piece made you look anew at puppetry, as well as inform you about your own artistic discipline?

Becca: Before working on the show, I don’t think I had strong views about puppetry. Now, working with puppets has made me think about drag and performance-making in terms of images a lot more. 

Hairi: Often in puppetry, the puppeteer serves mainly to manipulate the puppet. In this process I have attempted to activate the actors’ bodies in their own right, thus having their physicality and physical expressions become an extension of the puppets’ characters and expand the breadth of the performance as a whole. 

The process has also impacted my practice particularly in the area of generating movement. Usually, I improvise through gestures and viewpoints, but this work has allowed me to think more about text and dialogue as jumping-off points for movement improvisations.

Wei Ting:  Puppetry to me is the inner child in all of us. That imagination that we all had (and hopefully still have) when we made our favourite toys come alive for the first time without ever needing to be taught how to! It’s an art as much as it’s an instinct.

AH MA is my first attempt to play with the theatre medium, which I find really fun. As a filmmaker, I sometimes find it harder to play because the end result is a fixed piece of work that is sealed in time. I’m a terrible perfectionist, and I tend to craft every little detail of it in post-production, which can be rewarding in terms of artistic control. AH MA gives me that liberation to really enjoy the process because the end show is not within my control. Every show is a little different, and in every show and rehearsal, the performers, stage management team, and I would think even AH MA, bring something a little different each time, keeping each encounter and experience alive. 

I think this liberation is something I will bring along with me after this piece ends its course.

Liew Jia Yi and Chai Jean Yinn will perform in Jabber by Hairi Cromo

Were there any interesting discoveries in the rehearsal process?

Becca: That I might be allergic to dust. Also, I can look quite booby!

Hairi: The entire process is one big interesting discovery! As this is my first attempt to both write and direct my own work, every step is a first step and an opportunity of learning.

Wei Ting: Yes. So many that I don’t know where to begin. But I think they are more in relation to the background that I come from. 

I think the purpose of film and theatre are very similar, which is to tell stories. One happens on stage, one happens on screen. But the way of working within the creation process is drastically different. When I make a film, I often have to carry the project all the way from start to end myself. I pick up many collaborators along the way, they add a little something to the story, most of them don’t ever meet each other, and I continue on to the next phase with the project myself. Mostly, I start and end the filmmaking process myself.

But in theatre, it is a lot more collaborative. Once you hand the show over to the actors and the stage management team, they are the ones meeting the audience every night and theatre happens in that space every night without you. Even when you are there, you are not a contributor to the piece, but just an audience. I feel much more like a midwife in this process! And my role is to create a creative environment for everyone to tell this story together. It can only be done together, there isn’t any other way, which, honestly, is really, really nice. 


Catch It!

Puppet Origin Stories will run from 9 to 13 November 2022 at One-Two-Six Cairnhill Arts Centre

One thought on “[Interview] Puppet Origin Stories: Same Puppets, New Stories

  1. Pingback: [Theatre Review] Puppet Origin Stories by The Finger Players: Of Remembrance and Reïnvention | Isaac Tan

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