In 2011, I created a hybrid puppetry performance rig that combines physical puppetry with digital elements. I designed the rig to allow me to co-author narratives with audience members in real-time.
The rig allows me to sit and manipulate a puppet mask with my feet while leaving my hands free to control the puppet’s speech, eye movements, and sound effects on my computer, all at the same time. As I move the puppet, I type into my computer. The text I write is read aloud by the computer using text-to-speech (TTS) technology. While I make the puppet talk and move, I also use my computer to control its eye expressions. The puppet’s (video-projected) eyes can blink, look around, smile, look sad, grow angry, become scared, etc.
This performance rig gives me, as a writer, the opportunity to create a show for an audience without the aid of a live actor. I weave together the puppet-and-audience interactions on the fly, improvising jokes, songs, questions, information and anecdotes without knowing where or how things will go… Magically it all comes together to be a “real story” (one that draws the many tangential strands together to a satisfying end) by the end of the show.
This calls for a very different kind of storytelling from fiction and drama. It partly follows the tradition of oral storytelling – seemingly anecdotal, looping with reiterations and digressions, yet always moving forward – but it is complicated and made strange by the particularities of TTS technology and the collision that occurs when half the conversation is being uttered aloud by the audience, and the other half being written by the author-puppeteer.
The original 90-minute show was created in 2011 for Oboro, an artist-run centre in Montreal, and was co-presented by Festival Accès Asie. The audience was largely made up of adults. Later in 2011, Harbourfront Centre presented Gulliver at HarbourKIDS Weekend in a series of nine 30-minute long performances for children (infants to 13-year olds) and their caregivers. Since then, 3 other presenters have expressed interest in the work. Gulliver is not just fun for children or for the child in each of us, but fascinating for adults in the way it plays with popular, classic and imagined narratives, the audience’s acute sense of agency (direct hand in creating moments, situations or shifts) and the multi-sensory, richly layered experience, out of which a whole world and story is born.
When I first created Gulliver, I invited friends and colleagues to come for “play dates” to meet Gulliver. These “play dates” were as much for the guests as it was for me to get to know Gulliver’s personality and uncover hidden tensions and stories. It was a crucial period of technical development too as these were essentially practice runs for me to learn to improvise (I am not a trained performer/actor) and to develop an intuitive sense for sentence structures that the TTS technology is capable of reading (without sounding completely tone-deaf). It was also an important time for learning how to get myself out of sticky situations, e.g. when everyone is talking all at once, when no one wants to be first to respond to Gulliver, when people’s questions are taking us further away from an interesting story, etc.
The performance of Gulliver’s Travels in Montreal was a composite of different games and scenarios collected through the “play dates” and new situations created by the audience in the room. This loose, structured improvisation approach to story creation is akin to the tradition of working from scenarios rather than scripts in Italian commedia dell’arte. Historically, commedia actors would improvise the play based on a sense of scenes/situations (basic plot) that would happen over the course of the virtuosic performance, making up the substance of the scenes on stage with the help of a generous mental repository (treasure chest) of current events, soliloquies or repartees from other plays, popular songs and other extant but unconnected material.
My approach in Montreal, and later for Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, was similar but the difference was that I didn’t know how the story would end. I had a collection of scenarios that I thought I could bank on being interesting and engaging for the audience. What I was less sure of was how we would move from one situation to the next. And it wasn’t until I was nearly two-thirds of the way through the show that I saw how all the different moments were adding up to a compelling climax, resolve everything, and bring us to the end of the show.
It’s usually a rather intimate, private moment – the moment when the story you are writing is finally coming together – you now see how the story lines will merge, who will play fifth business, and what the final scene will be. I love that the performance rig I have created allows the audience to be a part of that moment.
When I performed at the Harbourfront Centre, my last show involved a wizard. Somehow the children in the show had prompted me to tell them a story about Gulliver flying through the sky with a wizard. There was a battle with a fire-breathing dragon, and Gulliver and his boat came crashing down into – guess where? A young girl shouted, “Lake Ontario!” Yes, Gulliver and his boat landed in Lake Ontario, where the nice Harbourfront Centre people gave him a home in this nice theatre. Applause. “But what happened to the wizard?” someone asked. My fingers started typing while I was still wondering to myself, “oh crap, yes, what did happen to the wizard?” Stalling, I asked the audience what they thought had happened to the wizard. Some imaginative, far-fetched answers were thrown about. “No… actually, he’s right here,” I typed. “REALLY?!? WHERE!???” screamed the children. “Behind you,” I typed. “The wizard is behind the curtain.”
Fortunately, I had a lighting technician who had bravely improvised the lighting cues through all 9 shows with me, so just as all the kids turned to look behind them, he gamely pulled out his flashlight to light himself with his glasses and wizard-white beard, waving hello to all the children.
The kids were enchanted. It was a great way to end the show, with a surprise. But the real icing on the cake was the one parent who turned back to look at me, grinning wildly. He knew that I had made up the story along the way, that the moment had not been planned – no doubt he had sat in the hot seat as storyteller himself at some point for his children – and I’d like to think he enjoyed the intertextual reference to the Wizard of Oz.
The intertextuality and conventions that I play with as I “write” the story using this performance rig are aspects that merit more attention and exploration. There is no script in the traditional sense but the performance is rooted in text. I write; the puppet speaks. Half of the script is spoken not written, and unpredictable. I don’t know what the audience will say. As for my half of the script, what I write is shaped by the limitations or particularities of TTS technology, and how quickly I can think and type (and move the puppet at the same time).