The Cloth Dog Seems So Real
Master puppeteer Jessica Scott guides La Divina Caricatura
Read more on this month’s mini-boom in puppetry for adults
If performer Jessica Scott is doing a good job in her current show, then you won’t notice her onstage, even if she’s standing right in front of you. That’s because she’s the head puppeteer of a dog named Rose in La Divina Caricatura, a riff on Dante’s Divine Comedy that’s playing through December 22 at La MaMa (in a co-production with St. Ann’s Warehouse.)
However, when speaking to Scott (pictured above) in her studio in East Williamsburg, it’s clear she does more for the show than help bring Rose to life. There are two puppets on her work table, two sewing machines close at hand, and bags of fabric and fake fur on the ground: They’re all part of her job as the show’s director of puppetry, overseeing 14 other puppeteers and occasionally making puppets herself.
And these aren’t just any puppets. Of the almost 20 featured in Divina, most are rod puppets inspired by the Japanese form called bunraku.
Since it requires three puppeteers, a bunraku puppet is extremely challenging to operate, but for Scott, the payoff more than justifies the effort. “You can’t get the psychology out of other kinds of puppets that you can get from bunraku,” she says. “Because your operator is so close to the puppet, you can get super-nuanced, hyper-realistic motion.”
She demonstrates by picking up a bunny puppet from her work desk. His name is Butch, and he stands as high as a small child, with rods on his arms, legs, and head. She turns and twists Butch’s head while moving his right arm, which contains joints at the socket, elbow, and wrist. The effect—a large, anthropomorphized bunny inquisitively peering left and right, stroking the air with his arm—is eerily realistic. “A bunny is not intimidating unless you make it a giant bunny,” Scott says with a smile.
The notion of an “intimidating bunny” suits the experimental energy of La Divina Carictura, whose extensive subtitle is A Bunraku Puppet Pop-Opera, Part 1: The Shaggy Dog. Created and directed by Lee Breuer of the legendary avant garde company Mabou Mines, it follows a taboo love affair between Rose and her owner John, a junkie and filmmaker.
The extensive cast list includes 15 actor-singers, 15 puppeteers, and a live band, and the show is performed in traditional bunraku style, with the actors speaking lines from the side of the stage while the puppeteer creates the character’s movements.
For the production to succeed, all of these artists must collaborate in multiple, subtle ways. As Rose’s head puppeteer, for instance, Scott must work with her fellow operators to meticulously choreograph the dog’s movements. As puppetry director for the entire show, she must also design every other character’s movement vocabulary and make sure the puppeteers know how to produce it.
“At the top of the show, John is in Tompkins Square Park getting stoned,” she says. “You [as the puppeteer] have to show that he’s stoned and kind of a narcissist. So John doesn’t walk a regular, neutral walk. He has to bounce because he’s a little bit of a hustler. But I have to teach the puppeteers how to walk before they can put a bounce in his walk!”
Meanwhile, Scott also needs to respond to the actors who are speaking the lines. “If Bernardine Mitchell [the voice of Rose] chooses to say something a little angrier, me and my puppeteers know what angry Rose does, so we can catch up with her,” she says.
So how do you know when you’ve gotten the character right? When the audience can imagine the puppet as a living, breathing creature. “They continue to give Rose life even if I’m not there,” Scott says. “Rose is a bag of bones—cloth and wood—but she’s such a strong character. She exists without me.”
Diep Tran is a writer and editor based in New York City