The Bunraku Puppet Project

Six months ago, I made three life-size Bunraku puppets. I made them out of papier-mâché, glue, bits of wood and elastic bands. I found six enthusiastic puppeteers and together we worked on a show called Fritz in Pieces and performed it at the Tour De Force Theatre space in Hackney in August.

A short video of the performance is currently being edited. The idea is to use the video to help generate interest and funding to develop both the show, and other related projects, using these full size Bunraku puppets.

The main character in the show was called Fritz. The plot was simple. A puppet maker makes a puppet and then sends it out into the world.

The puppet (Fritz) finds out that he is not human. He discovers there are things humans can do which he can’t, but he also discovers many things he can do which humans find impossible to do. Fritz can fly. Fritz can sit down without needing a chair. Fritz can move his body in ways humans can only dream of.

There is a lot that fascinates and intrigues me about three people manipulating a life size puppet. The show was tightly choreographed and the puppeteers had to learn a great many skills very quickly in order to make the puppets move in a convincing and human way.

During one of the rehearsals we were working on a scene where Fritz finds himself in the countryside. There was no set or props, just the sound of birdsong. I had no ideas about what he would do so I decided to let Fritz discover things for himself. I told the three puppeteers who were manipulating him just to improvise. It was wonderful to watch. The puppeteers had to rely on their combined intuition. They had no idea what they were going to do. Fritz ended up miming. He picked up a flower and sniffed it. He started waving at the birds he could see above his head. The following day, when we were rehearsing the same scene, I told the puppeteers to improvise again, this time for longer. Again, Fritz was left to do what he liked. This time, quite spontaneously, he met a dog, stroked its back, found a stream and drank the water - all in mime.

In the days that followed – and in the two performances, I left Fritz to do what he liked in that scene. I told the puppeteers not to prepare. I realised that the three puppeteers were evolving a sort of collective memory of what they had done before. They had a choice to repeat actions and movements or do something new.

It became for me the most interesting scene in the play. This was partly because I had no idea what Fritz would do, but also because

The movement quality of the puppet was better. Actors often are uninteresting to watch on stage because there’s something very knowing in what they do and say, which is hardly surprising because they know exactly what they are going to say and do. But a Bunraku puppet, operated by three people, who improvise collectively, is a truly amazing sight.

I want to explore this idea further. I plan to work with the three puppeteers who operate Fritz and develop their skills and complicity to see how far Fritz can go, with three minds and bodies combining, working in harmony to make him move ever more naturally and spontaneously.

In the Japanese tradition there is a hierarchy. The master puppeteer manages the head and right hand, and it is he who decides what the puppet does. The second in command holds up the body and manages the left hand and the lowly foot soldier stands behind, working the legs. But what if the teams could work democratically, the combined concentration of three minds working together, instinctively? Would this not create a puppet with an incredibly balanced, complex, reasoned sensibilities? The puppet’s personality would be the meeting of three minds, the complicity of three minds, the harmony of three minds. They would create a higher being. A superman.

Imagine what this inanimate object would be like, powered by the pure imagination of three people.

It could be that each puppeteer takes charge of a particular aspect of the puppet’s personality. One puppeteer manages his head, which is filled with rational thought. The second manages his body, which holds his heart and his belly – the source of his emotions. The third manages his feet. Perhaps it is in his feet that the puppet keeps his magic. After all, his feet can lift him magically off the ground. His legs can make him want to dance. His legs lead him to adventure. Three elements from three different bodies coming together to create a new complete person, the sum of his parts.

Maybe he would behave like a better human being if these three elements had equal status, equal impact on him. Unlike humans this creature is not ruled entirely by his head.

I am convinced that Fritz has a future.

He could be a stand-up comic, or better still a clown – so that his comedy was physical and generated from his entire body.

He could become a TV personality, a character in a publicity campaign.

He could join up with other Bunraku puppets and they could play football matches together. The most coordinated puppets after all, would be the best footballers. One day there might even be an Olympic games where life-size Bunraku puppets from around the world compete together. Or maybe they might decide they want to do something else. Who knows? I’m very curious to find out.

In the short term I plan to make a short documentary about Fritz.

A camera crew will spend a day with Fritz. They will film him at home. They will follow him when he goes out to the local market, and watch him interacting with the people he meets.

At the end of the documentary he will make a personal plea, straight to camera. He will explain that he wants to meet other full-size Bunraku puppets. Perhaps he is a little bit lonely. Perhaps he finds the company of humans a little dull. They only have one brain and one imagination after all. Fritz will lay down a challenge. He will use the documentary to announce to the world that he plans to be in Trafalgar Square, London at midday on the 21st of June 2015. There, he hopes to meet other full-size Bunraku puppets, and make them his friends.

The documentary will be in effect a challenge to anyone in the world, to make a full-size Bunraku puppet and with three puppeteers, learn how to manipulate it, and then to bring it to London next June, to meet Fritz. It will be a mass assembly of Bunraku puppets.

In order for the Bunraku Challenge to work, the following things need to happen.

  1. The documentary video of Fritz will be loaded on YouTube and will go viral.
  2. The challenge will be taken up by schools, and colleges, theatre groups and we will see something quite remarkable in Trafalgar Square next June.
    With luck teachers around the world will see the huge educational potential of this challenge. Building a life size puppet is a wonderful creative problem solving exercise, requiring technical skill and an understanding of how a human body works. Bringing a Bunraku puppet to life requires teamwork imagination and complicity.
    Fritz will offer help and advice. He will point out that his creators can offer courses in puppetry, where people can learn the essential skills required to operate a Bunraku puppet. His creators can also send out advice on how to make a Bunraku puppet, with drawings and instructions. If I can make a Bunraku puppet, anyone can.
  3. Media companies will pick up on this challenge and other documentaries can be made, following the various groups who decide to take up the challenge.

My task now is to find other organisations and individuals who can help me to make this all happen.
Peter Joucla
September 2014

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