Object theatre (sometimes referred to as object puppetry) uses found objects to create a story with characters. Instead of objects and/or puppets specifically designed for the narrative, object theatre deliberately uses everyday objects, either as is or transformed into other things, requiring the skill of the performer and the imagination of the audience for its success.
Not being an expert in either puppetry or object theatre, I was interested in exploring this form. Is object theatre a sub-category of puppetry? Could object theatre exist without puppets? Could students in our drama and theatre classrooms perform object theatre before their peers? If so, could object theatre equally be performed in a Year 3 classroom and a Year 12 classroom?
Object Theatre is a term that we might argue has been ghettoised as a sub-category of puppetry, often used to describe a performance style that contains the animation of utilitarian, or pre-existing ‘found’ objects rather than those constructed for theatrical effect (such as the puppet). As a result, practitioners of ‘object theatre’ commonly share what I consider to be the key principle of puppetry: the anthropomorphic transformation of an object into a subjectified character (a box of spoons becomes a village, a sieve the head of a girl). – Richard Allen
Many practitioners create object theatre as a hidden puppeteer, revealing just their hands to move the objects or with their bodies in full view, but dressed in blacks. The audience is encouraged to ignore their presence and focus on the narrative being created with the objects. However, other practitioners create an object theatre that involves the performer/s in full view of the audience without any attempt to hide the person moving the objects. Some practitioners of object theatre even involve the performer in the narrative, itself.
In many ways, this is akin to various forms of puppetry, with or without objects. We see shows with hidden performers aided by lighting to reveal just what we are supposed to see, while other performances reveal the puppeteer’s entire body.
Is the Broadway spectacular The Lion King responsible for bringing puppetry to the masses on a scale never before seen in the theatre? Many will recall seeing this show on stage for the first time and thinking “Wow! I can see the puppeteer … and they’re cool with that?” Since The Lion King, others such as War Horse have continued this tradition with exposed puppeteers. While I imagine some puppetry experts may be horrified at my reference to The Lion King and War Horse, I’m sure most would agree if we can get the beauty of puppetry to as many people as possible, it can’t be a bad thing.
But, I’ve strayed from object theatre, haven’t I? What happens when the found object/s take/s control of the performance, particularly if the performer was an integral part of the show? The focus shifts…
The elevation of an object from the status of prop to active agent provokes anxiety, because it appears that focus on the object will reduce focus on the human body. This anxiety is in fact justified, because performing object theater de-centers the actor and places her or him in relationship not to another actor or to the audience, but to a representative of the lifeless world. But the lifeless object speaks profoundly when manipulated by its performer. – John Bell
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of object theatre for drama teachers is the power of imagination. As part of our teaching, some of us may already ask students to use objects in particular ways in workshops, rehearsals and performances. Many of these objects may be found objects used as props – a fan, a picture frame, a chair. But often these props already have a purpose. While it can be valuable either making these objects new objects of great significance (symbols) and/or transformed into other objects via the skill of the performer, context of the narrative and the audience’s imagination – with object theatre, it seems the more routine and nondescript the object, the better.
Everyday objects displace traditional crafted realistic or fantasy figures – a little girl might be represented by a napkin; a box becomes a pulpit, a gurney, or a church. Because they are free of an imposed personality/identity, mundane objects activate the imagination and creative intelligence of puppeteer and audience. – World Arts West
We can now ask our students to use their imagination to transform unremarkable objects into something else in the performance. Nevertheless, Christian Carrignon argues the object must first be recongnisable…
To make object theatre work out, the audience must recognize the objects immediately. A feeling of self-recognition through the objects must arise from the very first moment.
While object theatre does require skill from the performer, drama students should easily be able to create class performances using this form. Perhaps a starting point could be dividing a class into small groups, landing a number of ordinary found objects on each group, then asking them to create a narrative based around the objects. Agree on rules in advance. Visible or concealed performers? Use of tables? Curtains? Lighting? ? Performers in narrative? Dialogue?Time limit? Before you know it, your students will have developed a story for presentation using found objects and the power of their imagination.