Reflections on a masterclass
with Joao Paulo Seara Cardoso, artistic director of Teatro Marionetas do Porto By Niamh Lawlor, Púca Puppets (Ireland)

The Puppet Centre Trust’s first Masterclass as part of its ACE-funded Continuing Professional Development Programme for Puppeteers was a practical masterclass for experienced puppeteers exploring some of the unique aspects of the work of internationally acclaimed company Teatro Marionetas do Porto, who appeared for the first time in the UK at Visions 04. The masterclass took place on October 27th 2004.

The day-long workshop opened with Joao Paulo introducing his work. He told how his experience ‘apprenticed’ to the last descendant of an itinerant troupe of puppeteers still influences him, although he uses many new media also. His talk embraced many ages and movements, from how theatre once aimed to commune with the Gods, with performers using masks etc to appear God-like, to the Brechtian nature of puppetry, the use of a ‘synthetic’ performer being itself an ‘alienation effect’, as the medium is inherently open about the fact that it is a means of telling.

Joao Paulo spoke of how he feels the more effortlessly naturalistic media of television and film have robbed, or liberated, theatre’s ability to represent that way. As a result he feels theatre has lost its way, and accordingly, is losing audiences. He insists that what theatre needs to focus on is its liveness, its interaction in the moment with the very present audience. This is what he likes to put at the heart of his work – having seen his company’s performance of Nada – Ou O Silencio de Beckett’ (a homage to Becket, translating the literary into visual theatre) the night before, and finding it enthralling, I can say that he has succeeded.

Before we could become lost in theory, we were up and participating in a series of exercises illustrating the practical root of his work, and another vital question in puppetry, the relation between puppet/object and its operator. Having woken up our bodies first by inviting us to tie eyeballs to various parts of them and play with how this makes us move, he brought us through a series of exercises using sticks and balls in both abstract and figurative ways. We took it in turns to work or to observe, and he asked us to consider rhythm and dynamism of movement.

At times communication was difficult, he used an interpreter when he felt his own English was insufficient, yet I felt that some of what he was trying to communicate would take longer than a day’s work to grasp fully. His sincerity and passion for his work was communicated despite language handicaps however. A breakthrough of understanding came for me when we worked with puppet heads using our clothing, bags, whatever, to give them some kind of body and to explore a non-passive, dynamic relationship with the puppet.

After a while, he asked us to look at one participant work. In the habitual way of most puppeteers, she was attempting to put all focus onto the puppet by her neutral face and physicality, he asked her to begin to be more active physically herself, and create dynamic shapes with the puppet, and before our eyes the puppet became more expressive too, liberated as it was from its repressed ‘anchor’. In a paper that he gave us as a supplement to the class he speaks of how he feels the human body is more and more ‘mechanised’ by society. In his work he tries to make metaphors of this with the actors’ bodies while at the same time humanising the mechanical bodies of the puppets, concluding: “The tension this creates can be very beautiful and moving.” We saw this in the workshop.

After lunch Teatro Marionetas do Porto showed us video extracts of their extraordinary work. Joao Paulo explains that he prefers a five-month rehearsal period, and this showed in the quality and richness of their productions. Puppets are used as just one part of the whole armoury of theatrical effects, alongside actors, dance, film, lighting, music etc. He moves freely from one form to another, choosing whatever he feels best suits the moment. The performers from the show were beginning to arrive at this stage, and joined in a discussion that grew naturally from seeing the videos. When he said that he feels a puppet has a more poetic way of moving than an actor, that it cannot but be metaphorical, a representing object, Marta Nunes, the actress from the show, chipped in with: ‘a puppet can fly but it cannot talk’.

When one of the other participants asked if a puppeteer wasn’t like a God controlling a human, Nunes insisted she feels like she is dancing with a puppet, not controlling it. This reminded me of a touchstone of my own practice, the belief that you need to converse with your materials (both in making and performing) so that neither dominates, but a conversation ensues where each teaches the other what can be said and how. I can see this in good work in many different disciplines, and of course, in theatre this ‘conversation’ is three-way, including the audience.

After this, the actors brought out the puppets so that we could have a chance to see how they were made and operate them. They are ‘bunraku’ – table-top puppets – with long rods on the feet, angled to create startling realistic foot movements. They were quite heavy with naturalistic costumes, and cast heads and hands: they showed how they brought spares on tour in case of breakages, and took one out of its mould to show us, playfully claiming we were witnessing the birth of a new hand. During the rehearsal period, the puppet-makers are on hand to adapt and make the puppets, he told how during rehearsals for Macbeth they kept on shortening the rods until they removed them altogether.

It was a very valuable day for me, and has already had an effect on my own work. I am still mulling over what I learnt, and still being re-visited by moments from the show. Let me try and leave you with one. A playful section where bowler hats and hands, and feet in hats, and all sorts, popped playfully in and out of circles cut in the raked table-top, gradually calmed down to an image where three bowler hats with a little tree on top of each, suddenly came to be seen as a Parisian boulevard. Rain fell (beautiful under the lights, the sound so genuine) and in the breath-held silence when it stopped, I completely believed a smell of freshness on the quiet street. Then a little figure, representing Beckett as an old man, came cycling out and around the trees, the bend of his back with the slow push of the pedals flooding me with personal memories and half dreams, so that I was moved to tears. Visual poetry indeed.