5 Questions for Sibyl Kempson by Tim Ranney
What was it about Victoria Nelson’s book The Secret Life of Puppets that inspired you to develop The Secret Death of Puppets?
That book spoke to me, in thoughts and experiences I’d thought and had all my life but had been trained not to listen or attend to. Mac Wellman handed it to me one day when I was in his office at Brooklyn College and I started reading it very slowly. I felt somehow vindicated. Immediately! As if I had known this book in some vague way all along, but could never have articulated it. You’ve got to pick up the book yourself to see what I mean. It’s very academic, but it’s deeper than academia. It reminds. And, in a practical sense, her bibliography set me on a path of many doors which I am still opening. I felt, and still feel, very grateful. I was reading a good amount of Scandinavian and German plays at the time as well, and writing irrational responses to all of it in the form of dialogue. It was Mac who apprised me of the idea that these dia- and illogical responses were the start of my next play. And the idea of reminding about something that we don’t recognize but seems somehow familiar is endlessly intriguing to me.
There definitely seems to be a community of puppet fans obsessed with the goth, grotesque, and death. Are they sad or disturbed in some way?
I’ve known a lot of those people and they often seemed to me very gentle people, with a lot of sad feelings, and I like sadness a lot. It’s a pure emotion, not poisonous on its own. So they are sort of living within a realm of sadness. But there was a guy in college who had a lot of swords and even built himself a throne out of steel in his dorm room, and had a tremendous speaker system and would blast like CRAZY music super duper devil worshipping music. And he had a lot of drug stuff going on, sort of Peter Gatien style, lot of girls hanging around and trouble surrounding. That was all maybe a little much for me, although I like remembering it because so much creative energy went into it, the persona and the aesthetic. It was a complete world. And there also used to be these amazing people - perhaps you remember them - who used to go around the East Village in total period Victorian/Edwardian wear, with monacles and bustles and walking sticks and they were very pale and peaked in the face. It was like seeing ghosts. I don’t even know if they did regular business or commerce like ATM’s or Key Foods or subway tokens. I only ever saw them wandering around the town, with small sacks of heavy coins, never speaking. It was silent and total immersion in the time period, and within an idea of death. Which brings me back to your question. I don’t think it’s healthy to be too fixated or obsessed on anything. But we are all both drawn to and afraid of things that are grotesque and deadly or deathly, uncanny (like puppets or really any human simulacra) or even just the unexplained. If you’re bored at a brunch, just ask the people you’re with if they have any good ghost stories. And one of the main points of Victoria Nelson’s book is that there is a deep-seated reason for those feelings of dread, aversion and fascination that is connected to our early religious experience. Not early like childhood, but early like Antiquity. We feel weird around puppets because somewhere in our consciousness we are aware that we used to worship them. Not as symbols or representations even, but the objects themselves, just for themselves. I mean - WHOA! and - WHAO! Carl Jung talks a lot about it. How we all remember on some level, and share the memory. VN looks at how it comes out in our popular culture, because empirical science doesn’t allow for it to have truth, and neither do our modern religion nor religious practices. We feel safer with everything explained, and with everything we can’t explain stuffed into a familiar and easily-repeatable narrative structure. Chucky. I’m mostly thinking of Chucky.
In what ways do puppets or inanimate objects convey messages to an audience that actors can’t?
Well, the inanimate always reflects, doesn’t it. So whatever messages we are gathering ultimately come from inside of our own selves. Human actors in the West are trained to deliver a text in a certain way that will tell or signal the audience what to think and feel about that text that they are saying. It is essentially the model of advertising, plus a bunch of empirical psychology, mostly Freudian. At least this is my observation. So we are accustomed to being told what to think and feel as an audience, as students, as viewers, as users/consumers. We abide by all the codes, like “Fight,” “Cry,” or “Sexy.” “Buy.” We understand, and consent to those codes. When we aren’t told what to think/feel, we are forced to converse and commune our interior selves. It’s disconcerting. People always want to know what things mean. They want to be told what it means. They want it to be easy and concise and digestible, but that won’t really help us navigate the actual events that happen in our lives. I think that in watching the performances of puppets and objects we have more power and flexibility - and responsibility - to decide what things mean for ourselves.
Your work seems to deliberately confound and challenge the audience. What do you say to people that don’t understand your work or don’t want to invest time in trying to figure it out?
"Go home and watch your TV. Watch Sex and the City. Then go shopping." Or: "Go out into the woods, all by yourself without any technology. Just stay there for the whole day and all night. Then come back." Or: "Go sit with someone while they receive a chemotherapy treatment. Keep them company. Then drive them home."
What is your measure of success and how do you know when you’ve achieved your objective?
I really like when I hear people say, “I was having a hard time figuring it out/understanding what was going on, but then I just relaxed and gave over to it” and then that either they enjoyed it in some way or found themselves experiencing or perceiving the play or the events or the images or the patterns or the language or the rhythm or the atmosphere in some way they are not used to experiencing or perceiving theater shows, and then I love even more when they offer some bit of what it ended up meaning for them, something subjective, something from inside. Because then I know that they decided what it meant for themselves.