“The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story.” In the opening scene of The Pillowman, playwright Martin McDonagh emphasizes the importance of narrative with these words, uttered by the play’s protagonist. The Pillowman follows Katurian, a young writer, and his mentally handicapped brother, Michal, as two policemen in a totalitarian dictatorship accuse the brothers of child murders resembling Katurian’s macabre tales.
Director Lily Glimcher ’14 has explored a new aesthetic to the text with her production. “The world I hope to create for this version of the play is a semi-futuristic, totalitarian police state, that most often feels very cold, rigid, and lonely. It is a world in which those with power can do whatever they want, and those without it are essentially helpless,” Glimcher says.
The set of HRDC’s “The Pillowman”
Such a change in aesthetic has certainly not caused the team of directors, actors and designers to shirk Katurian’s mandate. Storytelling remains the heart and soul of the play, and Glimcher has chosen to bolster the narrative with the use of puppetry. “The puppetry enhances The Pillowman because it gives us insight into the mind of Katurian. The puppets represent his imagination, so we get to see what that looks like,” says Glimcher.
Glimcher and the cast worked with award-winning puppeteer Joshua Holden to bring puppetry into the world of The Pillowman. “From Joshua and from trial and error, I have learned so much about puppetry and object theater. I have learned that there are no rules, and that it requires a similar vulnerability and focus as acting onstage, as well as the precise attention to detail required of choreography,” Glimcher says. Harvard students had the opportunity to learn about the practice, too. In March, Holden held a puppetry masterclass sponsored by the Harvard Office for the Arts’ Learning From Performers program. I exchanged emails with Holden about the use of puppetry as a narrative device in theater and puppetry as a tool in this production. The Pillowman runs through April 12 on the Loeb Mainstage.
What’s excites you most about puppetry? What possibilities do puppets provide for you as a performing artist?
Everything excites me about puppetry. I love how the art form challenges me to be a better and stronger storyteller. I love how many skills one must master to become an excellent puppeteer: acting, movement, visual art, animation and witchcraft.
For theater in general, how might puppetry be used in plays as a storytelling tool?
No matter how old you are, puppets grab your attention and possess the incredible power to speak directly to your heart and soul. Using puppets, as opposed to humans, makes stories more whimsical — they’re engaging and allow the audience to feel deeply vulnerable. Puppets facilitate real human connection by inspiring transformation in our
personal lives and the world at large. There’s no subject matter that’s off limits, and the possibility of theatrical moments when using puppets as storytelling devices is limitless. With puppets, truly anything is possible.
More specifically, how do you see puppetry enhancing the storytelling in The Pillowman?
The puppets enhance the visceral nature of the show without distracting. At least that’s what we are going for. The process has been so exciting and in some ways, difficult. Whenever you create new work, there are times when beautiful theatrical moments must be cut for the sake of the story. For instance, we had a pair of nun puppets that were pretty darn cool, but they won’t be making their Mainstage debut because when we stepped back and looked at the story as a whole, they didn’t enhance the story like we originally thought. Oh those poor nuns! I still feel bad about it. They were so pissed.
What is most important to keep in mind when puppeteering? How did you work with the cast of Pillowman to help them achieve that?
BREATHE!!! This beautiful expressive breath that we take for granted is the foundation of puppetry and storytelling. Breath tells us volumes about the emotional life of a creature, and through this glorious vital breath, a puppeteer can absolutely channel his or her energy, thoughts and life into the object. It’s one of the most beautiful, vulnerable and magical things to watch.
During Pillowman rehearsals we would first start workshopping the scenes with no puppets – just the actor’s physical bodies in space. Lily, the director, and I would watch the scenes play out and boil down what we saw to the essence of the characters and the action of the scene. Once we had a clear understanding of what needed to happen, we would add in the puppets. When moments became unclear or muddled, the actors would again return to their own bodies and work it out until it was clear what moments were being missed. It was tedious, but so worth it.