Glynn Bartlett is the Scenic Artist at TDPS and is also a passionate puppet designer and builder. In November 2015, he traveled to South Africa to help design and construct puppets for the Barrydale Reconciliation Day Puppet Parade, an annual collaboration between the community of Barrydale in the Klein Karoo region and South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, known internationally as the creators of the “War Horse” puppets.
THE LURE OF PUPPETRY
I’ve been interested in puppetry ever since I was a kid, probably since I was around 6 or 7. I was one of the first generations to be exposed to Sesame Street, which of course has Jim Henson’s muppets, and that was certainly an early influence. As I grew older I continued to have an interest in puppetry. In college, I took a puppetry class and built my first real marionette, and also made my first large-scale puppet for a production of The King and I. The director decided that it would be great if the evil King Simon of Legree was a traditional Thailand puppet, so I made this giant rod puppet, very simple, with a head suspended by a cable and then big hands on dowels. At the appropriate moment, the puppet rose up and the audience gasped.
Then my career turned more to set design and scenic painting, but every once in awhile I’d still make a puppet because I was interested in the artform. In 2008, I went to Burning Man for the first time. Since Burning Man is a participatory event and an artists’ event, I started to think about what kind of art I could contribute, and I realized it was puppets. Puppetry is a great form of art for engaging a whole community. That was probably the first time I’d done puppetry on a major scale, and it was a little overwhelming! Then around 2010 I started to delve into puppetry more deeply, in part because I moved to a new house that had room for a workshop where I could work. Last April, Handspring Puppet Company had a residency at TDPS [in partnership with Cal Performances] and I realized that puppetry is really my artistic passion.
THE BARRYDALE RECONCILIATION DAY PUPPET PARADE
At one point last year, I was talking about puppetry with Catherine Cole [TDPS Chair and Professor] and she said, “Maybe you should go to Barrydale,” which, at the time, I had never heard of. Every year Handspring works with the Barrydale community to make a puppet piece around Reconciliation Day. [Reconciliation Day, celebrated on December 16 is a public holiday that was instituted after the end of apartheid.] The local school kids are involved and participate in the piece, and there’s a parade beforehand where the puppets and performers go through the town.
I was blown away by what Handspring was doing in this small town in South Africa. So I started emailing members of the company that I had met when they were here at UC Berkeley to see if there was any way I could contribute. They were initially surprised by my suggestion but receptive, saying that they couldn’t contribute any money, but that if I could make my way to South Africa they’d love to have me work on the project. I replied, “This isn’t about money, this is about passion” and bought my plane ticket. I ended up helping design some of the puppets and worked on them for several weeks in Cape Town with Ukwanda Puppets and Designs Art Collective Company and then moved with the team to Barrydale to finish up building and have rehearsals before the performance.
“DIE NAME WAT ONS GEE”
(language adapted from the Barrydale Reconciliation Day Parade tumblr blog)
The 2015 Barrydale Reconciliation Day puppet performance Die Name wat ons gee remembers, honors and celebrates the ancestors of the Barrydale community, who were forced into slavery and indentured labour in the farming districts of the Cape in the 1800s. The story is narrated by ancient Tortoise to young Secretary Bird, who has forgotten how to fly. Tortoise takes Secretary Bird back in time to the Cape Colony where foreign-traded slaves were put to work under horrific circumstances. Amid the devastating losses of homeland, community, sacred names, belonging and humanity, a young slave woman and a Khoi man strike up a friendship in their shared dream of freedom. Through their heroic story of emancipation, Secretary Bird finds the courage to not only face the truth of her past, but to rewrite her future story.
Interesting note: PhD candidate in Performance Studies Joshua Williams was also present in Barrydale, serving as assistant director for the project. His article “Puppets and Politics in South Africa” gives more insight into the theme and meaning of this year’s performance and can be read here.
BUILDING A MASSIVE TORTOISE PUPPET
(from Glynn’s personal notes; language has been lightly edited and condensed)
November 26: Yesterday I started carving the tortoise head for our giant tortoise puppet for the Barrydale/Smitsville Puppet Parade. I got pretty far along with it. The foam assembly and carving process was done in about five to six hours. Although it’s not really necessary, I am hoping to create a moveable jaw so that the puppet will have an animated mouth for talking action. Today I hope to complete the carving and move on to the neck and four feet.
November 28: Yesterday Luyanda, Ned and I put our heads together and figured out an exciting neck control mechanism for our tortoise. The collaboration aspect of group art making is perhaps the most exciting part. It really feels great when everyone in the group gets to contribute to the idea pool to solve artistic problems together. Ned proposed this fantastic solution to allow us to retract the head of the tortoise, as well as allow it to turn from side to side. We figured out how to do all this and provide controls for animating the mouth as well.
December 2: Today turned out to be a great day at the factory. We made some great progress on Secretary Bird and Tortoise puppets. It’s really great getting to have whole uninterrupted days building puppets and having the time and the heads to help figure it all out. We are attempting to give our giant puppets some great opportunities for movement and along with this comes a whole lot of mechanical problem solving. Tortoise was a challenge at the start of the morning. A lot of work was done to stabilize the head and even with that, the head still felt unwieldy and heavy. Finally Ned suggested we do some foam removal in the cranium area. So I did that and was amazed at what a difference it made. Polystyrene seems so light until you get a good sized chunk of it hanging off the end of a pole. So I was feeling hopeful that this was going to work. I rummaged around in the aluminum scrap box and found what turned out to be the perfect ready made piece, which ended up saving lots of time. Then all that was left was to drill the hole into the PVC pipe for the pivot bolt to go through and then tie on the guide ropes that control the head movement from side to side. And then to my amazement it worked! We are well on our way to having an awesome giant tortoise puppet.
December 8: It’s amazing and interesting to be a part of a show and actually be participating in the production as it unfolds. Rehearsals and puppet assembly take place in the same garage on the Karoosee olive orchards and vineyards. I can’t imagine a more stunning place to be creative. Those of us creating the puppets are part of the process in real time; we get to actually see how well or not the puppets are working at the time they are used in rehearsal so we can problem solve as things come up. I wish this sort of proximity and part of the process could happen at home in the professional world. Alas, it is seldom practical or possible. But it’s pretty amazing to get to experience it in this particular setting.
December 10: Today was a day of rebuilding the neck for tortoise. Unfortunately our PVC and dowel did not hold up to the rigors of rehearsal. Ned and I were very busy from late morning into the afternoon getting tortoise’s head ready for this afternoon’s rehearsal.
THE PERFORMANCE COMES TO LIFE
The parade was magical. It starts in front of the Smitsville school and makes a loop around the town and back to the school. At one point in the parade, we rounded the corner of the road to head back and were greeted with an astounding view of the valley. Absolutely stunning. It actually brought tears to my eyes.
Once we got back to the school, we made our way to the play field behind the school. By this point the stone bleachers were completely filled with audience. It was incredible. I was asked, along with my fellow puppet builders, to help in the tortoise transition from horizontal to vertical.
We had a tense moment when the shell (that was tied on with twine) got knotted as the performers attempted to undo it. So we had a bit of worry and a delayed start as we fumbled and made do. The other fluke was an unexpected power failure for the lighting. This turned out to truly be a community event in that only one light was operational so surrounding cars provided side lighting with their headlights. It really added something special in the end and, as always, the show must go on!
In spite of the rough spots, I can’t imagine a more beautiful, energetic, and meaningful outcome than what we had that evening. At the end of the performance the audience was invited to come down, given “wings,” and everyone danced with the performers. Words can’t adequately describe the feeling, except to say it was absolutely magical. After all was said and done it was clear to me that all the energy and creativity put into the prior weeks of preparation, rehearsing, and puppet building all paid off in the end.