Hanging by an 'unbreakable' thread
In the era of optical fibres and internet TV, master puppeteer Gary Jones and the Yuppets are conscientiously educating children and adults about sensitive topics. And now, they are in India!
"Being an artist of any kind in the 21st century is not a choice any sane person would make," laughed Gary Jones, a master puppeteer in the robotically advanced era, who is currently in India to make his puppets dance to his tunes.
At a time when German, French, Italian, and Russian identified the repertoire of grand opera as an endeavour strictly NOT for children, Jones, at the age of 16, became hooked to it. His journey to being a professional puppet artist began in Chicago as the scenic designer of the world famous Kungsholm Miniature Grand Opera.
"The first puppet presentation and the first opera I witnessed was their production of Puccini's 'Madame Butterfly'. I was sixteen and got hooked to it that very moment. I returned to the Kungsholm many times until I was old enough and bold enough to apply for employment there. They hired me as an apprentice puppeteer and assistant scenic designer. For three years, two shows a day and three on Saturdays, plus all of the details that unfold backstage amply prepared me to practice the art form that I seek to share in India. The only roadblocks I encountered was latent racism expressed in subtle and not so subtle ways. None of that, however, derailed me. I was too busy enjoying the challenges of my work," shared Jones.
In l975, he founded his own company, The Blackstreet USA Puppet Theatre which presents 'Gary Jones & The YUPPETS' (Young Urban Professional Puppets).
Since then he has handcrafted hundreds of puppets, trained several aspirants in his unique performance technique and witnessed his work applauded by both national and international audiences. Box office attendance records were broken for his residencies at 'The Smithsonian Institution, Division of Performing Arts' in the '80s.
Over the years, Jones has created an original and eclectic repertoire suited for both adults and young people with a cutting edge focus on dance.
In a free-wheeling conversation with Millennium Post, the master puppeteer talks about being a professional puppeteer in the 21st century, puppetry dying a slow death, and his plans for India. Read on:
What are the duties attached to being a professional puppet artist?
A professional puppet artist has no more duties than any other professional. My goal is to strive for excellence in every discipline that contributes to what the audience eventually sees on my stage. Sculpture, costume design, writer, dancer, carpentry, acting, rehearsal director, lighting design, audio mixes – all of these necessarily must be overseen by the puppet master. When touring, some of these responsibilities are delegated and others dispatched into the scary but often inspiring realm of a low-cost production. The ancient wisdom of 'go with the flow' still applies; often with miraculous results!
What goes behind every story that you portray?
The preparation does not even begin until I have authored the story and revised the script a million times. What goes before this dwells in the messy, sometimes painful room hidden behind myriad false starts, locked doors, and detour signs erected because the damn car breaks down or the credit card limit threatens disaster. The artist continues even with a broken heart or fractured leg. The physical preparation can be a bare stage or an elaborate set like the one that took me six months to complete in Los Angeles.
What is your chemistry with your myriad puppets?
The Blackstreet USA Puppet Theatre operates like most theatrical ventures across the planet. Favourite puppets get the most stage time. There is no such thing as democracy backstage. If you are having an affair with the puppet master, you get the part. A puppet must possess extraordinary capabilities to bypass this regrettable reality. And many do….they are exceptionally expressive, or they might be unusually balanced; their weight often plays a part – a heavy puppet quickly stresses the arm muscles of the puppeteer.
A chemistry between a puppet and the puppet artist usually manifests only after a five or six-year stage association. With time and repeated performances with a particular puppet, one becomes super familiar with that character. One knows that this figure will veer left or right with a certain movement.
Every artist has some inspiration behind their work. What's yours and why?
Inspiration I think is an overused term in the art world. I would say the workings of the creative mind cannot be separated from the functioning of the construction worker, a policeman, or a seamstress. Our thought processes tend to reflect the information that we focus on throughout our lives, consciously or unconsciously. What are we looking at? What are we seeking to find? Do we take everything we see, hear, touch as the last truth? I am always searching for a deeper meaning from all that I encounter and a challenge to the beliefs that have been, sometimes secretly, running my life. If answers are found that produce the "Ah-ha" moment, it has the potential to be converted into an art form to tell others what I have discovered.
Is being a puppetry artist economical in the 21st century? What is the scope of this profession?
Are you kidding? Being an artist of any kind in the 21st century is not a choice any sane person would make. Especially in the US. Although the scope of puppetry can be easily stretched to fit into any activity, it is rarely exploited.
Those industries that have taken a chance by choosing puppets to augment their products, ideas, or anything else, have almost always been extremely pleased and wildly surprised by the results.
You are coming to a country where the art of puppetry is dying and India is not the only country which is losing interest. Your views?
Most countries, including India, are unaware that they see some form of puppetry daily. The traditional puppet artist handling a sculpted piece of wood is usually completely disguised and erased by today's technology. Little electronically controlled robots appear across our movies, television, and device screens so ubiquitously that we hardly notice them. This is a form of modern puppetry. Unfortunately, these pervasive images contribute to the invisibility of the original form which suffers from the usual travails of live theatrical productions lacking a large promotional budget. Multiply this by 100! Even mega corps like Disney restrict their activities in this arena; preferring instead the safer financially wise road of technology. Fortunately, however, this has not stopped artists who continue to pour their energy into exploring their talent through puppets. Regardless of the millions being spent in the auction room of Sotheby's, I applaud every artist, in whatever field, who continues to follow their unique path. Their efforts, although seemingly unimportant, are valuable in the extreme. It is not up to me or any other artist to attempt to revive or reposition the work they are doing to please the market.
What prompts you to give an educational message through your art?
I am no different than any other artist. As long as I feel that accepting the invitation does not seriously distort my art; and that the task may potentially affect a change in perception of puppetry and its capabilities, I say 'Yes, come on guys (my puppets) let's do this!' and they usually follow. The field of education was the first to present its face to me. One of the dearest projects I've ever created was authoring a puppet presentation to educate 5th-grade students to the facts of the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the 1990's. The proposal to create such a program was brought to me by the education department of a hospital serving a very poor ghetto community of Los Angeles.
All agreed that this topic desperately needed to be addressed at an early age. Teenagers were dying in shameless numbers. But holding the attention of 5th graders on such a sensitive topic was a problem the hospital had not yet solved. Enter puppets! To extraordinary success, the program ran for five years until politics cut the funding. Curiously, I was invited to bring my HIV-AIDS education program to Honduras, Central America where I presented it in Spanish. The twist was that I trained teachers to make the puppets and reproduce the HIV-AIDS show before returning to Los Angeles.
You are integrating art and educational experience through puppetry. Are you coming to India with the same objective?
The path that I have set for myself in puppetry is to always leave plenty of room for new ideas, to take the different unexpected road, and to surrender when I get lost in territory I have never before encountered. So I have decided on only one repertory selection
to bring to India. "The Perfect Symbol of Love" will certainly be performed, but whatever else the YUPPETS do will emerge as a welcome creative adventure once I set foot on Indian soil. I am an artist so I am entering the experience of India anticipating her influence as a surprise. No doubt I will be a bit uncomfortable and a bit off balance yet I am sure India will not let me fall. Failure here is impossible. I only hope that whatever I create while in India will be worthy of the riches she will offer during my stay. I say this, aware that the combined energies of India and Gary Jones may not be clearly revealed until I return to Los Angeles.