16 January 2017


Emotional Bodies

I’ve been starting my reading with Dr Helen Stark’s recommendation of Monique Scheer’s essay ‘Are Emotions a Kind of Practice?’.

Really useful to understand some of the historical struggles to define emotion, and how one’s opinion on key terms can limit or define one’s thoughts on the subject. I’m certainly (at this stage and from prior reading) sympathetic to an extended mind model which sees cognition and consciousness as indivisible from bodily experience and I think that the experience of ‘reading’ puppetry supports that. We (puppeteers) typically express ‘thought’ using body language and part of the technique is for the puppeteer not to limit themselves to what they know of body language – defining the interpretation – but to try not to censor physical shifts that are part of ‘thinking a thought’ – the movements or alterations of the physical body that might go unnoticed by even the puppeteer who is trying to analyse them. To perform the character I believe that the puppeteer needs to embody the thoughts; and then to convey as much of that embodiment as possible to the puppet in order to make it available for the audience to access. (there are caveats here relating to clarity of expression). The idea that is described here of the self as a ‘mindful body’ makes perfect sense to us as performers – the body and the mind are one thing and expression or experience happens across both body, the conscious mind and the unconscious mind/body.

It’s interesting stuff for drama and acting training (as well as puppeteer training) to reflect on how much our perspective is embedded in our bodily experience and how difficult it is to get away from it. It might be speculated that using the puppet body – a different body from our own – is an opportunity to escape some of these unconscious habits of behaviour – but in my experience the puppet’s responses to a situation typically begin in the (familiar) body of the puppeteer before being translated to the puppet’s body.

We learn emotion from mimesis and observation

This thought is buried in the essay, as it is not really its focus. But it’s central to what I think I am investigating in that we are completely involved in the observation of emotional activity – and the responses that accompany observation. People often describe watching puppetry as feeling like a child again and I wonder if this is to do with a sense that we are observing something ‘new’ and ‘unfamiliar’ in a way that a child is when observing people. I’m also very curious about the role of watching and imitating in social interaction and empathy.


Continuing research with an Antonio Damasio TED talk on consciousness from 2011. I’ve read Damasio before as one of a shelf full of non-specialist-access neurology books I have at home and found him very useful and I think I need to have an idea of what self and consciousness are in order to look at the phenomenon of apparently detecting one.

Even if I don’t get fully up to speed on how we generate our perception of consciousness I need to have some ideas on what we think are the visible elements of it in others – what it is we see when we think – “that thing feels a self”. Some philosophy of mind activity to balance the historical and anthropological studies of emotion in its social context. Don’t we recognise ourselves in others – and therefore in these puppet bodies too?


And I’m also trying to keep up with literature on puppetry with Dassia Posner, Claudia Orenstein and John Bell’s collection The Routledge Companion to Puppetry and Material Performance. Early days yet but I am struck by Margaret Williams’ comment ‘is puppetry then a mode of spectatorship rather than a specific form of performance?’ This certainly fuels my teaching model which is that the audience or the spectator is active in the performance of puppets.


This week I have started to contact researchers who have kindly agreed to correspond and meet with me on this project. I’m excited by the level of positive response and this morning I booked train tickets to Durham, Bangor, Cambridge and Manchester, and read emails from London, Kent, Bristol and as far afield as Harvard. Drop me a line if you would like to hear who I am going to meet.




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