Where I am now: Story and science
I’m working away – a little fruitlessly sometimes – trying to pick my way through how to turn this research into engaging narrative.
I’m focusing on two strands – the perceptual experience and the embodied experience. The idea isn’t to make a show about puppetry – but to allow this research to bring to the surface themes that will be well expressed by puppetry – because of the way it works on us.
My thinking is that when we are watching puppets we are likely to be engaged in embodied empathy with the puppet character and our physical engagement with emotion and action will be quite present. I think we are also involved in perceptual games. The dominant one if course is that something is there in front of us that is acting like a person but is not one – and by extension, in the theatre, a number of things are ‘representing’ with quite loose semiotics. So, in my puppet stage, for example, it’s quite easy for a stick or an object to stand in for a person or a dog.
We see these things and we perceive (without much effort) patterns that allow us to fabulate and ‘see’ the behaviour of people and a story. We watch the puppet differently from an actor because the anomalous aspects of its design and movement keep our attention on it. So familiar movements and experiences that would be ‘tuned out’ as non-meaningful when an actor performs them can seem fresh and engaging.
So what kind of story revolves around these experiences? I made a deal with myself that I wouldn’t make a story about someone who goes mad, or someone who has an unusual condition. I want to play with where these phenomena are at the edge of our everyday experience.
Our unreliable perception – and our tendency to see life when there isn’t any, suggests a story about the reliability of witness. I enjoy Edelman’s contention “every act of perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination”. It’s compelling at the moment to think about fabulation in its wider sense too – how prominent and influential men and media tell stories that make the world they want – or the world they most fear – and how seductive those stories are.
The perception strand expands, if we take in some of the other perceptual errors we fall into, into some profound questions about what we really do see and how our attention and consciousness are formed. This seems hard to talk about but may still be something that the puppets and actors can explore.
The other key strand in the story is about connection – and particularly unspoken connection. A lot of the articles and pieces I’ve been reading have been on how we read emotions, thoughts and intentions in other people – theory of mind, or ‘mind-reading’. Some of this is feeds in to the perceptual story – particularly ideas about how much we predict versus how much we are really seeing. But the side that I find most compelling is all of the sub- (or perhaps pre-) conscious reading of each others’ behaviour that seems to be happening via ‘motor resonance’ and what are being called mirror systems. We know from theatre and literature how powerful verbal imagery can be in conjuring physical sensations – and we know that the physical components of emotions can be contagious. So it seems very plausible that the viewer can read and empathise with the movement qualities of performing objects. How do we communicate when speech is denied to us – how closely can we identify with each other through our gestures and postures? Some of the body image work I have been finding out about suggests that in fact we are having to tell ourselves that each others’ bodies are not our own – and that the body image can extend to include other bodies and elements.
I’d love it if you can think of any good examples of the sort of phenomena here that spring to mind that might be vivid examples to help me compose events and images.