Her performers are made out of paper and paint, shadows and light. Yet Chicago-based puppet artist Myra Su is somehow able to breathe life into the lifeless.
“With puppetry, you literally have to animate an inanimate object in front of an audience, so there’s something very kind of magical about that,” Su said of her medium.
In a time filled with so much fear and anxiety, a bit of magic is a welcome respite. The medium of puppet theatre goes far beyond Muppets and randy inhabitants of Avenue Q. For Su, the fact that many audiences don’t naturally think of puppetry and traditional theatre in the same category is what makes it so exciting.
“The types of people that do puppetry are extremely diverse, because it doesn’t just inhabit this live theatre performative space,” she said. “It attracts makers and fine artists who otherwise don’t ever plan on being onstage or performing. So you get really different types of artists working in this medium, because it’s a fusion of performance and craft.”
Su herself was a self-described “theatre kid” in high school, and she has degrees in theatre and performance studies and anthropology from the University of Chicago. She did not set out with the goal of becoming a puppet artist. Her “aha” moment came when she became involved with the Chicago company Manual Cinema, which uses overhead projectors—those dated dinosaurs of the classroom—to create live, cinematic shadow-puppet performances.
“We have several of the projectors lined up, all shooting at the same part of the screen,” Su said. “And then we have shadow-puppet actors and live-action actors interacting with each other. So the whole experience of seeing the show is, you see the final cinematic product on the large screen onstage, but then, at the bottom, you see us running around using puppets to create those images.”
Su’s own work gravitates toward more “old school” forms of puppetry, which she layers and adapts in new ways, seeing herself as more of a multimedia puppetry artist than a disciple of any one practice. Her productions are stories made lush with hand-crafted visuals created by different puppetry formats, including shadow puppets, projections, cut-outs, and hand-manipulated puppets. One piece, String of Echos, combined most of these, along with the live accompaniment of music by composer and musician Tatsu Aoki. The two collaborated on the concept of the work, which took the viewer on a young boy’s journey from a fishing village to the high seas, discovering mysterious ancient ancestral orbs—all without a single spoken word.
Su’s work is often dialogue-free, relying instead on the imagery she conjures with instrumental music. “I guess I think more in visuals than in words,” she said. “There’s a universality to it when it’s music and visuals. To me, that is appealing.”
Her work often explores different experiences from her life, which she distills down to basic emotions and ideas to create theatrical stories. It takes a lot to pull off these productions, which usually require the assistance of additional hands. Each performance of her and fellow puppet artist Mitch Salm’s haunting 2015 shadow-puppet piece Through the Lookingglass, a psychological thriller about a young boy on his first deer hunt, requires three puppeteers.
Su highlighted the “crankie” format for the National Puppet Slamdemic (think poetry slam, but with puppeteers), which streamed live on May 9. The crankie is a traditional puppet format in which a scroll of paper is designed upon (by painting, drawing, or other artistic medium), then mechanically cranked through to create an actively moving set for puppets to play out stories on. Su’s piece INKED! was originally created for the 2018 Baltimore Crankie Fest at the invitation of the festival’s co-curator, Emily Schubert. Su had not previously delved much into that medium, feeling at first that it was “too static” for her type of work. But she realized she could push the format further than she had thought.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, since the paper’s moving, I can literally hold a brush stationary and the movement is what paints the scroll,’” she said. “So it started with experimentations of what’s interesting about this medium: I can make the crankie paint itself.”
INKED! was exploratory both in format and subject for Su, who credits Schubert with pushing her to work beyond her comfort zone. The performance, which also incorporates projection, presents a power struggle between creator and creation, prominently featuring Su in both roles. Viewers shared their appreciation for the new work during the live feed with comments like, “She is literally behind there painting the crankie,” “Performance Painting!” and “Wow, this is so amazing and ambitious, Myra!” Sam Koji Hale, director and producer at Ibex Puppetry commented, “Love the levels of reality!” And fellow puppeteer Katy Williams enthused, “This is INSANE.”
What Su finds liberating about the art of puppetry is the ability to separate the human body from the live performance, and to convey real stories and emotions through the objects she creates. “People don’t have to see you to see your work,” she said. “You can be a performer without being a performer. You don’t even have to be a person anymore in these puppetry pieces. You can be air. You can be an animal. You can be anything.”
Sarah Tietje-Mietz is a Goldring Arts Journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.