Puppetry, Mechanical Intimacy, and the Critical Power of Silliness

marissa fenley and puppet

Marissa Fenley is a PhD candidate in English and TAPS (Theater and Performance Studies), as well as an ASCI Graduate Fellow. Lee Jasperse, ASCI’s Graduate Management Fellow, interviews Marissa on what puppets teach us about intimacy, how play and silliness enter into her scholarly process, and how a lifelong engagement with puppets inspired her dissertation project. Below is an excerpt from their interview. Read it in its entirety here.

Lee Jasperse: Could you start by giving us your dissertation “pitch”?

Marissa Fenley: I just finished the first chapter so you’re catching me in a moment of clarity but also one in which my thinking about the project has just been restructured. That said, the dissertation is about puppetry in the 20th and 21st centuries. I’m looking at the ways that puppets materialize the mechanical structure of intimacy. Each chapter is looking at a distinct tradition or technique of puppetry, attending to the mechanics that make these techniques. Then I look at how those mechanics end up influencing the types of relationships those puppets perform with their puppeteer, with other puppets, and with the audience. Throughout, I approach puppets as anthropomorphic: they’re always standing in for people and carrying with them certain assumptions about personhood, about what makes people seem like people.

The dissertation opens with ventriloquism. I looked at what I’m calling “bad listening” in this tradition. Ventriloquism works because we’re really bad at telling where sound is coming from; ventriloquism relies on its audience not really hearing the dummy most of the time (think about how often the ventriloquist repeats what the dummy says). So, I’m thinking about how “bad listening” in our everyday life is performed by ventriloquism.

I’m also looking at how the ground of ventriloquism historically is minstrelsy shows. So even if ventriloquism isn’t borrowing the direct racial iconography of minstrelsy, they are often borrowing its view of what the sovereign autonomous self is in relation to a disavowed other.

LJ: Given the way that critics throw around the language of ventriloquism, usually metaphorically, it’s interesting to hear you dive into the literal techniques that underscore it, which we often overlook.

MF: Right. People use ventriloquism to mean the process of speaking for another and the problems that come with that. This shorthand usage doesn’t think about the performance form at all, or if it does, it thinks of it as something that’s like, “Oh this is a completely clear hierarchy. The dummy is completely disenfranchised and the ventriloquist has all the power.” This entails a very simple set of assumptions about how clear-cut the performance form is. Even though I find these hierarchies to be present, the performance form is far more complex than just that.

LJ: It seems like at the very least your pointing to all the sorts of bodily effort and labor that one has to go through in order to maintain that hierarchy.

MF: And who or what is invested in maintaining it. When you look at all the weird things you have to do to maintain the ventriloquist’s dominance, you wonder “Why is it still so popular?” Like, people are getting something out of it, something other forms don’t give you. Why is this the preferred form to assert this type of dominance? It’s really strange.

LJ: The abasement you have to go through in order to assert yourself as a sovereign, autonomous self is strange. Can you elaborate a little more on what you mean on the “mechanical structure of intimacy”?

MF: Totally. Intimacy often entails dynamics that are presumed to be rigid. There’s a program by which intimacy is carried out as if it’s not something that you actively maintain, but something that is literally mechanized. We often take proximity, voicing, who gets to speak when, etc. as given, as determined by roles. These are things that define the scope of what a given relationship can look like, preventing active negotiation between participants. The relationship is understood instead as something that exists autonomously from the two people—as something that sutures them together in a particular way that repeats itself endlessly. These assumptions don’t enable active improvisation between people that would change the relationship as you go forward. I use the language of “arrested development” to describe these relationships: their mechanization is about trying to keep the relationship static. Mechanization promises your connection to someone: if you just keep performing the same way, you will continue to be related to the other person in the way you want.

Ventriloquism thinks through this mechanization of intimacy. That’s why I think ventriloquism wants to mechanize intimacy, and why this form’s mechanics are actually quite transparent. It speaks to us because it emphasizes the feeling of mechanization in a lot of people’s assumptions about intimacy—especially our assumptions about intimacy in institutional contexts where relationships feel especially codified, and it feels like we lack an ability to change how those relationships are staged. In ventriloquism especially, and puppetry more broadly, the mechanics of how that intimacy is secured are laid bare. They help us to learn about the processes that secure those codified forms of attachment. That is, puppetry is really unique in how it shows us how these more institutional relationships are secured.

LJ: What kinds of relationships do you examine in your project?

MF: The relationships I look at are slave and slaveholder in minstrelsy, teacher and student in pedagogy, therapist and patient in therapy, and mother and fetus in pregnancy. These are relationships that we already understand to be quite mechanized and secured in their mechanization. There’s a pre-established mode of operation, and as long as you show up, those relational operations will repeat themselves according to a set program. Ventriloquism enters into those scenes pretty intuitively. It lays bare what’s already occurring in these settings.

LJ: That’s fascinating. Switching modes a little bit, can you describe how you engage with puppetry practice yourself and in your research?

MF: My practice is definitely less mechanized, in that I don’t have strong techniques and I’m not a ventriloquist. In the chapter I’m starting now, I’m trying to incorporate more of my own experimentation with puppets. I’m looking at protest puppets, especially the giant puppets of Bread and Puppet. Paper mâché is the key. It’s a material but I’m thinking about it as a performance mechanic—there’s a mechanical process by which it’s made and is shaped into a puppet and there are specific ways its properties affect what you do with it (for example, how it interacts with weather in outdoor protests). It enables making huge, cheap puppets...

Read the entire interview