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Comfort in Cardboard: Puppetry at Bennington

As I walked towards Commons Lawn on Friday afternoon, I heard a variety of loud noises that I couldn’t quite place emanating from the center of campus. Drawing closer, I saw that the sounds were being produced by a masked figure in a black cape who circled the Commons back patio. Students nearby told me that the individual had told people to gather around for a purpose unknown to them, and was now clamoring for the attention of passersby. My interest piqued, I joined them to watch as the cloaked figure ceased their commotion and settled behind a sheet that had been strewn across two foldable chairs in the middle of the patio. 

From below the curtain emerged a gloved hand. Beside it rose a cardboard profile of an angular, cartoonish face, from whose open mouth emerged a bright-red tongue. The introduction of these two characters was vocalized by a series of shrieks, guttural sounds and other expressive noises. Then, the puppeteer gave the title of the play: “How to Violently Overthrow a Violent Cardboard Government, According to Cardboard Technologies: In Eight Steps.” The gloved hand and the cardboard face together walked the audience through these steps, accompanying each with various physical gestures and sounds. They began with the construction of a cardboard government, progressed through the declaration of war and the threat of invasion, and concluded with the instruction: “Take the cardboard government to your backyard and beat it to a pulp, like a spread on your bread.”

“When our three-dimensional world doesn’t quite make sense, sometimes it’s good to go back to the cardboard-dimensional world,” says Maura Gahan (she/they), the puppeteer. Gahan is an MFA dance student at Bennington College. She decided to put on this show only hours before it was seen by an audience. Earlier in the day, a colleague had asked her about the piece, which she and another artist developed years ago. Upon being reminded of it, Gahan thought, “Ah! That’s a great little puppet show, I should do that today.” So strong was the impulse to perform that she didn’t even rehearse before grabbing some materials and heading down to Commons.

Gahan has many years of experience puppeteering, on both personal and professional levels. She performs for children and adults, for animals and for trees, in theaters and in fields and in the streets. Puppetry, as she sees it, is a very holistic art; her work has encompassed building puppets, performing, accompanying shows with music, transporting productions, and more. “The special thing about puppets is, if you want to see something happen, you can just make it happen,” she tells me. “If you want to have a violent cardboard government change, well, you can do it. And because it’s cardboard, you can do it in all kinds of ways.”

Her attraction to puppetry is related to her attraction to dance in that both art forms are rooted in the physical world. “When it comes to communicating, both of these things are ancient forms,” she tells me. “They’re ancient, just like the moss. Why not make that our main mode? Instead of this computer mode,” she says, tapping earnestly on her cell phone, “that everyone […] has decided is the main mode for communicating. We have decided this. I protest.” She adds, “I think if people understood that we chose this, then maybe everyone would protest, with their own little cardboard puppets, and their own dances together.”

This conviction ties into her incentive to put on a puppet show at Bennington. When I ask her how she thinks her performance was received by her audience, she responds, “I think they’re all making puppet shows right now […] If they’re not, then I didn’t do something right, and I should […] keep doing these puppet shows to make sure everyone does the puppet shows.” This she intends to do; she plans to put on more performances around campus, and hopes that her work makes “at least a ripple” in her audience’s day “of turning something on its head.” She feels like the news “is pounding down on us all the time, so it’s nice to sometimes flip it upside down and be able to laugh at it, or push against it. It’s nice to just offer something for people to agree with or not agree with, or like, or not like.” 

Indeed, there was something strangely appealing about the gloved hand and the cartoonish puppet as they gesticulated above the dark curtain. The simplicity of their forms contrasted with the heavy, complex stress I was feeling, a stress I’m sure was shared by my fellow audience members as we awaited the results of the presidential election. My worries felt a little less consuming in light of their straightforward nature. As Gahan puts it, puppets “know how to stab at your heart while also making you laugh, and they also give you a little bit of honey to digest some of the most important matters of life.” We could certainly all use some “honey” right now, as we face more extraordinary challenges than have been seen in generations. Perhaps a puppet show, extraordinary in its own right, can provide some.

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