ASCI Profile: Marissa Fenley

Marissa Fenley with a handmade puppetPuppetry, Mechanical Intimacy, and the Critical Power of Silliness

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.

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.

While looking at these mechanical features of protest puppets, I’m playing around with paper mâché myself: I’m trying out different recipes, making my own puppets using a guide put out by Bread and Puppet that is sort of the bible of protest puppetry now. I’m going to work from that to figure out what challenges this mechanical process poses.

I’m invested in thinking more about how theory and practice are interrelated. A majority of puppet scholarship is written by practitioners, so it means there’s a relative lack of theory on puppet performance, but a wealth of descriptive information from people who know these techniques intimately. I will be working with these primary sources to see how the experiences they document compare to those of a novice. Protest puppetry is supposed to be a cheap, democratic form of puppetry, where anyone can do it. I want to test that out.

I’ve also done some other puppet making (most of it I would consider to be highly amateur) where I’m playing around with a thing to see what happens. For example, I took a seminal essay by the romantic poet and playwright Heinrich von Kleist in which he says that the marionette is the object of grace because it actually follows a center of gravity. Marionettes, he says, are more godlike than humans whose souls are no longer centered in our postlapsarian moment—we don’t follow God’s material pull. I tried to make a puppet out of that essay, building one with a pendulum making up a majority of its body, and then I put on a Kleist play with some other graduate students. This experiment looked at whether the essay bears out by playing with Kleist’s idea of gravity and what it does to performance. It turns out it was really unwieldy! The difference of movement between me and the pendulum puppet was really apparent.

That was an experiment where nothing theoretical really came of it. We think a lot about practice into theory; we think less about theory into practice (at least as theorists). We don’t often turn theory into practice as a way to explore theory. That’s the method I’ve been using to test whether theories are useful or make sense! It’s often fun and silly.

Puppets vs. Robots brochure coverSilliness has actually become my new practice mode. In spring 2019 my friend and I put on an event called Puppets vs. Robots and Other Experiments in Critical Silliness, trying to think about silliness and how using theory as an instruction guide for doing things usually produces silly stuff. What do you do with that silliness as a way of exploring things, without assuming that what you’re producing has real aesthetic value?

LJ: What have you been finding silliness does for you?

MF: The main things we found was that silliness produces a mode of collaboration and community that is otherwise absent from academic work. This is a way for academics to play with each other, to just communicate their critical questions in a new way, and in a way that levels the conversation and creates openings into one another’s academic interests.

Also important has been understanding where seriousness is important, versus where silliness is necessary to open up relationships to things that otherwise feel taboo to be silly with. People working in Black studies and Queer studies have pointed out that silliness is a privilege of those who are already taken seriously. For people who have needed to advocate for being taken seriously, silliness is a risky move to engage. So, we’ve been asking why this is the case, and if there are topics that silliness can’t or shouldn’t touch.

Bill Hutchison, who works on robots, and I wondered what sort of relationship robots have with puppets when you put them together. We staged three scenes from famous romantic encounters with a puppet and a robot. We learned that the robot has no affect whatsoever—and played really well as the female part that just sits there doing nothing. The puppet was great for the male part who’s talking and showing passion. It was interesting to discover that there’s one character who’s carrying all the affect in these scenes.

LJ: How did you get into puppets?

MF: Anyone can rewrite the reason for their dissertation topic. “Oh, I was born to work on puppets, they’ve been with me all along.” I’m totally that story. I’ve been doing theater and technically making puppets since I was young.

LJ: What do you mean by “technically making puppets”?

MF: I made puppets and put on puppet shows for most of my childhood book reports. I had my own puppet booth and would put on puppet shows with my brother.

I lived with artists. Most of my childhood I made stuff, and puppets ended up being what I created because ultimately puppets are just weird playthings that you want to show people. Childhood is just puppeteering, for the most part.

LJ: I love that claim. How did you come to focus your research on puppets?

MF: Through a class with Bill Brown on assemblage theory. The most obvious way that my interests in theater intersected with assemblage theory was through puppets. I did a project on a 1920s modernist female puppeteer in Chicago. In writing my paper I went, “Oh my God, this field is huge.” There are so many traditions. It’s one of the oldest art forms in existence. So, I realized there’s a full dissertation here—probably more like seven dissertations. I have a huge archive but not much scaffolding. It’s been hard to pick which case studies to use and why.

LJ: I can imagine it’s difficult to “put the walls up” around all your material and ideas, when it’s so potentially expansive.

MF: It’s been really hard to justify why I’m selecting certain examples. In my first chapters I’ve been working on what I really like and coming up with clear reasons for them as I go. It’s a challenge but it’s exciting. It’s a blessing and a curse. But ultimately, I need to work on objects I really care about, so I’ve enjoyed justifying the importance of my case studies.

Tagged with PuppetryGraduate Fellow