The tragic history of dead puppets

Whether it’s sitting in front of a video game or standing on a street corner with a dioramic set, puppetry is a more pervasive cultural force than it’s often given credit for. Projecting human characteristics onto an inanimate object is done early on by most children, a knee-jerk throwback to the days of tribal totems and fertility idols. If the desire to will life into something lifeless is as fundamentally human as history and societal practices would suggest, it’s not hard to make the leap to art about the frailty of life–performed, of course, by dead things. By puppets.

“The show is really simple, but it’s also quite complex,” says Judd Palmer, master puppeteer with the Old Trout Puppet Workshop and one of the twisted minds behind Famous Puppet Death Scenes. “It’s about really big things, rather than just puppets dying, which is actually quite small. Death remains that grand void, that big mystery everyone’s trying to figure out. But it’s also about life, that big lead up to the mystery, because you can’t really have one without the other.”

Moving easily between scenes as different as a man being torn apart by a pack of dogs and an existentialist German kids’ show (dubbed Bipsey Und Moo Moo by the Trouts), Famous Puppet Death Scenes has dazzled critics and audiences in the past with its sharp writing and incredible, ghastly visuals. The conceit of Death Scenes is that there is a huge cultural canon of puppet shows, and the performance is a sampling of the very best–you guessed it–death scenes from that cache. There is, of course, no such catalogue, which is what allows the Trout’s show its eclectic feel, jumping madly between tones from piece to piece.

“The format of the show is kind of dicking with what can be subtracted from a narrative,” says Palmer. “That uncertainty, to me, is wrought with immense dramatic tension. We can infer a whole story with a little bit of information, and I think that transfers a good deal of the creative impulse to the audience.”

The notion that a single line can suggest a universe has driven the Trout’s previous shows, allowing their many glimpsed worlds to bloom out over one another. Though the show remains mostly self-contained, Palmer confirms that there will be some recognizable icons from the real world swimming in the mix. Though he doesn’t make an appearance in Death Scenes, it was a performance of Pinocchio that started the ‘dead puppet craze.’

“We had the initial scene when Pinocchio meets Jiminy Cricket for the first time, and then smashes him to death with a hammer,” laughs Palmer. “We wanted to do the old school 19th century one rather than the newer Disney version. You see, the original was written by a crazy drunk guy, and Pinocchio wasn’t a sweet little doll. He was more of an evil little hobgoblin.”

The response from the audience was mixed and surprising. The first emotion was reasonably shock, followed by just-as-reasonable horror. Then, slowly, some gave way to giggling. It’s this emotional marathon that Death Scenes took its first cues from, and has since become known for.

“The irony of the title is self-evident,” says Palmer. “Puppets don’t die because they don’t live. It’s about the decision we all make to accept that something is alive and that we care about it. That’s what the show points at the most vigorously.”

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