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Issue 243

The Grace and Expression of Theodora Skipitares’s Puppets

The master performer reconsiders the critical legacy of the form by pulling a few strings

BY Franklin Melendez AND Theodora Skipitares in Opinion | 09 MAY 24

This piece appears in the columns section of frieze 243, ‘Behind the Scenes’

I never called myself a puppeteer – I still don’t. When I started making this kind of work in the early 1980s, there were hardly any other contemporary artists working in American puppetry. It was entirely different in Europe, which has a longstanding tradition not only of extremely sophisticated and refined puppetry, featuring extensive physical training, but of funding artists. In America, on the other hand, we were isolated and did everything ourselves. It was all for the best, though, since I was always more interested in performance artists, especially the women, like Elizabeth LeCompte and Carolee Schneemann. Those were my peers and the people I was drawn to. There were also experimental companies like Mabou Mines working at the edges of theatre. They were interdisciplinary, into tech and making beautiful things but with a ragged edge. Intuitively, we all understood that the cellular structure between these various disciplines is permeable.

Theodora Skipitares, Wild Ducks, 1982. Courtesy: the artist

Views from the Miniature City [originally performed as Micropolis: 6 Portraits and a Landscape, 1981] emerged from that. Each vignette was highly autobiographical, drawn from my everyday experiences. At the time, this was an approach I felt I almost had to take in order to provide an entry point into the work. Take, for instance, the puppet Sylvia, staged in a room with wainscoting and pale-green walls. At the time, I was teaching art to patients suffering from mental health issues who had been put into these hotels by the sea in Far Rockaway. I was travelling out there frequently to hold sessions in these interiors with old, unpainted hallways where people hung out. Sylvia comes directly from that experience, both visually and in her monologue, where I play with ideas of truth and confession, but fiction invariably seeps in. Ultimately, Micropolis ended up serving as a bridge to other things, and I got interested in stepping back from that intimacy and telling bigger stories. My next project was The Age of Invention (1984), a sprawling thing about American history using 300 puppets, for which I got a lot of flak, both from the press and those who had been following my earlier work.

Theodora Skipitares, Hotel, undated. Courtesy: the artist

My latest piece, The Four Lives (2024), premiered in April at La MaMa, a non-profit theatre company in New York. It is based on Pythagoras’s belief that, through reincarnation, we have all lived in various forms: mineral, vegetable, animal and human. Sometimes, there is overlap. I divided the theatre into four distinct performance spaces – the mineral world, the animal world, etc. – so that the audience moves with the action. The plant world takes the form of a nightclub with a life-size puppet of Charles Darwin at the centre. Towards the end of his life, confined to his sickbed, Darwin spent a lot of time studying plants and conducting weird experiments on them, such as feeding them cake or playing them music to determine whether they could hear. Ultimately, he felt that this was his most important research, far more so than his seminal work On the Origin of Species (1859).

The animal room is based on the more than 200 documented cases from the Middle Ages, particularly from Europe, in which animals – and insects – were made to stand trial for crimes against humans. If they were found guilty, they were killed. In 1386, for instance, a pig was paraded about the French town of Falaise dressed in fine clothing and a human face mask, before being taken to court for murdering an infant. The Four Lives restages a trial that took place in northern Italy in 1659, in which five towns sued some caterpillars because their larvae had destroyed the harvest.

Theodora Skipitares, The Seer, 1982. Courtesy: the artist

In many ways, my project is influenced by Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us (2007). It is a type of thought experiment that elaborates a simple premise: if all humans became extinct tomorrow, what would happen in the world? Even if not entirely scientific, the possibilities are nonetheless evocative: the subways would flood, Mount Rushmore would start to crack from fungi. In three months, the plant world would take over. This resonated with my take on the neutrality and emptiness of the puppet – its claim to ‘objectivity’. The writer Heinrich von Kleist discusses this in On the Marionette Theatre (1801), marvelling at how marionettes can achieve a level of grace and expressiveness because they are unburdened by human self-awareness. I like this idea of the puppet remaining as an impartial witness.

As told to Franklin Melendez

This article first appeared in frieze issue 243 with the headline ‘Animus, Anima, Animate’

Main image: Theodora Skipitares, Dominick, undated. Courtesy: the artist

Franklin Melendez is a writer, art advisor and independent curator

Theodora Skipitares is an artist and theatre director.