Interview with Mark Sussman

Below is an article published in Vol.6, Issue 2 of the Void. Soon to be found online.

 Interview with Mark Sussman

Anything You Can Do Puppets Do Better

Elisabeth de Grandpré

 Prestidigitation. Pres-ti-digit-ta-tion. The word does not just simply roll off the tongue, and its meaning does not easily come to mind. A quick search online finds: quick fingers. Mark Sussman, a Concordia Theatre professor currently teaching puppetry to designers of the upcoming departmental show, Ubu Roi, which he is also directing, further clarified the word for me when we met in is Loyola campus office.

“It means sleight of hand,” Sussman said. It has to do with the cultivation on the part of magicians of certain dexterity with objects. So it’s very much the puppeteer’s art as well. Prestidigitators are close cousins of puppeteers. Shamans do that same thing, folk healers, and conjurers, are all in the same family of eccentric, marginal people.”

Sussman often uses his hands as he speaks. As an undergraduate student he studied directing and lighting design, and religious studies.  He became interested in puppets when he first saw Peter Schumann’s Vermont-based Bread and Puppet Theatre perform and decided to volunteer with them. 

“There I felt I was seeing something that kept alive very old theatrical traditions: the traditions of using effigies and using inanimate figures to represent mythical and larger than life forces, like gods and demons. Bread and Puppet led me to see something about how puppets operate on many levels, sort of the social level, the mythic and narrative level, and they’re funny, and they’re scandalous and they can say and do things that you’re not normally allowed to do. There’s a thing that Schumann has said, which is that ‘the history of puppetry is better researched in police records then in the theatre history text books.’”

  Teaching theatre design students puppetry enables Sussman to use a different a method from the customary ones.  Normally, designers work out an idea on paper and, if they decide to build, it is in small scale.  But Sussman says puppetry is different “You can’t really build a puppet on paper. You have to build a puppet in the size you want to work with and alter it until it becomes what you envision. It’s very tactile.”

Ubu Roi, was written by Alfred Jarry and was originally mounted by Jarry in 1896 with puppets.  The play is the satirical tale of Pere Ubu’s underhanded ascension Poland.  According to Sussman, using puppets is “a classic choice.”

“It’s not a new idea here. It was written for marionettes and done by a bunch of cheeky teenagers, Jarry and his friends, as sixteen year-olds to make fun of their Physics professor. But Ubu became a kind of sort of famous modern anti-hero, the hero that gets away with doing terrible things – killing, and stealing and lying and cheating and torturing and basically gets away free in the end. In that sense he’s very much akin to Punch the famous English puppet theatre hero [of] Punch and Judy or Pulcinello in Italy or Kasparo in Germany.  Ubu does it in a pretty nasty way and that’s one reason I like the play. It also seemed like it’s a good time now to be talking about abuses of power in the world and perhaps to be talking about abuses of law and authority and ways in which certain other rulers who’ve come into power through slightly illegitimate means; maybe something about me being an American in Quebec also.”

  The Concordia production will use a variety of puppets: hand puppets, masks, full body masks worn on the head, and shadow puppetry. It will also combine dance and music and, Sussman says dryly, “Maybe even acting.”

My last question puts a smile on Sussman’s face. I ask if puppetry is a popular form. Sussman proudly tells me that puppetry is “always there. It [just] gets rediscovered periodically. It was rediscovered in Jarry’s time, in the late 19th century. And periodically the high arts or the elite arts rediscover it and reincorporate it and then forget about it for a while and then they reincorporate it again, so it never goes away.”

Ubu Roi goes up March 20 to 23 in the F.C Smith Complex at 7141 Sherbrooke West.  ———————————————  I have a couple of clarifications. So I also include my unpublished version.  ———————————————– 

 

I Got No Strings

by Elisabeth de Grandpré

Prestidigitation. Pres-ti-digit-ta-tion. The word doesn’t just roll off the tongue, and its meaning doesn’t easily come to mind. A quick search online finds: quick fingers. Mark Sussman, a Concordia Theatre professor currently teaching puppetry to designers of the upcoming departmental show, Ubu Roi, which he is also directing, further clarified the word for me when we met in is Loyola campus office.

“It means sleight of hand,” Sussman said.  “Digit, like it’s got that root word of digit, which also, you can say léger de main. It has to do with the cultivation on the part of magicians of certain dexterity with objects. So it’s very much the puppeteer’s art as well. Prestidigitators are close cousins of puppeteers. Shamans do that same thing, folk healers, and conjurers, are all in the same family of eccentric, marginal people.”

Sussman often touched his hands as he spoke. As an undergraduate he studied directing and lighting design, and religious studies.  He became interested in puppets when he first saw Peter Schumann’s Vermont-based Bread and Puppet Theatre perform and volunteered with them while they were on tour.

“There I felt I was seeing something that kept alive very old theatrical traditions, the traditions of using effigies and using inanimate figures to represent mythical and larger than life forces, like gods and demons. Bread and Puppet led me to see something about how puppets operate on many levels, sort of the social level, the mythic and narrative level, and they’re funny, and they’re scandalous and they can say and do things that you’re not normally allowed to do. There’s a thing that Schumann has said, which is that ‘the history of puppetry is better researched in police records then in the theatre history text books.’”

  Teaching theatre design students puppetry enables Sussman to use a different approach from what students are used to.  Normally designers work out an idea on paper and if they build it is in small scale first.  But Sussman says puppetry is different “You can’t really build a puppet on paper.” You have to build a puppet in the size you want to work with and alter it until it becomes what you envision. It’s very tactile.

Ubu Roi, was written by Alfred Jarry and was originally mounted by Jarry with puppets.  The play is the satirical tale of King Ubu’s adventure taking over Poland.   According to Sussman, using puppets is “a classic choice.”

“It’s not a new idea here. It was written for marionettes and done by a bunch of cheeky teenagers, Jarry and his friends, as sixteen year-olds to make fun of their Physics professor. But Ubu became a kind of sort of famous modern anti-hero, the hero that gets away with doing terrible things – killing, and stealing and lying and cheating and torturing and basically gets away free in the end. In that sense he’s very much akin to Punch the famous English puppet theatre hero … Punch and Judy or Pulcinello in Italy or Kasparo in Germany.  Ubu does it in a pretty nasty way and that’s one reason I like the play. It also seemed like it’s a good time now to be talking about abuses of power in the world and perhaps to be talking about abuses of law and authority and ways in which certain other rulers who’ve come into power through slightly illegitimate means; maybe something about me being an American in Quebec also.”

  The Concordia production will use a variety of puppets: hand puppets, masks, full body masks worn on the head, and shadow puppetry. It will also combine dance and music and, Sussman says dryly, “Maybe even acting.”

My last question puts a smile on Sussman’s face. I ask if puppetry is a popular form.  Sussman proudly tells me that puppetry is “always there, it gets rediscovered periodically. It was rediscovered in Jarry’s time, in the late 19th century. And periodically the high arts or the elite arts rediscover it and reincorporate it and then forget about it for a while and then they reincorporate it again, so it never goes away.”

Ubu Roi goes up March 20 to 23 in the F.C Smith Complex.

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