BASIL TWIST Re-creating life with a flourish

Basil Twist, an innovative New York-based theater artist and third-generation puppeteer, has taken the primal art form’s focus on blurring the boundaries between the animate and inanimate to new heights. Compass spoke to Twist, a 2015 MacArthur Fellow, to learn more about the creative genius that led to the distinguished award.

COMPASS: What made you choose a career in puppetry?

BASIL TWIST: Puppetry has fascinated me ever since I first watched TV programs like “The Muppets” and “Sesame Street” as a child in San Francisco. It intensified when I was able to play with the puppets my mother used to perform in amateur shows. My grandfather also used string marionettes of famous jazz stars like Cab Calloway during his big band shows. Although he died before I was born, I own these puppets and, like him, I frequently use music as the basis of my work. However, I’ve stretched the definition of puppetry so anything that can be brought to life in a theatrical context is a puppet, whether it’s a string marionette or a piece of cloth.

What is involved in taking your puppets and productions from inception to completion?

BT: Usually, I start by repeatedly listening to the music until it takes a visual form. Then I explore how to use the performance space to create the overall experience for the audience. Elaborate shows require additional planning, whereas I let the inherent theatricality of the materials take center stage in abstract productions. Creating the puppets is the final step – I often finish them the night before the performance!

How do you use music and choreography to connect the audience with more abstract puppets?

BT: Just as music doesn’t need a narrative to evoke emotion when it changes pace or pitch, puppetry is based on the principal that whenever an inanimate object unexpectedly becomes animated, people experience a sense of wonder at the mystery of life.

What do you use as the inspiration for how your puppets move?

BT: Movements play a key role in injecting life into puppets, particularly if they are authentic to the materials you’re using. Silk, for example, is perfect for abstract performances because it ripples in its own beautiful way.

Many people equate puppetry with children’s entertainment. What would most surprise someone watching your productions?

BT: Like other forms of theater, people expect puppet shows to have a central character, with a face, that embarks on a journey, but mine have animated scenery and props – sometimes the audience doesn’t realize when they’ve seen a puppet! For example, my production of Dôgugaeshi, which is based on a Japanese technique of sliding screens to create illusions, is primarily a performance of objects and images. However, it’s driven with a puppeteer’s intention to bring them to life.

What’s your favorite form of puppetry?

BT: I have a great appreciation for string marionettes because it takes skill to master the technique. Although they sometimes seem like dead wood dangling on a string, they can actually have more life than any other puppets. Their strings make their limbs fall more naturally, making it appear that they truly are alive.

Which puppet and production are you most proud of to date and why?

BT: My favorite puppet is a wooden string marionette named Stick Man. I’ve developed a very evolved relationship with him over the past 20 years, learning to listen to how he wants to be brought to life. The show I’m most proud of is Dôgugaeshi because it combines abstract puppetry with an ancient Japanese tradition. There’s a mass cultural weave associated with it because I’m an American who discovered the dôgugaeshi technique while studying in France, researched it in Japan, then performed it in New York, Japan and Europe. It increases in meaning with each performance.

Has puppetry always been a crowd pleaser?

BT: From primitive cultures where spirits were believed to reside in every living thing, to children projecting life into toy figures, the essence of puppetry is primal and everywhere. Although it’s often marginalized, when puppetry occasionally takes a central role in mainstream theater, such as in the musicals War Horse or The Lion King, audiences are surprised at how powerful it is. In a way, it’s beneficial that puppetry is an underdog because it means you continually amaze your audiences.

What does being awarded the MacArthur Fellowship mean to you, and how will it support your future plans?

BT: Puppetry hasn’t always been easy, so it’s very validating for me – and the puppetry world – to be recognized with an award that’s also given to scientists. I’ll invest some of the money into improving the structure that supports my work and developing new inspirations. Most importantly, I hope that winning such a prestigious award will enable me to collaborate with exciting artists and musicians and continue to bring my work and the magic of puppetry to new audiences worldwide.◆

by Rebecca Gibson Back to top
by Rebecca Gibson

See Basil Twist’s string marionette, Stick Man, in action