What IS Object Theatre, Anyhow?

Object theatre has been around for about 20 years, and it’s increasingly popular, especially among young performers who want to tell their own stories. I’ve just done a post on the art of Agnès Limbos, whose work represents a pure form of this new genre. I’m struck by the way she talks about the “power” of objects, and how she insists on using the most banal and mass-produced ones in her work.

Her theatre consists of two realities: the performer and the inanimate object. The object is always and only itself. It is never a puppet, by which I mean two things: it is never animated, and it is never a metaphor for something else.

That said, her objects—the plastic bride and groom from the top of a wedding cake, for example—bring with them a whole host of associations and fantasies about marriage, love, fidelity, happiness, a big party, honeymoon, sex, sweet talk, and intimacy. In her hands, the object brings all these ideas—like the trail of a perfume—to the table, and we’re talking literally of a table; she plunks down the plastic bridal couple and announces, “In the beginning, a couple.”

Here’s a completely different example of object theatre that treats the object as itself and only as itself, while, as theatre, using it to expose our societal attitudes. It’s by an Israeli artist, Ariel Doran, from his show, Soldiers and Sluts. (I’m indebted to Pia Banzhof, a professor at Michigan State University and a friend, for introducing me to his work.) It’s relentlessly self-explanatory and chillingly direct, a bit like Banksy’s abattoir street art, which you can find in my archive. I won’t spoil it by description.

Other approaches to object theatre are less pure.

First, there is the story teller, who pulls out objects—a toy truck, a flower, a toy puppy—to illustrate the story that she is telling. That’s similar to the method of Limbos, but there’s a critical difference. The storyteller already has a story, and has selected a series of objects as illustrations to it. This can be very powerful. I note, however, that Limbos doesn’t work that way. She has too much respect for the object and its silent power. In her art, it’s the objects that create and build the story, rather than words or ideas. That’s both radical and interesting.

Then there is the performer who changes the nature and purpose of the object. For example, in the work of Montreal’s la Pire Espece, an empty stainless steel mixing bowl becomes a gong, marking the beginning and end of an episode in les Contes Zen du Potager, the way a gong may mark the beginning and end of Buddhist meditation. Or in the same series of performances, a squash is given a hat and becomes a samurai. This kind of object theatre is lively and fun. The object is never a puppet. It is not animated, and we are not invited to imagine that it “is” the samurai. Its power lies in the disconnect between the concrete “isness” of the object and what it’s supposed to represent (A round, fat samurai? Really?). I think that this approach is necessarily comic, because the idea is always greater than the thing supposedly representing it.

And then there is theatre where the object is used as a kind of puppet. A small cardboard box with holes is mounted on a performer’s hand, and suddenly his fingers are legs and the object is doing a little dance. It’s now a puppet. A pair of shears mounts a table top where a laundry line is strung between a miniature house and a pole; it cuts the line. The shears is an object, certainly; but it’s walking and performing a function, like a puppet.

So I’m proposing a range of approaches, with what I call the “pure” object theatre of Limbos at one pole, and the transformation of an object into a puppet at the other extreme. Any of these approaches can produce brilliant theatre, with a natural bias toward comedy (In tragedy, the ideal crushes the human protagonist; in comedy, the ideal is crushed, in this case by an object).

But there’s a big “however.”

Puppet theatre is a difficult art. It takes huge discipline and years of training to breathe life into a puppet. That’s why we see so much bad puppetry. And that’s why, as object theatre blurs into puppetry, there’s a high risk of double failure: both the misuse of objects, and puppets that aren’t really alive. I think this four-minute piece by the Teatro d’objetos falls into this category: just a bunch of fairly lame, familiar ideas, with objects forced into roles, neither wholly themselves nor truly puppets.