This work of creative nonfiction by John Kinsella was published in Westerly 68.1, and we’re thrilled to make it freely available for everyone to read here on the Editor’s Desk.
The version published below contains a minor amendment from the essay as found in the print issue, in adding an endnote offered by John Kinsella as an extension on the thinking in the piece. We’re gratified to offer this new version and grateful for the depth of reflection this amendment represents.
—Catherine Noske and Daniel Juckes, with John Kinsella
Labelled, I Became a Puppet Theatre of Protest
I’ve decided to go back to performing with hand puppets. When I was eleven and twelve, the puppet theatre was a big thing for me. For my family in general. Encouraged by Mum, we made papier-mâché heads and fabric costumes. I constructed the theatre with ‘Auntie J’ out of an old packing crate that had at one stage been an aviary breeding box. I wrote the scripts, and maybe others did too, but I can only remember my own. I wrote a lot of them. We each made puppets that expressed ‘personalities’, but not necessarily ‘our own’.
In fact, I remember we made puppets that expressed aspects of lives we didn’t lead. They were not alter egos, but embodiments of all we didn’t know. For all their ‘fixed features’, their personalities were not fixed and not bound to their physiognomies. A ‘look’ could be shifted by ‘voice’, and voice could change quickly. They had names, but names could change. Sometimes those names were words from the script, but even if a character was playing an antagonistic role, their names weren’t pejorative. I, for one, never wanted a word to be burdened with a single undiluted raw emotion, especially with anger, distress or hatred.
There is a photo of me—it’s a refrain of modernity, of the ‘subjective self’, isn’t it… there is a photo… of me—standing next to the theatre prior to a performance. Maybe my brother and mother are holding the puppets (often supported by a dowelling-rod—basically a single-rod ‘rod puppet’ or ‘marotte’), and Auntie J has a hand on my shoulder. I can’t tell for sure. Yes, puppets were a big thing for us, and we also made and played with sock puppets, peg puppets and shadow puppets.
We were a blended family. Blended family makes for diverse audience and not only different voices for puppets but different understandings of voices that meld and blur and become a new generation of new voices. I was always trying to invent things, to push ahead into vibrant future, but was fascinated with the ways of the past as well. ‘New’ was a spark-word, but it wasn’t the only word.
My younger brother and mother went to a marionette puppetry workshop and made full working string puppets that were walked around the house and outside. While they were doing that, I went to a painting workshop, which I enjoyed, but as I painted I thought about them making puppets. My brother’s lion puppet (‘Leo’) had rose thorns for claws, my mother’s chic modern young woman puppet carried a transistor radio she could lift to her ear when she wanted to express herself through dance.
If I come across puppetry in the open, I will always stand and watch for a while, but the last full puppet show I went to was in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris in the late ’90s—a Punch and Judy with modern French inflections. Politics for the adults, aggro for both children and adults. And laughter. I have always been troubled by Punch and Judy and the extreme ‘comic’ violence of both Punch and Judy, and am not convinced that ironic reconstructions undo the underlying abusive patriarchy of the formula. The plays just don’t offset violence by their violent absurdity, at least not for me.
Puppets were a television staple during my childhood. Many of my favourite television series were done in Supermarionation (by Gerry Anderson et al.), and I have since deployed a verbal play on ‘Supermarionation’ in some of my experimental work. I remember being invited to a ‘movie night’ at a neighbour’s house when I was about eight years old to watch Thunderbirds on a projector screen with other kids, and later that evening wandering in ‘during adult time’ and being driven out by a bunch of men watching what was likely a ‘blue movie’. They were all making noises like Mr Punch.
Puppets have always been ‘in the vicinity’, even when I wasn’t looking out for them. About twenty years ago when I was editing a publication, I was offered a fascinating essay on puppetry but couldn’t run it because it was too long. I wish I had found space for it. It was a theoretical piece written by a puppeteer. I admired its commitment and the intensity of the puppeteer.
Puppetry has come close to me again in recent years, but not ‘ensnared’ me as it once did. But now I am planning a new theatre with new marotte puppets. They are going to perform ‘mini activist plays’, mainly around environmental and rights issues. I am thinking a highly compacted and minimalist Cyrano de Bergerac but with a political edge relevant to the eroded world I inhabit, that I have inevitably contributed to. Political puppetry. Maybe similar in some ways to the Bread and Puppet Theatre (founded in NYC in 1963, and later moving to Glover, Vermont), but small scale… at home and likely performed for family and maybe recorded and ‘broadcast’. I am thinking that over. The point will be the politics and language. The point will be to let the puppets have their heads. I am sure they will mock and laugh at me, but they will also take the ‘issues’ seriously. How could they not, given they are fully implicated, too.
As a kind of prototype for what’s to come, I thought I might just do a two-handed ‘one-hander’ and experiment with a very short script for sock puppets. Really, just socks without adornment… which we have to imagine as ‘puppets’. But they will speak for themselves:
Metatextual Sock Puppetry: alternative identities?
I am called Sock One
but I am no longer a sock.
You are called Sock One
and you aren’t the sun.
I am holed and worthless
but am still put to work.
Holy and beyond worth.
You walked ancient forests.
I worry over my origins.
Who suffered. Who profited.
If not cut from the same cloth,
we are closely related.
But you don’t look familiar.
But I am often wrong-footed.
I stretch to accommodate.
Chance footed the bill.
Your wearer wore you thin.
Cotton rich. Will you return
from whence I came? The future
looms. I heard the weeping of cockatoos.
I heard pathogens crackle as we walked.
Felt corrosive vibrations of the miner’s drill.
Not the sun, Sock One.
I am trying to relate to you.
Then I want to turn the bare socks into puppets with facial and physical ‘features’/‘characteristics’, but in a way that doesn’t trap them in a look or expression. They should be labile. The next phase. But I only have one kind of sock and no sewing gear to hand. But sameness is difference as well—different voicings will inflect character. All the same, I want to try different approaches, I want to try working with socks with features, so I ring my mother who is eighty-four now and ask if she’d mind whipping up a couple of sock puppets. Her mum was a seamstress, and she made her own clothes as a young woman. She has always liked puppets. She says she can’t because she doesn’t have any socks that would suit, and I say just old threadbare socks with holes would be fine, but she doubts it will happen. Fair enough! I start to search out needle, thread, buttons and scraps of material.
The next morning I receive photos via email that show two sock puppets who will deny any character that voicings might impose on them… one on Mum’s hand/arm, and the other on her partner’s hand/arm. The puppets are silent, but express much with a single look. There’s an accord. I email back and say that we’ll be over on the weekend—a long journey up the valley—to meet the puppets, only to hear that they’ve all come down with COVID-19: Mum, her partner, and the puppets. Mum and her partner get through the sickness, and the sock puppets are forgotten. But I remember them now, and will arrange a meeting in person.
In internet parlance, ‘sock puppets’ are about fakery and deception, about one face to the world while a hidden hand controls from behind the scenes. They are a mode of manipulating public opinion, to lampoon an ‘opposition’, to hoodwink an audience. Internet ‘sock puppets’ are controlled by inimical forces, and they are performers of a ruse. The hand behind the puppet might be the military, a mining company, ‘industry’, a political party, a religious group, conspiracy theorists, criminals working for financial gain… the possibilities are endless. Singular, plural, singular, plural.
Sock puppetry can work on both willing and vulnerable ‘audiences’ ready to watch and/or hear them perform. If fabulism thrives on a willing suspension of disbelief, sock puppetry takes this and converts it into certainty, belief and even faith. Search and you will find the performance that fits. Or view expecting authenticity, and be cajoled and tricked in the process.
I was an early internet user, and an even earlier computer user. And this might seem like a leap, lacking a transition sentence, but it takes me back to primary school in the mid-1970s. Computers, robots, puppets, communication, performance… it all blurred together for me. I was attacked by a number of class ‘mates’ in grade five for saying my best friend ‘turned me on’ because I was a robot and he knew where my secret controls were. Funny to some, to others a deadly and convenient tool of vengeance, a hand in the sock puppet that became a punching glove. A group of kids hearing me say this attacked me, laughing as they did so. I was Judy being hit by Punch, and I was the crocodile and even the devil to their Punch and Judy. A ‘category error’, the confusion of genres within puppetry, left me confused and wounded. I had been kicked and punched and called ‘poof ’, ‘weirdo’, and ‘queer’. This was at a time when ‘queer’ in an Australian primary school was a ‘pure’ hate word, had not yet been reclaimed in broader culture.
The entwining of violence and sexuality was clearly indicated as they targeted my genitals, but I had no idea what that sexuality entailed. What was contraindicated wasn’t a sexual identity, or even a social one, but that I was essentially a non-person who couldn’t have a sexuality. I would be vilified until, as far as my persecutors were concerned, my sexual identity was erased. How can I say this about ten-year-olds? I don’t—they said it themselves. I wasn’t allowed a gender status though I entirely believed I was a boy (what else could I be? I had no idea… but by all the rules I could understand, I was sure that I was a boy)—I would be loved by no-one, and I couldn’t belong. I was an aberration. It’s worth noting that the perpetrators were ‘boys’ and ‘girls’, though the acts of physical aggression around this incident were committed by the ‘boys’. The ‘Judies’ had to remain ‘Judies’ and the ‘Mr Punches’ had to remain ‘Mr Punches’ in mid-’70s Australian schools, no matter the circumstances. To them I was neither Punch nor Judy but a target of mutual ire. The goading was ‘universal’. I might have thought of myself as a boy, but they didn’t think of me as belonging to any gender.
The labels, especially ‘queer’, followed me to high school. In my first weeks I was separated off from another boy of my own age (we rode bikes to school together) and literally attacked by a group of girls goaded by a very ‘popular boy’. The girls, calling me a ‘queer’ and a ‘poof’, pulled my legs either side of a demountable classroom verandah roof support, and ‘poled’ me. Poling involved having one’s genital crushed by being yanked repeatedly into the pole. I was a puppet-being forced into a role. My features dissolved into tears. They pulled off my shoes and my socks. The goading boy spread the word.
Privates. Thingies. Dicks. Most of the girls didn’t want to know or hear about them, though they were harassed about them constantly by certain boys. There was a fear and also an anger about these hidden bits, these bits that messed up lives. There was curiosity, bemusement, and pain.
For some girls, the attack was maybe an act of vicarious vengeance, for others a vicarious empowerment, and for others an act of complaisance, of getting in good with incipient boyfriends. They were all ‘smart girls’, and girls who would break away from such behaviour later on, but also carry the shit of what they did and be submerged by it.
Puppet plays in the home theatre were about life outside the ordinary, but they carried the residues of daily school experience. Sometimes the puppets shifted gender, or rather evaded gender, and at other times they were placed in gender roles they didn’t necessarily want. The stage became the classroom exposed, but there was always an escape to some more tolerable reality. That ‘reality’ wasn’t easier, and sometimes it was full of malign figures, but the puppets always retained some form of control and managed to avoid the worst because in the end the audience saw them rather than the puppeteer, rather than us, than me. They had the last say. They expressed the words. The slippage between words and physical expression (as controlled by the puppeteer—even in the case of papier-mâché puppets’ fixed expression, the movement of their whole forms) showed their independence.
To be called ‘a name’ and let that name take on pejorative, poisonous meaning seemed a loss of all that mattered in the realm of imagination and reality, so names… words themselves… had to be recycled, reinvented, made poetic. And that’s what the puppet performances achieved. No single meaning ever belongs to a single word. A single word could be endless words, endless sounds, endless meanings. A name could shift meaning and characteristics. A word could dissolve into ‘pure sound’. A puppet wasn’t bound to its name. A small portable cassette player was brought into the performances to enhance atmospherics… stray notes on a piano, the banging of spoons on cardboard boxes, strange voice flutings that defied gender definition. There were three of us kids at home, and if one wasn’t operating the puppets they could be a ‘bottler’, and manage the cassette player, the effects.
There is a photo of me standing next to the theatre prior to a performance. And the photo is part of the problem. Photos can too readily allow for a loss, evasion or erasure of memory because they can substitute for memory. Or so one of the sock puppets in the new play I am writing says. That puppet claims that our memories were more illustrative without photos, not only on a visual level but in other sensory ways. Photos exclude so much. Photos are fixed, which is why we (the puppet says ‘you’ to us all) spend so much time presenting photos in so many different contexts. Alongside other photos, in specific thematic gatherings, on web pages where we show our desires and interests, as ironies of who we are now compared with who we were then.
So, standing next to the theatre with the puppets standing in a row under the arch, I am trapped in a photo. I strain to remember the stories behind the painted ‘features’, the costumes… the characters applied to the shapes… shifting, ‘unstable’ and also physically fixed in place. Photos of faces. The photo is fixed, the features might seem fixed, but the puppets never were. They were so much more than a photo.
I try to forget the photo and remember the characters behind the actors playing characters. I remember the puppets’ joy and pain, and their need to use me and the family as vectors for their own release, their own imaginings away from the constraints of the theatre. Maybe I want to bring those puppets of childhood back to life? I have so many more ‘resources’ now than when I was a child, and yet I can ‘only’ conjure up sock puppets (and even then ask family for help). I can’t really imagine myself working with papier-mâché again.
I used to have eidetic memory, or something close to it. But now I can’t recall the personalities of so many of those childhood puppets, only the most overt ones. The ones with singular features, dominant traits. I find this profoundly disturbing—that full personalities are lost to the obvious, the overt, to an idea of ‘types’. And even a photo of them—and me—hides so much of all our identities, who we were then. Personalities cannot be picked up by facial recognition software. And this is one of the many paradoxes of puppetry I edge around: an age of internet anonymity, and yet so reliant on body imagery: to reproduce, alter, filter, manipulate, to play as ‘sock puppet’. To be called queer and wondering how you did or didn’t fit with the word—the word as they used it, as others would later use it. The issue of transitional sentences.
As people die in conflict zones, ‘sock puppets’ injure or anger or feed others outside that zone via the internet. Puppets are things in and of the internet. I made a computer when I was a kid long before home computers became commercially available. Another kid I knew made a computer with a functioning memory, and I think they wanted to control, to direct the play of the world from their bedroom. Maybe they dreamed of an AI, but one they could manipulate, direct, play, shape its personality.
I found a copy of Stefan Brecht’s The Bread and Puppet Theatre, Volume Two, in a university town bookshop in Britain back in the late 1990s. I was going to a lot of theatre then, but puppet plays outside bespoke venues were infrequent. Sometimes I would perform hand-puppet plays across the back of the couch to fill in the gap, just to make a point about something socio-political in a ‘fun way’. Volume Two begins:
1970–1974. The Goddard period.
Withdrawal from direct moral address to the big-city crowd.
Rejection of the ‘spirit of the ’60s’. Cryptic portrayal of the
human condition: defined by a dialectic of individual and crowd.
Theme of suffering. Message: drop out… (Brecht)
I overlap across hemispheres. Our home theatre was around 1974–75. The ‘spirit’ of the years prior was one of social maligning of single mothers and especially of ‘blended’ families. I had an early schoolteacher who spoke about the ‘broken home’ I came out of to a class of kids who were learning their phonetics. I was made to stand in the bin for the ‘sins of my parents’ (it was a secular school). This sparked the interest of others for reasons they would take years to resolve, to even partially understand. They knew that I was a person just like them, but seemed to also believe that I was like a character from a book, from television. A character in a rubbish bin playing a character, the teacher making me perform rubbish and silence: shame.
A few lines later, Brecht writes: ‘Pseudo-communal form of production.’ Contexts. Photos. Bigotries of photographers setting up class year shots—gendered and colonial. The kids didn’t have much idea about the production they were part of, and formed community the best way they could, reflecting the prejudices of the broader community around them. Not everyone could be made to smile. There were breakaways whose characters couldn’t be fixed. Breakaways who hoped to survive the plays in which their roles were to be props for heroes in the making. Heroes! And then there were some of us who just faded away—features vague and ill-lit… but suddenly and sharply ‘remembered’ because we were labelled. That kid was ‘the queer’. Would they say that now? Any of them? How much would meaning have shifted for them? Or stayed the same?
He said to me: The language was more sophisticated than the boys used in general… I know this because I have stayed close to my cohort, despite everything. I always fitted in because I bothered no-one, and was not noticed until people started looking at school photos again and thought I might be worth contacting, to catch up with. I accrued friends who’d never been friends. They have stuck.
For decades now my partner has been my ‘best friend’. I mention what I have been writing and she tells of her trepidation as a small child seeing the tea-towel puppets on Play School. Their featurelessness, the scrunching of the material to shift it from one form and function to another: the sudden and simple coming to life. And now she finds it so interesting, as I do, too. I used to experience this loss of certainty when making peg puppets—wooden pegs on the line suddenly came to life via the marking of a pair of eyes, a nose, a mouth… then a ‘clothing’ with a piece of fabric around their ‘waists’. The sudden transformation of the familiarly ordinary into something living, something capable of taking on character and personality.
Back at school when I stated that my friend ‘turned me on’, that only he could operate my controls, pull my strings, I meant that he knew my personality well enough to know my secrets—we had shared the nature of my puppet/robot self. I was never handing across my autonomy and agency to him, never mind the entire class. Rather, I was implying that I could go from a familiar object to a living entity with character and personality by the input of friendship and interest—I would be a ‘robot’ with complex emotions, ability to choose, and also vulnerabilities. It was both a plea for immunity through objectivity, and also for kinship. The performance was lampooned and abused by the claque. I learnt something about performance, audience, protest and activism through this. I learned the power behind a single word used and misused.
I am trying to help save a forest. We stand before the threat to the forest as ourselves and as representatives of an idea and a belief. We are vulnerable to attack. The sock puppets—the physical sock puppets—speak in the space between, not just as proxies, but in themselves. This is not hiding or trolling but standing alongside the puppets, protecting their interests as well as our own, and, hopefully, the forest’s. Theatre is about accountability, not hiding behind the performance. A puppet has a dynamic relationship with its ‘user’—we are in dialogue… agreeing, disagreeing, discussing… but part of the same public process. As a kid, I barely understood the public nature of performance. I performed for my family and felt secure. In public, we are never completely secure.
In the theatre of school I didn’t know that I was performing. I didn’t know that I would be held accountable by an audience, and I certainly had no real understanding of the nature of that audience. I had suspected since being forced into the rubbish bin, but I wasn’t sure and didn’t know that I would be stuck in a role, fixed in character. I was labelled ‘queer’ from that day on, and though I do not identify as ‘queer’ now, I only don’t do so because I respect ‘queerness’ as a space in which others have a more contemporary and communal say.
I am ‘queer-friendly’ in all aspects of my life, and deeply believe in ‘queerness’, and even more so because of early relationships, but I am not part of a ‘queer community’. But ‘queer’ was a weapon used against me, and I will always feel strongly akin to it as a way of understanding the prejudice I experienced, and, by extension, comprehending that others have and will experience the bitterness behind a label that is applied rather than chosen. From early on, I began to feel that people needed to control the words applied to them and not be controlled by those words.
I wonder where that friend is now—my friend who could control me by pushing my buttons, pulling my strings, ‘turning me on’? I don’t even know if he’s alive. I am not sure what we’d say to each other now: middle-aged man speaking to middle-aged man, knowingly. What we’d feel for each other. I think of an ‘infinite mirror’ in which a reflection diminishes into apparent infinity. Are we always caught in the original reflection and just move further away from this, carrying the exact details with us until we vanish from perception? The trauma and hurt forever affecting how we perceive the worlds we inhabit? For some, that certainly seems true. A grief for loss of part of oneself that cannot be assuaged. But this essay is not my mirror. Nor are the puppets my mirrors1. They have agency and yet they do not occlude either the identity or agency of the users. It’s a symbiosis. A mutual activism. We are implicated in the same vocabulary, no matter the different emphasis and even meaning we bring to a word, a gesture. In the theatre of this essay I find liberation, along with the puppets. We break free of the repetition of reflections.
I am starting a sock puppet theatre. The socks are heading to the forest to ‘put a sock in it’. ‘It’ is a ‘green metals’ (PGE-Ni-Cu-Co-Au) mining company that intends to erase the forest in favour of ‘carbon reducing’ tech. ‘They’ claim they’re acting for the wellbeing of the biosphere when they are clearly acting out wealth-desire. They are playing us all. I have taken photos of the forest but they will never form even an approximate memory. However, the theatre on site will be active and never be dismissed by the names and epithets the mining company representatives and apologists would hope to make pejorative—‘greenie’, ‘professional protestor’, ‘bleeding heart’, ‘head in the clouds’. Labels are reclaimed, and the reclaiming liberates. We absorb the names and persist in our efforts, through all our different personalities. We won’t let the forest be erased. We are in accordance with the puppets of protest, whatever their appearance, however they are dressed. A flock of white-tailed cockatoos calls out—no need for a ‘bottler’ out in the forest as it supplies its own sound effects, its own stage, its own personalities.
1. Ivan Illich notes in an interview: ‘That it is from your eye that I find myself. There’s a little thing there. They called it pupilla, puppet, which I can see in your eye. The black thing in your eye’ and ‘Pupil, puppet, person, eye. It is not my mirror.’ [http://www.wtp.org/archive/transcripts/ivan_illich_jerry.html]. And though I disagree with Illich when it comes to ‘gender’, I refer to this comment here.
Brecht, Stefan. The Bread and Puppet Theatre, Volume Two. Methuen, 1988/1994.
John Kinsella’s most recent works include the two volumes of his collected poems, The Ascension of Sheep and Harsh Hakea (UWAP, 2022/23), the short story collection Pushing Back (Transit Lounge, 2022) and Legibility: an antifascist poetics (Palgrave, 2022).