The Power of the Puppet
Lectures notes by Corina Duyn as part of Diplomado Muñecoterapia, Chile, http://www.munecoterapia.cl/ , 9th May 2020
Spanish Translation see: http://corinaduyn.blogspot.com/2020/05/the-power-of-puppet-apuntes-de-la.html
Spanish Translation see: http://corinaduyn.blogspot.com/2020/05/the-power-of-puppet-apuntes-de-la.html
Thank you Andrea Markovits for inviting me back to share my experiences of illness, disability and puppetry with you all. I had the pleasure of meeting Andrea at the first Broken Puppet Symposium on Puppetry, Disability & Health in 2017 in Ireland.
My name is Corina Duyn. I am a Dutch born artist, writer and puppet maker. I live in Ireland.
As last year, I will briefly meet with the students via video link to give a short introduction. Then Myli will present a translated version of my lecture, after which I would encourage you all to discuss my work in relation to your own experience. I will meet you again to discuss your views and answer your questions.
Thank you so much for this opportunity.
Puppetry, me and M.E.
Puppetry has been part of my life from an early age. Having developed my own style of dolls and puppets over the decades, the design and emphasis has changed significantly in recent times. After studying and working as a palliative care nurse and social care worker in the Netherlands, I became a full-time working Doll Artist after my move to Ireland (1989).
In 1998, I taught puppet-making in a group-home for teenagers. One engaging, mischievous young man of about thirteen sculpted a funny clown’s head. However, when it came to making the hands, they were created as fists. I felt his sculpted fists expressed his true emotions of anger and fear. This experience became the pivotal moment where I realised the power of art; especially the power of working with clay. The clay ‘does not lie’. The deepest fears, joy, wishes and challenges appear from our hearts, our minds, through our hands into the clay.
Unfortunately, I did not get to finish the project with the young people as I became very ill with the neurological illness Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E). (In some countries it called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but this description does not reflect the reality beyond fatigue). In a very short time I lost the ability to look after myself, to walk properly, to sit up and talk, to remember, to read, to write, to prepare my food, or do even such simple tasks as open a tube of toothpaste. In terms of my work, I lost all finer skills to hold my tools and to manipulate the clay. The total lack of energy and being in constant pain made creating my dolls and puppets impossible. As a result, my creative output changed dramatically both in substance and intensity. I made quick drawings, mainly of eggs, later of birds. I wrote on scraps of paper, the words at times a peculiar combination of Dutch and English. Later I played with paint, made paper collages, slowly trying out plasticine, eventually back to using clay. These creative explorations were done minutes at the time, just once a day. Unwittingly I created a visual and written account of this journey, of my utterly changed existence.
One emerging sketch is that of a marionette puppet with a hand holding the cross. These words are written over the image:
“A puppet, not a great drawing, but…the puppet is me with M.E., I have little or no control over my body. WHO is the hand who keeps me upright, make me walk, make me move gracefully, or let me stumble at times, makes me stand my full length or let me buckle at the knees, makes the arms move or leave them hang like useless objects. Who is the hand that has control
What is the hand that holds the cross and moves 'my' strings at its will.
Can I become the hand over M.E., have control over me?
Hand, whatever you do, don't drop me altogether, hold on, but stop playing tricks…”
My creative work over the past 20 years closely reflects my journey through illness. The early years are documented in my book ‘Hatched, a Creative Journey Though M.E. (2006), which can be read for free on my website. When, many years later I came to accept recovery was not possible, I fulfilled a long held dream to study. Attending Disability Studies made me step out of the disability box, out of solitude, and into the world with a new creative vision: through sculptures; the creation of my Artist Book Into the Light, puppets. Armed with more conviction to tackle disability related issues through my work. As puppetry can break down the personal barriers, it gives us great scope to open up much needed conversations about disability, and other experiences of social disadvantage and oppression.
Life Outside the Box, Disability Puppetry Project
Shortly after attending collected, I became an active member of the Irish Wheelchair Association (An organization in Ireland for people with physical disabilities, not just those using a wheelchair). The then Centre coordinator asked if I could facilitate a puppet-making project. We received funding from Create - Artist in the Community Scheme, funded by the Arts Council of Ireland, and started our work in summer 2015.
Our group consisted of twelve people with a variety of disabilities: acquired brain injury, Multiple Sclerosis, polio, congenital birth defects, and M.E; ages 27 to 72. Over the course of eight months we created nine marionette puppets, a large ‘disability’ box, and a large hand to help us out of the box. I hadn’t realised at the time that this might be the hand in my drawing at the start of my illness.
My goal was to make this project very person-centred by giving everybody a role in the project: Making the puppets, note taking, story development, decorating the large box, photography, book design, press coverage and talking at the public launch. We documented our project in a blog, a book, and a short film in which puppets were stepping out of society’s disability box. This theme came about during discussions while creating the puppets.
It proved to be of immense benefit that I knew the participants in advance of starting the project. Some were unsure about their ability or interest to create a puppet, but all came on board in some way. I invited one woman to sit alongside us and write down snippets of our conversations. Many funny anecdotes were recorded and published in our book. She took great pride seeing her press release appear in several newspapers. Others took on the role of decorating our box, taking photographs, or inviting a speaker to the official public launch of our project. All aspects were of equal importance.
I drew on my personal experiences of adapting work methods. For one young woman who has no lower arms but is able to hold a pen between her elbows, I adapted the sculpting tool and brush by adding a layer of Milliput epoxy putty. I moulded the putty until the tools fitted well within her elbows. By adding a layer of wet DAS clay to her wheelchair tray, we were able to put the to-be sculpted head base onto this wet clay. This allowed her to do a lot of the sculpting herself. Although we all had staff to support us, it was extremely important to me that the puppets were made mainly by the participants, as the character of the puppet has so much of the maker in them. I also adapted the cross so she could animate her beautiful finished puppet. We moulded a plaster of Paris socket over her upper arm, a tubigrip protecting her arm and reaching up to her shoulder. Tools were adapted in the same manner for other participants.
I was aware of the unease of one member who has an acquired brain injury to work in a large group. As the process to make a full puppet with him separately from the group would take too long, I invited him to make the large paper-mâché hand. I, or a staff member, worked one-to-one with him. It was so encouraging to see his pride. He was totally engaged in the process and related the work to his previous profession as a chef.
Encouraged by my motto that ‘there is always a way to do the work’ one man with MS who has very little strength left in his hands asked for sandpaper to be taped to the table. He sanded the clay shoes of his puppet by rubbing them over the sandpaper, holding it with both hands. A young man realised that if he did not close the scissors fully he was able to cut the clothing for his puppet by himself. This was a total revelation to him. Over the course of the project I witnessed a shift in focus from disability to ability. Skills were exchanged and as a result the group became more cohesive. Each week the puppets’ personalities and stories became more profound. One participant said that his puppet took on its ultimate personality because of the obstacles he faced along the way.
For me it was, and always is, important to have puppets portraying the maker’s individuality. Of course, basic creative ‘rules’ apply for a puppet to have functionality. It was the journey to make the puppets, not the outcome, which mattered.
We all deal with vulnerability about our illness and disability. Being in this group, busy with our hands, there was a great sense of ease to talk about our lives, our challenges and hopes. It was a safe place. We certainly laughed a lot too, which was a great tonic.
We filmed Life Outside the Box (2016) in our local shopping centre. We chose this public place on purpose, seeking interaction with the public. Puppets make for easy conversation. People engaged with us, which was a shift from being ignored or our mental and physical ability being dismissed, as is the more common experience. For me ‘Life Outside the Box’ represents pride, inclusiveness, freedom and empowerment. The benefits went beyond the making. One member with acquired brain injury was unable to make the puppet by himself, but partook in every step with support of a staff member. It was still very much his puppet. On filming day he walked around the shopping centre with his puppet. He was truly one with his puppet. It was really beautiful to see.
Quote on Powerpoint slide:
“…“Whilst the project was about puppets coming out of their box, in reality, it was the service users that also ‘came out of their box’ to realise they could do more than they thought they were capable of. It was the most inclusive project that we ever did.”
Andrea Lloyd, Centre Coordinator at time of the project
Our project certainly caught the public’s eye. There were full spread articles in the local newspapers, and we had two well-attended launches at libraries. I was interviewed on radio on several occasions. Our video has been shown at Disability Film Festivals in Canada and UK, and in our local cinema. Every three months an adapted one-minute version is screened on Irish national television. Myself and another member of the group were filmed in my house for a segment on Nationwide (2018), on national tv. We also hosted an exhibition with our puppets and other creative work by the group and individuals. We celebrated our Ability.
I believed, and still believe, that the project broke many boundaries, and had great potential to be used further as communication tools about disability, for example in schools. It saddens me that these educational opportunities noted by the then Centre coordinator are not followed up by the person now in charge.
On a personal note, I am proud that as a person with a disability I was able to facilitate a project for and with other people with disabilities. There were so many astonishing and beautiful moments where believes of inability were overcome and became sources of inspiration; where characters appeared from under our hands – seemingly with fierce determination to be ‘born’ with their own story to tell.
Slide 7: video
Life Outside the Box. video, aprox 4 min. or youtube full version https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kv80lXXrgWc
As I began to struggle more and more with the way we, the members, were being treated as if we were children, and not valuable members of society with our lived experiences, I had to stop going to the weekly meetings. I must say I miss meeting my fellow members, but I needed to protect my own mental wellbeing from the institutionalized ethos of the disability organization as a whole and the degrading treatment at the centre.
However, the Life Outside the Box project lives on. Emma Fisher and Laura Purcell-Gates referenced it in their research paper “Puppetry as reinforcement or rupture of cultural perceptions of the disabled body”. Create/Irish Arts Council, funders of the project, published a case study.
The project also let to the invitation by Emma Fisher to give a talk at the first Broken Puppet Symposium (2017) in Cork, Ireland. This was followed by invitations in 2018 to give the Key Note at the Broken Puppet 2 in Bath, UK, as well talks in Nottingham (UK), Bristol (UK), Brazil, Cork (Ireland), Chile, and Canada. Some in person, others via Skype or by pre-recorded video. I suddenly found myself in a world I did not know I was part of. How beautiful.
Since the project I have taught puppet making in my home studio but currently my course material is only available as self guided online course through detailed videos and digital books.
Some of my students have disabilities, or work with people with disabilities. Others simply like to enjoy learning a new art form, or use learned skills in their therapeutic practises. Sharing my course material online allows me to be able to share my knowledge, although severely limited by illness. In all cases, I am not overly concerned how beautiful the puppet is going to be. What I am most interested in to see is what stories the puppet has to tell. I encourage the student to truly engage with their work and explore the issues, thoughts, or desires, which might come to light. Puppets can go where people, including myself, are afraid to go.
Puppetry and Embodiment of my own Disability
My own tentative depiction of disability through puppetry comes in the form of The Reflections Girls. In 2013 I walked into a dance studio using my walking sticks. I know how I walk, but seeing myself reflected in the wall to wall mirrors was a rather sobering experience. I turned away from the mirrors and sat down looking out the window and started writing in my diary. When brave enough I stood up and looked at my reflection in the mirror: What do I truly see? How does it feel? Do my thoughts change when I move the sticks behind my back? Are what I see and what I think the same?
These puppets became the main characters in a project in 2019.
Slide 9 (leave video to later)
One of the challenges I faced during the past few years is that I don’t have the strength to hold the cross of my marionettes. I explored alternatives. Póilin is the result. I needed a puppet which I could animate from my wheelchair. Throughout this process I was very aware of my physical boundaries, and at the same time valued my ability.
The often overlooked therapeutic benefit of creating new work is that the brain is fully engaged. Waking up in the morning with the thought: “how could I make the puppet’s head move...”, takes the focus away from a painful or uncooperative body. Instead the focus is on something fun and productive. The therapeutic value is also in engaging with the finished puppet, and watch them come to life. Póilin certainly has taken on a personality of her own and in a way embodies my story.
Puppetry and M.E.: Living in the shadows of an Invisible Octopus
During 2019 I have been working with puppeteer, set designer and script writer Dr. Emma Fisher through a mentoring bursary from Arts & Disability Ireland Connect Scheme. The aim was to write a script for my existing puppets, as well as exploring alternative forms of puppetry with easier access points, like glove puppets and shadow puppetry, to accommodate the physical challenges due to my chronic illness/disability.
“Working on ‘Invisible Octopus’ inexplicably forced me to examine and establish the truth about what is my normal.”
During our first face-to-face mentoring, the word ‘shadow’ triggered a memory of a book I had been working on years ago, a fictionalised story about my great grandmother’s spirit, whose presence I felt on my body like the tentacles of an octopus. I lived in her shadow. “The Shadow of an Invisible Octopus”. This sensation is relatable to the experience of M.E.; the hard to describe, changeable neuropathic pain; the feeling of something invading my body; the many cognitive problems; and not being in control of my movements, of my life. As if an invisible hand holding the cross of a marionette is animating the strings attached to my body. During the process of thinking, writing and discussing my project, the octopus became this hand.
M.E. as Invisible Octopus
acting as Puppeteer
Keeping me upright
or let me stumble at will
Challenging my brain
Letting go of the strings
leaving me lifeless
The above are abstract from a poem which I wrote to be used instead of narrative in the proposed film.
I designed Octopus as a glove puppet with the idea that I would be able to animate it myself. I had the support of a Personal Assistant (PA) to cut the fabric for the octopus. I found the perfect fabric given to me by my mother over twenty years ago: turquoise for the top, and a mix of beige for the bottom parts. The suction pads on the tentacles are from my non-slip socks. The eyes I found in a box of old puppet eyes. I found it of great significance that all the props we created, including the hospital bed, recliner and wheelchair, were made from found objects in my studio. All had a memory attached.
“Use everything - use everything wisely - everything has significance.”
The machine-sewing was done by my PA. I did the hand-sewing while in my recliner. It was good to have discovered a new way to create. Octopus was initially a prop, but it took on its own life and perhaps became the story.
Dealing with Octopus is precarious
An octopus is very intelligent and can learn tricks, a bit like M.E., which constantly changes and affects us in new ways, taking control over our bodies and over our lives, pressing a weight on our chest and heart, and messing with our brains. Disobey Octopus’ rules and the level of illness increases dramatically.
I am one
in a worldwide community of hermits
Where freedom of movement
is no longer a right
The desire for freedom remains
Like the birds
I too need to fly the nest
and be one of the flock
We filmed two short abstract of the scrips, including where I drive down the ramp in my powered wheelchair. This is the only scene I would be visible in the film. At the gate I would be replaced by The Girl puppet in her wheelchair. On the day, my PA pinned Octopus on my shoulder. Although I was fully aware that it was pinned to my clothes and not to me, it encroached on me. I felt utterly restricted in my movements. While filming a close-up, my assistant animated Octopus slowly creeping over my shoulder. Powerful imagery, but on an emotional level, it makes for very uncomfortable viewing.
Presenter: please play Octopus on shoulder video 14 sec.
The story continued with The Girl puppet meeting her friends, represented by puppets made by my students. Coming home after a very short expedition, Octopus (M.E.) takes revenge, taking away her ability to speak, pulling her out of her chair and landing her in hospital.
Octopus pulling strings violently
Knocking me down
Trapping my words
Octopus sits on the puppet’s chest as she lies in her hospital bed, pinning her down. (As in image at start of presentation).
This story closely reflect my reality. I had a severe relapse and lost my ability to speak properly, and had difficulty with chewing and swallowing. A stroke was ruled out. Over the three weeks in hospital i had to regain my ability to walk independent again, with the help of a walking frame. I spend three weeks in hospital. I feel that Octopus also represents a section of the medical profession which tries to take control over my life, totally disregarding my reality, as my illness is not always believed to be physical.
As a result:
I disappear further
into the shadows
Into the reservoir
“In spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness –
or perhaps because of it – the shadow is the seat of creativity...”
The not knowing if I could return to my own home and remain living independently was a daily thought. An increased home care package was put in place. Yet again I had to find my way within this illness. It is a continual learning process, including accepting strangers into my home, into my personal energy field. There was nowhere to physically escape to.
All I had were my thoughts and the birds outside my window. But as Maya Angelou so poignantly wrote: … the caged bird sings of freedom... I had to find peace in my solitude.
There is more than one way to fly – no one can lock away the freedom of my mind.
I am aware I am just one person in this worldwide community of hermits, of people living with invisible illnesses hidden behind their walls, locked in their thoughts.
Now, during the Covid-19 crisis, many find themselves being locked into their homes. For most people this is a short term change to deal with. For me, it is a daily reality.
My garden is my sanctuary. I feel less housebound during the spring and summer months than during the winter. My boundaries are extended.
Short abstract of the filming we managed to do.
During the mentoring period, I learned a whole lot more than just how to write a script. I came face-to-face, ‘puppet-to-face’, with my reality. At times I was so engrossed in the project that many nights, on the edge of sleep, I would think of another line for my poem, or another aspect of my journey to explore. A wonderful time spent locked away in my creative mind; a learning, healing and therapeutic experience.
At the same time, I was aware that it is easier to think about props and set design than to focus yet again on new health issues, and the continued battle for proper care. Working on Invisible Octopus was escapism at best. However, being so involved in the project was physically too much. I had to concede and take a big step back. Working on the props was manageable to a degree, as I could stop after ten or 20 minutes’ work. Filming, however, was a lot more energy consuming than I had anticipated. The two very short clips we explored - me leaving the house with Octopus on my shoulder, and the garden scene with ‘The Girl’ in her chair with Octopus invading her space - brought on relapses and put me into bed for weeks. I had to rethink the outcome of the project.
The play of shadows
During the last mentoring day, Emma had me experiment with shadow puppetry using an overhead projector. She attached a small screen to the bed-end of my profiling bed (a hospital-type bed) and placed the overhead projector on a bed tray standing over my legs. Totally wedged in, but breathing life into a whole new world playing with light and shadows, movement and stillness.
I experienced the beauty of creating a mini world with herbs from my garden and marvelled at the possibility to change the colour of the light on the screen through movement of hands under the source of light. Gently moving the paper puppet in a wheelchair over the ‘grass’ made from fennel leaves, the shadow of Octopus appeared in this tranquil scene. Encroaching slowly on the puppet, pushing her about, lifting her up in the air and dropping her, wheelchair and all, as Octopus moved closer to the source of light, blocking out the image of the puppet, changing tranquility into chaos.
The illusions of life
in the shadows
of an Invisible Octopus
Working on Invisible Octopus made me confront the stark reality of declining health. This project is possibly the most powerful focus on my daily difficulties of life with illness. Although I have used many forms of creativity over the past two decades, I believe puppetry is the most confronting and at the same time healing art form of all.
After a lot of deliberation, I had to concede that making the film is actually beyond my ability. What I am hoping to do this year is to develop the poem, which I wrote as narrative for the film, and create shadow images to visualise the poem. I hope to publish this into a book. And in the process, I am hoping to find that light again, measured by the intensity of its shadows.
Many thanks for your interest in my work.
Please take time to consider the above topics for discussion. But also please discus your own thoughts or emotions which may have arisen during this presentation.
I will answer any questions later via our Zoom meeting, and gladly communicate via email at a later stage.
This paper may be printed for the course participants and it will be published on my blog www.corinaduyn.blogspot.ie at a later date.
Abstracts of this paper may be quoted. Please reference Corina Duyn, “The Power of the Puppet”, Presentation on Puppetry, Disability and Health, by Corina Duyn, at Diplomado Muñecoterapia, 9 May 2020
- The full Invisible Octopus poem can be read here: https://corinaduyn.blogspot.com/2019/12/invisible-octopus-5-poem.html
- Fantasy Folk Doll Art and early art created during illness: http://www.corinaduyn.com/site/art/
- Book: Hatched – A Creative Journey Through M.E. http://www.corinaduyn.com/site/hatched/
- Artworks from about 2011 http://www.corinaduyn.com/site/creative-mind/
- Artist Book: Into the Light. (http://www.corinaduyn.com/site/into-the-light/
- Paper by Emma Fisher and Laura Purcell: “Puppetry as reinforcement or rupture of cultural perceptions of the disabled body” https://data.bathspa.ac.uk/articles/Puppetry_as_reinforcement_or_rupture_of_cultural_perceptions_of_the_disabled_body/7498328
- Artist in the Community Case study of Life Outside the Box. Funded by Create – Arts Council of Ireland –http://create-ireland.ie/evaluations-and-case-studies/life-outside-the-box
- Puppet Blog for project details http://lifeoutsidethebox-puppetproject.blogspot.com
- Blog Post about first Puppet Symposium: “The astonishing world inhabited by puppets” http://corinaduyn.blogspot.com/2017/08/the-astonishing-world-inhabited-by.htm
- Teaching puppet making in my studio and Life Outside the Box on Nationwide RTE National TV https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIq9MkAdZO4