For 23 years, since he founded it in 1985, Robert Smythe ran a unique theater in Philadelphia - a theater of tragedy and comedy, the bizarre and the ridiculous, the surreal and the not-so-real. When he finally departed from Mum Puppettheatre in 2008, shortly before its closure, Smythe had done something magical: He had brought puppetry out of the shadows and into the consciousness of adult theater-going Philadelphians.
No mean feat for a guy who cut his teeth on the Muppets and Burr Tillstrom of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie fame. Since Mum shut down, Smythe has been, among other things, teaching at Temple University, and now at the University of Pennsylvania. But hard-core puppets are never far from his mind or life. He just created the humungous dragon appearing in the People's Light and Theatre Company holiday panto, Arthur and the Tale of the Red Dragon, through next Sunday.
Dragons are almost as ubiquitous as zombies. How do you go about creating a new dragon in such a universe?
I'd never seen a panto before. But seeing it is such a wonderfully pleasurable experience: "Wow! There are just people on stage who want me to have fun!" . . . [Director] Pete Pryor [said] "We need a dragon, but it must meet these parameters. . . . It needs to be awesome. It needs to be huge. And for this particular story, we need to see the puppeteers who are manipulating, performing the dragon."
Your dragon is 30 feet long and is actually worn by the puppeteers. How is that different from a costume? Is this a puppet?
Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
What is a puppet?
Over time, I've narrowed it down or finessed it to: A puppet is an inanimate object that's manipulated in such a way that an audience believes it is alive and thinking. The thinking part is important.
There have been a ton of automatons through the years, robots, etc., etc., that move in astonishingly lifelike ways but don't necessarily convince us that they're alive. They simply mimic the movement of a being. But when you actually feel that what you're seeing is thinking, that's when you realize the difference.
There are a man and a woman, both wholly visible, wearing the dragon. How is that different from a costume, vaudeville's two-guys-in-a-horse-outfit?
Well, a horse might be a costume. A good way to understand a puppet is that it's like an instrument, a violin, a Stradivarius. Without the instrument, the musician could be talented as hell, but has no way to communicate the knowledge, the musicianship, the musicality, the technique to an audience. . . . So the puppet I built for the dragon, yeah, you can see the people in it. You can also see a person playing a violin. You can see them. There's the head of the dragon, the tail, the wings. They are moved in such a way that you actually think the dragon is thinking, it's actually looking at things, it's reacting to its environment. A costume - you put on a costume, it becomes part of you. . . . It moves with you, but you're not moving your clothes to convince someone that they have a life of their own or they have a life outside of you.
If the two guys in a horse were wearing a horse costume and the costume is there as a shortcut to say, "When you look over here, think 'horse,' " it's more of a costume. But if, like War Horse at Lincoln Center, you've got people operating a structure . . . to convince you that this is an animal that's living and breathing and thinking, there's the difference. I guarantee you that there are very few vaudeville horses that spend any time figuring out how to make people believe they're alive.
FOUR ROBERT SMYTHE MUST-SEE PUPPETRY VIDEOS
These examples of puppetry will challenge and expand your imagination:
"Berlin Wall." Burr Tillstrom's Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning "Berlin Wall," a hand ballet that depicts and distills the loves and lives changed in Germany in 1961. http://youtu.be/RCRvarruS9g
"I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face." Jim Henson's version of this tune from My Fair Lady on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971 reveals the dark humor (and an early version of Kermit) in a glimpse of infatuation gone wrong. http://youtu.be/YRYjumFolTs
"WarHorse." The work of South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company in the show WarHorse will convince you that a construction of wicker, leather and steel is actually alive. http://youtu.be/FHXmIO7jWTM
"The Sultan's Elephant." Imagine waking up one morning to find that a spacecraft has crash-landed in the center of town, revealing a giant alien traveler who meets up with a sultan who has an even more giant elephant. Theatre Royal de Luxe tours its free outdoor performances with 20-foot-tall (and larger) marionettes throughout Europe. http://youtu.be/Bc0PoWfPzmIEndText