Janni Younge*

Abstract: Contemporary puppetry is a powerful artistic medium for developing perspectives on being human. Using the work of solo dance-puppeteer Ilka Schönbein, this paper explores the depth of meaning that puppetry can bring to theatre when used in combination with the physical body. The interdependent relationship between puppet and puppeteer is examined as a source of life for both of the puppet and of the content of the work. The inherent tension between the live animator and inanimate object is played out through careful juxtaposition of naturalism and expressive movement, allowing for transformation of images and concepts. Finally the importance of materiality of the puppet and its configuration alongside the performing body are considered in assembling of a unique perspective on being.

Keywords: Abrecht Roser, transformation, pain, emotions, human experience, manipulate, dance, object and body

I search in the most profound reaches of the human soul. My creativity comes into being where opinions have created human suffering.

Ilka Schönbein[1]

Eh bien dansez Mainteant. Photo : Marinette Delanné

Contemporary puppetry has brought a new artistic language to theatre to investigate the nature of being alive, being human. It brings with it a meta-awareness of the image of self, as it simultaneously creates and destroys the illusion of life. 

Contemporary western philosophies and psychology have called into question the concept of fixed personal identity or unified self. The metaphorical implications of the puppet object, its life, and the performer-object dynamics of contemporary puppetry have become a unique artistic tool for the interpretation of the nature of the human being.

Contemporary puppet productions are conceived with puppet figures at the center of the dramaturgy with visible live performers. Where used consciously, the combination of animate and inanimate, controlled and controller can provoke unsettling and profound questions about the nature of our existence. Ilka Schönbein’s work draws from human experiences of pain, aging, birth, memory and loneliness.[2] Often inspired by figures from European fairy tales in their original, violent form, her work evokes psychological angst and carnal suffering, using images of decay, blood and wounded flesh, as well as unsettling combinations of age and proportion, human and animal bodies (see here).

A scene from Schönbein’s La vielle et la bête. Photo: Mario Del Curto

Born in Germany, Schönbein first studied Eurythmy (a form of dance-movement developed by Rudolf Steiner) and then puppetry under Abrecht Roser. Both Steiner and Roser emphasize the delicacy of gesture and emotionally expressive movement—qualities present throughout Schönbein’s work. She went on to work as a performer with various artists before starting her company, Theater Meschugge (Theatre of Fools), with which she has created and toured several productions, including Metamorphoses (beginning as a street performance, this production has had five different stage versions, including Metamorphoses of Metamorphoses); Le Roi Grenouille (The Frog King,1998 and 2005); Voyage d’hiver (Winter Journey, 2003, also revised and developed several times); Chair de ma chair (My Own Flesh and Blood, 2006, to be followed by four alternate versions); Le Veille et la Bête (The Old Lady and the Beast, 2009); and Rumpelstiltskin (2017) amongst others.[3]

Schönbein’s work is in constant evolution and transformation. Working with herself as the central performer, using dance, mime and spoken text, she blends her body with puppet objects, masks and casts. Twisting into extreme positions, she turns her physical body into a platform for the puppet to live on, to possess. She blends and mixes past and present, myth, memory, body and object, as she plays out her achingly intense vision. As one version of a production morphs into the next, and as her images evolve and echo back over her body of work, she brings her whole being to bear in her performance process.

Schönbein’s work is a reflection of her cultural perception of being. Her caustic humor and dark vision are nourished by Central European outlook[4] and angst. She works consciously to provoke extreme emotional reactions in her audience[5] working with images of abortion, castration, birth and death, she spares the audience nothing.[6] Her unique creations are particularly powerful as she brings a complete investment into the work, drawing on her own relationships, perceptions and sensitive emotional reflections as she generates her material. Writing about her creation process on Rumpelstiltskin, she says:

The tale talks about art. Maybe about all forms of art, because every true artist transforms straw into gold. But I also think that every true artist is carried by a little (or big) demon. And this demon wants to be paid. And what it likes best, this type of demon, is really something alive. So one pays with one’s living soul, with one’s living body, with one’s living future (the child in the tale).[7]

Video 1

From Ilka Schönbein’s Metamorphoses: Birth Sequence

The puppet and puppeteer are both the scenography and the conceptual center of her productions. The puppet plays on the body of the puppeteer, using it as a support, a stage and co-performer. Figures are intertwined visually and conceptually. They transform and shift in constant co-dependent tension with one another. They are pulling each other apart, physically and emotionally, while remaining seamlessly integrated. The contorted human body, twisted in service of the puppet, nonetheless, controls the objects movement. Her works speak of psychological interdependence, destruction, disintegration and integration.

Video 2

Extracts from Ilka Schönbein’s works

Relationship: The Source of Life

With puppetry, you can express all the characters you have within you.

Ilka Schönbein[8]

Without the performer, the puppet cannot live. Yet, in contemporary puppetry, the performance is driven by the puppet, upon which the production concept depends. It is through the vehicle of the puppet that the performer channels a large part of the emotional and dramatic communication.

The tension inherent in this interdependence is carried through to full realisation in the work of Schönbein. Puppet and performer share a body but have distinct characters and the central dramatic conflict is played out between them. To create the illusion of independent life in the puppet, the performer’s body must follow the puppet and service its “needs.” The physical ease of the performer is disturbed as the puppet’s created intentions take “precedence” over the live performer’s will.

Video 3

From Ilka Schönbein’s Metamorphoses

In Schönbein’s work, the puppet has its own identity while, at the same time, acting as an extension and deformation of the performer body. The relationship is one of continuous autocreation and destruction.[9] In Chair de ma chair, mother and daughter share a single torso. The mother strangles her daughter while letting us know that she will die without her.[10] The production exposes a relationship of complete interdependence, even an inability to act with autonomy.

Writing about her interdependent and entangled relationship with the puppets in her work, Schönbein says:

I can’t consider any distance (from the puppet) and yet sometimes its proximity is unbearable to me.
The puppet remains . . . despite it’s evident dependence, always true to itself. What man can say as much for himself?

The fragmentation of the puppet, the self, memory and presence permeate Schönbein’s work. The location of an independent self and a clearly defined identity is continuously called into question. Ultimately, in Chair de ma Chair, the child devours the mother. This act evokes the all-consuming pain of childhood trauma which, unresolved, eats away at the psyche of the adult to the point of destruction.  An alternative reading reflects the inability of the child to separate from the parent. In this ultimate attachment (consumption), it causes self-destruction.

Schönbein’s Chair de ma chair. Photo: Marinette Delanné
Movement in Tension and Transformation

The puppet flies easily and walks with difficulty. It is already dead but, to maintain its life, requires constant vigilance and extremely precise manipulation. Although the puppet can achieve movement that defies gravity and is non-naturalistic with ease, it has most power when its movements are close to life, as the tension between the inanimate object body and the illusion of conscious (sensory and thought) and physiological (weight, breath, etc) presence are heightened. The perception of present being in the puppet is created by the audiences’ own recognition of the everyday in the puppet gesture.

The puppet breaths, looks up, considers and, then, takes action. The audience invests belief in the life of the puppet and, therefore, in the puppet’s role in the dramaturgy. Naturalism in the movement of an interpretive form gives the interpretive form presence. If the illusion is constructed tightly enough, the emotional life of the puppet will become vivid. Intention, gravity and emotional weight shift the puppet from being a decorative appendage into a character or force that is central to the dynamic of the work.

Schönbein’s La vielle et la bête. Photo: Mario Del Curto

If the puppet and performer are to interact successfully, their equal weight of presence must be established. As we begin to treat the two with a similar weight of presence, their relationship and the power to influence one another is expanded.

Schönbein works with what she terms the “Masque Corporelle” (“body mask”). The puppet which appears intensely alive in one moment dissolves revealing a new image, form or face. This revelation and dissolution of the invested illusion, speaks to the insubstantiality of human convictions. That which seems real dissolves into that which is another layer of illusion,[11] calling into question our dependence on perceived existence.

Video 4

Ilka Schönbein / Alexandra Lupidi – Eh bien dansez maintenant

Materiality, Form and Configuration

The sculpted puppet body or sculptural interpretation in the performing object have long been available to puppet theatre artists as tools for representing aspects of the human psychospiritual experience. Puppets will often be used to play the role of ghosts, dreams and fantasy figures, because of their capacity to represent non-naturalistic form and their capacity to move in ways not limited by gravity. However, in these roles, they are usually interpreted as belonging to a separate material world from the living on stage. Simply put, the actors represent real emotion and being, while the puppets represent something other. What is interesting in contemporary puppetry is that this distinction is broken apart. The visual, material world that characters (both live and puppet) exist in, the material qualities of the performing objects and costumes are all consciously conceived to give the puppets conceptual weight in the production.

Schönbein creates her puppets and masks in an aesthetic reminiscent of Kantor and Grotowski,[12] raw and guttural in texture. She often casts impressions off her own body and face, forming the basis of the performing objects. She works up the skin texture both on the puppet and her body, until there is a tonal, even textural unity between them. She places masks on her face and creates of her face itself an impassive mask. Puppet and performer often share the live body which is rendered object like. Puppet and puppeteer are both incomplete and often distorted. These half flesh, half material hybrids become the incarnation of emotions,[13] and half-formed and dependent being. In Schönbein’s work, it is no longer only the puppet that is constructed, but the body of the performer itself becomes a site of sculptural interpretation.

The body, produced by Ilka Schönbein is that of a being that refuses monolithic definition of identity, one who accepts the multiplicities of which it is formed.

Marion Girard-Laterre[14]

As the body dissolves and breaks, unsettling questions of where being is located and whether any identity exists begin to surface.

Over the past fifty years, contemporary puppet theatre has found its place as a vehicle for reflecting the multiplicity of human experience. Working with an integrated awareness of the communication mediums available in puppet theatre, artists bring puppets into relationship with performers, create relationships between puppets that reflect on human experience in a unique way, use movement to blur the boundaries between definitions, and create worlds that speak to the complex and layered reality we find ourselves living in. Puppetry’s particular ability to evoke questions of control and power-play, as well as its constantly self-revealing illusion of life make it an ideal tool for explorations of the world of the mind.

Eh bien dansez Mainteant. Photo : Marinette Delanné

[1]Jusselle, Jaques. “Bonne Feuille.” Manip: Le Journal de la Marionette, no. 14, 2008.

[2]Evelyne Lecucq. “Ilka Schönbein.” World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts, 2012.

[3]Méroud-Avril, Karinne. “Ilka Schönbein-Theatre Meschugge.” K Samka, 2009.

[4]Jusselle, Jaques. “Bonne Feuille.” Manip: Le Journal de la Marionette, no. 14, 2008;  and Méroud-Avril, Karinne. “Ilka Schönbein: Theatre Meschugge.” K Samka, 2009.

[5]Prost, Brigitte, and Emanuelle Casting. “Le Corps Habité des Marionettes.” Manip, no. 42, 2015.

[6]Jusselle, Jaques. “Bonne Feuille.” Manip: Le Journal de la Marionette, no. 14, 2008.

[7]Schönbein, Ilka. “Rumpelstiltskin.” K Samka, 2017.

[8]Jusselle, Jaques. “Bonne Feuille.” Manip: Le Journal de la Marionette, no. 14, 2008.

[9]Girard-Laterre, Marion. “L’objet et l’acteur au corps à corps : une enveloppe corporelle commune dans la pratique d’Ilka Schönbein.” Agôn: L’objet, le corps : de la symbiose à la confrontation, no.4, 2011.

[10]Girard-Laterre, Marion. “L’objet et l’acteur au corps à corps : une enveloppe corporelle commune dans la pratique d’Ilka Schönbein.” Agôn: L’objet, le corps : de la symbiose à la confrontation, no.4, 2011.

[11]Jusselle, Jaques. “Bonne Feuille.” Manip: Le Journal de la Marionette, no. 14, 2008.

[12]Jusselle, Jaques. “Bonne Feuille.” Manip: Le Journal de la Marionette, no. 14, 2008.

[13]Jusselle, Jaques. “Bonne Feuille.” Manip: Le Journal de la Marionette, no. 14, 2008.

[14]Girard-Laterre, Marion. “L’objet et l’acteur au corps à corps : une enveloppe corporelle commune dans la pratique d’Ilka Schönbein.” Agôn: L’objet, le corps : de la symbiose à la confrontation, no.4, 2011. 


*Janni Younge is a South African director and producer of multimedia theatrical works, with an emphasis on puppetry arts. Janni’s work has been performed widely locally and internationally. Recognition includes the prestigious SBYAA for Theatre, several Fleur du Cap awards and the Nagroda award for direction. A past director of Handspring Puppet Company, she currently runs Janni Younge Productions and UNIMA SA. Janni has an BFA and MA in Theatre from the University of Cape Town, a DMA from the École Supérieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionette and has taught in several tertiary institutions, while her writing has been published in books including the recent (2019) Routledge book: Women and Puppetry.

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Reconfiguring Being: Puppetry and Perspectives on Being Human Explored Through the Work of Ilka Schönbein
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