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Theater Wed Nov 11 2015

Preview: The Ventriloquists Convention at Museum of Contemporary Art

The Ventriloquists ConventionThis weekend, nine actors and 10 dummies from Europe will descend upon the Museum of Contemporary Art to perform a modern play called The Ventriloquists Convention. The piece is an international collaboration, written by American writer Dennis Cooper and directed by Franco-Austrian artist Gisèle Vienne, who studied music, puppetry and philosophy and who works as a choreographer and director.

I spoke with Vienne about the play, about the difference between puppetry and ventriloquism, and about our mysterious human need for idols, aka puppets. She has worked with Cooper before, directing his macabre one-man puppet show (Jerk, 2008) about a serial killer who reenacts his murders with his newfound prison puppeteering skills.

Vienne describes this new collaborative work, The Ventriloquists Convention as "a mixture of humor and loneliness. It's kind of funny and dark." When pressed to describe who the intended audience is for Ventriloquist Convention, Vienne's passion for the work shines through. "It got enthusiastic responses form audiences in Europe. It is very unconventional. The only important thing is to be very curious and open minded to discover something that you hopefully haven't seen before. Everyone who is curious should come because we will satisfy your curiosity!"

It is a fictional narrative about the actual Ventriloquist Convention in Kentucky, but this one is played by eight Germans and one Frenchman as they plumb the dark depths of American pop culture and their dreams of fame. In fact, Vienne admits, "I'm very curious about how the American audience will perceive it. It's our premiere in the US. In Europe, they think it looks very American, but it's like the European fantasy of the American perspective, so you're probably going to think it's European. There is something funny about that!"

But why puppets? Vienne can explain that too. She thinks history shows that we need puppets to help us tell the truth or to access different parts of a character and that puppets are part of a mysterious fascination we have always had with storytelling. If you doubt this, she says, think about how, "We wouldn't treat a puppet like an object as we would a chair or a cushion, or a table. Even if we know it's not real and we are rational, depending on the shape of the puppet and what kind it is -- we have an very different emotional relationship with it. It can be attractive, repulsive, uncanny or grotesque." She went on to describe how the Egyptians were the first known puppeteers, as they carried around their idols in processions, making it appear as if the idols were walking among them, which is still a living tradition in some religions today.

"If you talk about the Virgin Mary statue and Kermit, they are very different," Vienne says. "Obviously their use is different, but we need them both. There is something beautiful about that archetype tool that has always been needed and is still necessary in 21st century."

In The Ventriloquists Convention the use of dummies is powerful, she says, because "It allows us to express things we couldn't express in a different way. There is a well-known therapeutic use with puppets. It's something we play with a lot in the show. The context is that we have nine characters and their dummies, so we have 18 characters on stage. It allows them to create a dialog with different layers -- what I'm telling you or what my puppet will tell you, or what my puppet will tell your puppet and what your puppet will tell me allows for so many different dialog possibilities than if I just talked to you without a puppet. So it adds different psychological layers to the dialog using the excuse of the puppet to express things out loud to the audience. It's very multi-layered. They are talking about various thoughts and issues and feelings that everyone has."

The layers go even deeper than that, as the actors are all masterful puppeteers with varying levels of experience in ventriloquy. "This is a fictional imagining of a ventriloquist convention, so it's not an entertainment show where we are demonstrating the best ventriloquist doing a magic trick. It's a theatrical play with amazing puppeteers who are playing ventriloquists characters, so they are perfect in acting and playing the puppets." The puppeteers are from the world renowned German puppet company Puppentheater Halle.

When Vienne was young she became interested in sculpture and movement and that led her naturally to puppets. Although she studied puppetry in college, she said she knew nothing about ventriloquy until 2005 when she began working with Dennis Cooper. She then began to research the cultural history of ventriloquism, reading books and watching documentaries about the American greats like Edgar Bergen. She admits it's strange that the worlds of puppetry and ventriloquism seem so historically divided when it seems they are so closely related, but explains how in the American tradition ventriloquy was associated with vaudeville-style entertainment. "There is a scenario about a ventriloquist and his dummy as a duo doing Las Vegas shows, cruise ships, clubs, schools and TV shows. Puppetry has more history in the field of theater, which is why they are two different worlds."

Vienne says there is a growing interest in puppetry in contemporary theater and that maybe the wave of popularity will help puppetry grow as an art form in the more glamorous setting of contemporary art, which is why she is so excited to have the show performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art, "because my work is very cross interest from contemporary art and then theater so I think it being performance-based in a museum is perfect and I feel very at home with that."

Ventriloquist Convention will be at MCA for three shows only, Nov. 12-14, at 7:30pm each night. Tickets are $30, $10 for students.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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