Puppet Master

Brian Kooser shares the artistry behind bunraku puppetry

by Alison Peacock2009_fall_puppet_main

Fine arts adjunct professor and artist-in-residence Brian Kooser.

Photos by Chris Joseph Taylor

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The subjects of the final projects conceived by students in Brian Kooser’s puppetry class might be the most unusual on campus. A Spanish nun, a rapper who is unexpectedly “expecting,” a brain-seeking zombie and a cursed fortune-teller are just a few of the characters each student dreamed up and carefully crafted from paper, foam, cloth and found objects. “I was really pleased with how the puppets turned out,” says Kooser, a fine arts adjunct professor and artist-in-residence at Seattle University of his students’ creations.

These aren’t just any puppets. Strangely lifelike, they are done in the Japanese bunraku style and stand two and a half to four feet tall with bendable limbs and painted-on expressions. Closer to marionettes, bunraku puppets are distinguished by the rods attached to their heads, arms and feet. Each puppet requires three operators, who work in full view of the audience, usually cloaked in black.

Puppet maker and designer Kooser studied bunraku puppetry for 10 years as a journeyman for Thistle Theatre. As a founding member of Monkey Wrench Puppet Lab, he now caters largely to adult audiences, who often have a more evolved and loose sense of humor. His recent shows, Frankenocchio (2004), Dracula: A Case Study (2007) and UFO the Puppet Show (2008) have tackled adult themes to critical acclaim. The first of these shows caught the eye of Carol Wolfe Clay, former chair of SU’s Fine Arts department, which led to Kooser’s current role as artist-in-residence through the summer of 2010.

Long before he entered the puppetry profession, Kooser made giant wearable puppets as a hobby. His works have loomed large and tall both on stage and outdoors at Seattle’s Fremont Summer Solstice parades.

Closer to marionettes, bunraku puppets are distinguished by the rods attached to their heads, arms and feet. Each puppet requires three operators, who work in full view of the audience, usually cloaked in black.

In Kooser’s class, imagination is the only limit to what his students can make. Designing the puppets is just the start of the process: the stories behind these colorful creations are equally important.

“I built the story as I built the puppet,” says Katie Avery, a senior in creative writing. “She changed a lot. She was a David Bowie[–inspired] devil character, and she became a French gypsy witch.” In her storyline, Avery’s puppet, named Marie the Magnificent, trapped her husband inside a crystal ball and now she can’t tell fortunes without his help.

Theology major Kipp Gallagher wants to incorporate puppetry into teaching high school religion. “I think it would be fun to use puppets for education,” he says, “taking scripture and acting it out.”

At the close of winter quarter, Kooser’s class surrendered their creations to the eager hands of students in a movement class taught by Fine Arts Adjunct Professor Christian Swenson. This allowed the puppet designers to see how their stories would play live, while giving the movement students a different perspective on motion.

Kooser shared the basic rules of bunraku puppetry with Swenson’s class: As the person operating the head moves up, the person controlling the feet must move down. “This is called tension; it allows for movement,” he says. Deep in concentration, the students lurched a “zombie” puppet toward its prey with appropriate sound effects, dragging its feet convincingly until all six piled up at the edge of a table. “When you get in a tangle like that, drop your body and let your arms fall so the other puppets can catch up,” Kooser said, coaching the students. “If it feels awkward, you are doing it right.”

These are iconic characters that can act in ways that people can’t.
—Brian Kooser

Quietly, in the back of the classroom, some of Kooser’s students practiced with their own puppets. Drama major Katie Carrasco rehearsed her three-puppet soap opera in Spanish. Next to her, visual arts major Peter Ruger struggled with his giant “muppet” crafted out of blue cloth—think Cookie Monster with a shock of blond hair. “Moving puppets is hard,” he says. “It looks easy, but it kills your arm.”

Collaboration, as the students in the movement class learned that day, is paramount to success on stage. “Puppetry incorporates a lot of aspects of teamwork and problem solving,” says Lucas Boyle, a senior in digital graphic design who is interested in athletics, repetition, rehearsing and movement.

Well-designed dolls and creative storylines are nothing without performance. Drama major Damian Peterson sees how puppets can convey emotions beyond the scope of acting. “Puppets are so much simpler,” he says, “so movements have to be better to convey the same emotion.”

Kooser agrees: “These are iconic characters that can act in ways that people can’t. We can laugh at actions that, if we were watching people, would be horrid.”

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