Creating a puppetry revolution in a digital world

Stories
Nov 24, 2022
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Image: Anthem Anthem Revolution. Credit: Terrapin/Peter Mathew.

When puppetry company Terrapin was invited to pitch a work for the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, it was presented with quite a conundrum.

How would they make a work that brings together their core medium of puppetry with sport, whilst remaining sensitive to the inherent colonialism and nationalism that underpins such a spectacle?

Well that was obvious. They’d get audiences to battle a table tennis robot for a chance to replace Australia’s national anthem with one written by children in collaboration with a Tasmanian Aboriginal rapper of course.

Terrapin is one of Australia’s longest running puppetry companies, based in nipaluna (Hobart), Tasmania. Like many contemporary puppeteers, they are facing complex decisions about what technologies to weave into their practices, how to integrate them and why, while staying true to the traditions of their artform. In making experimental work in schools, public spaces, theatres and increasingly, aged care settings, they are navigating the boundaries of puppetry, robotics, animation and gaming to explore some of the bigger conversations of our time – in this case, sport and national identity.

Anthem Anthem Revolution was born from a series of workshops with Tasmanian children, exploring their hopes and dreams for Australia and how these are represented in a national anthem. They recorded a series of key words generated from these workshops that were brought together into lyrics by Tasmanian Aboriginal rapper Denni for a new anthem composed by Thomas Rimes and recorded by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

Audiences then had to earn the right to hear it. Systems designer Dylan Sheridan integrated the elements of the new anthem to be triggered by people competing against a table tennis robot, a kind of play on the infamous Dance Dance Revolution craze, as Artistic Director Sam Routledge explains.

“Audience participants would approach the table tennis table with a bat which is wired into a computer. A robot arm shoots out balls and whenever they hit the ball, they would hear a child’s voice saying a word like ‘hope’, ‘dreams’, or ‘diversity’. Every successful hit would also trigger a light on an LED strip, a kind of scoreboard. The more balls you return successfully, the more lights you’ve got on the strip. And if you completed the strip and a bonus stage, then you would hear the new anthem. Top scores were collected and shared online.”

Image: Anthem Anthem Revolution in development. Credit: Terrapin/Peter Mathew

So is a robot a puppet? While the boundaries are blurred, Sam argues that the table tennis robot arm is indeed a puppet.

“A puppet is normally directly controlled live by a human,” he said. “While the robot is pre-programmed, human decision making is still at the centre of the puppet’s behaviour. It is programmed very specifically to behave in a very specific way.”

In this sense, it has no decision-making autonomy or ability to learn, which a robot might.

“The digital is enslaved to the analogue,” Sam said. “And despite all of these technological elements within this work, the player is actually having an almost entirely physical experience. The digital elements are always working for the analogue experience.”

It’s a principle that is increasingly defining how Terrapin is approaching the integration of digital technologies throughout their body of work.

A new digital puppetry philosophy

Puppetry has always had something inherently digital deep within its DNA.

Historically focused on the creation of mechanised and seemingly autonomous 3D characters in artificial environments, you could in fact, make the case that puppetry is one of the original digital artforms, its exploration of human and machine interaction dating back thousands of years.

Yet the affordability, accessibility and automation of technologies has the potential to threaten the very craft that these new systems are so indebted to. In a sense, puppetry has never been so conceptually relevant, yet technically so redundant.

For Terrapin, they are protecting the traditions of their craft, through a digital strategy that underpins both the work they are making and their methods for making it, which they recently articulated as part of their participation in the Australia Council for the Arts’ Digital Strategist in Residence program.

While Terrapin’s digital strategy is technologically agnostic, the way digital elements are embedded meets clear conceptual criteria, which often means deciding what not to do.

Terrapin is deliberately not focusing on at-home experiences or the live streaming of works to remote audiences, something it acknowledges is a privileged approach due to  the relatively few COVID-19 lockdowns experienced in Tasmania. That’s not to say it didn’t spur on experimentation. It recently developed an online game to complement its Scaredy Cat show. As useful as this exploration of new development processes and tools was, which may well be used again, Terrapin has since determined that online gaming is not the best way to augment audience experiences either,

“What this showed us was that as interesting and persuasive as these technologies may be, for us, they have to be used to augment a physical experience,” Sam said.

Essentially, the Scaredy Cat game consolidated Terrapin’s commitment to bringing people together. It’s about being there. And it’s this ethos that is informing how technology is embedded in the work itself too.

“It needs to facilitate or augment interaction and agency from audience participants” Sam explains. “So it’s analogue first. As an example, if we were to use augmented reality, we would want to develop it by filming or photographing something physical and would then be looking at how that might interact with a physical puppet or in-person experience,” he said.

This is increasingly aligning with the kinds of experiences that audiences are seeking too, Sam says, a trend which has been accentuated by the COVID-19 lockdowns.

“It’s my feeling that audiences are seeking out the physical more and more now,” Sam says. “I think people are wanting to see that return to the physical both on screen and in person. Even as animation has become so popular, it has become inexpensive which means there’s much more of it which is low or poor quality. Audiences want that physical ingenuity that comes from human-made work, whether hand-drawn or from puppets, It’s that authenticity of the human hand.”

“So to us, digital is not about replacing. It is very much about the digital working for and amplifying the analogue rather than the other way around.”

With a mission to engage with the most urgent conversations of our time, Terrapin is doing so through medium as much as message, in exploring how the digital world is interacting with the physical and the relational politics between puppet and person, stringing the audience along for the ride.

Anthem Anthem Revolution premiered at the Birmingham 2022 Festival. The project was supported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Arts Council England and The National Heritage Lottery Fund; the UK/Australia Season Patrons, the Australian Government, the British Council and Creative Partnerships Australia through the Australian Cultural Fund as part of the UK/Australia Season 2021-22 and by Arts Tasmania. Terrapin was an inaugural participant in Australia Council for the Arts’ Digital Strategist in Residence program.