Andrew Eglinton

Writing about contemporary theatre and performance in Japan and beyond

The Ventriloquists Convention

This article was originally published in the Japan Times newspaper on April 27 2017.

Franco-Austrian choreographer and director Gisele Vienne is fascinated by puppets and brings a group of nine ventriloquists and their marionettes to the stage in her latest piece, “The Ventriloquists Convention.” The play is part of the World Theatre Festival Shizuoka run by Shizuoka Performing Arts Center from April 28 to May 7 at venues in and around the city of Shizuoka.

Vienne views puppets among a panoply of human representations, from sculptures to robots, instilled with the power of metamorphosis: “They can be seen as objects, ghosts, dead, alive, present, absent, holy and profane.” This ambiguity is at the heart of “The Ventriloquists Convention,” a play inspired by Vienne’s visit to a ventriloquist convention in Kentucky that attempts to capture some of the strange encounters between ventriloquists and their puppet partners.

The production was created in collaboration with actors from Puppentheater Halle in Germany and the script comes from North American novelist Dennis Cooper. Vienne describes the piece as “an unfolding of various layers of language — speech, gesture, emotion, thought and so on — and we create dialogue through these different linguistic layers.”

Vienne’s work has been well received in Japan. Her plays “Showroomdummies,” “This is How You Will Disappear” and “Jerk” were featured at both Festival/Tokyo and Kyoto Experiment. The director has also spent time researching puppetry in Japan, including a visit to the Awaji Puppet Theater.

Reflecting on the bunraku tradition, playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725) described it as “something that lies in the slender margin between the real and the unreal.” Puppets can be as simple as a piece of folded paper or as complex as a pre-programmed humanoid robot, but what they share is the capacity to describe what it means to be human. “The Ventriloquists Convention” offers that chance and it’s not to be missed.

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Cover photo copyright © Kerstin Behrendt.

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