Puppets Without Borders

Across continents, a high-tech production

By Katharine Reece MFA '12, Photos by CB Goodman MFA '15, Dana Maxson, and Katharine Reece MFA '12

Design Techniques in Media and Puppetry

Last May, on a Tuesday night on 
the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a group of students from Sarah Lawrence moved around a dark room inside a multimedia studio, in a building owned by the historic La Mama Experimental Theatre Club. Spring air blew in from an open window. The students dodged camera equipment, electrical wires, and a puppet dressed like an astronaut. Three large white screens covered one wall.

Suddenly the screens began to flicker with faces—but not those of the students in the room.

“Eun Jee, can you hear me?” asked Tom Lee (theatre).

“Yes!” replied Eun Jee Lee, a professor of acting at Seoul Institute of 
Arts and Tom Lee’s co-teacher of the course “Design Techniques in Media 
and Puppetry.”

"It makes the experience of video not feel like just watching a movie, but brings something you can actually touch into the room." —Tom Lee

The faces belonged to students in Seoul, South Korea, where it was 8:30 the following morning. The students in Seoul were doing exactly what the students in New York were doing: getting ready to rehearse The Return, a story devised by Lee in conjunction with his co-teacher and students. Despite the nearly 7,000 miles between them, the students would rehearse a production involving puppets and props, on which they’d been collaborating for nearly a year—almost entirely via live-feed ­video.

Tom Lee is known internationally for his work as a puppet artist, director, designer, and performer. In early 2014, CultureHub, one of La Mama’s resident companies, invited him to lead a workshop, using its technology, with students from the Seoul Institute of Arts and Sarah Lawrence. “On the strength of that connection we found with the students, CultureHub created a for-credit class, which would do the same thing over a yearlong period,” Lee explains. He accepted a residency for the 2014–2015 academic year and began seeking material that would make the collaboration viable.

He decided to start with a 1961 novel by Stanislaw Lem, Return from the Stars, about an astronaut named Hal. For 10 years Hal travels into deep space and back, and because of time dilation, 127 years pass on Earth. He returns to find human life has radically changed, and he must learn how to navigate the challenges of what seems like an entirely new planet. “I thought that story might be a really amazing way to explore that we’re in different times in New York and Korea, but we’re on the same planet,” Lee says. “It became a metaphor for how we experience time.” Lee worked with the students throughout the year to arrive at their production of the novel, which they simply called The Return.

”I don’t think you can ever replace being there.” —Tom Lee (theatre)

So how did they pull it off? Along with the live-feed cameras, the students used green screen and projection mapping, combined with props, miniatures, and traditional puppetry techniques. What transpired was a performance for three different audiences, each sharing the same virtual space. One audience gathered in a studio in Korea for a live performance, another audience watched live in New York, and the combined video feeds of both studios streamed online for viewers in any part of the world.

Chris Carcione MFA '15, whose thesis explored ways of subverting traditional audience experiences and ­engagement, was responsible for much of the technical work. For him, The Return posed a few essential questions: When you make something in any given space, such as the CultureHub studio, who are you actually making it for? When you put what you’ve made online, then who does your audience become? And when you’re incorporating collaborators from around the world, does your audience change again?

According to Tom Lee, an important dimension of the audience’s experience had to do with the puppets. The aforementioned astronaut puppet functioned as the character of Hal. The students in Seoul had an exact replica of him—courtesy of Lee, who trained them to use it—so they could have the same character in both places at the same time. “It makes the experience of video not feel like just watching a movie, but brings something you can actually touch into the room,” says Lee, who has been combining puppetry with video for years.

Lee says this kind of production is not meant to replace live theatre. For him, the most important part isn’t necessarily the art and new uses of technology, but the relationships that form by marrying the two. In January, 16 students from Seoul came to New York to do a workshop at CultureHub and meet their Sarah ­Lawrence counterparts. Lee said the experience was akin to meeting a celebrity, given that the students prior to that moment had only been slivers of lambent light on a screen.

“We can use technology to stay connected and interconnected with existing relationships, or as a way to forge new relationships—but not as a way to replace them,” Lee says. “I don’t think you can ever replace being there.”