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CHILDBIRTH, Performed with a Puppet – Analysis of Childbirth Performances in Puppet shows

08 04 2022


Niyar. Photo: Kasia Chmura

Author: Tea Kovše

On average, 385,000 babies are born every day – more than the number of deaths per day. Despite the frequency of this event, birth is something hidden, concealed, untouched and described with a distance in the social context. 

"The way modern societies think about and consequently regulate birth and death could be called sterile, flat. What may be really important is somehow marginalised, and at least seemingly subordinated to rational regulation. We send old people to nursing homes, people die in hospitals, women giving birth go to maternity hospitals – the important parts are excluded from everyday life."(1)

The aim of this text is to analyse in more detail the theme of childbirth in puppetry and to discover the potentials of performance, since the medium of puppetry presents acts that are painful (violence, death and birth) in a playful or realistic way, which gives it a great advantage over "carnal" theatre. Alja Lobnik in an interview for the RTVSLO website: 'There are two things that theatre has a hard time dealing with on stage: death and sex. They are too 'real' for the stage."(2) This "reality" is, in its own way, more easily accessible to puppetry. The puppet does not bleed, has no secretions or fluids and is invulnerable. Eileen Blumenthal, in her book Puppetryandpuppets, notes that this is why the puppet excels in violent roles and plays death perfectly.

Renata Salecl, in her book A Passion for Ignorance, highlights Jacques Lacan's idea that "thinking about one's own death is as impossible as thinking about one's own birth. Birth and death raise questions that can mostly only be answered with the help of a phantasm, with a story that can only offer temporary consolation". (3) Death is a common theme in puppet theatre and theatre in general, while birth is rarely staged and does not occupy much space in performances or theoretical discussions. There are many books and articles on the topic of puppet birth that deal with the subject on a symbolic level. The puppet is a crafted, inanimate material and its life is recreated with each performance. The moment the animator and the puppet touch, the movement is triggered, creating an illusion of life that many call the birth of the puppet. The focus of this analysis is not the symbolic birth of the puppet character on stage, but rather the act of birth, more specifically the birth, its representation and its role in the performance. The Slovene dictionary defines childbirth as "the separation of the fetus from the mother at the end of pregnancy".(4) And it is precisely this act, this moment, that is the main subject of this article.

The clinical criteria for the diagnosis of labour are contractions, bloody mucus, spontaneous rupture of the amniotic sac and effacement with the dilatation of the cervical canal(5). It occurs in four stages, from the baby's head travelling down and the cervical dilatation, through the penetration and protrusion of the head, up to the delivery of the placenta and the extrusion of the blood(6). The average delivery time in Slovenian maternity hospitals in 2008-2012 was 3.5 hours(7), which is statistically a small fraction of an individual's life in relation to an average life expectancy. In the selected performances, the average birth lasts 2.1 minutes. Of course, one cannot compare a real birth with a theatrical birth, where time has its own rules, but the representative proportion is similar to that in real life. The birth happens instantly and loudly, ends with the baby crying, and is forgotten or not talked about shortly afterwards, despite the intensity and uniqueness of the act.

Before analysing the role of the act of childbirth in the performances, these are arranged according to their duration, which is compared to the duration of the performance itself. This might be helpful in understanding the semantic or dramaturgical weight of each act of childbirth in a play or production. Some are shorter than others and vary in their dramaturgical and performative complexity. Ilka Schönbein and Martina Štirn have shorter sequences, but are both very focused on the act of childbirth itself and that is what makes them important. The others, however, have integrated the birth into the context of the story.

Eight births, arranged according to the duration of the active phase of labour: 

  1. 3 seconds (performance duration: 25 minutes) BebaBebač, David Petrović, Rijeka City Puppet Theatre (1+), Croatia.
  2. 40 seconds (performance duration: 34 minutes) Niyar, Maayan Iungman, Berlin, Germany.
  3. 44 seconds (performance duration: 60 minutes) Freaks, Bojan Labović, Maribor Puppet Theatre, (18+), Slovenia.
  4. 1 minute 5 seconds (performance duration: 37 minutes) On Tenderness, Ines Pašić, Puppet Theatre Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  5. 1 minute 9 seconds (running time: 10 minutes) Birth, Martina Fukuhara Štirn, Slovenia.
  6. 1 minute 30 seconds (performance duration: 4 minutes) Metamorphosis, Ilka Schönbein, TheaterMeschugge, Germany.
  7. 4 minutes (performance duration: 90 minutes) Everybody, Andy Freer, SnuffPuppets, Australia.
  8. 5 to 12 minutes – birth repeated 5-7 times (performance duration: 90 minutes) Maiêutica, Raquel Mützenberg, France. 

Metamorphosis. Photo: Marinette Delanne

It Takes Two to Give Birth

The dualism in puppet theatre creates a tension between the animate and the inanimate, the animator and the puppet, who together create a moment of life. Their collaboration ensures the development of a character and creates the illusion of life. Also, at least two are necessary for birth: the one giving birth and the one being born. The idea of birth thus corresponds to the very creation of puppet existence. "Working with puppeteer-actors is of course the most important stage in the birth of a performance,"(8) Edi Majaron points out in his book Faith in the Puppet, using birth as a metaphor for the creation of a puppet performance, since it can be compared to the creation of a new world – and in birth, a new world or a new person is always born. In puppet theatre, both are born.

The raw body of the doll can be used to illustrate and literally perform clinical childbirth. Its insensitive nature can be used to perform liminal acts. Childbirth is one of them. In contemporary drama, Slovenian and foreign, there are two unique and picturesque examples of childbirth that should serve as an introduction to the world of births in the puppet theatre.

diagnosis of labour/symptoms: big belly, lower back pain, enlarged breasts, joint pain, water leakage, contractions, ambulance, birth of a new human being / I come to the maternity hospital / on Women's Day / and first they close the door on the father / in his face / because he didn't go to the maternity course / mostly because he didn't pay for it / but now it's too late / I'm allowed to give birth / on Women's Day / even though I didn't go to the maternity course /.../ then all those nasty things / enemas / and contractions / lying there alone / on Women's Day / waiting for the obstetrician / I'm reading / romantic souls by ivanacankar / I have to pee / I have nowhere to draw a cloud / I'm holding back / because I'm not allowed to get up / so I don't hurt the new person / my water broke / I'm calling the staff / but they don't have time / I'm not an urgent case yet / and I'm alone /.../ I explain to them that they have to give me a C-section / because of herpes / because it can be deadly to a new person / so they tell me /.../ and I have to go pee / and I have contractions / and seizures / but I'm not an urgent case / and I can't endure a thing

(Simona SemeničI, Victim)(9)

------------------------------------------

I was there, in the room, when because of the contractions

she was crawling on all fours,

with strange moans escaping from her pores

a few hours after she suddenly screamed wildly

and her hands were beating on the tense atmosphere
(…)
I saw the colours of her vagina. They were changing.

I saw a wrinkled, broken blue,

a drained tomato red,

grey-pink and dark;

I saw blood, like sweat around the edges,

I saw yellow, white fluid, shit, clots,

pushing out of all the holes, harder and harder.

Through the hole, I saw the baby's head,

traces of black hair, just now, behind the bone -
(…)

(Eva EnslerThe Vagina Monologues)(10)

Imitating Reality

The longest, loudest and largest birth among the selected examples takes place in the street performance Everybody, where a hidden and intimate act is laid bare in a public space, exposed for all to see and no longer hidden behind four walls, as it invades a carefully designed, protected and purified social space. Since 1992, the Australian puppet company SnuffPuppets has been creating giant puppet spectacles. One such spectacle is childbirth, where a giant newborn is slowly born through a huge vagina. The huge, helpless puppet looks like a victim of nature, a prisoner of the flow of life; it lies helpless on the floor while life happens in and around it. During labour, it sighs and speaks loudly:

»We are suspended
in a bubble,
in an ocean,

fed via a tube,
growing,
becoming human.

The walls press in,
pushing us down,
and out.

In the beginning,
as in the end,
there is a tunnel
and blinding light.
«(11)

The Everybody puppet show is an hour and a half long experience in a public space. The show begins with the death of a giant human puppet. A giant brick lands on its head, the head cracks and the brain spills out. Its whole life, from birth to death, unfolds before its eyes. Its body parts and organs come to life and perform its life story.

The performance has four acts: Everybody’s Born, Everybody Cries, Everybody Shits, and Everybody Dies.

The animators are hidden and operate the great machinery of this huge creature, which dies, gives birth to a baby and then slowly decays as the organs leave the body and walk among the spectators. The focus is on the puppet's materiality or corporeality. The cycle of life and the spectacular biologicality of the individual organs are highlighted. It feels as if we are visiting our own body, or the body is visiting us. Nothing is hidden and everything that makes us feel ashamed or even disgusted or shocks us in our lives is staged in this performance on a gigantic scale, making it impossible for us to escape.

Staging the Periods of Childbirth

Martina Fukuhara Štirn is a mother, certified doula, Master of Arts at ALU, graduated psychologist and an economist. Since 2002, she has been working as an independent artist and activist in the field of natal humanities. In her short puppet show entitled Birth, we can follow the birth, as the father massages the labouring mother, dances with her and assists her throughout.

The dolls are small and soft, made of natural materials, dressed in crocheted clothes and resembling children's toys. In the show, a couple, a man and a woman, are preparing to give birth. As they take their clothes off, we can see their genitals, as the dolls are not neutralised. It also follows all the stages of labour, including the birth of the placenta, which is not cut but left to dry and fall off naturally. The performance thus has a sensory educational note, as it does not focus on the art of the puppet medium, but uses it to show childbirth as clearly as possible. The relationship between the partners is vividly presented and the staged birth is based on shared experience and encounter. This relationship is also emphasised in the puppet show On Tenderness, but there it is only hinted at and not really developed. In Martina Fukuhara Štirn's Birth, the act of giving birth is a collective, partnerly and tender experience that presents a pleasant expectation.

The animator is also hidden in this performance and we can only see her hands animating the small grey puppets. The performance functions as a relaxed biology manual for young people and adults. It is the opposite of the spectacularly loud SnuffPuppets production, as it does not try to portray childbirth as a loud and painful experience. Instead, there is a lot of tenderness and love. One could even say that it romanticises childbirth at some points, because compared to SnuffPuppets, it is like a meditation.

The Coexistence of Animator and Puppet

Ilka Schönbein performs childbirth in a short, four-minute scene in Metamorphosis. A pregnant woman, in a modest room, slowly lies down with her back on a chest and raises her legs high in the air, creating the visual image of a vagina. The birth begins. Between the animator's legs, we first see the doll's legs, then its arms and, lastly, its head. After the birth, the relationship between the mother and the newborn (the puppet) is in the foreground and the scene ends with breastfeeding.

Ilka Schönbein, like Martina Fukuhara Štirn, focuses on childbirth in this short scene. But here the focus is on the relationship between the one giving birth and the one being born, and consequently between the puppet animator and the puppet. In the beginning, we see a pregnant woman, alone in a small, poor room. In the background is a song by Adrienne Cooper, a Jewish musician, which contributes to the grotesqueness of the scene we can perceive in the pale image of the puppet animator. The whole birth takes place calmly, almost in slow motion. A puppet animator uses her own body to create a vagina and later a space for the newborn's first coos, crawls and walks. The ending with breastfeeding emphasises their coexistence and interdependence, even though we know that the puppet has no fluids and does not need them. The circle of the illusion of life is completed here and speaks above all of our interconnectedness – human with nature, the beautiful with the ugly, happiness with unhappiness and death with birth.

The intertwined body of the puppet and the animator, their coexistence, in the style of Duda Paiva, was created by Raquel Mützenberg. The performance, entitled Maiêutica (Daisy), is an hour and a half long public intervention where the puppet is born 5-7 times. Each birth lasts from 5 to 12 minutes, the duration depending on the audience and the space in which it is performed, as the public space is unpredictable. This time, the creature born is not new, but the puppet gives birth to itself or its head. First, the audience watches a pregnant woman staggering and writhing on the floor from the pains of childbirth. At one point, the head disappears and reappears between her legs. The act of childbirth begins, with the large adult head slowly making its way from inside the vagina into the world. The head then moves from under the legs to the neck, where it settles, and the birth is complete. This is followed by the interaction between the puppet and the audience through touching, looking and hugging, which, according to Mützenberg, is the central object of this production. The multilayered nature of life is also visible in the image of the puppet, made up of several layers of shades of white fabric. A human is not born only once, we are born again and again with every change and experience.

Childbirth in the Function of Dramaturgy

Rare are the performances where the staging of childbirth really follows a clinical diagnosis. Often, childbirth functions as a dramaturgical turning point, a change or a beginning, because it brings with it a new person, a new way of life, and as an event itself, it is a zero-point or creates a tension of expectation. In the solo puppet show Niyar by the Israeli artist Maayan Iungman, birth is staged in the context of the birth of new ideas. A lonely puppet character, made of white paper, wanders among blank, unwritten pages, waiting for new ideas, until a shiny balloon descends from the sky. Like a flower, it slowly opens and inside is a new puppet, similarly wandering and lost. The born subject in this case is an adult, a partner in the search for meaning or a path to creation. In the end, its role is reversed from that of giving birth to that of dying, because as suddenly as it arrives, it disappears. This concludes the whole cycle with the two zero-points – birth and death.

In the puppet show Freaks by the Maribor Puppet Theatre, directed by Bojan Labović, childbirth is almost the message of the show. The show is based on the 1932 cult horror film Freaks, which shocked audiences on its opening night. We watch a circus of freaks, people with deformed bodies who live and work in a circus. In this environment, a bearded woman gives birth to a baby with six limbs (four arms and two legs). The birth of a new creature means that the freaks can love, have families and thus have everything that the rest of us so-called normal people (in this context) have. For the puppet base, the creators of the show chose baby-like toys that were deformed for the purpose of the show (a doll without legs and arms and a baby with four arms). The performance sought to thematise the disgust and repulsion that can arise at the sight of an incorrect, distorted or disabled body. We rarely see such bodies today, and we don't go to the circus to see a bearded woman, but historically it was a special kind of entertainment, tinged with outrage and laughter. This resulted in the dehumanisation of individuals, since few people take people with mutilated bodies seriously or treat them as complete individuals. In the Maribor Puppet Theatre's performance, the animators are dressed in black circus costumes and play the roles of an attendant or even a circus director who manipulates the puppets for the audience's enjoyment.

The birth in the play is staged cleanly and almost cinematically. The doll sits on the floor with its legs spread. The other puppets in her company help her to breathe and encourage her, “Push”. The animator uses a string to pull the little baby slowly through the doll's vagina. The birth is complete. Everyone is happy about the new member, even though it has six arms. From here on, the birth or the newborn does not appear anymore and the act remains a mere dramaturgical call for equality.

Inhale and Exhale

We are left with two less illustrative but playful and poetic births. Director Ines Pašić has created a puppet show called On Tenderness at the Mostar Puppet Theatre. Puppets or objects are very rarely used in this performance, as everything is staged with hands or other body parts. The animators are dressed in black neutral clothes and the set consists of an empty black stage and a black table. The performance shows small tendernesses and consists of humorous and subtle scenes of life. The first half is poetic and lovely – three animators create a tree that grows, birds and a rope dance. The act of giving birth follows the scene with the apple (of knowledge and sin). A puppet is born with a head and body made of the animator's hands. The scene begins with the short flight of a bird with the head of a baby. The animators bring two chairs on stage, the female animator sits on the chair in front of the male animator, strokes her belly, exhales deeply and sharply, and the baby appears above her head, which is passed from hand to hand and dropped into her lap. From here on, the dynamics of the show are faster and the scenes are made up of humorous situations where the new puppet learns, makes mistakes, is scared and learns about the world. The birth is a turning point and a change in the dramaturgical structure of the play and, through a short act, it creates a new world for the baby and with it, new challenges for the parents and the surroundings.

The last example can be defined as a "pop up" birth, as it lasts only three seconds. David Petrović's project BebaBebač performs the first year of a baby, from birth through cramps, crawling, the first teeth and the way they communicate. The focus is on the relationship between parents and their twin babies, who are puppets. The birth happens at the beginning of the show and comes as a surprise, reminiscent of the opening of presents. The actress exhales and inhales loudly, while the co-actor reaches into a large plush mass on the floor and pulls out the baby.

BebaBebač is aimed at children from one year of age and upwards, and it depicts the first months of their lives and their discovery of the world around them. Childbirth is shown simply as a leap from inside a large soft pillow, presenting childbirth in a friendly way and without going into the biological details of the act.

Conclusion

The eight cases show a wide range of performances of the act of childbirth with a puppet, which can be spectacular, educational, grotesque, existential, poetic or playful. Approaching the clinical diagnosis of childbirth can reveal the mystery of our own birth, which we do not remember, just as we will not experience our own death. Confrontation and experience are possible in a phantasm, because where one cannot go by oneself, one can go with a story or with a performance on stage.

In most of the selected examples (five out of the eight), the act of childbirth was staged quite literally, with the new creature coming into the world through the vagina, which disappears into metaphors and symbols, or is even absent, through poeticization and mystification. Puppet theatre largely transforms reality into symbols and recasts the world anew or adapts it to the director's concept and convention. Rarely does the visual image of puppets approach the biological or the literal, although this is one of the strengths of the puppet medium. Unpleasant scenes can be distressing but also cathartic, and poeticizing them creates a phantasm that can be far from reality and far from our bodies. Death in puppet theatre is often humorous, while childbirth is aesthetic and symbolic. Above all, it is idealised, because in many cases it happens too quickly, behind the curtain, or is exposed conceptually and purely metaphorically.

Childbirth is a woman's act and perhaps for this reason, it has been overlooked as one of the possible performance elements, since men are the bearers of important roles in dramatic texts and performances. Laura Brataševec, in her article The Theme of Motherhood in Selected Plays by Simona Semenič, points out that the motif of pregnancy and childbirth is not common in drama, the theme remains unexplored, and if it is mentioned, it is often in a patriarchal spirit and "the pregnant woman is presented as the one who, through her motherhood, will finally fulfil the social and natural mission of woman". (12) Childbirth is often overlooked as a powerful moment of performance, which brings with it a change, introduces a new dramatic character and, as an event, is an active link in the dramaturgy. The medium of puppetry, because of its materiality, can be an excellent transducer of this action onto the stage and into other performance spaces. 

***

Notes:

(1) Drglin, Zalka. »Pripovedovalke porodnih zgodb: nihaji ranljivosti in moči«, uredila Zalka Drglin. Konferenca z mednarodno udeležbo Rojstvo. Ljubljana: Inštitut za varovanje zdravja RS, 2006, pg. 59.

(2) Zajc, Ivana. »Intervju z direktorico Maske Aljo Lobnik: Z dvema stvarema se gledališče na odru težko sooči: s smrtjo in seksom,« RTVSLO, last modified May 31. 2021, https://www.rtvslo.si/kultura/z-dvema-stvarema-se-gledalisce-na-odru-tezko-sooci-s-smrtjo-in-seksom/581873.

(3) Salecl, Renata. Strast do nevednosti: kdaj in zakaj ne želimo vedeti. Ljubljana: Mladinska knjiga, 2020, pg. 117.

(4) Porod. (b.d.). Slovar slovenskega knjižnega jezika (Dictionary of Standard Slovenian), from: www.fran.si.

(5) Pajntar, M., Novak Antolič, Ž., Lučovnik, M. in sodelavci. Nosečnost in vodenje poroda. Ljubljana: Društvo medicinski razgledi, 2015, pg. 213.

(6) ibid., pg. 232.

(7) ibid., pg. 237.

(8) Majaron, Edi. Vera v lutko. Ljubljana: Mestno gledališče ljubljansko, 2017, pg. 324.

(9) Semenič, Simona. Jaz, žrtev. 2007, pg. 24–26, https://teksti.sigledal.org/tekst/jaz-zrtev

(10) Ensler, Eva, 2003. Monologi vagine. Maribor: Študentska založba Litera, pg. 52–53.

(11) SnuffPuppets, Script of the performance Everybody (Act 1). February 4. 2022

(12) Brataševec, Laura, 2015. »Tematika materinjenja v izbranih dramskih delih Simone Semenič.« Jezik in slovstvo, volume 60, number 2, pg. 39–49. Ljubljana: Slavistično društvo Slovenije.

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Brataševec, Laura, 2015. »Tematika materinjenja v izbranih dramskih delih Simone Semenič.« Jezik in slovstvo, volume 60, number 2. Ljubljana: Slavistično društvo Slovenije.

Drglin, Zalka, 2006. »Pripovedovalke porodnih zgodb: nihaji ranljivosti in moči«, edited by Zalka Drglin. Konferenca z mednarodno udeležbo Rojstvo. Ljubljana: Inštitut za varovanje zdravja RS.

Drglin, Zalka, 2003. Rojstna hiša – kulturna anatomija poroda. Ljubljana: Delta.

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Pajntar, M., Novak Antolič, Ž., Lučovnik, M. et al, 2015. Nosečnost in vodenje poroda. Ljubljana: Društvo medicinski razgledi.

Porod. (b.d.). Slovar slovenskega knjižnega jezika (Dictionary of Standard Slovenian)www.fran.si.

Salecl, Renata, 2020. Strast do nevednosti: kdaj in zakaj ne želimo vedeti. Ljubljana: Mladinska knjiga.

Schönbein, Ilka. (b.d.) IlkaSchönbein. TheaterMeschugge. www.theatermeschugge.com.

Semenič, Simona. Jaz, žrtev. 2007, https://teksti.sigledal.org/tekst/jaz-zrtev

SnuffPuppets. (b.d.) SnuffPuppets. https://snuffpuppets.com.

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