The Question of Life and Death Transcending the Reality of Theatre

20 04 2021

Still Life. Photo: Jaka Varmuž

Tjaša Pirnar

Puppetry is about (seemingly) bringing inanimate objects to life. In the hands of a puppeteer, inside the reality of the stage which spectators are enticed to enter, an object temporarily creates the illusion of being alive. This is why questions of life and death, and of art in relation to reality and illusion, are always an inherent part of a puppet show, albeit implicitly. Still Life or Nine Attempts to Preserve Life, a production directed by Tin Grabnar, not only raises these questions, but moves them to the centre of the spectator’s attention.

The production begins in a documentary style, with the actors explaining about taxidermy and recounting their correspondence with the taxidermists who have supplied the nine stuffed hares that appear in the show. According to the actors, taxidermy is essentially an attempt to give back life and dignity to dead animals, especially by sculpting them into natural positions. Their rather technical descriptions of stuffing techniques, the citing of the prices at which the hares displayed on the table in front of the audience have been bought, and the use of the word ‘items’ to describe the hares, work to create an emotional distance from the nine hares. Objectified though this process, the animals later stand in even sharper contrast to the surrealistic style of the set and the puppet manipulation employed to create an illusion of life. 

The final words before the show turns non-verbal are: “A taxidermist believes that a dead creature may be given their life back. If this is true, then these nine lives are worth fighting for.” This alone is enough for numerous questions to arise and stay with you until the end of the show, if not longer. While the actors change the sets in full view of the audience in between scenes, there is no narrative thread running through the scenes, or indeed a narrative in any of the scenes. These appear to be random snippets from the lives of the hares in their natural habitat. They are not exciting per se, what is exciting is precisely this removal of substance that prevents the action on the stage from keeping the audience overly occupied. Rather than boring them, the production encourages the spectator from the very beginning to reflect on questions with no easy answers.

In a puppet theatre, the key players are puppets, commonly inanimate objects, which come to life on stage. Still Life goes a step further. Using animals that used to be alive as puppets takes the question of animate vs. inanimate that makes puppet theatre so exciting to the next level. It raises a question of life and death that transcends the reality of theatre while exploring the role of theatre and its capacity to animate the inanimate.

But how far can one go? The perception of taxidermy delivered at the beginning of the show comes from taxidermists, who see their activity as meaningful, even noble. However, when put into perspective, could it be that taxidermy is just another way for humans to place themselves above nature, interfere with it, shape it by their standards, put it on display in their homes as a trophy, a sign of victory over subjugated nature? Not only taxidermy, Still Life, too, “plays” with dead hares, turning them into puppets for humans to do with what they will. One thing therefore allows for two interpretations at opposing extremes. The key to distinguishing between them is the point of view: is the animal an object one can manipulate as a superior subject, or is it part of nature to be approached humbly and with great respect? The production offers both. Hares as trophies, items with price tags in the hands of puppeteers, who literally treat them as puppets. On the other hand, the silence of the show, placing hares in their natural habitat, the care, focus and respect the actors show in dealing with the hares, the moments of silence as they stop briefly before and after each puppet manipulation scene. Suddenly, one starts to wonder whether the puppeteer manipulates the puppet, or they lend themselves to the puppet by animating it. Rather than giving answers, the production raises the question and allows the audience to ponder on it.

Seeing a theatre production is (usually) a collective experience. Grabnar’s Still Life uses this to its advantage. What draws the gaze of the spectator to the stage is not only the lighting and sound design, but also the total concentration of all three puppeteers who are manipulating one hare together. This collective focus adds value to the object of the gaze, encouraging the spectator to find meaning or, above all, reflect on the questions raised at the beginning and which are inherent in the action on the stage: the relationship between the animate and inanimate, puppetry, taxidermy... In contrast to this, the collective focus disappears during set-changing intermissions. This highlights the puppet manipulation scenes further while starting the intermissions, a time seeping into reality, to new considerations. This phenomenon – the show being at once a collective, but also a highly individual experience – is a result of the fact that its substance largely relies on the spectator’s capacity for contemplation.

Rather than conveying a fixed message, Still Life is a production that offers cues while staying true to the documentary tone set at the beginning. The non-verbal mode adopted after the introduction undoubtedly plays a role in this: for more than 30 minutes, sets and scenes of daily hare life keep changing before one’s eyes without dialogues. A large, lit-up stage full of props reminds the audience that this is a theatre. In addition to mostly sharp transitions, it is the fact that the actors prepare and change the sets by themselves in between scenes that keeps pulling the spectator out of the illusion of theatre. The transitions between scenes are as sharp as the contrast between objectified and reanimated hares. Most of the transitions are accompanied by abrupt changes of lighting and shifts in soundscape.

In four scenes, the audience observes six hares as if sneaking into their habitat and watching them secretly. The last “hare” scene differs from this in that the three hares are not manipulated, they are merely placed on the set. Despite this change, the scene still refuses to deliver a clear statement; instead, it enables a myriad of interpretations and a chance for the spectator to contemplate them right there and then. Once again, it raises the questions mentioned at the start, questions related to taxidermy. One ponders on the relationship between taxidermy and puppetry, or on the ethical dilemmas intrinsic to the subject matter and the sheer concept of the play. Or they may come back to the question of life and death. There are countless possibilities, and it is up to each spectator to decide.

Another question Still Life raises is the question of medium. Each medium has its language of expression. Taxidermy is close to sculpture – it animates animals in spatial dimensions, capturing them in a moment of movement or stillness that appears natural. Meanwhile, theatre operates in the time dimension as well as spatial dimensions, capturing not only a single moment of movement, but movement itself. In the present Covid-19 reality, deliberations concerning the medium can extend to theatre trapped in a virtual space.

Still Life does, in fact, deliver nine attempts to preserve life. Whether or not they are successful is up to you to judge.