The Subtlety of Minimalist Theatre

14 12 2021

Credits: archive Pozorište za decu Kragujevac

Author: Maša Radi Buh

The art of puppetry is informed by how the medium of choice is used to narrate a story. Not only is the choice of the type of puppets vital to the spectator's interpretation, it is also the pivotal imprint of the director’s staging idea or message. Relying on the appeal of the aesthetic component, puppet shows designed for children often have a notable visual or artistic aspect. This may be to the detriment of, or even a substitute for, a well-polished mise-en-scène, thereby depriving the audience of a complete experience of quality theatre. The production of The Silent Boy, written and directed by Tin Grabnar in collaboration with Ana Duša for the Theatre for Children Kragujevac, demonstrates that the richness of visual opulence can be matched by a carefully devised concept and precise staging that gives a lot of thought to the spectator’s experience.

The narrative thread unravelling through the show deals with a family in which the older of two children, a boy, loses his hearing in an unfortunate turn of events while playing innocently with his father’s gun. Although the straightforward narrative is slightly reminiscent of a parable, a didactic story illustrating a lesson, the authors of the play (T. Grabnar and A. Duša) artfully avoid preaching by evoking a mixed sense of emotional closeness, tragedy, and optimism. This is underpinned by the subtle choice of the type of puppets: by no means coincidental, it translates the topic of deafness into the stage language of body animation, with animators Milomir Rakić, Ljubica Radomirović, Miloš Milovanović and Sanja Matejić building the scenes solely by using their arms and hands, encircled by a simple wooden structure similar to a picture frame. Sign language as a means of communication for the deaf and hard of hearing is based on manual articulations and signs as its basic linguistic units. Similarly, The Silent Boy primarily communicates in a combination of speech and hand animation. What matters is the equality of the two means of expression: rather than playing a subordinate role by repeating information or being there just to illustrate what has already been said, hand animation is used by the director to develop the scenes that are not articulated with words, to alternate between speech and movement in telling the story. 

Instead of animating objects (including finger puppets), the chosen approach uses the body and its movement as its primary medium. This makes the body simultaneously the animation tool and the object of animation: it is not about animation taking place in the space between the object and the animator's kinematics, it is about the body itself being objectified. The animator and the puppet blend inevitably and inseparably. If, at some point, the former plays the role of the narrator as an independent subject on stage, they suddenly shift to acting out scenes. The language of puppetry seems to have been boiled down to its very essence, being nothing more than a spectrum of physical human actions and nothing less than the sufficiency of the animator’s body to create images on stage. The minimalism of the means, consisting only of actors/animators and a simple frame, in no way hampers the vividness of the show. Thanks to the outstanding spatial representation of perspective, the animation keeps changing in a way that despite the frame and the flatness of images we are used to seeing in it, scenes unfold from different perspectives, various angles, from up close or further away.

The dramatic structure consists of two sharply contrasting parts. In part I, we follow the family and the two children. The story is told through the eyes of a child, a choice complemented by the one-dimensional child-like, playful presence of the animators, and further enhanced by the seemingly simple animation of arms and hands. Their mischief, curiosity, and naiveness subtly foretell the tragic moment from when the gun is first mentioned in the father’s attempts to inculcate in the boy the rules of its safe handling. This part is rich in sounds and loud noises, making the silence that follows with the boy’s deafness stand out even more pronouncedly. This is a way of carefully building a sensory effect in advance, for it only to be revealed with or because of the tragic disruption. Growing from the central premise of the show, the notable construction of the soundscape demonstrates the director’s intent focus on the spectator’s experience. The result is an experience that not only draws on a poignant story but also speaks to the audience through the phenomenological component.

The Silent Boy reflects the central postulate of Grabnar’s vocabulary as a director and his understanding of the art of puppetry and theatre at large. Instead of illustrating a story or a theme solely through the aesthetic component, he takes every new project as an opportunity to conceive an entirely new all-encompassing form (ranging from the type of puppets to the dramaturgy), his decisions in the process inextricably informed by the subject matter. Animation and sign language are for The Silent Boy what the decision to animate stuffed animals is for Still Life. In the latter, Grabnar brings animals to life to inspire the audience to contemplate the relationship between humans and nature, or between humans and animals at its most distilled. His choice of medium alone allows Grabnar to incorporate his stance as an author into his vocabulary as a director without always having to articulate it explicitly. The magic of The Silent Boy lies in the fact that despite the simplicity of the puppet – in this case a human finger as the animated object – we can recognise someone in it and relate to them. That’s how simple it is to capture the essence of puppetry.