Flow, Presence and Live Puppet Film -- Nufonia Must Fall

The quality of presence is something you take away from this show, glimpsing not the fact of artifice, but the vision of it.
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Nufonia Must Fall, Seen at: Oz Arts Nashville
Production Credits: Kid Koala, K.K. Barrett

Animism and Puppetry

Have you ever watched a show with puppetry and been amazed by the way artist (puppeteer) merges with puppet? For example, when the puppet is small, you see this funneling of concentration and focus from large human to small object at the end of an arm. Whether this focus is mediated through a stick or through a controller attached to strings, the artist's concentration, pouring in, seems tangible. With marionettes, you may see the puppeteer walking like the puppet. With a stick puppet, you might observe the puppeteer moving at the puppet's tempo. Perhaps animists would say the "pouring in" is actually a sharing or lending of life force. The physicist might compare this funneling of force from large surface to small to the slicing power of a knife blade or the puncture-power of a needle point. The puppet's smallness actually seems to strengthen its power.

For actual scholarship on such puppet-related phenomena -- and we are accumulating a great body of contemporary puppet theory -- check out the smorgasbord of scholarly papers in The Routledge Companion to Puppetry and Material Performance. Whatever the mechanism, the resulting entrainment of puppeteer and puppet is always mesmerizing to watch.

Nufonia Must Fall

This brings me to the puppet film production Nufonia Must Fall by Kid Koala (music/book/concept) and K. K. Barrett (production design, live directing). With its live string quartet, live sound by scratch DJ artist Kid Koala, and live film projection of a story enacted by puppets, the show has been wildly popular at art schools and is now booked out globally for the next few years.

I recently had the fortune of seeing Nufonia at Oz Arts in Nashville. The story is simple. Robot T4 admires the girl of his dreams from afar, while closer to home he is threatened by growing obsolescence in the form of the many-armed robot, T5. It's a tale about navigating self-worth in pursuit of one's dream.

Pulling off the precise coordination of filming puppets to live music with over a dozen puppet stages makes every performance a gargantuan feat. Character puppets must be shunted back and forth from one tiny set to another, two banks of sets bordering the stage with special sets for outdoor scenes in between. And yet, like the small puppet manifesting the large human's intense focus, all the players and intentions of this grand production funnel into a sharp vision on film that is simple, gentle. The frenzy of production elements is reined in at the camera eye. Slowly, but with regular pace, cameras ooze over small replica offices, a lighted knee-high city, a rotating "sidewalk" of storefronts.

By choosing puppetry, Kid Koala has set his original comic book vision in the perfect medium. The word devotion comes to mind as the puppeteers' extraordinary care of manipulation echoes the slow, attentive way T4 builds a sandwich for his lady, Malorie, crowning it with the symbols of her dream, a trip to the Bahamas. As the inspired robot overcomes his dejection and invest his attention in the great sandwich, both he and the puppet artist demonstrate the principle of tuning out noise to manifest vision.

In a New York Times review of Nufonia Must Fall, music writer Jon Pareles rightly situates the core of this wonderful production as its "heart." Pareles ends his review:

But even with the artifice in plain sight, "Nufonia Must Fall" plays as genuine romance. It's not hard to imagine that the little T4 robot -- the plastic-resin puppet enlarged via digital video -- has a heart.

The "even with the artifice in plain sight," took me by surprise, however. I guess I rather considered the "artifice" as simply a production element equal to the music. I also felt the artist/performers were essential to the tonality of the show.

A Show in the Flow
As someone who works among psychotherapists dealing with addiction, I consider "Flow" a lot. Flow is a state of direct, unmediated experience often associated with "mindfulness" or synonymous with the old sport expression "being in the zone." People often cite musicians as examples of how the Flow state can work: there's this combination of practice, practice, practice, and then, forget your practice and let go -- to Flow.

Watching puppeteers is like having a little eye on someone in Flow. In Nufonia, the "marshmallow" shape of the stick puppet (as Pareles described T4) has a visual quality -- soft, rounded, vulnerable (his hunching posture could be exaggerated by the stick control). T4's story -- of someone brushing up against his irrelevance -- unites the elements, the puppetry as well as the music- emotions of longing, or dejection, flecked with whimsy. The work of the puppeteers is intrinsic to the tonality of the production. There is something quite loving about shouldering the weight of tremendous detail to bring T4's gentle story to life.

After the show, the audience is graciously invited to visit the small stages and examine the puppets, and when you see the tiny-ness of things -- tiny cassettes that the puppet had to put on a shelf -- not only do you realize what well-rehearsed precision goes into the manipulation, but you comprehend the intense demand for presence. The quality of presence is something you take away from this show, glimpsing not the fact of artifice, but the vision of it.

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