Agency, Empathy, and Kinesis: The Alliance of Subject and Object in Theatrical Puppetry

by Amy Schuessler

Cohort ’20


During the IDSVA Spring 2021 virtual residency, cohorts ’19 and ’20 had the great fortune to attend a lecture entitled Of Moving and Being Moved: The Subject and the Object In Puppetry and AI, presented by Dr. Jane Taylor. Professor Taylor holds the Andrew W. Mellon Chair of Aesthetic Theory and Material Performance at The Laboratory of Kinetic Objects at The Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape, Belleville, Cape Town, South Africa.

Dr. Taylor began her lecture by urging the students, as artists-philosophers, to take the time to engage with an inquiry about their own creative and intellectual endeavors. Acknowledging this unprecedented time, she encouraged her audience to contemplate the question, “Who am I in relation to what is going on? How can I mobilize questions that matter to me?” (Taylor 04:25).

Dr. Taylor shared her practice of engagement with academic, scholarly, and creative projects discussing a wide range of topics including, Marxist labor and commodities theory, magical thinking, psychoanalytic Objects Relations theory, digital doubles, prosthetics, primate research, cybernetics, and most fascinatingly, puppetry. Dr. Taylor’s work takes place at the Laboratory of Kinetic Objects in collaboration with Handspring Puppet Company, where she investigates how objects behave and structure our world to destabilize binary thinking,  promoting discourse in the area of movement as it pertains to the theoretical explorations of the subject and its objects.

Dr. Taylor’s theatrical work, After Cardenio, is an extraordinary example of how puppetry engages and persuades an audience to embrace the vitality and agency of the puppet form. Dr. Taylor wrote and directed the experimental theater piece that includes sculptural puppetry, live performance, and visual art in association with the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA). This project came about when renowned Early Modern scholar Stephen Greenblatt commissioned Dr. Taylor to rethink Shakespeare’s lost play, The History of Cardenio. Taylor’s interpretation is a hypothetical meditation on how Shakespeare may have treated Cardenio, Cervantes’ romantic hero from the novel Don Quixote.

Dr. Taylor’s adaptation of the play is based on the true account of Anne Greene, a young woman from mid-seventeenth century England who was hanged for committing infanticide. Greene’s body was remitted to surgeons and scholars at Oxford University for anatomical dissection.

Anne GreeneWoodcut, Early English Books Online
Anne GreeneWoodcut, Early English Books Online
Rembrandt van Rijn.  The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp , 1632. Courtesy of The Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, the Netherlands.
Rembrandt van Rijn. The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, 1632. Courtesy of The Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, the Netherlands.

Dr. Taylor did extensive research exploring archives, texts, and artworks, including The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) by Rembrandt van Rijn, highlighting the various resources she employed in looking at the history of ideas.

Dr. Taylor created a production wherein the character of Greene would be played by an actress, a puppet, and a puppeteer, all of whom remain visible to the audience for the duration of the play.

Image from Dr. Taylor’s zoom lecture, Jan 4, 2021
Image from Dr. Taylor’s zoom lecture, Jan 4, 2021

The presence of three ‘actors’ representing one character asks what it is in the mind that can access and apprehend the notion of a complex being who is multiple beings formed of composite subjectivities. Dr. Taylor elaborates, “The puppet is the form that perhaps most deftly disrupts the quiet stasis that is necessary to maintain subject-object distinctions. The puppet compels us - when it is most successful…to persuade the audience to embrace its agency, its volition, its affective dynamism.” (Taylor)

Image from Dr. Taylor’s zoom lecture, Jan 4, 2021
Image from Dr. Taylor’s zoom lecture, Jan 4, 2021

Most notably, one is drawn to the relationship between puppet and puppeteer. The expressive and gestural movements of the puppet are seamlessly bound together with the human actor exemplifying the site of empathetic recognition. The puppeteer never breaks his gaze with the puppet, projecting himself and the audience into the mind of the puppet.

Dr. Taylor’s highly engaging and timely lecture focused on the complex relationship and potential collaboration between subject and object and how these relationships challenge assumptions about what it means to be a human being in relation to the animal, the technical, and the inanimate. Taylor leaves us with a final thought, “The object seems to present itself as a thing, but in many ways, it is an idea presented through a spectrum of disciplinary inquiries.”

Dr. Taylor’s creative and empathetic theatrical and philosophical investigation re-orients the singular subjective perspective opening up a plenitude of possibilities.

Works Cited

Taylor, Jane. “Of Moving and Being Moved: The Subject and the Object In Puppetry and AI.” Spring 2021, IDSVA. Lecture.