Speak For Yourself

gisèle vienne/puppentheater halle/dennis cooper, the ventriloquists convention @ mca stage, 14 November 2015.

The object thus emerges as the ideal mirror: for the images it reflects succeed one another while never contradicting one another…this is why one invests in objects all that one finds impossible to invest in human relationships.

— Jean Baudrillard, “The System of Collecting”

At first, The Ventriloquists Convention, a collaboration between Gisèle Vienne, Puppentheater Halle, and writer Dennis Cooper that brings us precisely to the proceedings that the title suggests, seemed like it would be about power dynamics within a group. At a convention, we are to examine social conventions. Who pulls the strings? Who is a puppet for whom? When does someone control another or get controlled? Who speaks on whose behalf or channels another’s voice? Who manipulates and who doesn’t? Who becomes whose dummy?

A semicircle of chairs was spread across the stage, a coffee machine and snacks stood in the back, and ventriloquists and their puppets (or “human-shaped objects” as Vienne prefers to call them) waited for one “star” ventriloquist to arrive and move into the spotlight. The play then ping-ponged around from character to character, breaking them off into smaller groups and reuniting them in ensemble work as it probed the ins and outs of these relationships.

But as the play developed, something else slowly emerged: not interactions, but self-involved examinations. The convention turned out not to be one at all, for mostly each character was lost in his or her (or in the case of one key character, a his who had become a her) inner struggles.

Ultimately, this was a performance about each individual ventriloquist’s trauma, loneliness, and desperation. Ventriloquism does, after all, have its origins in the Greek practice of gastromancy, in which it was thought that guttural sounds from the belly were the voices of the dead. The Ventriloquists Convention also became very much about the ghosts of memory and loss. The thrown voice could never be anything but one’s own. The personality deposited in an inanimate object was always a projection of the operator, never able to escape its maker. The hand slipped into the body of a puppet, giving its limbs life, could never become more than an appendage.

This was no comedy (or tragedy for that matter) of manners. Instead, it was an existential play, portraying people using extensions of themselves to try, almost narcissistically, to find their internal emotional bearings. The dummies spoke out, but into echo chambers of the soul.

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