By Jeff Walsh
When you think of puppets, images of Kermit the Frog and Howdy Doody spring to mind, but Basil Twist is leading a new wave of puppeteers changing the way people think of the art form.
Twist, 30, is the creator of Symphonie Fantastique, an abstract underwater puppet show which just closed its run in San Francisco, although its original production is still running off-Broadway. Twist's creation takes place in a 1,000 gallon custom-built aquarium and lasts shortly over an hour. He and four other puppeteers visually interpret Hector Berlioz's symphony of the same name, which was inspired by his love for a woman named Harriet.
The puppets take many different shapes and colors. Some are large pieces of fabric which ripple as they dance with the water. Other are feathers and streamers and fiber-optics. White puppets which swim into the tank represent Berlioz's love for Harriet. Short of seeing the show, it's difficult to describe it accurately. Twist said it is "like an abstract painting in 3D that keeps changing."
Twist said his career didn't come as much of a shock, because he was always enamored with puppets.
"I was always into it as a kid. When I was a teenager, it didn't seem an option, but I was still into it," he said. "And when I reached adulthood and contemplated my options, puppetry seemed like the best one."
Twist has been working in puppetry now for 10 years. He moved to New York from his native San Francisco in 1989, working on the fringes of the theater world and eventually worked with Julie Taymor, who later created and directed the visually-stunning Lion King adaptation on Broadway. He then went to the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, followed by a three-year stint in a school of puppetry in France. After that run, he returned to new York and began working on Symphonie. Twist said he was inspired to create an abstract puppet show merely because no other ones existed.
"Symphonie was inspired by my experiences and my exposure to everything that was happening in puppetry and having a sense of what there wasn't. And there was no abstract puppet show," he said. "There was a festival of music and puppetry that I participated in and it just got me thinking. Music is essentially abstract and doesn't need to have meaning for you to enjoy it. Other art forms like painting have gone into abstraction. So, I started thinking, what would a puppet show be if it was like that? So, that was where Symphonie came from. The water was a second thought, kind of a technique I chose to further the goal of creating an abstract show."
He said part of the secret to the show is working with the water.
"A lot of it is trusting the water and allowing the materials to just do their own thing, instead of forcing them to do stuff," he said. "The materials and the water have a life of their own, and you have to coax that out of them and use it."
While people were supportive of him during the three years it took to bring Symphonie to the stage, not everyone initially understood what he was trying to do.
"People were kind of perplexed," he said. "I did have some support because I had made it that far, but they were definitely confused."
The finished show has more light cues than a traditional Broadway musical and over 100 different puppets who make their way across the stage throughout the five movements of the piece.
Twist said that while the show is very physical and technical, it also has an emotional component for the puppeteers who work above (in harnesses), behind and on the side of the aquarium.
"It is, in a way, emotional. A lot of people think it isn't, but it is. We're trying to live the music in a very pure way," he said. "It's hard to define, because it's not like 'this is the sad part,' but the music is extremely evocative and what we do backstage is live that music. When things go fast or slow, or high, or dense, or lonely, we're living that. We have to create it technically, but there is definitely an emotional element and interpretive element that we have to express."
Twist said he is also surprised by the diverse audiences that have come to the show.
"It's fascinating, because the show is so accessible to people and has so many different facets," he said. "People take away so many different things, so little kids like it because it's fun and neat; and hardcore theater intellectuals like it because it's a fresh idea; and people who don't speak English are into it because they can understand it; and people who do hardcore drugs, because it's like a psychedelic trip."
Twist also makes a distinction between a puppet show and a traditional show which uses puppets. The Lion King on Broadway is not a puppet show, Twist said, but rather a Broadway musical that uses some puppets and masks.
"My definition of puppetry is that you animate something, where you provide something with a soul and give it an anima," he said. "That can be a puppet like Howdy Doody or a scarf, as long as your intention is providing it with some kind of life."
In a recent puppetry workshop, Twist and others told a ghost story using wind as the generative element, using fans and wind machines to blow fabric and kites around the stage.
As for his sexuality, Twist started to deal with it when he was 19, and only after he arrived in New York.
"It was hard for me to do it in San Francisco. My experience was that growing up in San Francisco, you know gay people and gayness," he said. "I was familiar with it, and the lines were already drawn, and it was harder for me to cross them with my family and friends. So, it was easier for me to just go to a completely new place to forge my gay identity."
Twist, who preferred the term queer to describe his sexuality, said his artistic side benefits from his sexuality, but is not defined by it in any way.
"It's not my sexuality which informs my work… all those labels are so limiting," he said. "But I think the show was definitely created by a gay soul. It has nothing to do with sex, but it's fabulous and pretty."