Puppeteer Basil Twist climbs Mountains and sails the Seas
Wed. January 17, 2024 by Jerry Nunn
I approach things as a very simple puppeteer.
Basil brings Book of Mountains & Seas to Chicago
The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival just opened in the Windy City and this celebration of manipulation truly has something for all ages. For those that appreciate puppetry as part of an adult art form, queer puppeteer Basil Twist is returning to the festival this time with Book of Mountain and Seas.
Closing out the festival on January 26, 27 and 28, 2024 at the Studebaker Theater, this Midwestern premiere promises to bring sacred fables to life thanks to an inventive team of creative people. A company of 12 singers, two percussionists and six puppeteers are set to tell tales about the earth inside the South Michigan Avenue Fine Arts Building.
Basil Twist is a family name, not a stage name and his contributions to puppetry have carried him around the world. He is the founder of the Dream Music Puppetry Program at HERE Arts Center and collaborated on The Nutcracker for The Joffrey Ballet.
Broadway credits include designing for Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and The Addams Family.
He has taught at Princeton, Stanford, Duke and Brown in the past. Twist talked about life lessons and much more in a recent phone interview surrounding his return to the sixth annual festival.
JN: (Jerry Nunn) Hi, Basil. You are from San Francisco?
BT: (Basil Twist) I grew up in San Francisco, but I was born in Chicago. My mother is from Chicago and my father was in graduate school there when I was born.
JN: Didn’t your mother have a history with puppets?
BT: Yes, when we lived in San Francisco my mother was part of an amateur puppet troupe and she was an early influence on me. My grandfather was a big band leader in the thirties and forties. He eventually settled in Chicago and performed at the Palmer House. He had a passion for puppetry and had puppets of other famous band leaders of the day like Harry James and Cab Calloway. As a bonus treat, he would bring out the puppets at his performances.
JN: I was born in Oklahoma and read the Oz books so I love that you did a show there surrounding that with Dorothy and The Prince of Oz for the Tulsa Ballet.
BT: It was nice because I did the scenic design for that show. It was exciting for me and I love working in ballet.
JN: Do you have a dance background?
BT: No. but I have taken a dance class before. I now align myself more with dance than theater in a way because I work with music so much. I am an advocate for the centrality of puppetry as its own legitimate art form.
JN: Is it hard to make people understand puppetry as an art form?
BT: Sometimes, but you just have to do it.
JN: What is the most unusual object that you created a puppet from?
BT: When I was a kid I used to use those L’eggs pantyhose containers just because they were so awesome. I went to the school of thinking that anything can be a puppet.
I could puppeteer anything at the diner I am sitting at right now, like a salt and pepper shaker. It is all in the intention.
I did my underwater show called Symphonie Fantastique. It was to demonstrate puppetry without anthropomorphizing something or being contextual. It was more like an abstract painting to show color or patterns to bring something to life.
I use a lot of fabric, so silk is one of my favorite things to work with. I am a silk whisperer so bringing a piece of silk to life can be unusual as a puppeteer.
Singer Kate Bush had me do all of the silk for her comeback show. There is quite a bit of silk in Book of Mountains and Seas.
JN: Talk about Book of Mountains and Seas with the Chinese fables aspects in the piece.
BT: Huang Ruo, the composer and librettist, approached me a couple of times with different projects and this is the one that stuck.
As a Chinese native, he knew the four stories that were selected from those that it was paired down from. The synopsis is in the program so people can soak in the stories.
Interestingly enough we just went to Hong Kong where people knew the stories. The first story is about the creation of the world. The second story of longing and persistence where a princess has been transformed into a bird and she is trying to fill the sea with sticks and stones for revenge. The third story is an ecological tale about 10 suns who take turns rotating the earth and then come out together to fry everything. A hero shoots all of them until only one sun remains. The last story is about a giant chasing the sun to where it sets. He drinks all of the lakes along the way and transforms into a peach blossom forest.
These stories are so epic with celestial bodies and it is about telling a story while using something simple. We use paper lanterns, silk and driftwood. Some parts are airy and light then sometimes hard. It is reconfiguring those elements into the story to show transformations. The mountains and seas are created with simple elements then they become something else. In the end, they become the giant, so it is satisfying for people to see an anthropomorphic figure onstage eventually.
JN: So there are 12 singers?
BT: Yes, and fun fact the singers were adventurous and wanted to do the puppetry while they were singing. The piece was originally conceived with them in a workshop phase while it was being written. They discovered that the music was too advanced and complicated for the singers to memorize, so they had to read it. That meant that their hands weren’t free and since they are not puppeteers I didn’t ask them to do that. I brought in a separate team of puppeteers.
I do integrate the singers as much as possible in the staging and there are moments where they help. Not only do they sing, but they authored with me the concept of how the piece was created and how the story is told.
JN: How does that process begin?
BT: I knew I had to keep it simple, so the end result of the piece comes from that initiative. The visual concepts then began informing the music, so Huang Ruo adapted the music from the early workshops for the singers. The challenge was making it work with six puppeteers, so they used both their hands and feet, even their teeth if they needed to sometimes!
We just started going and then figured it out. Constraints can be powerful when framing the piece from within. Ultimately I am pleased with the results.
JN: Describe your workshop that is based in New York.
BT: It is a small workshop that I have had for a long time. It is a basement in the West Village. It is a big ol’ mess.
When people visit they think it will be like Geppetto’s workshop and filled with puppets. I have a storage space where I have all of my shows stored, so I don’t have a lot of puppets in my workspace. There is lots of fabrics and tools. The workshop allows me to prototype things in a rough way. I go forward with things after that. Sometimes it is in a different space.
Book of Mountains and Seas was almost exclusively designed in New York. We rehearsed at Justin Church, which was a block away from the studio where I could run back and forth if I needed something.
JN: Is Stickman still your muse?
BT: Stickman is a puppet that I built when I was in school in France. He is a teacher of mine in a way because he was built under the guidance of several masters while I was studying there. He’s a string marionette and quite difficult to operate. What he taught me was to animate him while listening to him and to pay attention to what he is capable of. When I found those things then he truly came to life.
I travel with that puppet because he is small and he is my go-to when people ask me to speak or do a small performance. Most of my shows are big and ambitious, but he comes from the days when I was a cabaret performer. He’s still a very important puppet to me to this day. I will probably drag him along to Chicago, although he is not in the show!
JN: What LGBQT+ stories have you told in the past using puppets?
BT: I don’t think of myself as a storyteller, but more of an experience maker, but being gay those stories sometimes come out even subconsciously.
I made a show called Arias with a Twist, which was made with a notorious drag performer called Joey Arias. It was a very LGBT-flavored show, mostly in its sensibility.
I did an important piece for me called The Long Christmas Ride Home where two of the three children grow up to be gay adults. The actors animated puppets that represented themselves as children then the actors portrayed the adult persona. It was a powerful piece.
I am working on an erotic project that may have some gay aspects to it, but it is still abstract. It is part of who I am and it comes out in my work.
In Book of Mountains and Seas, there is an environmental message but I have to see it for it to resonate, but I didn't go into it as an intention.
I approach things as a very simple puppeteer. It is more than storytelling. It is the experience of seeing something come to life onstage. It is frequently something that the audience knows is not alive but appreciates that it comes to life. It’s conjuring a spirit onstage and is essential in all that I do. Puppetry does that in a simple or sophisticated way but traffics in that world.
JN: Did you ever think that puppets would become such a part of your life when you were a little boy?
BT: I loved them and was passionate about them as a kid. I was the Sesame Street and Muppet generation, so I thought I could do it. There was a moment in high school when I thought I would have to work a job like everyone else, but I stayed the course and didn’t. I was very fortunate to go to school in France and was supported there.
JN: What are you working on next?
BT: The erotic show I mentioned has been incubating for a while so that is the main thing.
I enjoyed working in the opera world in France at the same time as Book of Mountains and Seas. I was able to be the director and production designer for Titon Et L Aurore. I did them both during the pandemic by the way so that was challenging.
So maybe more Baroque operas will be in my future!