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NewsNov 24, 2021

Nick Lehane unlocks ‘mysterious power of puppetry’

Acclaimed theater maker visits campus virtually for Strauch-Mosse Lecture

Black and white photo of Nick Lehane

Puppets are more than wood and fabric for Nick Lehane.

“They hover at the threshold of the subject and the object, the waking and the dreaming, the conscious and the unconscious, the sacred and the profane, the religious and the secular,” said the Brooklyn-based puppeteer and theater maker.

Lehane spoke on the “mysterious power of puppetry” via Zoom on Thursday, Nov. 18, as part of the Strauch-Mosse Visiting Artist Lecture Series. During his hour-long talk, he reflected on the history of puppetry and its ability to cross the “liminal space” between worlds and, in so doing, to ignite imagination and empathy.

Archeology “suggests that our earliest ancestors shared this strange impulse to animate the inanimate,” Lehane said, noting that 3,000-year-old shadow puppets have been unearthed, and the likes of Aristotle and Plato mention puppetry in their writing.

Image of chimpanzee puppet being held by a puppeteer with image of a house at night below them.
Nick Lehane's "Chimpanzee" depicts the true story of primates who were raised by humans and then sent into isolation at biomedical facilities. Photo by Richard Termine

Lehane’s introduction to puppets came during his childhood, as he had an in-house enthusiast in his father, who directed children’s television and studied puppetry. Many years later while studying theater abroad, Lehane was reintroduced to the art form, this time to the “stunning delicacy” of Japan's Bunraku, which employs three puppeteers for each puppet.

Upon returning to the United States, Lehane pursued a career in puppetry and began making his own puppets and productions in the style, though not the cultural tradition, of Bunraku.

Using a rehearsal puppet given to him by his father, he demonstrated the way a simple, nondescript object can draw in the audience and communicate thoughts and feelings through three traits — breath, gaze and weight. The puppeteer showed how even the simple act of manipulating a puppet’s movements so that it appears to take in slow and then quick and then ragged breaths transforms it from a “pile of rags, a couple of dowels, a ball on a stick” into a seemingly living, breathing, thinking creature.

To further demonstrate his craft, Lehane showed clips from his two shows — “Chimpanzee” and “Fly Away,” co-created with artist Derek Fordjour.

Image of the puppet in "Fly Away" surrounded by performers
Co-created with Derek Fordjour, "Fly Away" tells a story of "autonomy and control for Black people," says Nick Lehane. Photo by Richard Termine

In “Chimpanzee,” Lehane told the true and heartbreaking story of primates who lived with humans until they eventually became too untenable for their owners and were sent to become test subjects in biomedical facilities. He described the show as “an hour in a theater, a day in a biomedical facility, and a lifetime in the mind of a chimpanzee.”

“Fly Away,” which debuted during the pandemic, shows “the liminal space between autonomy and control for Black people” as the single character in the play entertains as an athlete and performer who ultimately realizes he is being controlled by white puppeteers.

Both pieces were critical successes and speak to the power of puppetry to tell important stories by breaking down barriers.

“We can see the world through another’s eyes just by offering our attention, by breathing along with another,” he says.