Artist and writer Sylvia Sukop was commissioned to write the following essay in 2009, in conjunction with the premiere performance of Exhibit A: Phase 1 as part of Imagined Spaces, Imagined Lives, a series of site-specific collaborations in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Created by Susan Simpson in collaboration with Monica Oller, Katie Shook and Tom Petck, Exhibit A: Phase 1 was presented at The Manual Archives, then located in Silver Lake at 3320 West Sunset Boulevard.
EXHIBIT A and the Incremental Power of Puppet Theater to Animate Hidden Histories
by Sylvia Sukop
Myths are made in increments, and their durability depends on a powerful alchemy of fact and fiction.
Imagined Spaces, Imagined Lives, an experiment in hyper-local mythmaking, began as collaboration among a group of Silver Lake-based theater artists, architects, and designers, with no fixed outcome in mind. It evolved into a complex, multi-site, multi-media exploration of embedded narratives permeating this Los Angeles neighborhood’s built environment—its streets and sidewalks, parks and bridges, and the reservoir for which it is named. The resulting six performances, spread over two weekends in June 2009, are based on real and imagined characters linked by the local geography they’ve shared over time.
In its density and dynamism, L.A. does not readily offer up its histories; they need to be mined, excavated from beneath the surface. That notion of an underground L.A. is literalized in Imagined Spaces’ opening performance, Exhibit A. For this show the seats have been removed from The Manual Archives, a single-car-garage-sized theater, and the audience stands, a dozen at a time, in a tight cluster behind the proscenium where the stage would normally be. Filling the rest of the space is a scaled-down, 3-D topographical map of Silver Lake complete with undulating cardboard hills and a model of the famous “spaceship” house designed by John Lautner.
This landscape sets the stage for imaginary encounters between two historical movements with roots in this neighborhood in the 1950s: gay liberation and futuristic architecture. Evoking low-tech sci-fi fantasy, the cardboard hillsides open up at key moments in the drama to reveal hidden characters with utopian visions—puppet incarnations of Harry Hay (founder of the Mattachine Society) and Jim Kepner (founder of the country’s first gay magazine and later of the ONE Archives), brought to life by three hard-working puppeteers in dark blue jumpsuits. Fragility is everywhere, in the rickety sets with their tiny electronic switches and blinking blue lights; in the puppets who depend on human operators to move and to speak and the slender threads (actual physical threads) pulled through the space to connect them; and in the stories that this web of words, objects and performers collectively attempts to capture before they vanish.
At the heart of this labor-intensive enterprise is a simple intention: getting people to pay more attention to their world. By shrinking what it is they represent, puppets—like architectural models—paradoxically magnify the details and gestures that help us to see and understand our own humanity and our relationships with everyone and everything around us.
In an age of sit-back entertainment, puppet theater is a physically and perceptually arduous form of story-telling, for creators and audiences alike. It is an incremental art whose force depends on the accretion of small elements, the way raindrops—with human assistance—might eventually form a reservoir.
Silver Lake’s own reservoir is slated to be replaced by one located underground in Griffith Park, and The Manual Archives theater has moved on from its original home on Sunset Boulevard. Places may be buried, vacated, transitory—but stories have a way of surviving. And the hardy souls who made Imagined Spaces, Imagined Lives happen (for it was decidedly a Happening) are now among the keepers, the living archives, of those stories.
Sylvia Sukop © 2009 www.sylviasukop.com