ARTS & THEATER

Ibn Daniyal and Puppetry  | HowlRound Theatre Commons


Nabra Nelson: Salam Alaikum. Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, and SWANA, or Southwest, Asian North African theatre from across the region.

Marina Johnson: I am Marina.

Nabra: And I’m Nabra.

Marina: And we’re your hosts.

Nabra: Our name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how, with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea or, in Arabic, shay.

Marina: Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and sometimes to engage with our differences. In each country in the Arab world, you’ll find kunafa made differently. In that way, we also lean into the diversity, complexity, and robust flavors of MENA and SWANA theatre. We bring our own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

Nabra: In our fourth season, we focus on classical and historical theatre, including discussions of traditional theatre forms and in-depth analysis of some of the oldest and most significant classical plays from 1300 BC to the twentieth century.

Marina: Yalla, grab your tea, the shay is just right.

Nabra: In this episode, we look at MENA and SWANA puppetry traditions with guest artivist Dr. Sarah Fahmy. We will talk about her production of the first recorded full play in English of Ibn Daniyal, The Shadow Spirit, the Aragoz puppet, and, coming more into current puppetry practice by MENA folks, Fahmy’s own ecofeminist puppetry practice.

Marina: Sarah Fahmy, PhD, is an assistant professor of theatre studies at Florida State University. She’s a decolonial scholartist who works at the intersection of performance and identity politics, Arab and North African theatres, cultural heritage, speech and language hearing sciences, and ecofeminism. Sarah’s research presents a foundational theoretical praxis for supporting young Egyptian women author and embody their decolonial feminist identities. She has devised multidisciplinary site-specific pieces and facilitated applied performance and playback residencies with hundreds of participants internationally, ranging from creative climate communication with scientists to co-created workshops with youth for the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

Her most recent creative work is The Butterfly Affect, a performance experience designed for participants to learn from the natural and to envision themselves as agents of change. Utilizing qualitative and quantitative methods, Sarah’s publications appear in a range of peer-reviewed theatre and social science journals and books ranging from Theatre Topics, RiDE to PloS One. She’s presented at several conferences including ATHE, ASTR, PSI, and the International Symposium on Bilingualism.

Sarah has a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University of Colorado Boulder, where she led university-wide restructuring and served as an executive member of numerous campus strategic planning committees. Sarah is actively involved in the field. She is a co-founder and chair of the Middle Eastern Theatre focus group at the Association of Theatre in Higher Education, and she is actively involved in ASTR, the American Society for Theatre Research conference, and MENATMA, Middle Eastern North African Theatre Makers Alliance, programming subcommittee.

His works explore themes such as love, society, politics, showcasing his skill in both storytelling and social commentary. Ibn Daniyal’s plays are valued for their linguistic richness and insight into the society and culture of the medieval Islamic world.

Nabra: Sarah, it’s so great to have you on Kunafa and Shay again. You are our first two-time guest on this podcast.

Sarah Fahmy: Oh my goodness. I am so incredibly honored to be the first two-time guest. It’s always a pleasure being on this podcast and seeing you two and chatting with you, so I’m really honored to be here. So, thank you.

Marina: Yes, we love having you.

Nabra: We couldn’t do a historical MENA theatre podcast season without Sarah Fahmy. It was very important. So—

Sarah: I’m like the history nerd, it’s kind of funny.

Marina: It’s good to have close friends who are also incredible scholars and artists, so this is very fortunate for us. So you’ve called yourself an accidental puppeteer, which stems from an artistic encounter with a playwright that Nabra and I love, Ibn Daniyal.

Sarah: I’m very much an accidental puppeteer. It’s kind of funny because I teach my classes, and I’m currently teaching a world theatre history class, and the students are always like, “There’s always puppetry in your classes.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I guess I always gravitate towards puppets.” With my students at the University of Colorado Boulder, in 2021, we produced and we read the play of The Shadow Spirit by Ibn Daniyal, which is the only surviving trilogy from that region of the medieval time period, which is really, really important for us. And so I produced and we directed and we did that performance and we did our own puppets for that.

And then I also, in my own work, I’ve done a lot of work in Egypt and with looking at how young women can embody their own decolonial feminist identities through shadow puppetry and through puppetry as a medium that kind of transgresses through time and space and geopolitical boundaries and allows you to step into something that’s different in order to bring upon and draw upon these different legacies and ways you are connected through embodied manners.

And then I also do ecofeminist work, and that involves huge, giant butterfly puppets and looking at ways that we can coexist with nature, that we can learn from nature, and especially through the ecofeminist principle of how women and nature are inextricably linked and also impacted by the climate crisis. So I do puppetry in different formats. A lot of it’s shadow puppetry based, but also large scale in public performance, and I always find myself gravitating to it. So here I am, accidental puppeteer, and I love it and will continue doing it.

Marina: Yes. Well, so for people listening, we’ve talked about Ibn Daniyal on the podcast before, but some context as a reminder that Ibn Daniyal was a playwright and Arab poet and lived during the Islamic Golden Age. He was born in the thirteenth century, most likely in the region of Iraq. Ibn Daniyal is known for his contributions to Arabic literature, particularly for his theatrical works, at least that’s why I know him. He wrote a number of plays including comedies and dramas, which were performed during his lifetime, but also continued to be appreciated in later centuries. And some of his works explore themes such as love, society, politics, showcasing his skill in both storytelling and social commentary. Ibn Daniyal’s plays are valued for their linguistic richness and insight into the society and culture of the medieval Islamic world.

I also have to say that whenever Nabra and I first read the trilogy, at least, as it was translated several years ago, we were surprised by some of the types of humor. And so, really, it’s now actually because I brought it into our world theatre history class at Stanford, and it’s now part of what’s taught in world theatre history here. It’s like a play that’s now part of this class, which is exciting. But people are always like, yeah, this guy was really saying these things back in the day. I was like, yeah, no, there’s some scatological, sexual, all kinds of humor, also worth noting. But Sarah, tell us about the project you did with your students.

Sarah: I think first of all, my absolute favorite fun fact about Ibn Daniyal is that he was an optometrist and that he was an awful optometrist that generally blinded his patients, which is just kind of hilarious of like, oh, so he goes from that to write in plays and being incredibly well known for them. So that’s just a side little fun fact that my students always enjoy. Something to note about him is that puppetry was well established in Egypt upon his arrival. So he’s born in Mosul. He migrates to Egypt in 1258. And what’s interesting is really, and you see this in the way that he writes his plays, is that puppetry was established, puppetry has been happening and it was going on in the streets and it’s happening in the marketplace. And what he really does is that he brings in his brilliant poetry, and his poetry is kind of a mixture between Quranic verse and secular text and then different kind of lyricism and obviously the scatology and the sex and everything that’s lewd about society. And he mixes that all together, and he’s the one who really kind of propelled puppetry into this new caliber of work. And so I think that is really important, and it worries me sometimes that we look at his work and we see how like, oh, oh, this is rude, or this is scandalous, or these are just such jarring topics we talking about and that makes us shy away from it. So that’s kind of how I approach it when teaching it. And what was fascinating is that the students, this is at the University of Colorado Boulder in a world theatre history class in 2021, the students had read the play this obviously during COVID as well, so we’re all on Zoom. They read the play, we had gone through the context of Arab shadow puppetry from the Abbasid Caliphate to the Mamluk period, which is where this play comes from, the Ottoman, and then modern era, and then talking about the Western Eurocentric encounters and the European colonialism and how that ultimately shaped the shadow puppetry canon.

And so they had gotten that grounded in all of it. And then we were reading the play and I told them about the staged reading that had happened by professor Marvin Carlson at Noor Theatre in 2013. So they had worked on translating the play to English, and they did a staged reading of it, but then they couldn’t film it due to Actor’s Equity rules. And Professor Carlson walks out of that performance in solidarity with everyone in Arab world who could not then tune in and watch this on Zoom or just on YouTube. And so he’d never seen it. So I invited him to our class to chat with the students, and we kind of got a little bit more context about the translation process and understanding more of the text and some of the jokes that are in it, and why is it funny, why is it not funny.

And I think something that was really exciting is that I wanted us as a class to work on one act of it. I wanted the students to just pick one moment and then we could put that on its feet with puppets. They really enjoyed it that we ended up producing the entire play, and that was their final projects. So the students split up, they self-assigned themselves as some of them were directors, and then some of them were the puppeteers, some were the puppet creators and so they made the puppets. We don’t have an archive of what these look like, so they were making them from scratch based off of the description from the play, from the script itself. Some were also lighting designers, because even though there obviously isn’t lighting in the original, we kind of wanted to play around with that. And some of them were interested in going through the script and understanding do we adapt it, do we stage it as it is, what is the value in either choice? And then we produced it. It was very daunting, but it was kind of incredible when you get a chance to just sit with that very, very kind of hilarious but also very rude language that would make a sailor blush and work through that with undergraduate students.

Nabra: That’s so exciting to hear. I wish I could have seen it as well. And you already gave us almost a quick history of puppetry across the MENA-SWANA world in three sentences, which was incredible. But can you talk a little bit more about that, and was it shadow puppetry that really endured across the region, or were there other types of puppetry that were coming up? And then I know that as you said, Ibn Daniyal, and I know later the Ottoman Empire really popularized that, but what was puppetry for in the past? Was it for children? Was it for the royals before it became more of a public art form?

Sarah: Yeah, so puppetry… This is where it’s infuriating for us as historians and as thespians because the archive is really, really limited. And it’s really upsetting because we can tell from Ibn Daniyal that this work is just so incredible, and it’s so rich, and it’s sad that so much of it has been lost, or perhaps intentionally destroyed. And so when we go through the phases and there’s different… I’m talking about shadow, so shadow puppetry, we’ve got evidence of it from, or at least descriptions of it, from the Abbasid Caliphate, which was from 10,000 all way to 1250, and then the Ayyubid Sultanate, and they had it from, that’s 1171 to 1250. And it’s interesting because during those two, that’s kind of the beginning of shadow theatre, especially in the Arab lands, and its early development as a form of satire. And so they’re starting to use it for how do we make political commentary? How is this a form of humor? It’s being performed in the public market squares, and it’s for everyone, which is kind of unique about it, is that it’s for young people to enjoy, it’s for older folks to enjoy, and some of it was being produced in the royal courts as well. And so it’s happening in different instances.

In this time period, a lot of it would’ve been improvised. So there’s usually one puppeteer who is sharing the story and making up the characters. And performances can go on from being a few hours to many hours depending on how the audience are reacting. So there’s a lot of give and take with the audience, which is really incredible. I hope that we could bring more of that back into other forms of theatre as well. The Mamluk time period, which is what Ibn Daniyal is writing in, that is really the heyday of this shadow puppetry. That’s where we’ve got the most amount of documentation of what these puppets would look like. We’ve got the most documentation of where they might have been taking place and what their functions were as well.

This is also an interesting time because Ibn Daniyal comes in and he’s hired really for the fact of he’s able to elevate puppetry into a different sphere, and that was what they were really interested in. So the Arabs were really strong on poetry, and they had incredible poetry and very sophisticated poetry, and puppetry up until that point really wasn’t meeting that same standards. And so Ibn Daniyal comes in, and he starts writing scripted performances for the first time in the Mamluk time period. And then he also starts working with specific stock characters. So we’re seeing more and more folk characters, more stock characters, and these are characters that would’ve been very recognizable for a lot of audiences, but they’re also carrying on from different Arab and North African Middle Eastern stories and histories. And so they’re bringing all of that into the puppetry, which makes it very accessible for everyone.

And then we see that in the Ottoman time period, things start to shift a little bit, and then you’ve got different interactions. And you’ve got to remember that in these time periods, there’s a lot of different… Societies are mixing in different ways, and there’s different cultures that mix in different ways under the same empire. And so with the Ottoman, there was a lot of advancement for we want to change how the shadow puppetry plays are structured, innovations in terms of what the puppets are capable of. There’s also like Karagöz from the Ottoman time period. And so what I’m speaking about at the moment is shadow puppetry, but there’s also 3D puppets that don’t exist behind a shadow screen. So those are two separate things, and they both have their incredible traditions, and they’re still being produced today in the region.

And then I think the fourth period, which is where we get a lot of our evidence from, is from a lot of Orientalist encounters, especially the German Orientalists. And this is where it’s important to note of we know what we know today because of European colonizers’ perceptions, of their recordings, of their historical annotations, and oftentimes the way that they categorize and kind of took back puppets with them. So a lot of these shadow puppets currently exist. Some of them are in Istanbul in Turkey, some of them are in Madrid in Spain, a couple are in some libraries in Cairo, and then in Germany. And there’s a lot of our documentation, especially for this time period, the Mamluk time period, is from German and French Orientalists, specifically George Jacobs, if that name rings a bell at all. But yeah, it’s fascinating to see what we have our hands on today and how it’s still being used in public as a form of entertainment.

A puppet is something that can allow you to express yourself in different ways that doesn’t feel as threatening as doing it with your own body.

Nabra: And what brought you into the world of puppetry and puppetry research especially? Why were you drawn to that versus the millions of other types of MENA and SWANA art that you could have talked about or researched? And also, I mean, talk to us about some of the other things you are interested in and are researching. But why did that become such an interest for yours?

Sarah: I think it’s twofold. One part of it was being an educator and having to teach a world theatre history class and being consistently infuriated by the dismissal of performance and theatre in the Middle Eastern and North African region. And so part of it was that of just delving into what types of Indigenous and pre-European, pre-modern forms of theatre exist. And so that started a lot of the puppetry workshopping and trying to learn about that. Luckily, I found the script that was translated by Marvin Carlson and Safi Mahfouz, and it’s in English, and that’s the only script that exists in English, which is also interesting of when we talk about our own legacies as historians and as scholars of what are we focusing on archiving, and the fact that this was so incredibly difficult to translate and there’s only one translation of it. I almost feel like the responsibility of continuing to tell that story and to share it with university students because it’s absolutely phenomenal.

So there’s that part of it. And then in my own practice, I do devised theatre work, and I’m drawn to puppetry because there’s something that’s different. I do a lot of work that is with people who don’t identify as being thespians, people who don’t have a theatre background at all. And when you use puppetry, a puppet is kind of like an extension to the body. A puppet is something that can allow you to express yourself in different ways that doesn’t feel as threatening as doing it with your own body. And especially, I work a lot with young women, and when we’re thinking of how do you connect with your maternal ancestors and with the legacies of feminists from your country and from your region, working with puppets and then the step further is working with yourself behind a shadow screen. There’s something that is interesting about the ephemerality of a performance and the ability to extend beyond the immediate time and space.

It’s like puppets can transcend us into this greater kind of space of imagination, and they’re so simple. And I love being able to work with people and have them create their own puppets as well, because there’s something that is so creative and so intricate, but also so personal about that experience. So yeah, I’ve come to really admire puppets in their simplicity, in their ability to be joyful, to be playful, to be childlike, and have that childlike wonder and have us really captivate and activate our imagination, which some people don’t get a chance to do in any other avenue. So those were some reasons.

Marina: Well, I love the idea of connecting to ancestors through puppetry. It’s something I don’t think about frequently when I have seen puppets used in theatre. I mean, I think until recent years, I had had a negative connotation of puppetry, or one that was very infantile, of a puppet is like a muppet that you see on children’s TV. But actually, yes, those puppets exist, and they require a lot of skill to operate. There’s this art form. I just didn’t have any knowledge or understanding to really appreciate puppetry as an art form. So I love getting to hear this expansive way that you think about puppets and that their uses really aren’t confined to an artistic space. They are, like any other form of performance, really able to be used in these different ways.

I also just want to take us back, I don’t know if you remember this, but this was important for me, Ibn Daniyal is what I feel our first friendship link was Sarah. So, we were at a conference, and a friend of mine had just started her PhD where Sarah was finishing up and said, “Hey, you have to meet her.” And so we talked and I was like, “Oh, I wonder if she likes me because she sounds really cool.” And then we went out for ice cream later that night and she was talking about Ibn Daniyal, and I was like, “I love Ibn Daniyal.” So I bring this up because first of all, I think it’s a very cute story. We were eating ice cream, talking about these things, and I was like, oh my gosh, we’re building this coalition in theatre. And that’s part of what I like about this season too, is seeing you as a scholar, as someone who’s like, nope, I need to expand what is taught, I need to expand how we think about these things, and knowing that we’re just not on our own islands anymore. If we’re on an island, we’re there together and we’re trying to figure out how to build these bridges that had, I don’t know, been burned or ignored in other ways by the academy.

So I don’t know if that thought makes sense as a whole, but I just find this really heartening because I remember when I discovered Ibn Daniyal, I talked to Nabra, and I was like, “No one knows about this guy.” And then you were teaching this class and I just needed to know about that. And now hopefully people that are listening are having their world views expanded too. So anyway…

Sarah: Yeah, I love it so much. And I do remember that story, and it’s just so funny. Bonding over a playwright like Ibn Daniyal is just so hilarious because on the one hand it’s like, where do you even start with him? And I think that is… I was really hesitant when I introduced him in my class, to be honest. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. And we always have to be conscious.

I feel like as educators, we’ve got to be responsible of, if I am putting forward in a class that is a survey class, like a world theatre history class, I’m presenting the one MENA play, I’ve got to be really cautious and really critical about what is it that I’m putting forward, especially at a predominantly white institution, and especially for people or students who this will be maybe their first and maybe only encounter with theatre from this part of the world. And so I’ve got to be really conscious about what is it I’m exposing them to, but also how do I understand it?

I mean, when I read this script, I was just like, “Oh my gosh, this is intense.” And those are parts of our conversations, of how do you responsibly teach a play that is from such a different cultural context, from a very different time period, where we’ve got very little published on it, and where it is very… It’s like, ooh, makes me blush a little bit. You’ve got scatology, you’ve got sex, you’ve got violence, you’ve got very graphic erotica. You have, my gosh, what else? You’ve got all of these different conversations happening, and it’s so rich, but it’s baffling to think of how do we read this kind of work?

But yeah, I love it because it’s also a piece that has kind of lived on throughout time. Puppets are kind like that as well. When they were making them in this time period, they would use that leather, and then they would, like cowhide, for example, goat hides, and then they would paint them even though you can’t see them. And I love the idea of being able, because they’re 2D, you can just pass it along. And this notion of what do we glean from me performing the exact same art form that my ancestors did so many hundreds of years ago, and where is the embodied knowledge that lives with that and with this art form that we can then continue building on, even if we don’t have an archive per se, but we have the ideas and the function of it. So yeah, it’s incredible.

Marina: To your point, just quickly on, I feel like when I learned the Greeks and the Romans in theatre history, people were like, oh, there’s sex, but we just have to expect this. We know these types of plays. And soon I hope that we’ll get to a point where we’re like, yes, and now we know. We have the cultural context now, and we’re able to get to this point. But you’re right until that moment, having these hard conversations and hard questions with yourself is so important as part of that journey.

Sarah: I mean, this work is so important because it’s the first example of secular theatre that’s happening in the medieval time period. So especially if you think of the Eurocentric canon of when we’re learning about medieval drama, we’re learning about drama, like liturgical drama, we’re learning about drama that’s very rooted in religious practices. And this is not that, this is strictly secular. And in the text when they’re performing it, they’re also asking… So the puppeteer is asking for, “Oh, if anyone would like to spare a few pounds for us, for me it’s like a performer,” and so they’re kind of asking for admission in a way and it’s so incredible. It stands for that within theatre history, and I think it should be taught within a theatre history class.

Nabra: I’m very interested in applied theatre research and what you can learn from actually doing it that you can’t learn from just studying it. So I kind of wanted to pose to you the questions you brought up for yourself, which was, if you can speak briefly about what did you learn from the performance of these puppetry plays that you didn’t learn or was added to your knowledge from all of your scholarship and research around it?

Sarah: I think specifically with this and specifically working with the students I did, so this is during the pandemic, we were rehearsing on Zoom, and then we masked up and we went in, adhering to COVID protocols, into our department, and we filmed part of it, or we filmed the whole thing. So this is an accessible video that anyone can watch. Something that I really learned is how to give students the agency in telling the story, but also the fact that we always kind of contend with can playwrights of the global majority be considered universal playwrights? And in doing and in producing The Shadow Spirit with my students at the University of Colorado, I kind of demonstrated that yes, you can. Because Ibn Daniyal didn’t specify that, oh, the puppeteer has to be an Arab person doing this. And so the students, they were learning how to create their own puppets based off of the description. So they’re doing some very close textual analysis and then using their own imagination and in their own interpretation of how do we actually design these puppets? How can we have them move? What are their voices like?

When we’re doing this work in translation, there’s also that element of how do you make a medieval like Cairen joke funny when Ibn Daniyal is making up words and he’s using words from the brothels and from different immigrant populations? How do you even understand that? And so it’s interesting to see how we can start putting our own ideas and making it make sense for us in our own cultural context, in our own time period, while at the same time respecting it for what it is and not wanting to change it and understanding that we can get the messages behind what Ibn Daniyal is saying and apply that for ourselves even though we’re not from medieval Cairo, which is really important. And yeah, the students had a lot of agency in how they got to put this on its feet. So it was exciting. It was hard work, but it was really fun at the end.

Marina: No, that’s amazing. What I want to move over to, because you had talked about… You told us that you talked to Nabil Bahgat about the Aragoz puppet, this puppet that was recognized as a UNESCO Intangible Heritage artifact a few years ago. Can you tell us a little bit about your conversation? I think you reached out in the context of your dissertation. We would love to hear more.

Sarah: Yeah, so I reached out to Nabil Bahgat, who is this incredible puppeteer. Please look him up. At first, I got in touch with him because I wanted to learn more about Ibn Daniyal, and I was like, it does not make sense that he would not be performed in Egypt, but also there’s a lot of texts here. How is this performed? And he has a troupe that was called Wamda, so “Beam of Light” in Arabic, and he would produce a lot of shadow puppetry. So a lot of it was Ibn Daniyal’s stories or plays, and then some of it was original plays that him and his troupe have written. And then he also worked to get the Aragoz puppet in Egypt categorized as an item of intangible cultural heritage, which is just so incredibly important. Because when you think of the legacies of how many people are genuinely preserving the art of puppetry today, we can count them on one hand, and Nabil is one of them.

And that’s sad because it’s a dying art form. It’s a form that requires a lot of skill and we don’t really see, we’re not really teaching our young people how to make these puppets anymore. And so, in him working really, really hard to actually get that classification, that means that UNESCO recognizes it, that it’s something that we’ll always make sure is, it does not get erased throughout history and as we continue developing in new ways of what theatre looks like. So yeah, that’s really quite cool. And he does The Shadow Spirit, but he does a censored version of it that he said that would be appropriate for children. And I’m like, oh, that’s good. I don’t think children need to be reading this script in this day and age. I don’t know how they do that. So yeah.

Nabra: And to give a bit of context about the Aragoz puppet, it’s a traditional form of puppetry that originated in Egypt, and it’s a popular folk art and entertainment form that’s been practiced for centuries. The Aragoz puppet involves the use of small hand-carved wooden puppets manipulated by puppeteers to enact stories often accompanied by music, chants, and dialogue, which is resonant with a lot of different types of puppetry from the region. Additionally, the characters in Aragoz puppetry typically represent various social classes and stereotypes found in Egyptian society, and the performances often include humor, satire, and social commentary.

The stories enacted by the puppets may draw from folklore, mythology, historical events, or contemporary issues, and they’re usually performed in public spaces such as markets, streets, festivals, where the puppeteers attract audiences with their lively performances. Aragoz has declined in popularity in modern times, but as Sarah was talking about, there are efforts to preserve it, and puppetry and that kind of public art and humor continues to today in Egypt in a lot of different forms.

And so when it comes to Aragoz, was that the type of puppetry that Ibn Daniyal was working with? How is it the same or different than other types of puppets in the region and even in Egypt? Would that be the puppetry of Egypt, or are there a lot of different types that you would categorize?

How can we have conversations about climate change and changing ecologies and people’s opinions about climate change being so vastly different depending on who you chat to, and how do we make that joyful?

Sarah: Yeah, I mean, so Ibn Daniyal is specifically working with shadow puppetry, so he was not working with the Aragoz puppet. So yeah, so his plays are written for these 2D lever puppets that are meant to be seen just from the other side of the screen. Yeah, so that was interesting. I’d say that today, that both are still pretty common. You see a lot of the Aragoz, especially at different festivals, public festivals, and celebrations and stuff. But I think to Marina’s earlier point, we do have that association of puppetry being for children, which is not true, and so you tend to see them in association with events that for children or for young people. But yeah, they’re still happening and they’re really funny.

The Aragoz puppet, they’re very witty, and I think that’s something that we forget about plays that are coming from that part of the world is that they’re full of satire, and they’re full of comedy, and they’re somewhat light-hearted, but they’re also very deeply political and satirical, and you can see that through the different stock characters. So yeah, they’re still taking place, but it’s also difficult because when you’ve got… Theatre is competing with film and with social media and with all of these different forms of entertainment. So we’ve got less and less people that are even inclined to go to the theatre, let alone go watch a puppet show. But they’re still taking place.

Nabra: To talk about modern puppetry, we would love to know more about your ecofeminist puppetry piece that you were telling us you brought to the UN Commission on the Status of Women recently. Tell us about that piece, what your influences were, and what your intentions are also for how puppetry can affect our modern times?

Sarah: I love this. What are your intentions with the puppets? My intentions? So that kind of puppetry is actually very different from this puppetry, and that kind of comes… So they’re puppets that are large scale that you wear, and that comes out of an ecofeminist practice, and so looking at ways of… And that’s in collaboration with my research partner, Professor Beth Osnes at the University of Colorado, and we really started looking at how can we have conversations about climate change and changing ecologies and people’s opinions about climate change being so vastly different depending on who you chat to, and how do we make that joyful? One of the quotes that came on early on in the research that we were thinking of was, if a dove is a symbol for peace, then a butterfly is a symbol for change. Change is inevitable, but making it beautiful is a choice. And so with that, thinking of the metamorphosis of a butterfly specifically, and how can we as humans learn from nature and what are the ways in which we, how kind of distance ourselves and we think that we are better than nature.

And so in that work, I focus on using the piece that we did at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, it is called The Butterfly Affect. So not “effect,” but rather “affect” as in with “A,” thinking of ongoing change and how everyone can contribute to ongoing change. And that’s a piece that follows the four different stages of a butterfly’s metamorphossi—so, an egg, a caterpillar, a chrysalis, and then a butterfly—and explaining the science of that metamorphosis and then correlating that to people as agents of change. And so the idea is that through this thirty-five minute immersive performance, it was just kind of like a guided meditation in a way. Participants who go through it are able to then envision themselves as agents of change by co-becoming and co-metamorphosizing as a butterfly. And it’s so fascinating because it’s such a simple, somewhat goofy kind of looking thing.

You do not expect that puppets, especially butterfly puppets, can be so provocative and can be so emotional, and yet people leave these experiences saying, “I am learning to step into my new skin. I am learning to be more confident, to take up more space.” People have left it crying, which is kind of incredible to think of something that is so simple as puppetry can initiate in people. So yeah, and that’s kind of why I do puppetry, is these tiny ways that we can enact joyful change, and it really lasts in ways that you don’t expect it to.

Marina: That’s so beautiful. And can you tell us how was it received at the UN commission?

Sarah: Yeah, so the Commission on the Status of Women, it was incredible. And this is a piece that, it’s a touring show. And it’s funny, you really need hammock stands and then one suitcase. The entire show fits in one suitcase, so it’s very portable. And this is a piece that we’ve done in Colorado, in Florida, in New York at the Commission on the Status of Women, but also with universities in Ireland and Scotland. And it was really well received. It’s interesting because, especially when we do this kind of work with activists and with politicians and with scientists and educators, these are people who are engaged in very tough conversations and very deeply intellectual conversations all the time. And they were stepping into this, and they leave being like, this is encouraging me to think in a different way and it’s reminding me to be present and to pause and to have a moment for myself.

And it’s interesting because I think that we can use puppets and we kind of demonstrate that through The Butterfly Affect of like we can use puppets as a way to engage the other parts of ourself. You cannot think only with your brain; that’s not the only part of you that creates knowledge. But rather your entire body generates knowledge, and your entire body is also holding on to embodied knowledge and ancestral knowledge. And activating all of these different things that people often dismiss or they forget about, we can do that through puppetry.

So yeah, they were very well received, and people really enjoy the process, so it’s been exciting. I just did it with my students here. So at FSU and then CU, the students got together through, we did this collaborative project between two different classes at the same time, and they started thinking of, how do we make The Butterfly Affect with these puppetry, with puppets, and its dependency on traveling with these puppets, how do we make it more accessible for folks? And so the students developed The Butterfly Affect Care Deck, which they divide it up into these four different stages of metamorphosis, following the prompts that we would give in the actual performance. But then it’s designed for people to be able to lead themselves through it so without the puppets, but rather kind of inspired by the puppets and being able to do that on their own time and in their own homes. So yeah, thinking about different ways of how we can learn with and through puppetry as well.

Marina: That’s incredible. And I was on the phone with Sarah the other day, and so she let me see a part of the deck, which was so beautiful, and just exciting to see something that’s part of the same ecosystem, like addressing the same topics, really looking at the self and care for yourself, but also the world that you’re in just in a different way. So one involved puppetry, but this sort of differently able to travel version was just really beautiful. So it’s exciting, Sarah, to see all of the ways that you’re interested in puppetry and how it sort of spans time periods, but it’s really looking at the world in a large way.

Sarah: Yeah, I keep going back to puppets. I don’t know why, but I love it. At this point, I can’t say no to it. Yeah, they’re incredible and they can be used… There’s also a lot of examples of, to this day, other people are working with puppets in different refugee camps or different immigrant populations and in just all these different varied ways that you can use puppetry and have people create their own puppets. So yeah, I think everyone should be making puppets and having conversations through them because it makes it a lot more accessible.

Marina: Yes. And if you can’t, you can bring Sarah and her butterflies to your students right now in the meantime. Yes?

Sarah: Or I can give you the care deck. I can share that as well so—

Marina: Yeah. I really I want you to fly this way to California where Nabra and I are.

Sarah: I like that idea.

Marina: Yalla.

Nabra: Well, thank you so much for being on this episode, Sarah, it was so lovely. We’ll probably have you back again, to be honest. Look out for it, y’all.

Sarah: I would love that. It’s always such a pleasure chatting with both of you. I’m so deeply just moved by everything that you do. And Marina, like you spoke about this a little bit, but I think that we’re joint in scholarship, but also in friendship and community, and I truly don’t think that we can actually create and generate the field of Middle Eastern, North African theatre scholarship if we’re not also in these friendship communities. And so I’m so grateful and an honor to be in community with both of you. So thank you.





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