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Experimental Narratives: Janie Geiser's Evocative Puppetry

"Fugitive Time," 2014
"Fugitive Time," 2014

Janie Geiser is a tall, angular, soft-spoken woman, quick to smile and yet just a bit formal. With light hair and intense eyes, she's ethereal and yet unequivocally present, sometimes quite serious and ardent, but also ebullient, even vivacious. She slips back and forth between opposites without a second thought, and her work -- a collection of visually sumptuous and conceptually haunting animations and deliciously unnerving puppet-based theater works -- similarly ignores ungainly opposites. Instead, it prowls around the mysterious boundary-land between territories -- like the lands of the conscious and the unconscious mind, or life and death, sanity and madness, hope and despair, animate and inanimate, nature and culture. From these uncanny in-between zones, her projects send back mysterious intelligence about the roiling nether lands we largely fear to traverse alone. Geiser is a guide to the other side, wherever that "other" might be.

Geiser moved to Los Angeles from New York 15 years ago with her husband, experimental filmmaker Lewis Klahr. Both now teach at CalArts, and Geiser is also the co-director of Automata, an LA-based nonprofit on Chung King Road dedicated to creating, presenting and preserving puppet performance, experimental film and pre-cinematic attractions. She said recently that while her early animations were infused by New York and its singular iconography and ethos, Los Angeles has gradually seeped into her over the years such that her most recent performance-based projects are informed by the artist's fascination with two unfortunately quintessential aspects of L.A. life, namely murder and the inability to breathe.

Brenda, in "Clouded Sulphur (death is a not undone)," 2014
Brenda, in "Clouded Sulphur (death is a not undone)," 2014

Geiser's exquisite puppet theater piece "Clouded Sulphur (death is a knot undone)," which premiered in fall 2013, dramatizes the kidnapping and murder of 15-year-old East L.A. sophomore Brenda Sierra, who left for school one October morning in 2002 only to disappear completely; her body was found in the dusty hills of Crestline near the San Bernardino Mountains a few days later, her death prosaically attributed to a blow to the head. While there is speculation about why she might have been murdered, no one has been indicted in the case.

Geiser's newest puppet-based project is "Fugitive Time." It was inspired by images Geiser found showing a series of tent hospitals dotting the hillsides of the city at the turn of the last century. "They were tuberculosis sanitariums," says Geiser, "and they started out as these camps." Geiser notes that TB clinics were extremely prevalent in both Europe and the U.S. at that time. "There was this idea that TB could be cured, or at least alleviated, simply by sitting outside in the fresh air, so you see all of these images of people reclining on lawn chairs. In the Northeast, people would sit outside whether it was snowing or not, wrapped in blankets. Obviously, California and its weather were very enticing, and people would migrate here just for the clinics. So I started looking into that history." "Fugitive Time" emerges from that milieu, telling the stories of two characters who learn that they have TB and then undergo a series of unsettling medical treatments, one of them eventually succumbing to the metallic hug of an iron lung.

Clouded Sulphur (death is a knot undone) Excerpt Scene 1 from Janie Geiser on Vimeo.

Both "Clouded Sulphur" and "Fugitive Time" borrow the structure of a type of traditional Japanese puppet theater known as bunraku. Geiser says she was specifically interested in the kind of bunraku inflected by the 17th century playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon, who was the first to use the dramas of everyday people, rather than those of emperors or elites, as the foundation for his puppet theater. His "The Love Suicides at Sonezaki," for example, was based on a real incident, and became a tremendous success among audiences. Inspired by Chikamatsu's radical intervention and attention to the everyday, Geiser spent time several years ago searching for an event that could form the foundation for her own puppet theater work, one that would perhaps resonate in a way akin to those of Chikamatsu for contemporary audiences. She selected the tragic tale of young Brenda Sierra, whose story forms the basis for "Clouded Sulphur."

The piece is set in a darkened theater space, with the action taking place on a large hillside that slopes downward and fills most of the space across one horizontal side of the theater. The hillside set is raised to about waist level, on a platform, and two narrators sit on another raised platform to the right of the stage, while the musician performs on yet another elevated scaffold to the left of the stage. The small audience sits in several rows along the opposite side of the long wall, so that the experience overall is extremely intimate, as if you're sharing the space of death and loss with the puppets and their handlers.

The set for "Clouded Sulphur (death is a not undone)," 2014
The set for "Clouded Sulphur (death is a not undone)," 2014

The puppets have carefully crafted wooden faces with wide eyes and angular noses, and arms, legs, hands and feet that are hinged to allow very nuanced, delicate movements. There are three characters: Brenda, her sister Fabiola and her brother Julio; Brenda wears a red hoodie that matches the sweatshirt worn by the real girl when she was killed. Each puppet is handled by three people who, working with extreme precision, are able to produce strikingly subtle and lifelike movements in the figures. The puppets don't seem human necessarily, but watching breathlessly from the audience, you can't help but experience them as utterly alive. As Brenda crawls slowly backwards down the hillside in confusion, or as Fabiola collapses to her knees to claw feverishly into the dirt with her bare hands, you want to reach out and hold them, to offer some solace and protection. Barring that, you simply want to weep.

Helping create the overall environment, one that doesn't merely tell a story but creates an immersive experience, the narration, written by playwright Erik Ehn, consists of elusive fragments, a poetic patchwork of details and history, while the music, by composer Valerie Opielski, crafts an elegiac mood that's haunting without being overbearing. Projections appear on the landscape, magnifying certain key moments or offering further texture and emotion.

Describing "Clouded Sulphur" in relation to her previous puppet-based work, which has tended to be far more intimate with smaller sets, Geiser says, "I think I was looking at space in a different way." She continues, "In this particular piece, I was really creating the space for the puppets to be in, and working to transform the experience of the audience through scale." She explains that she also wanted to insert a very large landscape into a small venue, and then give the puppets a lot of room for their story. In a sense, the dry hillside has to be massive in order to serve as an adequate site for something as monstrous as kidnapping and murder. "We had to encapsulate a huge expanse of geography in one image," explains Geiser, "one that could also create a psychological space for loss."

Brenda, in "Clouded Sulphur (death is a not undone)," 2014
Brenda, in "Clouded Sulphur (death is a not undone)," 2014

Geiser was also attentive to the fact that the site where Sierra's body was found was not on the street, or in an alley or somewhere else inside city limits. "I wanted to think about the way that, just outside the city, it's wild," says Geiser. "There's a sense of barrenness, similar to what we're experiencing right now with the lack of water, and the way that the vegetation dies every year." That desolation, and the dusty hillside where the characters sometimes encounter a mysterious flying lynx, becomes a figurative ground where civilization abruptly ends and the California wilderness, something seemingly deeply unknowable, begins.

If the landscape is haunting, the puppeteers offer some solace. "We didn't want to hide their faces," says Geiser, explaining that even though the puppeteers try to keep their facial expressions neutral, the audience can discern a deep sense of empathy and attentiveness, not just in their faces but in their gentle gestures and delicate handling. "You see them looking at the figure, and in a sense they are supplying another level of emotion through the care that they take."

That sense of attention is extended in "Fugitive Time," which explores the routines that characterize medical care and treatment. Geiser was fascinated by the idea of seeing puppets care for other puppets, expanding the sense of concern of the puppeteers to the puppets themselves, and she was intrigued by the ways in which medical practices, which can seem arcane and even frightening initially, gradually become routinized and mundane.

Rather than being set on a single, large terrain as is "Clouded Sulphur," "Fugitive Time" is composed of multiple moving planes, video projections, shadows and disparate times and places. "There are a series of rolling scrim panels that we designed that are based on those rolling screens in hospital rooms," says Geiser. "Those move and form different configurations in the space, and the puppets are behind them or in front of them. The screens form the architecture and allow the video projection to be much more a part of the space. It creates a series of settings, and with the video, we're moving through different spaces." The video imagery includes photos that Geiser has taken of Los Angeles, of hills and trees, as well as archival photos showing the tents and cottages of the sanitariums.

Both "Clouded Sulphur" and "Fugitive Time" bring together a lot of different media elements -- beguiling puppets, elaborate sets, projected video, evocative lighting, sumptuous music and live performance -- to create experiences that are themselves between worlds. Neither just live theater, puppet show, video screening or story, the projects cross boundaries and invite audiences to experience intense moments of identification and emotion in formats that that are unfamiliar and unpredictable.

Rather than connecting with recognizable characters as we do in a film or play, we work to identify with wooden faces and lanky puppet bodies. Rather than enjoying the predictable rhythms of the conflict-driven three-act structure, we cobble together bits and pieces of narrative to make the stories whole. Rather than settling back to watch a feature film or play, we lean forward, working to make sense, to feel, to know. So, it's not the often spectacular merging of disparate elements that explains the power of Geiser's work, and it's not the searing pathos of the stories she chooses to tell. Instead, Geiser leverages all these different elements into a new arrangement, and what she achieves is a new form of collective thinking, feeling and experience, one that mixes layers of reality and consciousness in a way that seems perfectly suited to our current moment.

"Fugitive Time" will be presented at Automata in Chinatown, September 26 - October 5, 2014. Tickets available here.

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