Work by Papermoon Puppet Theatre, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Image credits: Rangga Yudhistira, photographer. All rights reserved.

Dr. Gabrielle Houle is at the forefront of researching the growing global movement of mask and puppetry arts in artistic productions after receiving a SSHRC Insight Development grant to study the art forms in Canada and Indonesia.

Gabrielle, an adjunct assistant professor and instructor in the Drama department, is a co-investigator on the research project, which focuses on intercultural exchange through mask and puppetry arts. She joins principal investigator Peter Balkwill, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary and the artistic director of the Canadian Academy of Masks and Puppetry, and Maria Tri Sulistyani, the co-founder and co-artistic director of the Papermoon Puppet Theatre in Indonesia, for the project.

The goal of their research is to explore theoretical and practical applications of mask and puppetry. Gabrielle notes that this will be accomplished in two ways: investigating how traditional artistic practices influence contemporary theatre makers who are using masks and puppets in their work, and exploring the inter-connection between mask and puppetry arts and how the work in one medium can translate into the other and inform new discoveries. Gabrielle says recent scholarship on mask, puppetry and performing objects concludes that we are in a “puppet moment”, as noted by puppetry scholar Dassia Posner.

“Right now, we are in a puppet moment, because artists, scholars, and the public in North America but also around the world, are showing a great deal of interest in puppetry arts,” Gabrielle says, adding that puppets and masks are increasingly being used in major onstage productions, such as War Horse, The Lion King, and Avenue Q.

That spike of interest into mask and puppetry arts is global and it also extends to Canada. We realized that artists in English Canada especially are still really craving for exposure to new approaches to masks and puppetry, to broaden their horizon, enrich their own practice, and help them continue to create their work."

She adds that since they are working with both Canadian and Indonesian participants, an emphasis is placed on old and new knowledges of mask and puppetry arts and how they can be shared equitably among artists from different cultures. Indonesia, as Gabrielle notes, felt like the “perfect terrain” for their research, due to Peter’s prior connections with artists there and Indonesia’s strong performance traditions, where it is believed that some of the oldest forms of mask and puppetry arts originated.

“We’re not the only ones in North America having our eyes turned toward Indonesia. I believe that the first puppetry artists from Indonesia came to North America in the 19th century and since then, North American artists have been curious, enthusiastic, and eager to learn from Indonesian puppeteers.”

Gabrielle says it is important that their research be relational and beneficial to all groups involved, particularly when conducting their work in Indonesia.

“We really wanted to engage in a research project that would be reciprocal. It should benefit not only us, the Canadian artists and scholars who go there, but also everyone we will be meeting in Indonesia. So, the enthusiasm is already there and has been there for a long time, but we really feel that the exchange and rewards of our project should be mutual.”

The research itself, which is supported by a grant of $67,628 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, will be conducted in three phases. First, Gabrielle and Peter will join Maria in Indonesia and interview artists there about their creation processes. Then, they will visit Canadian artists in their studios and interview them about their professional practices. Following these interviews, the team will be conducting workshops using masks and puppets with Canadian and Indonesian artists, concluding with public presentations at various puppetry festivals and conferences in Canada, France, and Indonesia to share their discoveries.

What we hope this research will do is that it will be of benefit to artists, to scholars, and to students, by offering them new methods to train, to conduct research, and to approach storytelling with masks and puppets. We also hope that the research will deepen our understanding of the role of artistic lineage, historical practices, and modes of intercultural exchange involving mask and puppetry."