This is a guest post by Lauren Dudley, creator of the Puppet Casina:
Welcome, Lauren and puppets!
The inspiration for a puppet version of Plautus’ Casina began in Professor Catherine Connors’ Roman Comedy class at the University of Washington in September, 2012. In addition to translating the text and discussing the grammar, we acted several scenes from the play.
This activity increased my curiosity about differences between a script as text and a script as information to actors that guides performance in physical space. At the same time, I became interested in what kind of people made up the grex in Plautus’ time.
My research into the composition of a Roman comedy troupe included social status, gender, ethnicity and costume. The more I learned about the actors, the more I wanted to see them come to life. (In 1970, I learned to make hand puppets from Aurora Valentinetti, a well-known Northwest puppeteer and professor of Drama at the University of Washington. I have made puppets on occasion since that time.)
Because Professor Connors has a policy of allowing class projects in lieu of paper, I decided to construct an 8-man grex that would be capable of performing any Roman comedy. And so the grex came into being.
Their debut performance was playing two scenes from Casina in our Roman Comedy class. Next, they made a guest appearance at the APA workshop on Roman Comedy in Seattle in January, 2013.
The APA workshop was extremely helpful because it allowed me to see the effects of different performance choices: Latin or English; spoken dialogue or recorded; Latin meter or not; music or not; the use of masks or not.
With Professor Connors’ continued guidance and at the suggestion of Lynn Jeffries, a well-known puppeteer and member of Cornerstone Theater in Los Angeles, I began to reduce the script to a running time of 28 minutes.
My editorial and production decisions were made with the goal of providing my contemporary audience with an experience similar to that of a Roman audience.
I chose not to retain the Latin meter as a result of having cut so much text. The actors were instructed to speak the Latin in a way that expressed the emotion inherent in the text. The aim of the translation was to make the 2013 American audience laugh.
Now that I had both a puppet grex and a script, I began to recruit puppeteers. Of the five puppeteers, three of us were Latin students and the other two had no Latin experience at all. As we began rehearsals, it became clear that it was impossible for the puppeteers to memorize the Latin. The exception was Professor Connors, who memorized her lines for her performance as Fides. We recorded our soundtrack and used English subtitles. The recording was so successful that, after the show, I had many people ask me how we had managed to memorize so much Latin.
Although I had a desire to include a puppet tibicen player, that idea was discarded as too distracting to the audience. Instead we substituted the women’s dance routines accompanied by contemporary music to convey the idea that Roman comedy had a musical component.
Although each puppet has his own linen comedy mask, the decision was made to perform without them for fear the masks would also confuse the audience.
We performed puppet Casina at the Jewel Box Theater in Seattle, Washington on September 28, 2013 in front of an audience of 55, about a third of whom were classicists. Casina was one of three acts included in the program of Roman funeral games, titled Mors Falsimoniae. A gladiator dance and circus act followed the puppet performance, connected by an emcee in the role of the goddess Trivia.
The show was extremely well received by all. For the puppeteers who were Latin students, performing this show gave us a chance to experience Latin as a living language, connected to our body movements. We felt closer to the Roman people, laughing at and causing our audience to laugh at something that would have pleased the Romans so many thousands of years ago.
The classicists in the audience enjoyed hearing the spoken Latin and seeing this play brought to life. The non-classicists in the audience were amazed at how funny this play was and how much fun they had watching it.
The grex and I look forward to future performances.