“What kind of art do you make?”
“I make object theatre.”
“Oh, cool… What’s that?”
I love objects. I love old objects. I love the histories that live inside of them, the imaginative worlds they invite to be imposed on them, their desire to be curated with other objects, their lifelessness that can come alive in an instant, with a gesture, with a voice, with a placement. I love their mystery and coyness, their whispers of the lives they have lived before arriving into mine, and they seem to love to be found, rediscovered, reutilized, rather than be thrown away.
I started working in the medium of object theater because my apartment was being overrun with things (and I use that word lovingly here) I had picked up over the course of several years from junk shops and thrift stores, objects I couldn’t let sit and collect dust any longer, objects that needed a home, objects that spoke to me. I would curate them in miniature tableaus around the apartment on windowsills, on the back of the toilet, on bookcase shelves, in the pots of plants. It was only until a professor of mine looked at the kind of text I was writing for the stage and said I should make object theatre that I started to enter this terrain of serious play in my art. Though, what form of play isn’t serious?
There is a ritual to puppetry, to theater at large as well, but with puppets and object theatre, there is the breathing of life into the inanimate that makes for uncanny surprise and that adds additional layers of meaning to the work that cannot be accessed with only human bodies on the stage. There is a transcendence of meaning that takes place when a set of cow bones is reanimated to life by five performers. There is something magical when you realize as an audience member you are identifying and empathizing with a pair of talking porcelain doll legs, a glass bottle, a plastic miniature deer. When a curation of objects is placed in a performance context, the result is a moving sculpture, like a magic trick, like a Catholic Mass, since the performers are always in view, their hands as integral to the performance as the objects themselves. This distinguishes it from puppetry, though both forms seek to conjure an alternate reality through the animated inanimate.
Growing up Catholic I was very drawn to the ritual of mass, and as an altar server, I reveled in the use of objects to conjure and represent the past as present. The host that transubstantiated in front of an entire church full of adults and children alike, all of whom stood, incanting and looking on at this circular object held high in the air, felt so mystical and ancient to me. My sisters and I would then “play church” at home, forming a single file procession with one of us in the lead, carrying a Bible high overhead, the other two of us following with a candle, a cross. We would carve crosses into white Necco wafers with a butter knife, and round up all the candles in the house to light on top of a coffee table donned with a doily table runner. We wanted so badly to recreate the recreation, to feel the power to transform objects into not only the symbols they could come to represent, but also to transform them into a new form of being, just as we had seen performed every Sunday. My question looking back is, were we successful? Did we transubstantiate the Necco wafers?
As a poetic playwright, objects give me so much. They offer inlets of understanding into what can otherwise be a form of text that is too dense for live performance. They slow down time somehow, yet extend it by adding their own density of meaning. And then there is a warmth between them and I, a warmth of understanding that makes it impossible to get rid of any of them once the show’s over. They are collaborators who contribute equally to the work, since I almost always start first with an image of them entering a space, turning downstage, ready to speak, and it is my task to channel what they wish to say, like a medium, fingers ready at the keys.
~ Megan Murtha
An upcoming play:
Too Many Beers (or Sea Legs)
Thursday, December 13th @ 7:30pm
161A Chrystie Street
New York, NY, 10002
Tickets available here: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pe.c/10349202
Bone Play (1-4): Jorge Luna Photography
The Glass House Speaks (5-6):Rachael Shane
The Women of Saranac (7-9): Megan Murtha
Here we highlight featured stories from the archive, contributions by fellow writers and artists, as well as reflections and comments on the value and impact of discarded objects in our world.