Puppets in Review- The Ballad of Phineas P. Gage

Drama of Works- Lessons Learned: The Making of “The Ballad of Phineas P. Gage”

New York, NY
April 18, 2002

review by Donald Devet

For someone who has never had any professional puppet training, Van Lente has already proven that she’s got the right stuff to make a valuable contribution to the art of puppetry.

Phineas P. Gage is a wonderful name. It sounds made up, as if it belongs to one of those irascible characters W. C. Fields might have played. But Phineas P. Gage was the name of a real person who happens to be the title character in Drama of Works’ newest production, “The Ballad of Phineas P. Gage.” Gage has the distinction of not only being the first real person that the four-year-old puppet company has built a story around, but also a person who survived having an iron rod pass through his head. Previously, Drama of Works has put Alice (from Wonderland), Dorothy (from Oz) and Dr. Faustus (from hell) at center stage. Tackling the story of a real person proved to be both rewarding and frustrating.

First, a little background on Phineas Gage. In 1848 Gage was working as a foreman on a railway construction gang in Vermont. An accidental explosion of a charge he had set blew a 3 feet 7 inches long tamping iron through his head. The tamping iron went in point-first under his left cheek bone and out through the top of his head. Gage was knocked over but may not have lost consciousness even though much of the left side of his brain was destroyed. Ten weeks later, Phineas felt strong enough to return to work. But because his personality had changed so much, the contractors would not let him resume his job as foreman. Before the accident he had been their most capable and efficient foreman, one with a well-balanced mind, and someone who was looked on as “a shrewd, smart businessman.” He was now fitful, irreverent, and grossly profane, showing little consideration for his fellow workers. He was also impatient and obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, unable to settle on any plans for his future. His friends said he was “no longer Gage.”

Phineas never worked as a foreman again. He appeared at Barnum’s Museum in New York, worked in a livery stable in New Hampshire and took care of horses in Chile. In about 1859, after his health began to fail, he went to San Francisco to live with his mother. In 1860 he began to have epileptic seizures and subsequently died.

Gretchen Van Lente, Drama of Works’ artistic director, first heard about Gage in high school and was fascinated by his story, not only because of the bizarre event but for the larger issues behind it. To what degree is the self dependent on biology? Is the soul a function of the body or is the body animated by the soul? Then two and a half years ago, after attending Parsons School of Design, obtaining a liberal arts degree and producing six puppet shows, Van Lente was searching for a subject for her next production. It would have to be a story that would appeal to the Ensemble Studio Theatre/Sloan Project, a potential funding source, yet not compromise her artistic principles. She remembered Phineas Gage and the rod that shot through his head.

Gretchen Van Lente

Over lunch at the Pinocchio Cafe on Madison Avenue in early June, Van Lente chats about the making of The Ballad of Phineas P. Gage, although she is reluctant to talk much about her first attempt at telling the story. “I’ve wiped all references to that first show from our web site,” she laughingly confesses. The production was a short piece premiering at Great Small Works’ Toy Theater Festival in 1999 in New York City . She had written it as a comedy.

Van Lente’s next attempt was to be a more serious take on the material. Realizing that any substantial piece on Gage would have to be a collaborative effort , Van Lente enlisted her sister-in-law, Crystal Stillman, as playwright. Van Lente had never worked with a living playwright before. And Stillman had never written for puppets before, although she was familiar with Drama of Works’ previous shows– “Alice’s Dream,” “Doubting Dorothy” and “Dr. Faustus” among others. At about the same time that the EST/Sloan Project awarded a grant for the show, Van Lente got word that her application for workshopping at the St. Ann’s Puppet Lab in Brooklyn had been accepted. The pressure was now on to produce a full scale, top notch production.

The next attempt at getting Gage’s tragic tale told was a workshop staging with actors/puppeteers, still on book, that ran two and a half hours. “I made it more elaborate than it should have been,” admits Van Lente. After the first public workshop she was asked to cut 45 minutes. Everyone learned a lot from that first read through, especially Stillman. As a playwright whose main interest is “the word” as a form of expression, Stillman began to see that movement of the inanimate could be as powerful as well crafted dialogue. True collaboration began at this point.

The seven actors, mostly fledgling puppeteers, were encouraged to find the heart of their characters through non-verbal interplay among the puppets and among each other. Jane Catherine Shaw, veteran puppeteer, was called in to help the puppeteers find the best ways to manipulate the puppets in order to make them communicate and appear lifelike.

Most importantly, a balance had to be struck among the three principle creators of this project–Van Lente as artistic director and chief puppet builder, Stillman as playwright and Tessa Leigh Derfner as director. It dawned on them that they were often giving directions to the actors/puppeteers at the same time which only added to the confusion. To make this show work, Van Lente learned to keep quiet during rehearsals and just sit in the back fixing the puppets. Stillman learned to stop fixing the lines on a daily basis. And Derfner just kept things moving towards a fixed premiere date in April 2001.

The current production uses a large number of puppets and styles (rod, shadow, mask), manipulated by the performers who are in full view. They are dressed in various shades of earth tones to blend with the simple scenery. The most powerful moments are undoubtedly non-verbal–-the graceful handling of Gage’s mangled skull, the furtive glance between Gage’s younger self and the man he’s become. The actors are well on their way to sublimating their energy into the puppets and to letting the objects speak for themselves.

“The Ballad of Phineas P. Gage” is an ambitious undertaking, tackling a profound subject–-the human brain and our relationship to it. For someone who has never had any professional puppet training, Van Lente has already proven that she’s got the right stuff to make a valuable contribution to the art of puppetry. Van Lente was ambitious and reached high, and her experience proved more rewarding than frustrating. She has learned some valuable lessons. “In the future, I would have more time to workshop the script, then take a month off to polish the text before starting rehearsals,” she says. And as for this production, “the text is pretty set on this version. But I’m having the puppeeering bring out more in the dialogue. The actor/puppeteers are finding more things to do with each performance.”

Written by Crystal Skillman
Cast: Julia Balestracci, Bryan Brown, Ryan Ganiman, Serra Hirsch, Jason Howard, David Michael Friend, Jennifer Kankiewicz, Molly Kohl, Bill Stout, Gretchen Van Lente
Directed by Tessa Leigh Derfner.
Design and Puppetry Direction by Gretchen Van Lente
Music Direction by Joshua Goodman
Lighting Design by Alison Brummer
Shadows/Projections by Leslie Klingner

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