Theater der Zeit


Performing the Fractured Puppet Self

Employing auto-ethnopuppetry to portray and challenge cultural and personal constructions of the disabled body

The play “Pupa" was the apotheosis of my PhD research. The stories collected, the many wonderful books I read, the development of an exo-skeleton; these were all steps in this research, culminating in a play which wove participants’ and my narrative together with fairy tales such as Pinocchio. The below text is an extract from my 2018 PhD thesis.1 Part of this text was altered so it could be read apart from the thesis.

von Emma Fisher

Erschienen in: double 43: Barrieren | frei – Zugänge zum Figurentheater (04/2021)

Assoziationen: Puppen-, Figuren- & Objekttheater Europa Debatte Wissenschaft



Myself and my supervisor Michael Finneran set out on this academic peregrination in 2014, and we were soon joined by a team of formidable conspirators. Initially by research participants who were a group of artists with disabilities that aided me in probing what it means to be disabled and also made up part of the team that created “Pupa".2 Through our frank interviews, I learned a lot about how disabled people view themselves, but also how they feel they are being perceived. I also learned a great deal about how I personally viewed myself and how I had let my perspective of how I was viewed affect my pride in my bodily difference.

Coming out as disabled

The realisation that I had not ‘come out’ as disabled happened through a culmination of events. First, attending Ann Blake's performance of her own play “Overnight Minority Report“3 and seeing an honest portrayal of what it was to struggle with a new identity and to ‘come out’ as gay in your 30s. I had never considered myself disabled and I didn’t realise I was hiding part of myself. Blake talks about being out with her partner, her partner reached for her hand and she pulled hers away, worried what others who did not know of her sexuality would think. On hearing her talk of her hidden hand equalling her hidden identity a lightbulb went off; I too had been hiding my hand and the identity it held. A few days later, I came across a section on Ellen Samuels' paper about coming out as gay linked with coming out as disabled.

Coming out … for disabled people is a process of redefinition of one’s personal identity
through rejecting the tyranny of the ‘normate’, positive recognition of impairment
and embracing disability as a valid social identity.4

My coming out as disabled was an acceptance of that identity; this is an acceptance that happened for me over the course of this research and is mirrored in my play. However, the moment where I really understood how I viewed my disability was when I waited in anticipation of meeting the research participants to conduct my first group workshop session in Mary Immaculate College in 2015. I began to make a prototype puppet of myself out of paper and tape, as I was going to ask each of the participants to do the same. As I looked at what I made, I realised, I had just unconsciously made an intangible feeling in a physically real puppet. This puppet visually embodied how I saw myself. By making this puppet, I had broken the boundaries of the body and I had allowed the puppet to give physical embodiment to my thoughts and feelings. The puppet in two parts that was before me, was a body without an arm and an arm without a body; one puppeteering the other.

I created an exo-skeleton with the help of open-source hand prosthetics designer and puppet maker Ivan Owen. My abled right arm operated a pulley which physically manipulated the exo-skeleton, and this exo-skeleton subsequently operated my disabled left arm which then helped operate a puppet. I wore the exo-skeleton throughout “Pupa“, however it was concealed with a robe until scene eleven where it is revealed that I was puppeteering my arm with its aid. The hiding of the device and my disability was very important, as I wanted the reveal at the end to be that this was my story, if it had been on view there would have been no ‘coming out’.

A main question driving this research was if my right hand is the puppeteer, and my left hand the puppet – are they two entities or one? By originally viewing them as two – the manipulator and the manipulated – I had subscribed to an idea that I had hoped to rupture. This idea was of the derogatory conceptualisation of the weak puppet subjugated by the powerful puppeteer. In contrast, I view the puppeteer and puppet as one, rather than being comprised of two entities; one entity making real the thoughts and feelings of the other.

Generating change

In “Pupa“, by stating the participants’ and my own perspectives, I asked society to reveal their own perspective. We presented ourselves and asked the audience to view us and tell us what they thought. While I will never know the answer, I did ask the question, and questions are the first step in generating change.

We put our stories and bodies out there and took pride in our difference. We are the dancer who can’t hear, the dancer who can’t walk, the song writer who could sing before he could talk, the composer who can fly, but at times finds it hard to walk, the performer with brain damage who sees twice what you see. We are the puppeteers who can’t move a hand. We are all of this, but we are much more than this. We are the unexpected, we do the unexpected, and we create art which is unexpected.

Character-Conor: Come this way, roll up roll
up, for here we are other, supernatural.
We are the fallen or the about to fall,
the middle, the people in-between. The pupa
before we emerge, we are the changed, the
broken pieces. We are hiding in our bodies
or in full sight, punched in the mouth from
the inside.

This piece of script is a direct homage to the Ringmaster at a freak show, to the sales pitch made to bring in the crowd, and also to Shakespeare’s epilogues, where the character directly addresses the crowd to sum up the play. In the world of fairy tales and freak shows, where historically we are the fallen and twisted, we can reclaim the stereotypes of the past and rewrite our own stories.

1 I have adapted auto-ethnography by combining it with puppetry to coin new methodology ‘auto-ethnopuppetry’. - Fisher, E. “Performing the Fractured Puppet Self: Employing Auto-Ethnopuppetry to Portray and Challenge Cultural and Personal Constructions of the Disabled Body." PhD Thesis, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, 2018. pp. 220– 223 (some supporting sections were pulled from p. 1, p. 40, p. 42, p. 94, p. 112, p. 113). 
2 Fisher, E. (2017) Pupa [theatre performance], Belltable, Limerick, 23 March 2017.
3 Blake, A. (2015) Overnight Minority Report [theatre performance], Belltable, 19 May 2015.
4 Swain and Cameron cited by Samuels, p. 237. Samuels, E.J. (2003) “My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming- Out Discourse", GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 9(1), pp. 233–255.

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