If My Feet Have Lost the Ground
Suspend your disbelief and come along for the ride…
comment by: Anna Wallace
To be honest, I do not generally enjoy theater as I do other art forms. I think my severe stage fright prevents me from relaxing while watching others perform for fear that they will forget a line or trip, forcing me to feel intense embarrassment for them. Thankfully puppet shows are generally a different situation. No lines to forget and in the event one of the puppeteers trips, well, I am not supposed to be looking at them anyway.
I was able to completely let go during Torry Bend’s If My Feet Have Lost the Ground, and I sat transfixed for the entire duration. When out of the darkness of the theater emerged four lovely, young, female puppeteers all holding onto a portion of Grace’s body, assisting her in the rapid text message she was furiously sending, I was rendered breathless. This was something unlike anything I had ever seen. With the entire vision led by Torry Bend, the puppets built by Bend and Anna Nickles, sound by Jil Christensen, and video by Raquel Salvatella de Prada and Jon Haas, not to mention lighting, staging, and the puppeteers, so many elements came together to create an utterly fantastical storyworld.
I was lucky enough to be asked a few days before opening night to put my hot gluing and X Acto knife skills to use in helping finish up the last few puppets. Even though I was familiar with many of the puppets before seeing the performance, everything was a complete surprise. Having seen Grace, the heroine, throughout the week standing, sitting, and laying inert, I was taken aback seeing her movements articulated with such an exaggerated yet human quality. The puppet show was filled with some truly gorgeous moments: the psychedelic first sighting of Heart, Grace jumping over the fence in slow motion, the E.T. reference, the yarn rainstorm…I could go on forever. The combination of the physical puppets, video and still images, and sounds produced an experience so much more than puppetry.
By the end of the performance and in the days since, I have been mulling over ideas of reliable vs. unreliable narrators, narrative focalization, and suspended disbelief.
After Grace fails despite all of her most ardent attempts to return Heart to her rightful home, the plot gets rather foggy. Does Heart die? Is there a new Heart? Are Heart and Grace reunited in the afterlife? The truth is possibly none of these things, possibly all of these things. During this vague section of the puppet show I was strongly reminded of the last book I read: Vladimir Nabokov’s The Eye. This novella begins in the first person with the distraught and pathetic Smurov attempting suicide. After the attempt, narration switches to third person. A narrator continues to describe Smurov’s experiences of being treated in a hospital and eventually going about his business, making new acquaintances, failing at falling in love with a new woman, all the while maintaining the falsehood that Smurov is dead. The conclusion I drew from The Eye was that Smurov was unsuccessful in his attempt at suicide and began speaking of himself in the third person in a manner of detached, pre-existentialism. Furthermore, Smurov is a liar; he is an unreliable narrator and he cannot be trusted. As the reader, I had to navigate his lies in order to determine what I perceived to be the truth in the series of events.
I think the trouble of determining the truth is even more complex in the case of If My Feet Have Lost the Ground due to the multiple layers of focalization. In The Eye, these focalizing distinctions are fairly clear. By the end of the novel the reader is navigating narration focalized through potentially dead Smurov, previous living Smurov, Nabokov the author of The Eye, and Nabokov the person. The focalizations in If My Feet Have Lost the Ground are much more difficult for me to define. First there is Torry Bend, creator and director of the show, then there are Bend and Anna Nickels and all the other makers of the puppets, focalized through Bend’s vision. There are Jon Haas and Raquel Salvatella de Prada, responsible for the photography and videography, Jill Christensen, responsible for the sound, all focalized through Bend’s vision. I am sure there are others focalized through Bend’s direction responsible for the lighting, stage arrangement, etc. There are the puppeteers, certainly focalized through Bend’s direction and finally there are the puppets, which are focalized through their makers and their puppeteers, all of whom have been focalized through Bend’s direction. This means to me that Torry Bend’s original truth has been filtered through so many focalizers that determining reliability is near impossible. At each moment focalization and narration is changing based on what or whom the viewer is focusing on at that moment in the performance.
In the end, although the layers of focalization and discrepancies in narration could certainly lead to some reliability issues, I think more useful in this situation, and what I was grateful to be able to do while watching the performance, was simply to suspend disbelief. Children’s Literature often expects the reader to suspend disbelief. Some Children’s Literature uses dream sequences in order to present fantastical characters and situations, such as in Louis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (The same could not be said for the sequel, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, as that was the Red Kings’ dream and not Alice’s.) The Oz series is a perfect example of an author expecting his readers to suspend disbelief. While Judy Garland may fool you in the movie adaptation into believing that her journey was a dream, L. Frank Baum was very serious about the reality of Oz. Whether Dorothy arrived there through the aid of a tornado or by sailing there in a crate accompanied by a chicken named Billina, Dorothy goes to Oz, and Oz is very much real. Baum creates a storyworld full of impossibilities, and the reader believes in all of them.
In Torry’s storyworld her viewers completely believe that a human heart can indeed survive outside of the body, if only it is treated with love, wrapped in cozy sweaters, and given lots of gentle caresses. This works, in the case of Children’s Literature and in If My Feet Have Lost the Ground because their storyworlds are also full of humanity. Dorothy and Alice are real little girls with real emotions and eventual desires to return home. There is nothing more human than the love Grace has for Heart or the pain Heart feels when she finds her home destroyed. Readers and viewers understand these emotions, and so in turn they also believe the fantastical elements. I might not have known exactly what was happening, who was telling the story, what was truth and what was make-believe, but while watching If My Feet Have Lost the Ground, I was transported to a wonderful new place and I believed in it all.
The brilliant Anna Wallace is an accomplished artist and a Fine Arts graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art. She has also attended the Penland School of Crafts. Her work was recently exhibited at the Carrack. Her exhibit, “When I Lose my Grip” opens at the Green Gallery in the new Scrap Exchange on November 21st.