Academy for Theatre and Digitality

Researching Violence


How can we tell about human abysses without reproducing or trivializing violence? This question is the starting point for an experiment with a handmade puppet and its digital face double.

How to depict violence in theatre?

Without reproducing violence?
Without aestheticizing it?
Without trivializing it?
Without inflicting violence on others while trying to find answers?

>>>>>>> Thoughts and insights from this search <<<<<<<

In the beginning of 2023 there is this vague vision for a setup which gives me the freedom to experiment with different aspects of the depiction of violence:

a human-sized puppet | its digital face-double | a green screen studio


Why work with a puppet?
I knew right from the start that I want to work with a puppet. Firstly, because I think that this is a logical approach to the question of how to depict violence in theatre without inflicting violence on others while trying to find answers. The puppet itself feels nothing. And since I am going to animate the puppet myself, I am autonomous - and bypass putting others in situations of violence.
But above all, I choose the puppet because I am obsessed with the effect it has on the viewer.



Although the puppet is obviously artificial (manufactured & dead), the subconscious draws a line from the viewer's body to the puppet's body and brings it to life.

The uncanniness inherent in the puppet is partly due to its resemblance to humans.

This process creates a kind of feedback: we are thrown back on ourselves when looking at the puppet - the sight of it destroys the illusion of the perfect, complete body.

>>> The act itself is already a violent one.

>>> The phenomenon of the puppet lies in the bodily consternation it triggers in us.


What is the puppet's digital face-double?

I am driven by the idea to combine two components - analog theater work and digital innovation - to create a character that serves as a test subject for me in an attempt to research violence.
I asked myself how I could enhance the strange liveliness of the puppet.
Then I had the idea: what if the puppet can speak for itself?
What if I 3D-scanned the puppet's face and then animated it, let it talk?

The original goal at the time was to merge these two components - and create a hybrid character.
An analogue puppet with a digital face - united in one body within a video work.

Why work in a green screen studio?
By working in the green screen studio, I can put the puppet into different local contexts which gives me a endless freedom.
I´m wearing a green morphsuit so I can erase myself from the material.
The puppet moves as if by itself.

In the end, I want to have a character which is half analog and half digital puppet. It moves and speaks by itself, acts in different "worlds" - which consist of videos, images, different sounds and noises that I collect.


insight/studio, Academy for Theatre and Digitality, Dortmund

What should the puppet I will be researching with look like?
Do I want to set a clear frame with its appearance? Prescribe interpretations?
What type of material do I want to use?
What must the puppet be able to do - how should it move?

//collaboration with puppeteer and puppet maker Emilien Truche
Since I've never built a human-sized puppet that can move like a human and be animated by just one person, I worked with a professional. Emilien was there to advise me (I had the ambition to really build the puppet myself). He was recommended to me by a friend who works at the Figurentheater-Kolleg Bochum.
His first questions were mainly about what postures the puppet should adopt and what expressions it should master. In order to be able to communicate more clearly with each other, I looked for sculptures, paintings, and photographs from the news and social media that tell a story of violence in their posture.

//studying Sicilian puppet theatre - opera dei pupi
Before I applied for the fellowship, I had planned a short trip to Sicily in October. To study and research Sicilian puppet theater there. It was important to me to first study a traditional form of puppet theater intensively in order to incorporate what I had learned into my work. What do I take away from what I have seen? What do I explicitly want to do differently? The Sicilian tradition is one that I can experience and explore in life - although of course it is by no means the oldest form of puppetry (as it developed in the first half of the 19th century). A major component of the Opera dei Pupi is the violence: swordfights, tournaments and battles with monsters, sorceresses and enemies.
This research trip was really insightful and inspiring for my work on „Researching Violence“ - and perfect for this point in the work process. I had the chance to dive deep into the portrayal of violence through (traditional) puppet animation and to get involved with puppet making and puppetry.

I had the opportunity to see several performances, paying particular attention to the study of the gestures and postures of violence.

Museo Internazionale delle marionette Antonio Pasqualino, Palermo, Sicily
Movement sequences from the book `Antonio Pasqualino, L´opera dei pupi´, 1977

In addition, I was lucky to visit various studios. I was able to talk to the puppet makers themselves, ask questions and even try out the puppets myself and study them up close.
For example, when a character strikes with his sword, the opponent can be split in half, fall apart or lose his head. In the puppet maker's (Italian: oprante) workshop I was able to study the mechanisms and construction of the puppets at close quarters.

Museo e Teatro dei Pupi Fratelli Napoli, Catania, Sicily
Museo e Teatro dei Pupi Fratelli Napoli, Catania, Sicily
Teatro Pupi Enzo Mancuso, Palermo, Sicily
Associazione Figli d’Arte Cuticchio, Palermo, Sicily

// building up my 'archive' (by collecting sounds, texts, interviews, images and video material of places)
From the very first day, I collected material for my archive for the experimental setup.
I was interested in building up a broad spectrum and I mainly used my iPhone for the documentation. Regardless of whether it was video recordings of
- places and spaces that are commonly associated with violence
or as a counterpart to it
- places and spaces that are commonly associated with peace
- I also tried to find 'neutral' places
- as well as places that I personally associate with violence and peace

examples of sound recordings I recorded:

- Munich Central Station during the Oktoberfest
- bee colony in Düsseldorf
- shopping mall in Dortmund city center
- eerie sounds at night on the way home
- cicadas by the wayside in Palermo - sounds of the sword fight of the dolls in Sicily

// 3D scanning of the puppets head

- I was lucky to be able to attend a Blender workshop (by Elisabeth Drache, 3D artist and a member of the duo The Ruhrgebieterinnen) at the Academy, which proved useful for the next steps in animating the 3D scan.



At the beginning of November I took part in a motion and face capture workshop as part of the DIVE FESTIVAL OF IMMERSIVE ARTS (In cooperation with the Figurentheater-Kolleg Bochum). Irina Shutova and Warja Rybakova (both working for DOCKdigital BERLIN) drew my attention to the plug-in Faceit from Blender after I told them what I was planning to do with my puppet. The workshop also gave me a better idea of what I need to pay attention to when animating the handmade puppet in the green screen studio.

//animating the puppet in the green screen studio

First impressions of the November-Session

3 days of intensive exchange, reviewing the video material, discussing.


a) the puppet itself feels nothing
b) the puppet is not able to play in comparison to the actor or actress
>>> Which means e.g. that when an actor dies on stage, they are only pretending. This can still touch us, but we know that they don't really die. The puppet dies the moment it dies. Right before our eyes.<<<
c) the puppet is familiar to every human being and therefore accessible (in the sense of not elitist)


//composition of the individual parts
With this first material of the human-animated puppet in the green screen in front of me, I began to go through my archive (with sounds, videos etc.) and experiment with putting the individual components together.

In order to be able to act as quickly and flexibly as possible, I worked with Final Cut. On the one hand, to be able to cut out the puppet with one click and, on the other, to be able to put my video and sound material together as simply as possible. At the same time I am working with Blender and the plug-in Faceit to animate the puppet´s face. Since I had hardly any Blender experience, I always used apps (with AI-based animation tools for faceplay and deep fake, like Tokking-Heads or Reface) in between to be able to check ideas quickly.

//basic idea and goal when compositing
The composition of the individual parts allows contrasts to be created between the puppet's expression, physical movements, spoken text, sound and setting.
How do expressions of horror that really reach us come about?
When does empathy arise, when does alienation?


We have access to so many images of atrocities that the individual images lose their impact. My working hypothesis is that both a puppet and a completely artificial person (avatar) have the power to sensitize us as viewers to the experience of visual and linguistic violence. The puppet and the avatar feel nothing; we create their suffering, pain and exhaustion solely through our imagination. This creates a direct connection between the viewer and the representation.


The days of trial and error made me rethink my approach completely.

I had the feeling that - with everything I tried - I was aestheticizing. And thus trivializingviolence.
>> You can't depict violence without reproducing it in some way. <<

I also couldn't get out of the vicious circle of thinking that everything is just my personal view. How do I get to the point where something becomes more universal? To become a little more detached from myself and my feelings?

And who am I to talk about this?
What position do I have within the "narrative of violence"?

These doubts made me take a fresh look at the material I had collected - and think again in a different direction.



new thoughts: The relationship between puppet and puppeteer is already a violent one in itself. There are clear power structures as to who controls whom.


Where does the relationship between puppet and puppeteer tilt?

Is the puppet capable of turning on me?

Or even capable of ´killing´ me?

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