Long overshadowed by the achievements of Edison and Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla, the inventor of alternating current (that's AC to those who appreciate brevity), is finally getting the attention he apparently did not receive in his day. In The Lone Runner: The Mythical Life Journey of Nikola Tesla, Jane Catherine Shaw has conceived, directed, and designed an ingenious puppet piece that charts the inventor's journey as though he were a hero on a quest.
The audience is first introduced to the inventor at a 1917 awards ceremony where he is to receive the Edison Medal. A group of puppeteers rolls out a cart holding cutouts of audience members, a speaker, whose arms are made to move as he addresses the audience, and a Tesla cutout, which walks back and forth as the speaker makes his introductory remarks. As the speaker goes on and on about the accomplishments of not the honoree but his competitor, Edison, the initial Tesla figure is replaced by successively smaller ones until the scene is finished. Representing the isolation that Tesla apparently felt, The Lone Runner then offers an interpretive look at the inventor's entire life from childhood through death.
The piece, performed at New York City's La MaMa ETC in March, employed rod, shadow, and doll puppetry to take the audience on what Shaw describes as a "hero's journey." She states that she began to "see Tesla's life as an interesting template for a heroic struggle." The inventor was faced with securing funding for his projects, battled with other greats in his field for recognition, and suffered from various eccentricities, including bouts of "super sense sensitivity" (which he claimed caused him to hear the buzzing of the bee as though it were a thunderous sound).
First and foremost, however, among Tesla's eccentricities was his fondness for pigeons. It was a brief sentence, indeed the only sentence, about Tesla in a book on inventors that first intrigued Shaw. It went a little something like this: "Eccentric inventor who had a platonic love relationship with a pigeon." Shaw notes that within this strange interest in birds, "there were certainly a number of puppet show possibilities." Tesla did have an affinity for pigeons, feeding them, and when he could not, making sure friends did. Later in life, when he was alone and poor, Tesla became attached to one white pigeon in particular, which, for Shaw, became a beautiful white bird and symbolically, Tesla's muse.
The opening image of The Lone Runner was that of a woman's shadow behind two large fabric panels upstage, which acted as a screen for much of the piece. Through lighting, the shadow of the live performer's body grew larger or smaller, at different times focusing attention on specific body parts (a head, a hand). This moody effect was achieved through the use of one flashlight held by a puppeteer standing behind the figure.
When the woman later appeared onstage, she wore a flowing white gown with a shawl, which suggested a bird's wings. In addition to the performer appearing as the muse-like figure, Shaw designed a tiny rod puppet in the shape of a bird whose wings flapped up and down as it flew out of a bird cage. Later, a larger version of the bird flew (with the aid of puppeteers) out from behind the upstage curtains, and in the final scene, the upstage curtains themselves were rigged to become flapping wings.
This bird-muse character narrated Shaw's interpretive look at Tesla's life. Adding to the narrative were portions of Faust, Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and other writings of Campbell on myth and the hero's journey which are projected onto the upstage curtains.
For the figure of Tesla, Shaw designed a doll puppet dressed in a quasi-cutaway: black suit and tie and chiffon shirt. She chose to make Tesla a doll because, as she explains, "The most succinct manipulation possibilities come when the puppeteers are closer to the puppet. The more direct your manipulation is, the more beautiful the manipulation technique can be. Tesla could do basically anything: he could climb over the large Edison puppet; he could collapse, he could sit." Tesla could even, as he does when he makes his first appearance, do exercises (puppeteers manipulated the doll to do leg lifts, situps, and scissor-kicks). Often, three puppeteers manipulated the Tesla doll, using a rod to manipulate its head and directly moving the upper and lower portions of the body as needed.
The Tesla doll's head was hollow and covered with several layers of tissue paper. The inside layer was made of cloth and wood glue. To create its arms, legs,chest, and hip areas, Shaw carved out insulation foam and then covered the pieces with tissue paper. Joints were created with braided nylon string and then set inside the "bone."
In addition to rod and shadow puppetry, Shaw used rear-screen projection. To represent Tesla's strange experience of being overly sensitized when he was living in Budapest, Shaw created and displayed various shapes, ranging from a ticking clock with moving hands to a train moving across a window, on the back screen. During this period of heightened senses, Tesla also claimed he could detect the presence of faraway objects by feeling a strange sensation on his forehead. To convey this experience, Shaw projected an image of a face with worry lines on the forehead, making the lines appear and disappear by pulling thin pieces of paper in and out of the projector. Shaw cut the shape of a head out of file folders, but the process was not as simple as it sounds. Shaw explains, "The whole sequence took me two weeks to build. Every time you build one of those things, you have to experiment around with it. I cut out eye shapes and made a little mechanism so the eyeballs could move, and then I cut out the worry lines on top of it.Then I built a mechanism whereby the puppeteer could pull a string and lift up covers to each of those lines."
The puppet-packed piece included rod puppets of the young Tesla and his mother, the aforementioned large cutout of Edison's bust, average-size bird figures with the bodies of pigeons, and Tesla's head. Other puppetry included the effect of lightning flashing on the screen and a remarkable giant cat puppet made of clear plastic, which was kept inflated by a blower (the nozzle was the cat's tail).
Lighting design was by David Adams, with sound by resident designer Tim Schellenbaum.