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My Meeting with Kantor's Umbrella


Tadeusz Kantor A Very Short Lesson puppet theatre puppetry Institut International de la Marionnette Charleville-Mézières objects doo-cot Rachael Field Nenagh Watson Theatre of Death Frankenstein emballage informel assemblage Alfred Jarry Concertina for the Gods Conversation with an Umbrella Ephemeral Animation umbrellic space


Nenagh Watson is a practitioner of puppetry with an international reputation. She has recently worked as Creative Fellow at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London (2009–2014), on a practice-based research project: ‘The life and death of objects and puppets: immanence, intervention, presence and absence’. Watson’s research focuses on the threshold where the lifeless becomes animate; on memory within animation; on tradition within ideas of the ‘living’ and the ‘past’; on intimacy in engagement with puppets; and on archiving in relation to the ‘life’ of the object.

— Tadeusz Kantor[1]

This is a personal, reflective piece — expressed through fragments of thought, images, sound, and excerpts from working notes and correspondence — that traces Tadeusz Kantor’s use of the umbrella in his painting and writing, in order to consider Kantor’s sensibility to the object. I use the word ‘sensibility’ advisedly here: past cultural movements that grew up around the concept of sensibility traditionally placed great value on qualities such as ‘rare emotional capacity’, a ‘willingness and ability to respond to others’, and acute recognition and registering of personal and bodily connections.[2] For this reason, I consider it an excellent term to account for Kantor’s very particular and perceptive approach to working with objects.

In the concluding remarks of a symposium organized in 1996 by the Institute of Art History at the Jagiellonian University and the Tadeusz Kantor Foundation, former Cricot 2 actor Lech Stangret made the following comment, which serves as a useful advance warning: ‘The simple explanations — by means of some methodological transplants of new currents and trends in art into the theatre domain — lead us but to half-truths and false discoveries.’[3] What follows here, then, are my own half-truths and false discoveries, offered in good faith.


‘Then I saw a man carrying a table and I realized this was an emballage: a man covered up with the table. Something was transformed here, the object had a different function. That heavy object began to manipulate the man.’[4] Such Kantorian insights into the dynamics of humans and objects, which I encountered through my personal contact with the Polish director’s work, have revolutionized my own practice as a puppeteer. In particular, I have long been interested in the ways in which Kantor sought to shift agency back from the person to the object, and to negotiate a more equitable trajectory between them within the performance frame.


Detail from Kantor’s drawing ‘Człowiek ze stołem’ (Man with Table). Fragment cited from the full image reproduced in Tadeusz Kantor. Malarstwo i rzeźba, ed. by Zofia Gołubiew (Kraków: Muzeum Narodowe, 1991), p. 30.

My own initial training was in sculpture and theatre, in the early 1980s, on a combined studies degree at Crewe and Alsager College, Cheshire, which was at the forefront of promoting the ‘integration’ of the arts as a specific discipline in the UK. In 1984, my colleague David Mason and I took our graduation piece — Toe Nailed to the Floor, by David Drain — to the 11th International Puppet Festival in Bielsko-Biała, southwest of Kraków. Driving from the UK to southern Poland via East Germany, I witnessed firsthand the deprivation in much of the region at that time. People appeared from out of the woods, along the roadside, holding out their hands with jars of pickles or fur hats, which they sought to sell to the occupants of passing cars. One shop window displayed only three clothes zips, nothing else. I also recall fleeting encounters with the communist authorities; in one instance, when we were lost and had strayed close to the border, a young soldier took aim at our van with his rifle. These faded and evocative memories of place were (and still are) ‘hooks’ through which I framed my personal encounter with Kantor’s extraordinary work. I had seen his production of The Dead Class at Riverside Studios in 1980 but had not yet travelled to the Institut International de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières, where I would be privy to Kantor’s working process as a member of the ensemble for his performance A Very Short Lesson, in 1988.

The contemporary puppetry environment I entered in the 1980s diverged markedly from that in Poland. At the Soviet-British UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionnette) conference held in Glasgow in 1989, I listened to the Russian art historian Inna Solomonik (1932–2009) argue that puppet theatre was a ‘plastic’ theatre, a visual art form; that it is ‘first and foremost an artist’s theatre’, the ‘most complicated kind of theatre’, and that it demands ‘specially trained audiences for its full appreciation’.[5] With state support, puppetry in Central and Eastern Europe had developed significantly in the direction she outlined, and had drawn the attention of many noted theatre directors and actors. Puppetry was becoming ‘theatre with puppets’, rather than the niche genre of ‘puppet theatre’. Solomonik consciously provoked debate: in 1989, her words appeared alien to the Scottish/British puppeteers whose work was mainly underfunded, and usually made by two-person companies focusing on performances for children. It was very rare in the UK at that time to see puppet work made for an adult audience.

Recently, I rediscovered a document entitled ‘Statement on my work in Puppet Theatre’, which I wrote in 1988. I feel privileged to be able to say, nearly three decades later, that it could have been written yesterday, such has been my continuity of focus, as set out in this short excerpt:

I am a puppeteer, in that I create the illusion of life in an inanimate form/figure. My work is a continual search and experimentation into the fundamental power which is embedded in the puppet figure. My latest work included a contemporary musical composition and scenography assistance from a painter […].[6]

This last sentence is a reference to the tentative collaborations I had just begun with the painter Rachael Field. My love letters to her then are my bridge back to my time working with Kantor. These letters later contributed to Rachael’s own idiosyncratic presentation, ‘The Rage of the Painter’, at the Theatre of Tadeusz Kantor Symposium in 1999;[7] and in 1990, Rachael and I also took a small performance, Discarded Memories, to the Bielsko-Biała festival — a trip that inspired our company doo-cot’s first major touring show, Cages — the illusion of freedom just out of reach.[8] Perspectives and impressions drawn from Kantor and his wider working context were thus an essential part of my formative and ongoing experience.

Masterclass with Kantor, 1988

From 16 August to 10 September 1988, I took part in ‘An Encounter with Household Objects’, a masterclass with Tadeusz Kantor for actors, puppeteers, musicians, and a dancer, in Charleville-Mézières (the birthplace of the ‘poet of despair’, Arthur Rimbaud).


Tadeusz Kantor at Charleville-Mézières (1988). Photograph: Patrick Argirakis.

This was the first (and last) time since the founding of Cricot 2 that Kantor made performance work without his regular collaborators. He was alone and apparently had asked to be moved from his single-occupancy room in a luxurious apartment to a hotel so that he could be around people. He was conscious of his failing health, and rumours were circulating that he had a great fear of dying alone. This made our work with him even more resonant and full of urgency. I spoke neither French nor Polish, so my ‘conversations’ with Kantor happened through the working processes on stage. These conversations were beyond language. The piece we were to work towards was titled A Very Short Lesson (my notes from that time show it was originally going to be called One Plus One Equals Zero), for which Kantor gave me the role of The Censor.


The certificate of completion I received from the Institut international de la marionnette, Charleville-Mézières, which incorporated Kantor’s drawing of me as The Censor (1988).

Letter, 25 August 1988:
I presented myself on stage today. Kantor didn’t want me to [hold] a bomb so I pulled a pram around — a kid’s one without wheels — thinking ‘the baby is dead’. Everyone dashes around on stage trying to be dramatic. Fuck that, I thought to myself; when in doubt, stand still/slowness/concentration. So that’s what I did — stood very still, looking at the pram and occasionally passing the odd look of disgust at the others. Well, Kantor said he wanted me to play The Censor. He liked the way I was still, watching and thinking. Apparently every week for three years the [communist] police [in Kantor’s home city of Kraków] would come, have a coffee and ask Kantor why he didn’t paint pictures of Stalin. He would say he wasn’t a portrait painter. Then they would say ‘What’s that painting?’ and he would say it was an abstract. ‘Why do you do abstract work, what’s it about?’. Kantor would reply ‘It’s about my life’. The same question was asked over and over and over again…
Letter, 26 August 1988:
I just had to improvise The Censor today… I have to shout things out like ‘What do you mean by that?’ [and] ‘We don’t need these Western poetry refinements’. I say it in English and the ‘Author’ answers in French. Neither of us knows what the other is saying. I say what the Polish censors said to Kantor… Then, as I was leaving, Kantor caught my arm and said ‘Marvellous’.
Letter, 29 August 1988:
I had some new lines today and Kantor came up and said ‘Very good. Very good.’ So I’m obviously doing what he wants. I’m sure it is because I approach performance from the point of view of ‘manipulator’ rather than ‘actor’.

This last conclusion is significant, as I found myself mainly in the company of actors, with few puppeteers among the group. I’ve never thought of myself as an actor; rather, as a performer. It’s difficult to articulate, but when we worked with Kantor, we didn’t ‘rehearse’, we ‘presented’. We were present in the moment of creating. Kantor would really look, I mean really see with his whole focus and concentration; he drew out of us what he saw. Some actors found this process hard and felt we were Kantor’s puppets, but I loved discovering a character from the inside out.


Tadeusz Kantor at Charleville-Mézières (1988). Photograph: Nenagh Watson.

The critic Wiesław Borowski, who witnessed various rehearsals led by Kantor, articulates this active, ‘ready’ engagement with the raw material for the performances. Referencing The Water Hen and The Dead Class in particular — but also hinting at other productions by Kantor and Cricot 2 — he recalls that the rehearsal processes themselves generated a specific kind of atmosphere. Borowski asks: ‘Were they just rehearsals in a conventional theatrical sense? Whoever took part in those rehearsals […] as their first viewer and witness […] does not have the slightest doubt these were at the same time rehearsals and ready creations, often unrepeatable in their form and expression, [that they] were always closer to the life condition, they would generate the original ideas…’[9]

Work on A Very Short Lesson, Charleville-Mézières (1988). Photograph: Nenagh Watson.

Work on A Very Short Lesson, Charleville-Mézières (1988). Photograph: Nenagh Watson.

Letter, 23 August 1988:
I would have liked far more on the use of objects — this is extremely actor-based. I am learning a lot; we are working on Kantor’s piece, so you learn what he wants to give rather than our work demanding an input from him — if you follow me?

My fellow participant, French actor Marie Vayssière (Kantor is ‘fascinated’ by her and will later ask her to join Cricot 2), quoting from her daily journal of the masterclass, states: ‘As it was, we had to know how to tense the air with our gestures, mark out vertical, oblique, horizontal lines of force with our arms and legs. Our bodies were values, intensities and masses, giving rhythm to space through their presence and absence.’[10] I like Marie’s ‘sculptural’ use of language here, which for me recalls art historian Jaromir Jedliński’s comments on Kantor’s drawings ‘creating the multiplicity of space operating with the multiplicity of directions, planes, perspectives, the faith in […] transformation, or even manipulation […] shrinking and expanding. The folding up and unfolding of space.’[11] I would also connect this quality to Kantor’s concept of ‘umbrellic space’, which he developed in the 1940s; in particular, the sensibility such a space demands of the actor, as it transforms us all into objects (puppets) within the stage frame. Kantor writes:

There were  b o n e  s t r u c t u r e s  in the umbrellic space, similar to the metal skeletons of umbrellas: sharp rib-like shapes, a tangled structure of tibiae and bones that would scatter endlessly in that landscape, at different tensions, they would gather in complex systems resembling the human figure, creating some  e n e r g y  directions within it rather than some delimited area. They were movements without any anatomical function, which would reach at something, pierce something through. I called them  m e t a - m o v e m e n t s.[12]
Above, left to right: details cited from Kantor’s ‘Umbrellic space’ (drawing, 1947) and from his ‘Umbrellic space’ [second version] (drawing, 1952). The second version contains part of the ‘explosive’ skeleton of the umbrella and scratchy figures full of energy and mischief, reminiscent of Paul Klee’s work and exuding a puppetesque sensibility. The full images are reprinted in Tadeusz Kantor. Rysunki z lat 1947–1990, ed. by Grzegorz Musiał (Łódź: Galeria 86, 1997) (n.p.).

Above, left to right: details cited from Kantor’s ‘Umbrellic space’ (drawing, 1947) and from his ‘Umbrellic space’ [second version] (drawing, 1952). The second version contains part of the ‘explosive’ skeleton of the umbrella and scratchy figures full of energy and mischief, reminiscent of Paul Klee’s work and exuding a puppetesque sensibility. The full images are reprinted in Tadeusz Kantor. Rysunki z lat 1947–1990, ed. by Grzegorz Musiał (Łódź: Galeria 86, 1997) (n.p.).

A detail from my favourite depiction of the dynamics of the umbrella skeleton, cited from Kantor’s ‘Dell’ombrello’ (1947). The full image is reprinted in Le opera di Tadeusz Kantor (Milan: Centro di Ricerca per il Teatro, 1979), p. 14.

A detail from my favourite depiction of the dynamics of the umbrella skeleton, cited from Kantor’s ‘Dell’ombrello’ (1947). The full image is reprinted in Le opera di Tadeusz Kantor (Milan: Centro di Ricerca per il Teatro, 1979), p. 14.

As Kantor stated regarding his fascination with the qualities of this object: ‘an umbrella had been my fetish. I was collecting umbrellas; I was obsessed by umbrellas’;[13] an umbrella ‘opened’ and ‘closed’ space.’[14] Kantor’s interest in umbrellas as spatial and visual cues reminded me of a comment from the Constructivist Theo van Doesburg (writing under the pseudonym I. K. Bonset), which I noted down following a talk by Kantor on the ‘Construction of Space’, during our final two days of work. Kantor had explained that within A Very Short Lesson, the ‘EMOTION’ was to be placed in the centre and ‘pulled’; at times it might even break. The affective dynamic changes as the space changes: as it stretches out from the character of The Poet, it becomes fragile and extended; it is shaped by the movement of furniture and actors — everything is closely integrated. Negotiating this interdependence can be likened to a phenomenon described in van Doesburg’s writing on urban space:

A city is a horizontal tension and a vertical tension. Nothing else. Its image is two straight wires connected with each other. Each individual tries by means of legs, train, tram, or explosions (the mode of transport of the future) to find the common centre of these two tensions.[15]

From my working notes:

The threshold of the door (outside/inside) — go through — crossing the threshold. The hallway with doors off — the window (you can see through it and also be seen) — the hearth/fireplace = inner/spiritual.
‘It’s my poor room of my imagination — the man who sits on the chair (The Poet) is rather like me.’ Kantor identified with the Poet in our piece. The two other individuals, Author and Censor, are intruders.

Objects not only served as inspiration for the space, they were also at the core of the performers’ work in other ways. As Vayssière comments, ‘In a certain way, the object was performing, annoying us in our actions and so we were in the service of that strange alliance we hadn’t really wished for’; as Kantor himself put it, ‘The object was becoming a fully-fledged partner.’[16] The equality of object and actor is explicit in his reflection. It is expressed through the language of visual art, of sculpture. I developed an enduring interest in the place of the object, the quality of connection to and subsequent language of the object.

The placing of the chair is the action — rather than we need a chair to sit on.

Ten years after I worked with Kantor, my company doo-cot created Frankenstein: The Final Blasphemy (1999–2000). Performance scholar Geraldine Harris observes that ‘within Blasphemy the different order systems (performers, puppets, objects, live rat, technology and audience) were manipulated to foreground interconnection, interdependence and interactivity and produce a confusion of boundaries.’[17] As part of the research for Frankenstein, Rachael Field and I had witnessed several post-mortems. Confronting the shock of what was before me, as bodies were cut up, hollowed out, and re-sewn, as if being made into ‘puppets’, I felt I grasped Kantor’s Theatre of Death. Commenting on how various figures (and order systems) had emerged in his work, Kantor wrote:

The figures have multiplied,
the whole parade of figures:
Wanderers and their luggage […]
Children imprisoned in their school desks […]
People and their objects,
their lovers,
Rejects, hanged-men, hangmen, prostitutes, the whole cortege of my Saint Francois Villon,
Soldiers marching to the front,
my family, my mother, my father, my cousins….
Sometimes, when I was angry, I assumed the function of a hanging judge. I crucified them, bound them, replaced their real arms with wooden arms, contorted their faces, rolled them like dumplings, drained them of thoughts and emotions.
I revenged myself.
It was my indictment, too.[18]

Harris writes further that for Brunella Eruli — an Italian theatre scholar who had been following Kantor’s work for a decade, and who was a constant presence during the masterclass at the Institut — Kantor’s work was always informed by the experience ‘of the concentration camps and the loss of trust in human reason’, and ‘erases the hierarchies between man and objects, and destroys the privileged status accorded to the idea of humanity’.[19] The experience of devastation during the Second World War prompted a reappraisal across the full spectrum of artistic practices, and it was clear Kantor had taken opportunities where he could to engage, for example, with developments in Modernist art beyond the borders of communist Poland.

When visiting Paris in 1955, Kantor had encountered Jackson Pollock’s art informel.[20] On his return to Poland, Kantor began to use whips, a revolving drum, or a stone thrown into a container of paint to encourage ‘chance’, random, ‘informel painting’. In his subsequent Informel Theatre phase, Kantor experimented with placing the actor within the ‘ludicrously tiny space of the wardrobe’s interior [which] easily deprived the actor of his dignity […], turned him into matter, almost a piece of clothing’.[21] In this process, ‘the ideal becomes the tendency to have, for example, the form of a costume be shaped by ITSELF; by wearing, wearing out, destruction. The remnants of objects, relics, “what has remained of them”, will thus have a chance to become the form!’[22]

Letter, 18 August 1988:
Kantor was talking about how important the toilet is — as a place of solitude-escape when you are a child [and so on]. He also mentioned wardrobes — how they have memories/feelings for us.
After the war — [after] so much death — [this period] gave a new insight, and as a result Kantor rejected abstraction for something else — [something] more ‘real’. He refused to work with illusion but began to work with ‘reality’. His work was not experiment but necessity. Art and life were one. Kantor stated that his work is about death and suicide, [that his] generation knows about death!

Kantor wrote the following text for a manifesto he gave to us in French during the masterclass; it was translated collectively into English by fellow students:

I realize there is a simultaneous existence of the illusion. As an adversary. Reality was my discovery during the wartime in the year 1944.
Not to imitate
Not to reproduce reality
(By creating illusion)
But to use the reality
By artistic creation
To act with its help.

In 1947, Kantor had received a scholarship that allowed him to visit Paris for the first time. There, he encountered the work of Joan Miró, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, and others. I can well remember his excitement when he recalled to us his encounter with ‘collage’ and with the work of Kurt Schwitters. He loved the tearing, the opening out of the image, the ‘explosion’ of images, and the pasted reconfiguration. Kantor made a direct link with the techniques and materials of collage in discussing how he himself composed scenes for performance.

Fragmented pieces of photograph, illustration/combination = collage. Animation of collage = theatre.

I remember Kantor looking attentively at items of clothing that he had bought from flea markets in Paris, poring over these items he had laid out on the studio floor and ordering arms to be cut from one piece or pockets to be transferred to another. Every scrap of the clothing was raw material to be cut and pasted back together in order to achieve his vision for the costumes.


Clothes on the floor at Charleville-Mézières (1988). Photograph: Nenagh Watson.

Letter, 17 August 1988:
[Kantor] doesn’t like costume as decoration and only really uses black and white — so that the emotion/evocation comes from the actor’s face and hands not the colour of the costume.
Clothes as collage — not in a decorative way but as anti-style. The ‘Author’ was dressed, a large black smock was found. Kantor wanted him to have a hat — I offered my beret. It was like witnessing a construction rather than an elaboration. Kantor sketched ideas for the character costumes but even in these the Character was the strongest image in the drawings — not the costume. These were not costume designs, rather drawings of the Characters. The costumes should not take over the actor — they were as important as the actor. When we worked on the piece we were always ‘in costume’.

I found there to be an unmistakeable resonance between Kantor’s distinctive use of costume and that of Alfred Jarry, who also pioneered the mixing of mannequins with live actors in the theatre. Jarry, too, preferred ‘costumes as little related to local colour or historical time as possible (giving a better impression of something eternal) […] and sordid, because the play will appear all the more wretched and horrific.’[23] Jarry was among the first theatre artists to explore the crossover between animate and inanimate, when he adapted a ‘violent puppet play to the full-size stage’ in his 1896 production of Ubu Roi, and conceived of items that in many ways prefigured Kantor’s emballages and autonomous objects, such as a canopy with moving pillars (described in a fantastical but controversial letter from Pa Ubu to Monsieur POSSIBLE).[24]

Kantor wrote of the ‘liberation’ of incorporating everyday objects into his artistic work in his short text ‘An Umbrella’ (1964):

The first umbrella ever fastened to the canvas.
The very choice of the object was, for me, a momentous discovery; the very decision of using such a utilitarian object and of substituting it for the sacred object of artistic practices was, for me, a day of liberation through blasphemy. It was more liberating than the day when the first newspaper, the first piece of string, or the first box was glued to a canvas.[25]

The Umbrella — this degraded object unable to fulfil its original and real function — regains its use in the world of art.

Left to right: details cited from Kantor’s cycle ‘Everything Hangs by a Thread’ (assemblages, 1973) and his Emballages (1967). The umbrella is attached to the canvas and a skin of paint is applied, restricting its potential for movement and embalming it to the painting like a butterfly pinned in a collector’s drawer. Reproductions of the full works can be viewed at the Cricoteka Archives.

Left to right: details cited from Kantor’s cycle ‘Everything Hangs by a Thread’ (assemblages, 1973) and his Emballages (1967). The umbrella is attached to the canvas and a skin of paint is applied, restricting its potential for movement and embalming it to the painting like a butterfly pinned in a collector’s drawer. Reproductions of the full works can be viewed at the Cricoteka Archives.

Fragment cited from Kantor‘s ‘Ombrello, oggetti e personaggi‘ (1970).The movement and velocity is within the tumbling figure – the body escaping the clothes – the umbrella again pinned down to the canvas – although the position suggests the umbrella too has fallen downwards.

Fragment cited from Kantor‘s ‘Ombrello, oggetti e personaggi‘ (1970).
The movement and velocity is within the tumbling figure – the body escaping the clothes – the umbrella again pinned down to the canvas – although the position suggests the umbrella too has fallen downwards.

Although Kantor’s masterclass was hosted at a puppetry institute, perhaps surprisingly, he used no puppets in the piece. His presence there was to the credit of then-director Margareta Niculescu, who promoted a wide definition of puppetry and welcomed the unconventional. I remember witnessing an exchange during the sessions, between Kantor and a professional puppeteer who was showing him his portfolio; Kantor was not impressed by the puppets’ overworked exterior, and declared that since ‘decoration’ dominated the object, its internal reality had been subjugated. For his part, Kantor preferred to focus on what he perceived to be the inner workings and mechanisms of an object.

Letter, 17 August 1988:
[Kantor] saw this guy’s photographs today — he makes horrid, muppety-type puppets. Kantor said he didn’t like them and that the guy should work with a painter.

Kantor’s claim during the Second World War that ‘Today’s theatre is artificial, in its form, and unacceptable, in its pretence’ anticipated the crisis that would occur later in contemporary commercial puppet theatre.[26] His stance on the ‘reality’ of the puppets approaches the raw vision of the Bread and Puppet Theater’s Peter Schumann, who states: ‘Puppets are not made to order or script. What’s in them is hidden in their faces and becomes clear only through their functioning.’[27] The relevance of the mode of functioning is also shrewdly observed by the writer Dennis Silk, who comments, ‘This flag over the shrine waits. Waits for a lucky wind to give it life. Unfolds and flaps in the wind… First, stiff, folded back on itself, then declaring itself for movement. But the flag is performed rather than a performer.’[28]

This perspective exposes the ‘functionality’ of the object, the utilitarian nature of its origins — and its tumble to what Kantor called the ‘lowest rank’. My fellow participant Rosa Sánchez, from Catalonia, asked Kantor how his approach to the object and ready reality differed to that of Marcel Duchamp. Vayssière recorded Kantor’s answer, as noted in her daily journal, as follows:

That’s a very good question… For Marcel Duchamp, it’s about the object, which is deprived of all aesthetic or anti-aesthetic. For me, there was the war, misery, poverty, degraded reality of the lowest order. So, I decided to use very poor objects. The state of poverty was for me the state in which the object appeared very clearly, a used object starting to lose its daily usefulness. So, the object ends up showing its true value: at the threshold of the dustbin [and] Eternity.[29]

The Functionality of the Object

I embarked on a research project in 2010, which resulted in a production in collaboration with Jemima Yong and Isabel Lyster, called Concertina for the Gods. The piece used Silk’s writing as a starting point. In this performance, I tied a helium-filled balloon to a yoyo. Once placed on the floor, the yoyo released its string as the balloon travelled upwards: a beautiful moment of animation. The yoyo and the balloon each enabled the other; the function of one object collaborated with the function of its partner. In another section, we used our hands to keep a ball buoyant in the air. This buoyancy is still a function of the ball itself; likewise, when the ball drops and rests on the floor, this capacity to rest belongs to the ball. When presented to an audience, we can convey these functions of the ball without transgressing into ‘performed’ framing. What of this notion of performed rather than performer? Is the ball performed? What do we lose or gain when we force it to be ‘performer’?

These experiments have helped me revisit and negotiate, as a puppeteer, my relationship with the object. An ordinary object left on stage is very different from a puppet left onstage. A puppet is what it is — we want to see it ‘function’, to be given life — whereas an object has its functionality but also the potential for transgression. Where the functionality of the object is more fixed or less versatile — such as with an umbrella — its situation becomes more problematic. How do we give the umbrella its autonomy? I’m reminded again of Silk, who wrote: ‘The umbrella teases. It opens. Then folds back on itself. Really, it’s two umbrellas. Yet it’s one.’[30]

[AUDIO CLIP 1: Tension Umbrella. Recording made by Kaffe Matthews.]


Umbrella floating. Photograph: Jemima Yong.

I have always been fascinated by the umbrella: the trespasser between the world of function and uselessness. Michal Kobialka writes after Kantor’s ‘Emballage Manifesto’ that ‘When there is no rain, an umbrella is a useless, “pitiful sign of | its past glory | and importance”’.[31] But when an umbrella is open, it is at its prime of functionality, it performs its task. It is an object that is handled to function. It has to be opened; this functionality of opening is itself a momentary ‘performance’ — the flurry of material and the Kantorian ‘explosion like fireworks’ as the skeleton erupts into life. The umbrella, so vulnerable to the elements; it’s possible we have all experienced one being blown inside out by a gust of wind, or observed a broken, contorted, abandoned umbrella lying on the pavement, the wind attempting to resuscitate it…


Umbrella debris from Conversation with an Umbrella. Photograph: Jemima Yong.

Conversation with an Umbrella (2010), worked with the umbrella’s autonomy in relation to the presence of the human. The work was conceptualised within my research frame of Ephemeral Animation.[32] It was inspired by Joseph Beuys’s happening I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), in which Beuys spent eight hours a day for three days in a cage with a wild coyote. I spent eight hours a day for three days in a room with a large quantity of ‘discarded’ black umbrellas.

The umbrellas had distinctive presence, simply as they were, in the space. At one point I took a break, leaving the room as it was at the end of that session. When later I returned to this debris, the intensity of the randomly resting umbrellas held a certain beauty and encouraged me to see that my presence within the frame was obsolete. Drawing from this insight, when I later presented the work publicly, at the point where the resting umbrellas littered the floor, I left the stage and sat with the audience. Kaffe Matthews played the pre-recorded sound of a storm. The recording was so animated and alive. The audience, accustomed to theatre and unaccustomed to being presented with ‘nothing’ on stage, were challenged and some became uncomfortable. This act of looking at the debris lasted twelve minutes. I then returned to the stage and simply held the skin of an umbrella over my hand so that my finger was inside holding its point; I gently raised my arm, then lowered it. The skin filled with air, forming its previous shape without structure. I then allowed it to take flight and fall to the ground, its skin giving in to the inertia of its floating and landing. During the process, Kaffe recorded the ‘ephemeral’ sounds of the umbrellas. These sounds became ‘objects’ with a living presence.

[AUDIO CLIP 2: Recording made by Kaffe Matthews of an umbrella rapidly opening and closing.]


Nenagh Watson in Conversation with an Umbrella. Photograph: Jemima Yong.

More recently still, I bought a parasol that had been made in India. Its unusual frame (or skeleton), which differed substantially from conventional designs, moved me to revisit my appreciation of Kantor’s ‘umbrellic space’. Inside this umbrella, there is a wire construction resembling a flower. The opening therefore generates a blossoming of space, a welling out rather than a thrusting forth. It does not ‘explode like fireworks’. How does this alter the dynamic of umbrellic space? The structure of the umbrella dictates how an artist can relate to it. This is a sculptural dialogue and one to be continued; however, through the process of Concertina and Conversations, I’ve become particularly aware of the ways of altering the relationship with the audience. I feel frustrated by the expectation of theatre audiences for there to be a narrative dramaturgy. I find the unfolding relationship between the ball and the umbrella — the dynamic of these two objects in space — so intensely beautiful to observe. For me, it is enough. This is puppet theatre — that ‘most complicated form of theatre’ — held within a frame of awesome simplicity. Kantor opened up this simplicity for me — his poor reality, the essence, the immanence, his ‘Theatre of Death’, so full of life.

I give the last thought to Kantor: ‘The body will become a mere bag of dirt, but thought — no. Thought cannot be killed… But ideas resurrect. This is my only hope: thought will resurrect. Always.’[33]


  1. ^ Tadeusz Kantor, ‘My Work — My Journey (1988)’, trans. by Michal Kobialka, in Kobialka, Further On, Nothing: Tadeusz Kantor’s Theatre (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), pp. 1–25 (p. 21).
  2. ^ See Patricia Meyer Spacks, ‘The poetry of sensibility’, in The Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth Century Poetry, ed. by John Sitter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 249–69 (p. 249).
  3. ^ Lech Stangret, ‘In the Shadow of the Chair. Tadeusz Kantor’s Painting and Art of the Object’, in Tadeusz Kantor. Rysunki z lat 1947–1990, ed. by Grzegorz Musiał (Łódź: Galeria 86, 1997), n.p. (translation modified).
  4. ^ See Jaromir Jedliński, ‘The Secret Matter’, in Rysunki z lat 1947–1990, n.p. (translation modified).
  5. ^ Inna Solomonik, ‘Reasons for the Present-Day Situation in Soviet Puppet Theatre’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 1.1 (1992), 83–84.
  6. ^ Nenagh Watson, ‘Statement on my work in Puppet Theatre’ (unpublished manuscript, 1988), n.p.
  7. ^ The symposium was organized by CONCEPTS in collaboration with Cricoteka, and was held in Kraków from 2 to 4 July 1999.
  8. ^ I was co-artistic director of doo-cot with Rachael Field from 1990 to 2007. For more on this, see <>.
  9. ^ Wiesław Borowski, ‘The Position of Drawing’, in Kantor: Rysunki z lat 1947–1990, n.p.
  10. ^ Marie Vayssière, ‘Tadeusz Kantor à Charleville-Mézières: Témoignage’, in Passeurs et complices/Passing It On, ed. by Lucile Bodson, Margareta Niculescu, and Patrick Pezin (Charleville-Mézières and Montpellier: Institut International de la Marionnette and L’Entretemps, 2009), pp. 118–149 (p. 132).
  11. ^ Jedliński, ‘The Secret Matter’, n.p.
  12. ^ Ibid. (translation modified).
  13. ^ Kantor, ‘An Umbrella’ (1964), in Kantor, A Journey Through Other Spaces: Essays and Manifestos, 1944–1990, ed. and trans. by Michal Kobialka (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 81–82 (p. 82).
  14. ^ See Kobialka, Further On, Nothing, p. 51.
  15. ^ A new translation of this passage has since been published: ‘A city is a tension in depth and a tension in height. Nothing more. Two straight wire connections form the city. Each individual attempts to find a common mid-point through these two tensions either on foot, by train, by tram or explosions (the transport of the future).’ See I. K. Bonset, ‘Tot een Constructieve Dichtkunst’, Mécano, 4/5 (1923), n.p.; trans. by Michael White and cited in White, De Stijl and Dutch Modernism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), p. 60.
  16. ^ Marie Vayssière, personal journal, n.p.
  17. ^ Geraldine Harris, ‘Turing Test: doo-cot Theatre Company’s Frankenstein: The Final Blasphemy and the “limits of the (post)human”’, in Performing Nature: Explorations in Ecology & the Arts, ed. by Gabriella Giannachi and Nigel Stewart (Oxford and New York: Peter Lang, 2005), pp. 133–46 (p. 140).
  18. ^ Kantor, ‘My Work — My Journey’, p. 24.
  19. ^ Harris, ‘Turing Test’, p. 142.
  20. ^ The concept of the informel resonates with my concept of Ephemeral Animation, whereby debris is moved by means of a natural source, such as when a plastic bag blows and dances in the wind.
  21. ^ Kantor, ‘The “i” Theatre’, trans. by Kobialka, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 160–73 (p. 160).
  22. ^ Kantor, ‘The Informel Theatre (1961)’, in A Journey Through Other Spaces, pp. 50–53 (p. 53).
  23. ^ See Alfred Jarry, Oeuvres complètes, ed. by Michel Arrivé and others, 3 vols (Paris: Gallimard, 1972–1988), I, p. 1043. Translated and cited in Jill Fell, Alfred Jarry (London: Reaktion Books, 2010), pp. 79–80.
  24. ^ Ibid., p. 81.
  25. ^ Kantor, ‘An Umbrella’, pp. 81–82.
  26. ^ Kantor, ‘Independent Theatre: Theoretical Essays (1942–1944)’, trans. by Kobialka, in Further On, Nothing…, pp. 95–105 (p. 95).
  27. ^ Peter Schumann, ‘The Radicality of the Puppet Theatre’, TDR: The Drama Review, 35.4 (1991), 75–83 (p. 79).
  28. ^ Dennis Silk, ‘The Marionette Theatre’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 10.1 (1999), 73-83 (p. 74).
  29. ^ Marie Vayssière, personal journal, p. 122.
  30. ^ Silk, ‘The Marionette Theatre’, p. 73.
  31. ^ Kobialka, Further On, Nothing..., p. 73. Cited fragment from Kantor’s ‘The Emballage Manifesto (1957)’, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 154–58.
  32. ^ This work was part of my Creative Research Fellowship funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and hosted by the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (May 2009 to May 2014). See <>.
  33. ^ See Remo Bino’s interview with Kantor, ‘Resurrection at the Close of the Century Original’ (1 May 1988), Cricot 2 Information Guide 1987–1988, ed. by Anna Halczak (Kraków: Cricoteka, 1989).