Meet Basil Twist, the 'Genius' Puppet Master Bringing the Inanimate to Life

The MacArthur grant recipient might be the most fascinating puppeteer in the world.

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Nov 3 2015, 6:00pm

Photo by Steven Menendez

Basil Twist is busy. Over the course of our hour-plus interview, his phone buzzes and rings more than a dozen times. People are constantly hovering just outside our conversation, hoping to catch his attention for a quick nonverbal consultation: Later, he waves them away; yes, he nods. It's preview week for his new show, Sisters' Follies, a piece commissioned for the centennial of the Abrons Arts Center's Henry Street Playhouse in New York, and everything—from the music to the human marionettes—needs his attention.

Oh, and there's the small matter of the MacArthur "genius" Fellowship that Twist recently won. He was actually standing on this very stage when he got the call telling him that he'd been awarded $625,000 over the next five years, which he can spend on whatever the hell he wants. Previous winners have ranged from author Cormac McCarthy to biophysicist Xiaowei Zhuang. The fellowship is not awarded according to discipline, nor on the basis of an impressive resume (though every winner has one of those), but as "an investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential."

"I'm still processing that," Twist told me, his expressive face going momentarily slack when I asked what it felt like to be named a Fellow. Then he snapped back to attention and waved his arms in big circles, encompassing the stage. "I'm so entrenched in this."

And this is quite the production. Sisters' Follies stars downtown divas Joey Arias and Julie Atlas Muz as the ghosts of the Lewisohn sisters, the early 20th-century philanthropists who funded and directed the Playhouse in the first decades of its existence. It also stars a literally uncountable number of puppets.

'Sisters' Follies.' Photo by Richard Termine/courtesy of the Abrons Art Center

"I have a really broad definition of what a puppet is, so to me this whole theater is like a big instrument that we're animating," Twist said. He pointed out a handful of the things that would come to life under his direction and the skilled hands of his puppeteers: a boat, a camel, a mallet, a ghost. "I mean, I treat my performers as puppets too," he laughed, showing me the rigging he had built so that Arias and Muz could fly across the stage as a pair of bickering specters.

"I hate using the word 'puppeteer' with Basil," said Jay Wegman, the director of the Abrons Arts Center, who commissioned Twist to do the piece. "He manipulates the entire stage picture. He brings inanimate things to life."

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Like science fiction, puppetry is an art form where the better you are at it, the more people try to call it something else. Puppets, in America, are for children, and children are like small, gullible sociopaths—hardly the folks you'd look to for artistic recommendations. Which begs the question: Why give a "genius" fellowship to someone working in a discipline we barely even recognize as art?

Twist has a long history in puppet-making: The San Francisco native's mother was part of a puppetry club, and his grandfather used puppets in his big band act. He's the only American to ever graduate from the Institut International de la Marionnette, the premier European puppetry school. And the MacArthur isn't even the first big cash prize he's won. In 2012, Twist was awarded a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. Although not quite as lucrative as the MacArthur, it did come with an unrestricted $225,000 over three years, which Twist used to produce his masterful Rite of Spring, set to Igor Stravinsky's 1913 groundbreaking orchestral work of the same name. The Wall Street Journal called the resulting show a "brave new world of unforgettable effects."

In large part, this was a reference to the kind of abstract puppetry for which Twist is well known, where the "puppet" in question might be a bolt of silk, a twist of smoke, or a feather caught in an underwater eddy. These puppets express thought and emotion through their movements, but without the restrictions of representation. They are simply the materials that they are, not cats, nor people, nor whatever the fuck Elmo is. It's about celebrating "the purity of those forms and shapes," Twist told me, "as opposed to making them be signifiers of something else."

Although they are working a century apart and in very different media, this abstract approach suggests a relationship between Stravinsky and Twist. Writing for the Guardian on the 100th anniversary of Rite, composer George Benjamin talked about how Stravinsky's melodic simplicity focused attention on his "new and explosive sense of musical movement." Twist's abstract puppetry works a similar alchemy, using "raw" materials to amplify the emotional resonance of pure movement (often set to music). Stravinsky brought modernism to the symphony, an act so unprecedented that the audience nearly rioted at the premiere. Twist hopes to do the same with puppetry, and he's not shy about reminding the discipline he loves of its need to embrace the future.

"It's an art form that hasn't developed like other forms," Twist shrugged, as we wound our way to a green room backstage to find some quiet. This isn't a bad thing, he was quick to emphasize. In fact, for someone like him, who's interested in bringing puppetry in new directions, it might actually be a boon, "because puppetry still has that element of surprise," he told me. When done well, puppetry brings an uncanniness to the stage, allowing an object to be both inanimate and alive at the same time.

In this way, puppetry is one of the most direct methods we have for manipulating symbols, which may be why in many cultures, puppets can have religious and mythological meanings. Abrons Arts Center director Wegman sees Twist fitting into this kind of puppetry tradition. He called Twist's work an example of "holy theater," which theorist Peter Brooks described as making "the invisible incarnate." It's where creation verges on Creation.

'Sisters' Follies.' Photo by Richard Termine/courtesy of the Abrons Art Center

This is not to say that Twist doesn't love all forms of puppetry. Over the course of our conversation, he heaps praise on figures as disparate as Jim Henson and Julie Taymor, and his own work is just as often silly and representational as it is abstract and serious. The magic is there regardless, but adults have a hard time sensing the holy in the humorous. So Twist is trying to expand our understanding of puppetry beyond the boundaries of our expectations, beyond what a thing represents and who's pulling its strings. Abstraction strips away some of these concerns, allowing adults to embrace the magic of what we're seeing. "What you feel and what you believe are actually the most important things," Twist told me, "but we're so bombarded by what we know."

This is the "insight" Twist has, and the "potential" that the MacArthur Fellowship is intended to help him realize. Twist isn't certain just what form his next exploration will take, but he mentions that he's always wanted to do an erotic work, and that abstraction could lend itself well to that kind of show.

"There are essential erotic concepts, like penetration or submission, which are actual things," he said, his hands suddenly a pair of puppets making delightfully obscene gestures. "You could actually have something penetrating something else, and it doesn't have to be representational."

This wouldn't be the first time that puppets have tackled sexual themes, as anyone who's seen Avenue Q or Meet the Feebles can attest. In those cases, however, the medium dictated the message—because they were puppets, the final works were humorous, silly, or disgusting. Twist is pushing the very boundaries of what puppets can express and, for that, he deserves to be called a genius.

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Sisters' Follies runs at the Henry Street Playhouse through Saturday, November 7.