The Puppeteer

Richard Merrill had the pleasure of having an ancient but energetic character foisted on him during a puppet-making session.

Is it penance for deeds in a former life?

Photo of Nasruddin with puppeteer Richard MerrillWas it kismet, fate, or karma that brought Nasruddin to Merrill's attention at the precise moment he had embarked on carving what was supposed to be a puppet? Merrill had created his first full-length puppet play at age 8. A summer program in puppetry found the shy youngster coming out of his shell to take over the production. Merrill suggested the story, wrote the parts, made most of the puppets, and practically directed it, as he recalls. It was the beginning of a life-long love of puppetry that was only interrupted by the appearance of Nasruddin. "He changed everything," says Merrill, "including my way of thinking (apologies, Dr. Einstein). I must admit that Nasruddin's presence has had a salutary effect on my outlook. I'm happier, calmer, more able to deal with the ups and downs of life. I guess I owe it all to Nasruddin, but it's hard to admit it."

Master puppeteer John Farrell, of Figures of Speech, was leading a puppet-caving class at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine. Merrill, innocently engaged in making a puppet for use in future performances, had his project hijacked by the sudden appearance of Nasruddin.

"He appeared fully formed," recalls Merrill. "His character was evident, and his accent was just as difficult to pinpoint as it is today. Some linguists have suggested that Nasruddin's age and his unusual speech patterns may indicate the influence of a lost Persian dialect related to the original language spoken on Atlantis. Merrill disagrees. "He just trips over his tongue," asserts the exasperated former puppeteer. "He can speak with a perfectly good Uttar Pradesh dialect of Hindi, in pure Bedouin Arabic, or in flawless King's English, and his Texas accent is to die for."

Far from being a representative of a lost Atlantean tongue, Merrill believes Nasruddin just gets his accents mixed up from having traveled too much and eaten too much airplane food.

Nasruddin is anatomically correct, for the most part

He has all the requisite parts, says Merrill. His shoulders rotate, his knees give him trouble like every other 1200-year-old man, but he can still sit cross-legged, and though it takes time for him to jump up, his gestures can be quite eloquent.

Nasruddin's hands (he only uses one hand, keeping the other in his pocket; it's just a quirk) are particularly expressive. The flexibility of the left arm allows full freedom of expression, and the position of the fingers is a classic "anything" gesture.

The face you can't forget, no matter how hard you try

It is the face that most captivates audiences. Its rough-hewn yet finely-carved features are exaggerated enough to be fully readable from the back of a large room. The mouth is a deep slot, cut deliberately at neutral angle. When he looks straight at you, he has a neutral expression. Looking up, the corners of his mouth appear to turn down. When he lowers his head and looks at you from under those prominent brow ridges, you can be faced with a wicked little grin.

Merrill has been asked by adults how the face changes expression. The head is a solid block of wood, and has no moving parts. What is at work is an ancient principle of puppetry that the Japanese call mu. This is the principle of "empty receptivity" in which the puppet is created with neutral expression, but full expressive capability, allowing the audience to imbue the character with expression and emotion during the performance.

Becoming Invisible

With a puppet of this type, using direct manipulation rather than strings or rods, puppet technique begins with erasing ego. The puppeteer can't hide behind a drop curtain or a set. He has to disappear to the audience. This is only possible if the puppeteer concentrates entirely on the character and the motion, and forgets his own presence.

"I seldom rehearse with Nasruddin," says Merrill. "I practice techniques, or actions for a particular episode, and learn stories pretty thoroughly, but I don't rehearse the telling of the stories, because I am not telling them: Nasruddin is telling them. I leave it to him to tell a story in the way that works best for the time and place in which we find ourselves."

Performances and Exhibitions

Nasruddin was on exhibit for four months at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine. The event was called "Characters in Hand," and showcased 16 puppeteers from Maine or with Maine connections. Nasruddin came out of the art gallery for two performances during the course of the exhibit.

Merrill presented a storytelling workshop at Sharing the Fire, the national storytelling festival held annually in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and sponsored by LANES, the League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling.

Merrill has performed and presented workshops throughout Maine: