Human Body Parts: Pushing the boundaries of polite performances

By Ambrose Li

Outbursts of laughter and screams from children and adults alike have been haunting the sleek office lobbies at Taikoo Place over the Halloween weekend, thanks to six giant puppets of disembodied human body parts.

This isn’t a Halloween trick-or-treat but immersive theatre. Human Body Parts (HBP) by Melbourne-based Snuff Puppets was brought to Hong Kong as part of the “Freespace at Taikoo Place” performing arts festival co-hosted by West Kowloon Cultural District and Swire Properties. Taking place in Taikoo Place in Quarry Bay, the giant puppets momentarily dispel the tense, corporate atmosphere of these office buildings with their surprise appearances.

“The main idea is that this is not a traditionally-staged performance, it is all about interactions,” says Rebecca Rutter, the puppeteer of the ear.

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Getting wrapped up by big fingers: Human Body Parts brings joy and surprises to office workers during ‘Freespace at Taikoo Place’. Picture: West Kowloon Cultural District

Starting with just the one ear puppet as a commission eight years ago, Daniell Flood, the puppeteer of the mouth, points out that HBP sits within the company’s large repertoire of puppet shows. Snuff Puppets is also known for its longstanding fascination with the human body. This show is an extension of the show Everybody which features a 26.5 meter-long genderless human puppet. As a celebration of the literal life and death of the human body, Everybody spotlights some of the most human activities, such as the birth of a baby, the discharge of faeces, milk coming out of breasts, and even a penis and vagina dance, all in the form of giant puppets. They are deliberately performed in a non-sexual way to put the focus on the exploration of different body parts.

Founded in 1992, Snuff Puppets has toured 26 countries, including performances at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2004. During their three-month summer tour this year, they appeared in various festivals such as the Greenwich+Docklands International Festival in London, Tollwood Summer Festival in Munich, and Sziget in Budapest. The works of Snuff Puppets come in three categories – shows, roaming programmes, and workshops. HBP is part of the roaming programme with other titles such as Boom Family and Cows.

The familiar body parts featured in HBP underscore the commonality of mankind. Audiences might notice that the puppets are of different skin colour. Far from being merely comical puppets, HBP pushes the boundaries of everyday expectations and polite performances. A good example is the huge piece of snot that oozes from the nose puppet. Through the actions of the puppets, the audience is confronted with the very nature of their own humanness.

“We are not so different after all,” says the show’s producer Katrina Chandra. “The performances pose a question to the audience as to why one would feel uncomfortable seeing what everyone does.”

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Human Body Parts at ‘Freespace at Taikoo Place’. Picture: West Kowloon Cultural District

HBP appears to have no obvious overarching narrative and risks being labelled as a frivolous show without substance. However, HBP defies the definition of theatre performances by using an unconventional stage. 

“Every performance is directed, the puppets don’t just go out and do whatever,” says Chandra. She explains that they utilise very fast, on-the-ground type of directing and the crew always plan the skeleton of their performances ahead so that it allows room for ad lib movements.

Although the puppeteers have rehearsals, Rutter remarks that it is impossible to practise for every venue they go to. She highlights the importance to evolve and play around with their performing language in a new environment, a spontaneity that keeps the show interesting for both the audience and performers. Any place could be a potential stage for the puppeteers – similar to the puppets’ “intervention” in crowded public spaces. Unpredictability, “like life, it just happens,” says Chandra.

Check out CJC’s Facebook Live coverage of Human Body Parts here

The crew is impressed by the enthusiasm and respect they have received in Hong Kong, with audience members actively interacting with them whilst remaining very polite. But the selfie-obsessed Hong Kong crowd appear to have missed the point of the show.

Rutter emphasises that the performance is not about people taking photos with the puppets. Rather, it is about enjoying the light-hearted show tempered with a thought-provoking message. 

“The puppets are there to make [the audience] feel like children again,” says Chandra.  

This story is part of CJC x Freespace at Taikoo Place, a CJC learning programme in collaboration with Swire Properties and West Kowloon Cultural District

 

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