The focus of the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry’s new exhibit “Banners and Cranks,” which was opened to the public Thursday night. Curated by puppeteer Clare Dolan, the evening the featured various forms and performances of banner art and “crankie” style moving pictures used to tell stories for centuries.
Banner performance, known as cantastoria, originated in sixth-century India, with performers taking a painted banner and pointing to certain portions of the piece, singing the story of each section– a history that was performed by Dolan herself using a painted dress, a pointer and verse in a “picture-story recitation,” as she called it.
Traveling performers and peddlers used portable banners tell stories, Dolan said, often selling trinkets, sweets and medicines after the show to make money. As the art form spread, new innovations were added, such as using dolls to enhance the performance, or attaching cranks to the roll and turning them to make “crankies,” Dolan said.
“It’s a form that lends itself to many different things,” Dolan said. “You can perform it on the street, in the theater, in someone’s living room. You can take it anywhere.”
An example of a crankie was a showcase of Pablo Neruda’s poem “Odes to Common Things,” a hand-cranked side-scrolling illustration presented by Ballard director John Bell and Trudi Cohen, who used the motion of the crank, the illustrated banner and an acoustic guitar accompaniment to perform to piece.
Several banners and crankies from around the world and across the ages were on display, as part of the exhibit. One cantastoria, “Lord Batman and The Turkish Lady,” is a hand-quilted banner that tells the old Appalachian story of an explorer and his exploits.
Another set of banners on display, ‘Smash a Bank Polka’, was used by the Rude Mechanical Orchestra to accompany their songs during protests following the 2008 financial crisis, with performers pointing to the illustrations and lyrics to go along with the music.
Dolan, who is a touring puppeteer with Bread and Puppet Theater and the director of Vermont’s Museum of Everyday Life, has been a fan of banners and cantastoria for over 25 years, she said, and drew inspiration from the the performers she met while she was traveling to help build the exhibit.
“Over the years I’ve seen a lot of great work,” Dolan said. “It’s nice to showcase the work of all the people who have performed.”
While cantastoria and crankies may not be seen as traditional puppetry when compared to hand puppets and marionettes, it is within the same medium of using a physical object to perform a show, said Ballard director John Bell.
“They might not be puppets, but they’re in the same family of material performance,” Bell said. “Performing with paintings is another form of performing object theater.”
The exhibit is part of the Ballard’s goal to expose the public to different forms of puppetry from around the world, Bell said.
“Part of what we want to do is exhibit traditional forms of puppetry that people are already familiar with,” Bell said. “But [we] also let people know about global forms of puppetry.”
Those who attended the grand opening said that they enjoyed the motion and progression of the hand-cranked banner pieces.
“It’s the point between pictures and movies,” said Tim Williamson, a New York resident visiting his hometown of Pomfret, Conn. “It’s the telling of story without text. It’s a moving picture.”
Others said the wide range of mediums and pieces was a pleasant surprise.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” said Edie Posselt, a resident of Mansfield. “It’s fascinating. It’s historical and varied and multidimensional. I loved seeing the performances, because it made [the story] more clear.”
Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @marlese_lessing.