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Carolina Performing Arts Blog

On Basil Twist

// Apr 8,2013

| by Butch Garris |

When you hear the word puppet you probably think of a marionette, a sock covered hand, Sesame Street, or maybe even your favorite Muppet. I did, too, until I met Basil Twist about a year ago.

Basil came to Memorial Hall for a week in March 2012 to begin working on his Rite of Spring piece. It was a very different experience from what I normally have as a Carolina Performing Arts production manager. Up until then, I had only dealt with artists presenting a finished piece. I had never seen a piece develop from its infancy, so I really had no idea what to expect. I just knew I was excited to be involved, and I was excited that it was with Basil. He collaborated with Pilobolus on one of my all-time favorite pieces, Darkness and Light, and I was interested in how a puppeteer might handle The Rite of Spring.

Within the first few minutes of work on the piece, I realized a few things about Basil and his process. The most obvious was that our definitions of puppetry were not the same – I liked his better! To Basil, puppetry is when something inanimate becomes animate. My traditional sense of a “puppet” was blown away when I saw him manipulating a roll of toilet paper over a fan.

I was struck by Basil’s incredible use and understanding of different materials. In addition to the toilet paper on the first day, he experimented with plastics, cardboard, paper, first aid blankets and even smoke and wind as mediums for his work. He made sure we had plenty of wire coat hangers. They were his go-to item. I was amazed at the way he was able to make these items move, and even more impressed at his ability to teach us to do it too. We spent the better part of one day experimenting with a large piece of white silk. As Basil was working the fabric, I remember thinking that if it could choose how to move on its own, it would probably look exactly like what I was watching.

I also realized early on that any idea was on the table. Basil would give us a basic idea of what he wanted to accomplish in a session, and he would try any idea to get there. I can’t count how many times I heard the words, “What if we try… .” It isn’t enough to say Basil thinks outside of the box. For Basil, there is no box. What sometimes appeared as total chaos was actually Basil researching for the piece. This was even more pronounced when Basil returned in mid-July, this time for a month-long stay with an entire team of puppeteers.

With the full team in the theater, the process felt fully under way. Everything was ramped up. Something we had tested with a 5-foot piece of plastic in March was now a 30-foot piece in July. We worked for days on a small rig to test a special effect during the first visit. Now we were installing 15 of them. Rough ideas that he had been developing before were now turning into a full-scale production. By the end of the second residency, I was excited about where it was headed and couldn’t wait to see the end result.

Now, after more than a year including eight weeks spent in Memorial Hall, we are finally here. Tonight, Basil Twist and his amazing team of puppeteers along with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s will bring The Rite of Spring to life. I hope you enjoy the finished product as much as I have enjoyed the process.

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Butch Garris is a Production Manager for Carolina Performing Arts.

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This essay is part of a series of reflections included in our program books, written by members of the University and surrounding community. To view the program book, click here.

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