Moses finally makes it to the Promised Land

The Blind Summit Theater present their award-winning puppet show about the famous biblical figure being stuck on a table.

May 26, 2013 22:02
Mark Down (far left), seen here performing with his Blind Summit Theater.

Puppet theater 370. (photo credit: Lorna Palmer)

Mark Down and his cohorts in the Blind Summit theatrical troupe may not be Jewish but they have taken it upon themselves to get one of the leading biblical characters to the Promised Land, finally. “This will be Moses’s first time in Jerusalem, I guess,” notes Down. The 45-year-old British actor, along with professional colleagues Nick Barnes and Sean Garratt will perform The Table at Jerusalem’s Gerard Bechar Center this Tuesday and Wednesday (both 9 p.m.), as part of the Israel Festival.

The Moses in question is a 60 cm. high puppet with a cardboard head, and forms the centerpiece of the production. This may be a puppet-based work but it is definitely not aimed at younger audiences. As the festival blurb has it: “[Moses] lives on a table and has a problem. All he’s asked to do are children’s birthday parties. He’s tired of it – he’s a serious artist!” The central character makes its intent clear from the outset, and is willing to do almost anything to get its artistic message and talents across.

One of the first things you notice when Moses hits the boards is that he is clearly not alone. The puppet is manipulated by definitively non-technological means, with Down, Barnes and Garratt working our cardboard-headed hero in full view of the audience. Not for them state-of-the-art technology, with virtual presentation of the final product.

“In the end, in theater, what we are interested in is people,” Down observes.

“It is about connecting between performers and audience. Seeing the puppeteer makes it all much more engaging, and theatrical, for the public.”

Down feels that technology has eaten away at our ability to appreciate the real thing, and that it’s time to get back to basics. “Puppetry used to be a special effect, and now special effects are so sophisticated, and understanding special effects is so sophisticated, that they are no longer quite as effective in that role. So, in order for them to have full power you sort of have to deconstruct the medium.”

That is certainly something the Blind Summit gang convey with the production they are bringing here.

“We discovered that the paradox with The Table – you stumble across these things – is that the more the puppet says he is a puppet, and not real, the more the audience believe he is real.”

So, is this is a premeditated backlash to the virtual, advanced technological, reality that pervades our everyday lives? “I think it’s sort of semi-intentional,” chuckles Down. “It is intentional in the sense that I love the human technology of it. For me, the fascination of theater is that when someone walks on to a completely blank stage, the space comes alive in a way that I find astonishing every time I see it. I think that just the sheer humanity of theater is really powerful. So, in that sense, I think [The Table] is an anti-technology message.”

The hands-on message Down et al are bringing here did not come cheap, on several levels, and it really is a sort of homecoming for Moses. The show came about after Down was contacted by the Jewish Community Center in London which, in collaboration with Jewish cultural organization YaD Arts, was looking for an act to provide the entertainment for their seder night, in addition to the vittles on the table. The production took on various guises, and evolved over a two-year period, starting life as a 15-minute item before growing to its current length of around 75 minutes.

Down took something of a circuitous route to his current line of work.

“I studied to be a doctor, partly because of family history – there are lots of doctors in the family and, at the time, I didn’t really have any idea of what I really wanted to do,” he recalls.

In fact, medically-trained entertainers are not that rare on the ground in Britain, and Down is in pretty illustrious company. Graham Chapman, of the Monty Python team, studied medicine at Cambridge University before helping to found the iconic comedy team, as did Jonathan Miller, who was a member of the early 1960s groundbreaking Beyond The Fringe satirical foursome, and Graham Garden of the The Goodies madcap 1970s comedy act also previously studied medicine at Cambridge.

But the stethoscope was not for Down, and he eventually found that his thespian shortcomings led him to Blind Summit. “I went to drama school, to retrain as an actor,” he explains. “I am not really a singing and dancing actor, so I looked for other things I was able to do and I discovered puppetry.”

The entertainment epiphany occurred when Down came across the art of French puppeteer Philippe Genty some years before he started his second student stint.

“Genty does amazing big dance illusion shows, which when I saw it, I didn’t know it was puppetry. I just knew it was extraordinary.

When I went to drama school there was a puppetry teacher and that was when I discovered that what I’d seen was puppetry.

Then I realized it didn’t have to be [British traditional puppet show format] Punch & Judy.”

His retraining done and dusted, Down was primed to hit the puppet theater scene and his path soon crossed that of Barnes.

“Nick had set up Blind Summit and was making puppets, and we hit it off. I acted, and did the puppet stuff when I didn’t have any work, and it [Blind Summit] slowly took over my life.”

The Table is based on the Japanese bunraku traditional art of puppet theater in which the manipulators appear openly, in full view of the audience. The discipline is said to be the most highly developed form of puppet theater art in the world. Down observes that bunraku also has a singular teamwork aspect to it, and evokes various general life issues, too.

“It actually connects three people, which is a very powerful communion. It sets up the question of how people are connected, and connected by something.”

Audiences all over the world have obviously managed to connect with The Table, which has won several awards and was a hit at last year’s Edinburgh Festival. Down says he and the rest of the Blind Summit team, which also includes lighting and music professionals, and various creative thinkers, have gradually become engrossed in the show.

“It has been going on, and developing for a while. It’s almost as if we didn’t choose it, it chose us.”

For more information about The Table visit

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