Breathing Life into Animals Out of Paper
By Tatiana Baccari
I am not an origamist. In fact, prior to this play I was unaware professional origamists existed. In researching Animals Out of Paper, I learned about Akira Yoshizawa, a Japanese folder and grandmaster of origami, raising it from a craft to a living art. I discovered Dr. Robert Lang, a former NASA engineer and physicist who left his job to pursue folding and has since become one of the foremost professional origamists in the world. And then there was Éric Joisel, a French origamist who lived in the countryside developing the wet-folding method, creating figurative art sculptures using sheets of paper and water without the use of any adhesive or scissor. The list goes on and on.
Cut to our play. Ilana Andrews, a world-renowned origamist living in the greater Boston area, is in crisis. She’s going through a divorce, her fourteen-year-old disabled dog has run away, and Ilana hasn’t folded a single piece of paper since. She tells Andy, a high school math teacher who enters into her life with a thunder, that she started folding to re-create a treasured dragonfly medallion that she lost as a child.
The challenge for amateur and professional origamists alike is to capture the essence of their subject within the folds. Origami models aren’t complete until they have been animated with a breath of life. In a way, this is like a play. The words on the page are flat until the actors inhabit them. The setting is two-dimensional until designers build the set, write the music, light the stage and create costumes to make the story a visceral reality. As the director, however, a question stumped me. How could we animate our production, breathe life into it, when the protagonist of our play won’t fold?
This question led me to a different Asian artform, shadow puppetry. In shadow puppetry flat images are manipulated by puppeteers between a bright light and a translucent screen, on the other side of which sits the audience. The shadows create a dance filled with vibrancy and intrigue.
Warning, I am about to give a spoiler. If you haven’t seen the show and what you’ve read so far has convinced you to come (please do!), stop here and return post show.
You sure? Ok, here we go! The first image in this production is a bright light projected on a sand-colored screen, like a full moon shining on a dark night. A dragonfly puppet flits and flies into frame. A bear saunters out, curiously nosing the winged creature. The light fades out as Ilana, asleep on her couch in a chaotic,junk-filled studio, comes into focus. Was this a dream? Was it magic, her lost dragonfly brought back to life? Or maybe it was the inspiration Ilana has lost? That’s for you to decide.
As we developed this repeating puppetry, I knew it had to come back to Ilana’s folding in the end. Breath of life. So, in the final moment of the play, after both bonding and heartbreak, Ilana picks up a piece of origami paper. This felt like the perfect moment to invite Ilana into our theater magic. The moonlight reppears and puppet animals dance into focus. Ilana, on her couch with paper in hand, turns to see them, delighted, mystified, inspired even by these “animals out of paper.” Finally, she makes a fold and in that single fold she is brought back to herself.
This play reminds me why we find our way back to art, even in the darkest of times. It reminds me how we find our way back to ourselves, even as we question our purpose. As Ilana says, paper “has no memory. It’s just flat. But fold it, even once and it remembers something. And with each fold, another memory, another experience, and they build up to make something complicated.”
Once a paper is folded it can never be flat again. Folds leave scars. We each have unique folds that we carry with us. It is precisely these complications that make us human. It is what connects us. It’s our breath of life.