Kevin Augustine and THE GOD PROJEKT

Kevin Augustine is best known as a master puppet theater creator: if you’ve ever seen his work in plays like Animal, Once Vaudeville, or Big Top Machine, you have experienced a form of 3-D animation that’s literally breathtaking. His new work at La MaMa, The God Projekt, is in many ways a departure from earlier pieces. Kevin and I sat down (virtually–the photo below of us literally sitting down together is from a couple of years ago) to talk about this upcoming show, which is a new production of a piece he first performed three years ago:

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MD: To start, can you briefly let readers know what THE GOD PROJEKT is?

KA: This is an original performance work created by Lone Wolf Tribe with puppets and actors exploring the origins of religious monotheism, particularly the ancient forgotten partnership between God the Father and the Mother Goddess. It is a raucous and darkly humorous cosmic love story that questions if certain time honored belief systems are in need of reexamination.

MD: Why is it a PROJEKT rather than a PROJECT?

KA: I was partly inspired by Kafka’s “Amerika” where his story shows the Statue of Liberty holding a sword. In the land of the free he sensed something oppressive and created a representative symbolic image. Digging past the the official version of things has always been an inclination of mine. With The God Projekt I wanted to explore an historical side of religion which turned out to be much darker than anything I was ever taught growing up.

MD: You’ve been working on this for several years. How has the show evolved? And what were the important events/milestones/learnings that helped you decide how to evolve the show?

KA: The show has evolved by dint of continually reworking the ideas in my head and refining the script over the last three years. I worked really hard to tighten the narrative and expand the characters’ relationships and respective world views. Then along with my collaborator Edward Einhorn we would share ideas and hone them further.

I’m extremely grateful to Artistic Director Mia Yoo at La MaMa for inviting me to bring the show back. This is the first ‘second chance opportunity’ I’ve had to go deeper with one of my shows at the same venue. We were also lucky to receive an artistic residency at NACL Theatre in upstate New York, Sept 2015, to redevelop the show after our ’13 world premiere at La MaMa. The fact that La MaMa was able to step up to produce our 2016 incarnation, in their Ellen Stewart Theatre no less, has made all the difference.

I’ve also re-teamed for the second time with set and video designer Tom Lee (designer for BRIDE at PS122) to come up with a physical landscape, both beautiful and desolate, to represent God’s (barren) heavenly paradise and really fill the grandeur of the Ellen Stewart Theatre.

MD: How many of your original puppet creations will we be seeing in this new version of THE GOD PROJEKT? Are you alone on stage animating them, or do you have assistants that will be working with you to bring these creatures to life?

KA: What first comes to my mind is how many little magic tricks and technical gizmo moments there are in this show— all of which have taken over 12 months to develop and perfect. A ton of work. Of the puppets, the cast is small– officially only 3, although there are some multiple versions of two of the characters.

The main puppet character, Adam, is a sweetheart and a real star in the show.

In this version of the play I puppeteer hardly at all. It was initially a very reluctant decision for me to bring in 2 puppeteers (known as the ‘Cherubim’). I was holding onto my initial vision of The God Projekt being essentially a solo piece. So it took a while to realize I needed to pursue that ambition with other projects instead. –I’m currently developing a solo performance cycle with 4 pieces in the works.

This new direction with the puppeteers allowed me to physically separate the God character from his (puppet) creations, which is a centerpiece of the relationship we have with our deities; perhaps we’re always trying to get closer to God because we perceive such a gulf between heaven and earth. I always saw the biblical person of God as a rather lonely soul- a bachelor of sorts. How must he have felt after driving his first and only human creations out of he garden of eden, being left with no one who could speak his own language?

MD: A lot has happened in the world since you first embarked on THE GOD PROJEKT. Has any of this found its way into the show? Is the piece inherently political, do you think?

KA: I do think the piece in inherently political. Not overtly per say, but inherently. I think being religious is inherently political. It is a huge and immediate separator of sorts, in the same way America is currently so deeply politically divided: which side are you on? which god to you believe in? To me, in the grandest scope of human perspectives, it’s all a bit heartbreaking at how small we make our allegiances. How conditioned we are to divide ourselves from each other while hoping to meet needs which are ironically universal— wanting community and love and finding meaning in our lives. The dark side of just wanting to belong is the lack of tolerance for those not in your chosen group.

MD: The theme of the artist (possibly you) as a creator with infinite and unconditional control over your creations (puppets, for example) has been present in your work for decades now. (And I can’t believe I am actually saying that, but I have indeed known you for just about two decades!) Have your thoughts about this concept evolved or changed in important ways as you’ve worked on this piece; or more generally as you have matured as an artist?

KA: When I’m teaching puppetry I make a vernacular distinction: I say let’s animate the puppet, not ‘manipulate’ them. When in any relationship is manipulation a positive thing? For me its more of a dance, partnering with puppets is a relationship, sometimes one leads, and the other follows which is very different than the control and separation intrinsic in manipulation. One could parse words and claim semantics but of course the words we chose are energetic and have an impact.

Over the years I’ve moved further away from wanting to explore the motif of the artist as the ‘creator’ with his ‘creation’ although that relationship still haunts/fascinates me. Moving into my solo performance cycle phase, I want to deepen my company mission to investigate, challenge and spellbind by exploring more universal issues that shape our lives and touch us on a shared human level. Issues will include a transformational relationship with animals and a heightened vegan consciousness for an over-consumed planet. For these shows, I’m also inspired by the discoveries Emily makes in Our Town when she revisits the world as her younger self, noticing for the first time how much beauty we humans take for granted and sadly let slip unnoticed through our lives.

MD: What happens to you as you perform this piece, night after night? What kind of emotional journey do you find yourself on? Is it different depending on how the audience behaves?

KA: Well- it’s been a year since last I had the mask on. It’s hard to say because the script has changed quite a bit since then (there’s less audience interaction than previously.) It does depend on the audience as there is quite a bit of comedy in the show and like a stand up comedian who needs to ‘feel the room’, it can be disconcerting and a bit scary if the crowd is overly quiet. In those moments, I need to do some quick recalibrating and wrangle my attention back to the character’s moment to moment action. This challenge happened to me when I was performing a solo show (Once Vaudeville) in Singapore last year, discovering only once the full-house audience had all been seated, that virtually no one would understand an English word I was going to say for the next 40 minutes. I was to be a lonely bachelor of sorts.

Learn more about Kevin Augustine on Indie Theater Now

Learn more about THE GOD PROJEKT at La MaMa