Created by Johanny Bert (Théâtre de Romette, France) and inspired by Sweden’s gender-neutral pronoun, HEN is the name of a hybrid character who transforms and plays male and female images with sarcasm and insolence at will.
Puppet figure manipulated by two actors, HEN is full of life, exuberant, enraged, and virile diva in heels who expresses themselves by singing love, hope, bodies, and sexuality with a lot of freedom. At the time of a search for identity or a desire to define everything, HEN is an extraordinary character who does not seek to be standardized.
Before taking photos of HEN during the show, Emil Huseynzade interviewed the creator Johanny Bert a couple of hours before the start of the final show of ‘HEN’ in Teatro do Bairro in frames of FIMFA Lx22 – Festival Internacional de Marionetas e Formas Animadas.
* The interview was conducted in the French language and later was translated into English by the interviewer.
Hello Johanny! How do you feel after two shows of HEN in Lisbon?
Hello Emil! Well, it is my first time in Lisbon and it’s the first time that I do this performance for a non-French-speaking audience. So, I had some fears. I was a little afraid that people wouldn’t understand certain humour and there wouldn’t be a dialogue with the public. But here we are, we worked on the subtitles, and I think we did our best. Plus, the audience was very warm and welcoming. Obviously, I knew that people in Lisbon knew a little French, but I still tried to improvise a bit to create the best experience for people who came to see HEN. I find this theatre we are in (Teatro do Bairro) ideal for such a performance as there is a bar where people can get drinks before the show and there are few people which creates an actual ambience of cabaret shows. Most importantly, this neighbourhood back in the 70s was a space for various queer shows and trans presence and having the show in such a historically significant place means so much to me. After the show, I discovered Lisbon which I had been told a lot about. I loved the city and it’s a great pleasure to be here.
It’s great you are enjoying Lisbon! I hope you will be back soon with more shows. Can you share more about HEN? What was the creative process that inspired you to make this project?
I have a theatre background and at the start, I only worked with contemporary authors. I never do classic pieces. And often I like to work with objects or puppets too, let’s say, transcend the reality of a theatrical convention that is not just human-oriented, but more symbolic and visionary. I wanted to do this project for a very long time, mainly for two reasons. The first is that I wanted to talk about gender and sexual identities, and freedom of expression. There was a time I was volunteering in LGBTQIA+ associations and I witnessed all the discrimination that people are experiencing, and I found it extremely violent. So, I wanted to invent a character who plays with masculine and feminine identities, but who also portrays the clichés of sexuality. For example, a masculine body with all the stereotypes of masculinity. And there you have it, a big cock, and all the other typical masculine attributes you saw on stage. And the same for the feminine side, a big breast, for example. Finally, everything that is always used by visual advertising and media, everything that is supposed to be erotic and sexualised puts the human body as an object of commodification, as a capitalist ‘item’ on which we can fantasize.
So, together with the puppeteer Eduardo Felix who made the puppets, we chose to accentuate these ultimately unbearable images of masculinity and femininity. And therefore, to create a character who is free, a ‘chameleon’ who can transform themselves as they want, which I could not have done with a human actor. And the second thing is that I’ve wanted to sing in a show for a very long time and I’ve never done it before. I was quite afraid to do it, but I wanted to try it one day. These two desires came together at one point and HEN was created with the help of the whole crew and the musicians.
HEN is echoing the questions of gender identity and is one of the few queer puppets out there. What were the initial reactions you received?
In fact, I didn’t receive any violent reaction. I don’t know how you felt about it, but I wanted this character to gently try to communicate about gender identities without ‘attacking’ the public. You see it sometimes in cabarets. I would like this character to be kind and have positive energy around. it’s important for HEN to say what they want to say. I also mention at one point during the show that HEN is not transgender. They are not a transvestite either. Because I would not feel legitimate doing a show about trans people. I’m not a transgender, I’m just gay. (laughs) HEN for me represents all men and women, non-binaries, trans people and others who are misrepresented in media. I want this character to be broader and more symbolic. I think that if I had to talk solely about trans identities, I would do it differently.
I saw the show last Friday and had a joyful time watching HEN transforming from hyper-feminine to masculine appearances. Particularly the ‘Clitoris Tango’ part with an army of dildos of different sizes and shapes captured my attention. What is the message that HEN delivers in this part?
It is the song which, in fact, can be explanatory. It starts with an interview with a French woman in 2013 when in France there was a big debate about gay marriage law, and maybe I naively thought it would be more obvious while it wasn’t at all. There were large demonstrations and above all, there was a violent atmosphere caused by public figures, politicians, and French citizens toward LGBTQIA+. They were comparing homosexuality with paedophilia. And the law of marriage was very difficult to pass, but it did eventually. But I have the impression that France has fallen behind enormously in relation to that. So, the voice we hear in this part of the performance comes from a real lady who was interviewed in the streets. The reporter asks her whether she has anything against homosexuals and she answers: “No. Besides, it was a man who taught me how to knit”. And then she said it is against nature, and that if homosexuals continue to love each other, the wrath of God will fall on France. Like when we were in the Middle Ages, and we believed in the devil, and we believed that there is lightning that will happen and kill us.
This lady’s testimony has circulated a lot on social networks in France. People laughed at her a little, of course, because of her medieval beliefs. I kept this report and I wanted HEN to be able to respond to it. And HEN shares certain statistics from law enforcement. For example, the death penalty in France was until 1981 and in many other countries, it is still punishable by law up to the death penalty. And I think HEN is not a show for the queer community because they already know all about that. It’s more a show for those who have limited awareness about the queer community, who are lost, who want to understand or who still perceive us as something unusual and unnatural. Providing figures, and dates, of being very concrete, was also a somewhat militant way of stating this is what is happening in the world. One can easily be a victim of violence just because of their sexual or gender identity. I always ask myself this question ‘where does this violence come from? Why do people need to be so aggressive, in fact, when nothing is being forced upon them?’ And for me, it’s impossible to think about our current society progressing with these questions still up there.
Music is a big part of your creativity. Is there any story behind it?
It’s the first time that I sing in my shows. I was accompanied by two very talented musicians. There are authors who composed the songs, so all of them are original. I often work with musicians, not necessarily with singing. But on the other hand, in the shows that I do, there is often live music.
You position yourself not as a puppet master but more as a theatre director bringing hybrid arts into dramaturgy. How is it different when you use puppets in your creativity?
When I think of a show or a project, it’s the subject and content that comes first. In some cases, I think that the human, an actor, or an actress can carry on this topic. But it’s a different reality with puppets. It is like an artificial limb or having my body as a continuity to this ‘actor’. It has more strength because we withdraw from reality. Therefore, we have something more symbolic, more metaphysical, and I feel it’s bringing more sense and visibility. And I wanted to be on stage myself. So, I directed, I did the scenography and the lighting design for the show. I also had a collaborator who was sometimes in my place so that I could see the stage. For me, it’s also an affirmation of this project of making insolent, impertinent puppets. We often think that puppets are for children. But I think puppets carry significant meaning for adults. We have the impression that they are innocent. And so, it amuses me when HEN is cheeky and surprising. And there is something entertaining in making huge foam genitals and playing with proportions. All in all, for me the puppet has its unique distinguished features in dramaturgy.
Do you usually work with the same actors, or do you seek new talents?
With each project, I start from scratch, and I must invent a new protocol with each creation. There are actors, technicians, and artists who sometimes come back, but there is no obligation. It really depends on the project. For example, the next one is going to be about love and adult sexuality, and we’re going to discourse on how we love today. We are in a couple, we are in a throuple, we are in a polyamory relationship. There are lots of ways to love and this project will explore bodies from very different origins by using puppets. I wanted it to be worn by young actors, they are around six years old. There will also be a musician on set and in this one, I’m not going to act, only direct.
Puppetry in opera is quite an ancient form of performance. How do you feel about your new show yet to be presented in 2023 bringing opera singers and puppets together?
I believe that puppet is a kind of writing of movement. I have the impression that it would be very interesting to look for that in operatic singing. The lyrical singing is based on breaths, and I feel like there is a connection between the singing and the puppet mastering. I’ve wanted to do an opera for a long time. And when I saw Wim Wenders’ film ‘Wings of Desire’ I wanted to propose an adaptation for opera, with singers and puppets. And there will be around twenty big puppets in this show.
I have heard that you created one of your previous shows inspired by art photographers Shana and Robert ParkeHarrison. What do you like in their works?
That was my second show, when I was 24, I’m now 40. (laughs) So, it was a long time ago. In fact, I discovered these photos, and it was at the very beginning of my creativity when I was afraid of words and texts. I wanted to do shows without words where writing was only visual. And when I discovered Robert and Shana, are a couple in creative collaboration, I was astonished by this balance they’ve created between things that are something celestial, poetic, beautiful, and very ethereal. There’s a piece called “Turning to Spring” where it feels that they are trying to transform and regenerate the earth, to find the roots and leaves. I was very touched by that work. I believe in theatre, and I believe that I have that in me, probably a very childish and poetic desire. And at the same time, I believe that I have something very dark in me, and I wondered how these two could co-exist in balance and could communicate and correspond. I discovered this balance in their art. It was freely inspired, but it carried me a lot at the start.
Do you think the perception of marionettes by society as part of performing arts is different nowadays from the time you started your career?
Yes, definitely. I don’t know how it is in other countries, but in France, when I started, it’s true that puppetry was still very much linked to a young audience. But there are many institutions and companies that have worked to change this mentality, particularly by working with authors who have written plays with puppetry. They have put into this process immense efforts, and there is always something to be reinvented and reexamined. I believe that if I’m here, it’s also because I was carried along by these people who developed these writings for puppets from various art forms. I find it quite exciting because ultimately, the puppet, is at the crossroads of dance, visual arts, obviously theatre, writing, and even contemporary and digital art. So, it intersects with a lot of things and these forms of art have always been areas of my interest. That’s why I don’t define myself exclusively as a puppet master because I rather have the feeling of doing live performances. And sometimes, of course, there’s puppetry in it. But first and foremost, it’s a live performance.
If HEN could give one piece of advice to people struggling with their gender/sexual identities, what would it be?
Oh, it’s hard. It’s hard but interesting. I would say benevolence, and I would say affirmation and freedom. And pleasure. Yes, pleasure is very important. (laughs)
Thank you very much for your answers, Johanny. Best of luck on tonight’s show.
Design, direction and voice by Johanny Bert / Instagram: @johannybert
Special thanks to the organisers of FIMFA Lx22 and the staff of Teatro do Bairro.