Ralph Syverson has developed a following as a puppeteer in the Chicago area, constantly writing and performing a steady stream of new pieces. Usually performing solo, he has also collaborated with other puppet-makers and performers. He has written over fifteen puppet plays in the last year, performing at a wide variety of Chicago area venues including variety shows, small theaters, rock clubs and bars. Ralph's performances have also appeared on Chicago public access television.
With several years of experience as a painter and printmaker, Ralph has focused on interdisciplinary art, combining writing, performance, visual and sound elements. His works involve costume and set design, making marionettes and hand puppets, writing and performing music, and the performance of the plays. Since dropping out of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he has been essentially a self-taught artist.
My interview with Ralph Syverson began at the Hideout, a popular Chicago nightspot for experimental music and vaudeville acts. He was performing as part of the "Chic-A-Go-Go" taping that was taking place that night, a children's musical program aired every week on cable access channel 19.
For the production, Syverson was using a painted cardboard backdrop folded in thirds to represent two separate living spaces. Two puppets were dangling in front of the backdrop, a male figure and a female, supposedly communicating with each other via computer. Syverson stood above the backdrop narrating their conversation into a microphone. The male offered to "fax" the female a plant. Syverson hooked the puppet-wires onto the edge of the backdrop, ran around to the front of the stage, and moved the plant from the male space to the female. The female then offered to "fax" the male a dog.
Syverson hooked the puppet-strings again, and moved the dog into the male space. The dog was a plastic toy that, when a level was pressed on its head, would shake, giggle and light up with red lights. The skit ended with the male offering to meet the female outside of their separate living spaces. Syverson moved the two figures up to the front of the stage, where they dangled in silence for a moment, staring at each other. "I've never met anybody else in person before," said the female, "I've always talked to people through my computer."
After the show, Syverson and three friends went outside to a car in the parking lot to smoke some pot. I waited for them in my car with the lights out, watching as a CPD patrol car circled the bar, and drove slowly off into the distance. Cold rain mingled with snow was starting to fall pretty heavily, and the visibility was getting low. When Syverson and friends were finished, they loaded up into my car and we drove across town to the Butcher Shop, a vast loft space-cum-gallery.
There was a small crowd of people milling around and guzzling keg beer. A bluegrass band was playing. I waited against a back wall while Syverson made some rounds, talking with people he knew and introducing himself to people he wanted to know. "I'm having an interview!" Ralph announced to one group of people. "Is it true that you're a prostitute or is that just a rumor around town?" asked one obviously tipsy girl. "Is it true that you like young Catholic girls?" asked one of Syverson's friends. "Is it true you like young Catholic boys?" asked the tipsy girl. "I know what boys like!" responded Syverson. "Boys like. . . boys like me," responded the tipsy girl. Everybody was very friendly and, after a half hour or so, I asked Syverson if we couldn't find a quiet space where we could conduct the interview. In the rear of the gallery there was a table set up with two chairs where we sat down together while curious gallery-goers wandered in and out to listen in on our conversation.
MICHAEL WORKMAN: Let's start off talking about the puppet show. I want to know how you got into puppeteering to begin with.
RALPH SYVERSON: Well, I thought of a puppet being in relation to theater in the way a cartoon is a relationship to live actors. With a cartoon, it's like a caricature. A cartoon can completely embody a character as far as a character can be completely evil or completely good, completely one emotion, whereas a human actor is limited by their own personality or their own physical existence to being their interpretation of a character. With a cartoon or comic, they are just exactly the emotion and whatever itself. So, I thought that where that relates to live theater is, rather than a person portraying the character, the most pure form of the character incorporates the script along with the performance and the visual element, where it's almost like a painting along with the visual.
MW: Does that related to the way in which you build the puppets? They're all hand-crafted and painted.
RS: The puppets are related to writing the play as far as how I write with things visually planned out in mind and then I would build them and the process of writing the play and the process of designing and drawing would be happening concurrently. So, the play itself would influence the appearance of the puppets, the style of the production, the style of making them and painting them. And vice-versa. So, the style of the puppets themselves and the characters themselves would form both as the character involving writing and both as the character involving how they shape up visually and they would both influence each other through the development and production of the play. Not just each character but the interaction between them: some things just pop up. Things would be based on how they develop as they go along.
MW: It sounds like you're getting a connection between not just the play that you're reading and orienting conceptually but your preconceptions about how the stage setting should appear visually is involved. So you have both a language and visual level operating before you even start off to do the production.
RS: Actually, these are areas that I am very fond of and I feel like I can be very strong both as a writer -- everything I do involves plays, and things I wrote. Also, I visualize it as I go along. On a third level, I think of it as sound. I do have a perception of the sound. This is probably the weaker area of the three. I don't know. Maybe writing is my weaker area, but I think of things sequentially so I do think of it as writing. But putting it down on paper is a little weaker as far as how visual images stay in my head longer, and more vividly and more permanently than language. Language is a little easier to put down sequentially because you write and you keep going and you put down things sequentially as language whereas visually, it's more like frames in time which is a little more difficult. Plus you can capture them right away.
MW: As you develop these persons who are represented as puppets on stage, from all these different resources that you're utilizing, you seem to let them explore their own possibilities and work between each other. There doesn't seem to be any framework for them to insult or break out of.
RS: It's not just characters as they would exist in our society here and now but theoretically and hypothetically. Like what, given certain social elements and situations, would produce a character that would react, sort of like where I have certain social influences, for example technology which is having a very big influence right now, and where that relates to people as individuals and what, hypothetically, the lives of these people will be like in the future.
MW: That's a very strong theme in a large number of the productions that you put on, this idea of the future and how we interact, not just interpersonally but sexually and romantically. There are all these different degrees of interaction that you try to represent. I wanted to get into how you think of that ahead of time or even, after you're done with it, because you seem to take the resources of a production about the future and incorporate it into another production. You have a constantly developing view of the future.
RS: I get that out of all of the people I know. I think, you know, there are other people who I am working with and writing with who have influences on what I do plus media -- I try not to put so much worth on media as far as someone telling what to look at and what to listen to. I've been influenced by other creative people around me, so that all becomes part of it, I can't help it.
MW: You're operating like some kind of syncretic sponge, you're taking in what people think around you and incorporating all that into what molds people's views of certain subjects.
RS: More than that, there is interpretation of future trends, seeing what people are observant of and what they see. This place is full of gnats [waving his hand at a swarm of gnats buzzing in front of his face]!
MW: It's full of gnats.
RS: So, not just like what they see but what they're observant of and what their influences are and where they're going to. I am very aware of that and am always looking at what other people around them re thinking and I try to not just interpret but hypothesize and predict and then go a little beyond prediction and hypothesis, with an element of desire added in to that I think, or curiosity.
MW: Or ecstasy.
RS: People have fears and then they take those fears and in a parallel they call it a fantasy -- creative people take that and create based on that. That's the media of our future, creative people with their fears, their anxieties, their fantasies and their hopes, when those become how they design things and how they look at things for our future and they're the people who shape what we're looking at in the future and the style of the way people interact in the future.
Our taped conversation ended here, and we made our way out of the gallery. By the end of the night, Syverson, myself, and one of our friends ended up at the Borderline Tap at the six corners intersection of Damen, North, and Milwaukee. We stayed late into the evening, trying to avoid being caught up in the struggle to copulate.Syverson was palpably disturbed by the patrons of the bar, but drank a few more 7-and-7s, chatting good-naturedly with people sitting around us.
At one point, before he was getting ready to leave for the night, Syverson stood up from his chair and announced to the crowd: "I'm going to spend the night on the sidewalk in front of my house!" We lingered until late in the evening and then Syverson put on his coat, bid us goodnight, and went out the door. We were all pretty tipsy. Within minutes, however, Syverson came storming back in through the door. He kicked over a chair and sat down next to me. "I almost got hit by a car. I reached out and touched it with both my hands. I went outside and fell down and almost got hit by a car, and a police car went right by and didn't even care." He whispered conspiratorially. Then Syverson stood up and started kicking over more chairs. Within seconds, a heavy-set bouncer who had been standing in the front of the bar had taken ahold of Syverson. Syverson took a swing at him, and missed. The bouncer gently nudged Syverson -- who was still swinging his fists, though not at the bouncer now, but at the crowd -- through the door and out into the squall of rain and snow that was then coming down.
Selected Recent Performances by Ralph Syverson:
Future Communication--A scene from an upcoming play entitled The Future. Two neighbors in the Loftominium accidentally meet in person, rather than through electronic means, as will be the custom in the future. Performed April 2000 at The Chic-a-go-go Variety Show, The Hideout, Chicago Illinois.
Hair Product -- Smooth Larry, a balding dog, searches for a way to bring back his youthful appearance. Performed February 2000 at "Pot Lucky," The Hideout, Chicago, Illinois.
Tummy Trouble -- Groovy Granny, a lonely, widowed grandmother wants nothing more to have some visitors, and shares her cookies with the audience. A collaboration with Kate Sheehy. Performed November 1999 at "This Way to the Egress," The Butcher Shop Gallery, Chicago, Illinois.
Eskape from Freak Mountain -- The "deviants" sneak out of town on Halloween night to investigate the rumors that they have heard about Freak Mountain. Directed by Ralph Syverson and performed by Ralph Syverson, Kate Sheehy, Geoffrey Greenberg and Celia Bucci. Performed October 1999 at "Vaudeville Nights," Wing & Groove Theater and "Eskape from Freak Mountain," The Hideout, Chicago, Illinois.
Robosexual -- A young man must confess to his girlfriend that he is more interested in his robot than in her. Performed September and October 1999 at "Lunatic Farm," The Playground and "Vaudeville Nights," Wing & Groove Theater and Chopin Theater, Chicago, Illinois.
First Scene from "Barbarella" -- Barbarella receives her assignment from Dianthus, President of Earth. Performed August - October 1999 at "Lunatic Farm," The Playground, "Vaudeville Nights," Wing & Groove Theater, "Pot Lucky #5," The Hideout, "Escapist's Ball," Underworld Books, Chicago, Illinois.
The Moon People -- Travelers to the moon discover that there are already people there. Performed September 1999 at "Lunatic Farm," The Playground, Chicago, Illinois.
Let's Go Crazy -i A puppet interpretation of Prince's song, "Let's Go Crazy." Performed August - September 1999 at "1999, A Tribute to Prince," The Empty Bottle and "Lunatic Farm," The Playground, Chicago, Illinois.
Space Rock Band Visits the Hideout -- Two space-boys and a space-girl start a band and go on a rock tour across the universe, stopping at The Hideout for a popular and crowd-pleasing show. Performed at "Pot Lucky #4," The Hideout, Chicago, Illinois.
Space Girls are as Cold as Ice -- Two space-boys fall in love with the same space-girl. Performed at "Pot Lucky #3," The Hideout, Chicago, Illinois.
Robots vs. Humans -- The robots revolt, dissatisfied with their treatment by their human creators. Performed September 1998 - September 1999 at "Lunatic Farm," The Playground, "Vaudeville Nights," Mary Archie Theater and "Thax After Dark," Lounge Ax, Chicago, Illinois.
The Man Machine -- A scientist makes a deal with the Devil to bring life to his machine. Performed October 1998 at "Necromancer's Ball," The Church, Douglas Reid Fogelson Photography, "Thax After Dark," Lounge Ax and "Vaudeville Nights," Chopin Theater, Chicago, Illinois.
© 2000 by Michael Workman
Michael Workman is a student of English Literature at Northwestern University, and he writes reviews in his spare time for the New Art Examiner magazine in Chicago. His first novel, entitled Relative Chill, is due out this summer from Neshui Press, St. Louis. Michael Workman can be contacted by e-mail at: