The Third Bank of the River

“He pops up as a blip on the map every now and then, and he always will.”

Dr. Piers Armstrong

JANIE GEISER is an internationally recognized experimental filmmaker and object performance/installation artist, whose work is known for its evocation of emotional states, its sense of mystery, and its strength of design. One of the pioneers of the renaissance of American avant-garde puppet theater, Geiser creates innovative, hypnotic works that integrate puppets and performing objects with live performers and film.

In 1984, Neill Bogan, approached his friend and collaborator, Janie Geiser, with a story he was sure would translate perfectly to the stage. He’d never heard of the author, but happened to come across the short story, “The Third Bank of the River”, in an anthology of Latin American Literature in English translation. “We weren’t even sure how to pronounce his name,” admits Geiser, as we meet over coffee in Silver Lake, and who asks me to demonstrate the pronunciation. We practice together. “I just loved the story, and immediately, when I read it, I felt like I could see it, the language in material form.”

JG: It was twenty-five years ago that I did this show. I had a company that was based in Atlanta, where I began working on the showcase Blue Night, which was one show comprised of four shorter pieces, all under thirty minutes. The Third Bank of the River was the culminating piece, and I felt it really brought closure to the work I was presenting. The other pieces had already been completed, but we adapted The Third Bank specifically for that showing in New York. It’s still one of my most favorite shows.

FM: Can you describe the production as far as materials and mechanics go?

JG: The son was human, but also a puppet. The narrator, Neill Bogan, sat to the side of the stage with a spot light on him. Everything that took place on land, took place inside or around the house, while the actor who played the father wore a mask and had a boat strapped to his waist so that whenever he moved, the boat moved with him, creating the appearance he was floating on water. It was so simple, and it looked so clean. It let the actor go deep into space, making it feel like he was far away.

Here’s Neill Bogan who did the adaptation and who was the narrator in the piece

Photos by Bard Wrisley

JG: To me, because the story is so beautiful itself, I didn’t feel it needed a whole lot of physical illustration. The actions themselves were the most important thing for us to depict, the language stood for itself.

FM: Were you aware of the translation issues surrounding Guimarães Rosa’s work when you decided to adapt the story?

JG: No, not at all. What we found was the English translation, so we didn’t have to think about translation. The story was just great to us, and it made sense to us.

FM: Where did your process begin?

JG: I started by drawing a lot, to determine the space, which is important in puppet theater. Early on, I can’t recall if it was me or Neill, but we decided on the human element, that it was important to have a human interacting with puppets, the two being equals despite the difference in scale. I’ve been interested in scale and with scale shifts, which are easier to convey in puppetry than in human theater.

FM: Guimarães Rosa, as you can tell from the title of the story we’re talking about, was very interested in a third space. We could say that your puppetry, the “realistic” human coupled with the puppets/boat as art objects, itself constitutes a third space. Did you consider this as you developed the human-puppet aspects of your performance?

JG: Well, yes, that’s what I was doing, so the subject matter worked out. It was the title of the story that captivated me, so yes, I definitely considered a third space.

I also liked that it read like a folktale, only, not as preciously as folktales tend to be. It had something else going on, a whole other layer.

Photo by Gin Ellis

By Felipe Martinez for AMISSINGBOOK
Los Angeles, California
February 5, 2011


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