A San Francisco native, Basil Twist first became interested in puppetry through his mother, who was president of the San Francisco Puppeteers Guild. After stints working with designer and Broadway director Julie Taymor and the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater in New York’s Central Park, Twist became the first American to study at France’s École Supérieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionnette.
He lives in New York’s Greenwich Village, where he dreams up his shows and constructs puppets in a basement workshop. Spark caught up with Twist in San Francisco, where he was collaborating with dancer Joe Goode and playwright Paula Vogel to stage “The Long Christmas Ride Home” at the Magic Theatre.
Twist first made a splash in 1995 with “The Araneidae Show.” Since then, he has won a Bessie Award for the show and been nominated for a Drama Desk Award for “Tell Tale.” Though well versed in traditional forms, Twist often creates his own blended styles, pushing boundaries to adapt them to new theatrical expectations.
Skilled in a wide variety of animating the inanimate, Twist’s work often brings long-forgotten puppetry forms back to the stage. His 1999 “Dogugaeshi” used more than 700 mobile painted screens — of the style of the same name, one which has nearly disappeared from its native Japanese island of Awaji. And for the 2005 Spoleto Festival, he constructed life-sized marionettes for a return to the lost 18th-century art of puppet opera with the revival of Ottorino Respighi’s “La bella dormente nel bosco.”
In Twist’s version of the beloved Stravinsky ballet “Petrushka,” he created the acrobatic steps of a gamut of fantastical characters using Czech black technique, in which puppeteers clad in black velvet move invisibly in the darkness behind their puppets. And later, he turned to a modified style of Japanese bunraku — making the puppeteers a more integral part of the show as both operators and actors — in “The Long Christmas Ride Home.”
Twist has also developed underwater marionettes for his internationally acclaimed “Symphonie Fantastique,” which was performed in a 1,000-gallon, seven-foot-long aquarium. And he worked with film director Alfonso Cuaron on “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” using his underwater skills to help animators achieve the underwater flow of the merpeople.
Basil Twist notes that although many people think of puppetry as a children’s art form, it is a deeply resonant and metaphorical practice. For him, puppetry is about giving life and soul to objects and telling the stories of the inanimate, while constantly reinventing the art as he goes along.