2023 Festival Archive: Theodora Skipitares

Theodora Skipitares: Grand Panorama

January 22-24, 2023

Harold Washington Cindy Pritzker Auditorium

Presented by Harold Washington Library and Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

With special support from: Cheryl Henson
and the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation


Scholarship and Resources

“Swaying the Heart by the Eye:” Grand Panorama’s Brilliant Puppet Pastiche Illuminates the Photographic Legacy of Frederick Douglass

An Essay by Jesse Njus

Theodora Skipitares’s Grand Panorama is a grand collage of both ideas and puppetry. Divided into nineteen scenes, each vignette examines the power of representation in the age of mechanical reproduction. While the segments intersect, they do not attempt to generate a comprehensive or linear narrative; this is a play that questions the authority of images by manipulating those images as performing objects for our viewing pleasure. Audiences familiar with Skipitares’s work will recognize the collage of puppetry styles—performers wearing giant photographic mask heads; the incorporation of shadow puppetry, toy theater, and crankie, as well as three-dimensional rod puppets; and the inclusion of historic photographs, all accompanied by music and narration. 

Yet this is a performance in which all these techniques are interrogated, while the audience watching the performance is asked to consider the power and positionality of their gaze. Who looks, and who is looked at? Who is subject, and who is object? Who controls what is seen and how that object is interpreted by its audience? Although Grand Panorama focuses on photography rather than cinema—or, indeed, theater—the responsibilities of spectatorship are analyzed throughout the performance, making the play’s own audience aware of its complicity in the voyeuristic gaze of the spectator.

Grand Panorama centers on Frederick Douglass, who was not only the most photographed man of his time but who also gave four lectures on photography from which the play excerpts sections for narration. As Grand Panorama unspools Douglass’s admiration for Louis Daguerre and his daguerreotype, the play’s central themes come into focus by relying on the connections between the scenes and the puppetry styles, such as the use of photographic figures in the toy theater or the relationship between the process of creating a daguerreotype and the silhouettes of shadow puppetry. Grand Panorama asks us to look at—and think about—the ways in which Douglass wanted to be seen. The giant mask heads worn by performers are of Douglass, created from his iconic photographs, and Grand Panorama demands that we recognize that Douglass consciously made these photographs iconic. Douglass was the most photographed man of his time, not by chance but by design, and his photographs have become iconic because of the manner in which he knowingly represented himself. Douglass carefully constructed the iconic “Frederick Douglass” that we recognize today, and we are asked to acknowledge the effort that Douglass made to be seen—and, more importantly, remembered—as he wished to be. As an African-American man in the nineteenth century, Douglass seized on the new technology of photography as a means of ensuring that he was able to craft his own representation.

While the audience learns the reason why these iconic photographs exist and sees the story of Douglass’s interest in photography unwind via toy theater and crankie, we are consistently looking at Douglass’s photographs themselves, manipulated as puppets. As the spectators listen to Douglass’s lectures on photography with a beautiful, lilting cello accompaniment, we are embodying the very gaze that he was attempting to influence. Does watching his photographs manipulated in toy theater or as masks alter our perception of them? Laura Mulvey may have coined the modern theory of the gaze in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” but Douglass thoroughly understood this concept. The photographer’s gaze is not the only one that matters; in his 1861 lecture on photography “Lecture on Pictures,” Douglass points out that photographs enable us both to see ourselves and to present ourselves as we wish to be seen. A servant girl, Douglass comments, can now buy a portrait of herself that is superior to the most expensive portrait that could have been painted fifty years earlier.

Douglass, of course, was not an ordinary, average American like his imagined servant girl, but Grand Panorama also turns to W.E.B. Du Bois, whose photographs of African-Americans going about their daily lives were inspired by Douglass’s use of photography and served as a central element in Du Bois’s exhibit for the 1900 Paris Exposition (which can be viewed here through the Library of Congress). In these vignettes, Du Bois’s photographs are collaged together into scenes of everyday life. The photographs presented by the puppeteers are notable for their quality and for their obscurity—unlike Douglass’s photographs, Du Bois’s photographic collection did not achieve the fame and influence that he hoped they would. Seeing them presented onstage is a reminder that Du Bois’s project is still needed, and contemporary artists like Bisa Butler have also begun to (re)present Du Bois’s extraordinary photographic record of middle-class African-American life at the turn of the twentieth century.¹ The photographs abound with students, musicians, artists, scientists, and shopkeepers, and the Grand Panorama performers themselves interact with these photographs, placing themselves within the turn-of-the-century collages. Grand Panorama insists that spectators think deliberately about the ways we view history; as the photographic cutouts travel across the stage, we are asked to contemplate how we look at photographs and why we view photographs differently from other forms of representation, such as the shadow puppets or the rod puppets that have been dressed with careful historical accuracy. What is the power of technological reproduction and who controls it?

In the midst of the vignettes about Douglass and Du Bois, Grand Panorama also focuses a discursive lens on lesser-known figures, such as Nicholas Biddle, whose photograph in the Library of Congress has the title “‘Nick Biddle,’ of Pottsville, Pa., the first man wounded in the great American Rebellion, ‘Baltimore, April 18, 1861’ / W. R. Mortimer [photographer].” Biddle was an African-American orderly in a white Pennsylvania regiment that traveled to Washington, D.C. in April 1861. The regiment was attacked in Baltimore—not a Union-friendly city—and Biddle was credited by his colleagues as the first man to have been wounded in the war. He later sold his photograph to raise money for wounded Union soldiers, demonstrating that the power of photography went beyond the control of the gaze.

Perhaps Grand Panorama’s biggest question is about the legacy of both Douglass and the technological innovation he championed. The performance provides constant reminders that technology can intensify and amplify inequality, and the play ends with excerpts from an interview with Joy Buolamwini, a Ghanaian-American-Canadian MIT researcher and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, dedicated to “equitable and accountable AI.” However, the performance locale of Grand Panorama at the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival (CIPTF) also provided a unique answer to the question of legacy. The performances took place at the Harold Washington Library (HWL) Center, which is positioned almost directly behind the Chicago Fine Arts Building where CIPTF’s main offices are located. The HWL is both the main building in the Chicago Public Library System and the building named for Chicago’s first African-American mayor, who served from his election in 1983 until his untimely death in 1987. Completed in 1991, the location of the new central library building was chosen—and its construction funded—during Washington’s tenure as mayor. The performance context of the HWL was an excellent frame for Grand Panorama. The mere fact of sitting in the HWL while witnessing a play that analyzes the ways in which two iconic African-American men harnessed the power of the gaze through technological innovation serves as a reminder that just as Du Bois learned from Douglass so too was Washington a part of that legacy of African-American men who learned to control their narrative to the point that they could make even white audiences (and voters) see them as they wished to be seen. 

While Grand Panorama makes no attempt to provide solutions, watching as a Chicagoan in the HWL during the tenure of Mayor Lori Lightfoot (the first African-American woman and, in her words, the “first openly gay mayor of Chicago”) and, as it happened, on the eve of Brandon Johnson’s election as mayor (the third African-American man to serve as mayor of Chicago and the second to be elected)—the question of how much control the subject of the gaze can exert, particularly when that subject is African-American, seemed far closer than the historic distance of the play might at first lead one to expect. As Frederick Douglass proclaimed in his 1861 lecture “[r]ightly viewed, the whole soul of man is a sort of picture gallery, a grand panorama, in which all the great facts of the universe, in tracing things of time and things of eternity, are painted” (2015: 131).

1   For more about Butler’s work and its relationship to Douglass’s and Du Bois’s photographs, see Warren (2020).

Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. “Lecture on Pictures.” In: John Stauffer, et. al. Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American, Liveright, 2015, pp.126-141.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, 1975, pp. 6-18.

Warren, Erica. “The People of Bisa Butler’s Portraits.” Art Institute of Chicago, November 17, 2020. Available at: https://www.artic.edu/articles/858/the-people-of-bisa-butlers-portraits. Accessed August 4, 2023.

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