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Visiting the Cohen Group Helped Finnish Puppeteers Create the World's Smallest Puppet Theater

Trial & Theatre performer En Ping Yu lies on the floor of the stage

Performer En Ping Yu in casual clothes and a white labcoat lies on their back on a black stage floor, their face turned towards the camera with a somewhat serious expression. A few pieces of scientific equipment lay between them and the camera, including a pair of safety goggles and a beaker. A microphone stand is behind them. A projector screen covers most of the background. The screen is almost completely filled by a close-up of a grain of sand.

Trial & Theatre, a puppet theater group in Finland, has created the world's smallest puppet theater after visiting and consulting with physicists around the world, including the Cohen Lab. The resulting performance is called "Nano Steps." It premiered at Studio Pasila in Helsinki, Finland on August 8th, 2023. LASSP graduate students Anna Barth and Kemper Ludlow were part of a panel discussion on August 14th following a performance.

IBM's stop motion animation using atoms inspired puppeteer Aati Hanikka to explore what the world's smallest puppet could be. The Trial & Theatre group formed from director Hanikka, dramaturg Iiris Syrjä, and sound designer Valtteri Alanen. "Nano Steps" also features visiting artists En Ping Yu as performer and Jere Suontausta as light designer.

Puppeteers Pay a Visit to the Cohen Lab

The puppet theater group visited Cornell University in early summer 2022, after Aati reached out to Professor Itai Cohen. They spent time with the Cohen Lab's origami microrobots and explored other research areas that had puppetry potential, including non-Newtonian suspensions, acoustic manipulation, and magnetic fields. They also spent time with PhD student Hanyu (Alice) Zhang (AEP) and the Cornell Nanofabrication Facility (CNF). They describe their experiences and the potential applications for puppetry in two essays (linked at the end of this article) published on the website Aura of Puppets, Finland's largest network of professional puppeteers. From these puppeteers' points of view, applied physics research offers a wealth of inspiration.

Physics PhD students Anna Barth and Kemper Ludlow described their initial reaction to the news that puppeteers would be visiting their lab as bemused delight. Kemper’s work currently focuses on fruit flies, while Anna’s current focus is Quincke rotors. As they showed the puppeteers around the lab, they were surprised by the ways that science and puppetry could overlap. Kemper recalls the puppeteers’ description of the process of experimenting with a new puppet – the goal was to use the least amount of input to get the most output – as a strategy also found throughout engineering and physics. 

Anna and Kemper have since published an article on the Aura of Puppets website about their experience, which you can read here!

At first, it seemed like the purpose of the visit was for the puppeteers to get an understanding of how scientists think. In fact, Trial & Theatre had both theoretical and experimental aims in mind. Anna recalls receiving an email months after the visit from the puppeteers asking what she used as a spacer for her slides. 

3 members of Trial & Theatre sit on a stage with Cornell Physics PhD students Anna Barth and Kemper Ludlow to discuss the Nano Steps production
The Q&A panel following the final performance at the theater. Kemper and Anna provided their impressions from a scientist's point of view. Aati, Iiris, and Valterri discussed the process of pulling the show together. From left to right: Aati Hanikka, Iiris Syrjä, Anna Barth, Valtteri Alanen, Kemper Ludlow, and Suvi Tuominen (curator of Helsinki City Theatre Stage for Contemporary Performance) as panel moderator. Photographer: Eyob Tsegaye.

A Puppet Show of Particles

In "Nano Steps," the puppeteers use sound waves and electric fields to manipulate particles under microscopes, applying techniques familiar to physicists to create a microscopic puppet show projected onto a screen for the audience. This non-verbal performance requires the group to improvise, because their particle "puppets" behave differently each time. They describe the performance as "not science fiction, but rather a fiction of science," and a blurring of the boundaries between science and puppetry. 

Anna and Kemper attended the final performance, described it as “mesmerizing” and “dreamlike,” and said that it reflected the curiosity inherent to scientific work. Trial & Theatre developed and performed the show utilizing equipment you can find in many physics labs, but rather than seeking to create a controllable, repeatable experiment, the goal was to figure out how to generate interesting movements and effects in different particles. Though there is an improvisational element to the performance, it takes skill to use a microscope to find a particle doing something interesting, and then keep that particle in view. This freed them from the constraints that most scientists must manage in order to get their work funded. Kemper believes that Trial & Theatre’s tests to find interesting particle behaviors likely revealed things not yet closely studied in the field of physics.

The Nano Steps program includes a note of thanks to "Professor Itai Cohen and his research group, especially Zexi Liang [Cohen/McEuen Labs Postdoctoral Associate], Anna Barth and Kemper Ludlow [Cohen Lab Graduate Research Assistants] also Michael Reynolds [CBE Postdoctoral Associate], Thomas 'Tom' Pennell [CNF Education & Outreach Coordinator] and Sara Eddleman [LASSP Associate Director]." *

Over 800 people attended the performances, and Trial & Theatre has additional shows planned for next spring.

* Department and position at the time of the 2022 visit have been added in brackets.

Sources & Further Reading:

Header image source: Used with permission from Trial & Theatre. Taken by Miika Storm Photography. The image features performer En Ping Yu. Nano Steps 2023 Flickr Album.

Author: Meredith Czymmek