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To Use Or
Not To Use?

Nigel Luck and Janet Lee address the dilemma of puppetry and appropriation

This was supposed to be an article about why it’s important to use professional puppeteers in performances that involve puppetry, about the injustice surrounding puppets being commercially in vogue and about the only people not benefiting from this: puppeteers. But really we’re not sure that’s the most beneficial way to look at what’s actually happening. It seems that puppets are the in thing right now and established theatre companies are using the artform to bring innovation to their productions. Puppetry is now being used within large-budget productions, many of which are not usually associated with puppetry, whilst puppet theatre companies still struggle to get decent funding

Did we miss something?  Of course those of us within the fold know this to be a complex issue. Puppetry has worked with and through many performative disciplines for a long time, so it does feel like piracy when the public and critics rave about sell-out popular performances that use puppets and praise them for their innovation. What is possibly more frustrating is that productions that are heavily reliant on puppetry are not always using trained puppeteers, preferring to cast regular actors instead whom they provide with puppetry training. However, before we whisk out the ducking stool, we should take a closer look at the arguments, as there could yet be a silver lining to this dark cloud.

The appropriation of puppetry by non-puppet companies is not really that novel. It’s been happening for years within fringe and experimental work by artists  such as Robert Wilson and Peter Brook, and international avant-garde companies such as Ariane Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil, Complicite, Robert Lepage’s Ex Machina, and the Wooster Group, to name a few. So this sudden apparent discovery of puppets by artists and companies who perhaps have not used puppetry in productions before is not really that new. I don’t think you’d find many people who would classify the above as puppet companies and yet they’ve all used puppets. Perhaps this is a crest of another wave where puppetry is undergoing a resurgence and people are again looking to puppets as an element in theatre-makers’ toolbox. Today, puppetry can be found in all sorts of productions, from Shakespearean adaptations to big budget musicals. And with Julie Taymor’s The Lion King, puppetry has been elevated to Broadway/West End status. How much more public attention can live puppetry get? Puppetry has evolved from the radical into the ready-made and like many new acquisitions, everyone wants some. 

The question underlying all this is: who should be engaged to work on these productions? If puppets are involved then surely people experienced with puppets should be the ones operating them? After all we’ve spent years training and developing these specialist skills; surely now that there is a spotlight on puppetry we should be reaping the rewards.

An example of this from a couple of year’s back is the National’s production of His Dark Materials, which was created with roles requiring puppet skills; yet experienced puppeteers did not perform these roles. Instead, actors were cast and provided with a crash course in puppet skills. Of course it takes a little more than a few quick lessons to impart enough skill to be a good manipulator. There’s also the acquired experience from performing puppetry that enables the puppeteer to acquire a feel for the nature of puppet-related performance, especially in receptive terms, through the audience’s level of attention and focus during their performance. The people imparting these quickly-taught skills to the actors are puppeteers. But employing professional puppeteers to impart a level of skill implies that skilled manipulation is required for the part, so why not use puppeteers to perform in the first instance? Is it assumed that puppetry as an artform is a more easily transferable skill than a developed voice and a visible stage presence?

Jason Moor, the director of Avenue Q, claims to have auditioned a range of puppeteers for his moving mouth/rod puppet musical, but found they could not cope with the singing demands of the show and so he hired musical theatre performers and taught them to use the puppets. One wonders how long he spent training the non-puppeteers in the operation of puppets and, comparatively, how long it would take to train the puppeteers in the vocal demands of musical theatre. A few years ago, Spare Parts Puppet Theatre (a West Australian puppet company who will host the UNIMA conference in 2008) collaborated with the Academy of Performing Arts in Western Australia to teach their Music Theatre students puppetry skills with the collaboration culminating in a music theatre performance with puppets. Now the singing was okay, but it has to be said that the puppetry was not so great. There was no real affinity or even convincing play with the objects and puppets they were working with and the project would have benefited greatly from more time training and workshopping with puppets and objects. Clearly this came down to the time given for focused puppetry training (not as generous as it should have been) and the amount of attention given to the singing of the score (clearly a great deal more). 

Herein is an important point: that puppetry is not merely a technical skill that can be ‘transferred’ any more easily than sculpture can (or in the context of this point, musical theatre training). One has to connect with the puppet as a presence and work to nurture its creative life. Frankly not all performing artists have a suitably sensitive touch and an ability to transfer it to puppets. Jason Moore may have found it difficult to find performers with both skills, but then what is more important, the puppetry or the singing? Clearly Moore placed greater value on the singing, but then if you look at the clips on the internet, it shows. The puppeteers are visible and act and sing simultaneously through the puppets, but it is evident that the manipulation could have been more sensitive.

When viewing work like this, one often feels that the puppet is a gratuitous extra and part of a design feature rather than the point of the representation. This is because puppetry also suffers from a design-oriented focus where the puppets are seen as the most important thing on the stage, and as long as the puppet looks impressive, there is less value on how artistically the puppet manifests itself through its manipulation and its presence. So those who have not previously had the experience of working with puppets may perceive the most important member of the puppet/performer relationship to be the puppet, and assume that there is some easy technique that you can acquire once you have a super-puppet to work with. As long as there is an assumption that the puppet is the most important part of the team, then the assumption that any half decent performer can move it will follow.

So why aren’t producers and directors using puppeteers for these roles? Maybe there is a preconception about what puppeteers do and don’t do. Perhaps there is also a misconception that puppeteers are not comfortable being seen by an audience; that they are a strange breed of person who likes to hide behind a screen, or lurk in black ‘invisibility’ suits, manifesting their work furtively through the front people – the puppets (as happens with cartoonists and computer animators). Does it come down to a preconception that puppeteers cannot be good performers because, as manipulators, they have to manufacture presence through something else (i.e. the puppet, costume, mask) rather than their own performative presence? Is there then an assumption that a puppeteer is not a ‘performing artist’ but more of a technician? Is it assumed that puppeteers haven’t developed the necessary vocal, physical or acting skills, and therefore the expedient thing is to teach an actor to use a puppet? 

Most of the puppeteers we know have roots in other disciplines and have moved into puppetry because as an artform it enables them to develop their existing skills in stylised and unconventional ways.  Therefore, surely, they are entirely capable of using their skill in interdisciplinary or cross-artform contexts. As an example, many puppeteers have significantly developed their vocal range due to the myriad types of puppets and puppet characters that they give voice to.

Often performances where puppets have been used by non-puppeteers require the performer to fulfil dual roles. Taymor’s Lion King puppeteers also require considerable dance skills, so clearly something more than conventional puppetry skills are being asked for here; but then the work is not characteristic of traditional puppetry and works more consciously as dance-puppetry. However, this is less apparent in His Dark Materials, where specialised physical skills such as dance or acrobatics are not so necessary for the manipulators. 

Perhaps the answer lies in the very interdisciplinary approach many productions are taking these days. Performers are asked to fill several roles in a production, with puppeteer being only one. Some companies have mentioned that they don’t necessarily use puppeteers because the skills they are looking for go beyond simply good manipulation technique. Admittedly, as a pair of devisers ourselves, we confess to an occasional hesitance to work with a certain type of puppeteer. Not because they have traditional skills and training, far from it. The problems arise if a puppeteer, like any artist trained in a specific discipline, resists shifting outside the parameters of the ‘pure’ manifestations of their artforms. In terms of interdisciplinary and devised work, this is clearly not a useful situation.

We first became interested in puppets and performing objects because they were capable of so much, because they could break all kinds of rules that actors and indeed conventional theatre could or would not, so it’s frustrating to be told what puppets can and can’t do when you’re setting out to create performance that wants to break rules.  Improbable is perhaps the best-known British example of a company that is re-examining the puppet within devised performance contexts (their collaboration with ENO on the Philip Glass opera Satyagraha is about to open at the Colliseum, March 2007).

Their use of interdisciplinary approaches, whilst not always encompassing the use of puppetry, has had an influence on the way puppetry is viewed within the UK. Shockheaded Peter attracted large audiences and certainly contributed to the growing interest in puppets but it really couldn’t be defined as a puppet show. Yes, it had puppets, but it contained a lot more besides. Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch have previously found the puppeteer’s skills to be a block to the creation of the particular style of work they are interested in. During an interview in the 2000 publication Puppetry into Performance: A User’s Guide, they were grappling with these very issues:

…often when we work with trained puppeteers the biggest stumbling block to creating a great ensemble or a complete show has been those very skills which trained puppeteers have. Often with performers in our shows what we are looking for is what we would call ‘metaskills’ – these are feelings, skills and attitudes which lie beneath any technical skills a performer may have as a puppeteer, improviser or actor. (McDermott & Crouch 2000:13)

The recent Philippe Genty production of Lands End at the London International Mime Festival (January 2007) made it clear that highly skilled manipulation techniques are not enough to perform in this style of work. There is also a need for strong dance skills and acting. Genty therefore casts his performers from varying backgrounds; some are dancers, some actors and some puppeteers. But more important than any of those particular skills is flexibility and a desire to explore and extend themselves through the compositional values of the piece.

Perhaps we have to be careful how we define ourselves. Too commonly puppetry is defined within narrow bounds, with the public (and arts professionals) making assumptions about its limitations. Cross-disciplinary training is very important as it helps you survive as an artist. Maybe this is a sign of the times: that puppeteers should begin to acknowledge themselves first and foremost as performing artists who have skills in a range of disciplines, focusing on puppetry but including acting/dance/singing/circus skills, etc. Puppeteers need training – not just in puppetry but also in additional skills that will enable them to continue to experiment with their artform. Of course if puppeteers want to perform traditional puppetry in traditional contexts, then it is not productive to complain about companies using other performers if they require them for interdisciplinary performances. Herein lies the issue at the heart of this discussion.

Perhaps this has more to do with the ongoing question: what could be achieved if Britain had a national puppet company with the equivalent funding and support that is afforded to flagship dance, theatre and music companies? Therein puppeteers and puppetry would be able to develop themselves with and through other disciplines, companies and practitioners. Perhaps then puppetry need not play supporting cast to the host discipline. It can feature as puppet theatre, which happens to be very diverse. But in the meantime what we really need to demonstrate is that puppeteers have a range of skills above and beyond the foundation of manipulating puppets.

For those whose main interest is in puppet theatre that still places a strong focus on the puppet, there may yet be a beneficial result of this current trend. People are starting to see puppets in shows, people who perhaps have not seen puppetry before and may have a very limited idea of what puppetry is. There are audiences whose experience of puppets has been limited to popular television examples or children’s theatre, and who would not go to see a purely puppet production. Maybe seeing puppets in other productions (even if the manipulation is under par) might foster an interest in other puppet work and open out the artform to a larger audience. And hopefully as the audience and arts community become more informed, they will begin to realise the importance of the puppeteer’s skills. After all, many of these companies are themselves still learning.

The quote by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch of Improbable is from:
Brown, Rebecca ‘The Gap’ (an interview with Phelim McDermott & Julian Crouch) in Dean, Anthony (Managing Ed.), Puppetry into Performance: A User’s Guide (The Central School of Speech & Drama, 2000), pp 11–13.


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