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Dramaturgy: the written text, the performance text, and the puppeteer

Penny Francis, in an edited extract from her forthcoming book Puppetry, a Reader, reflects on the many meanings of ‘text’ for puppet theatre

This follows Matthew Isaac Cohen’s article in the last issue on writings available for puppets.

For the purposes of my article (and the chapter in the forthcoming book), ‘dramaturgy’ refers to two things: theatre works scripted for and performed by puppets – or by human performers and puppets – and the staged interpretation of those works, the ‘performance-text’.

Among the basic resources needed by any writer or creator of a modern work intended for figure or object play, will be an acquaintance with the visual and scenic arts and a sensibility to the puppet’s need for movement and action. Any verbal text will consist, not unusually, of narration, sung or spoken, or of dialogues for the puppet characters, but a writer should bear in mind that the voices will be supplied by a performer, visible or invisible, and the words will appear to issue from a face that will not change expression (even if lighting and the imagination of the spectator can to a small extent effect this change). Scripted speech is often extensively cut in rehearsal; the author’s treasured prose can become redundant when superimposed by illustrative action and/or a soundscape. Thus the literary playwright must contemplate acquiring a new skill, that of learning how to turn ideas into images on the page, whether described or in drawings, as for the scenario of a film, with which a puppet piece has much in common.

It follows that a published post-production script or any record of a show consisting only of its spoken element will be the barest bones of the staged performance-text, a skeleton to be fleshed out by means of the creative input of the artists involved in any future production. This is one explanation of why examples of recent productions are hard to find, in particular texts in English published between 1990 and the present.

In the last edition of Animations Online, Matthew Cohen pointed out the riches of the published writings of the Modernist period in the first half of the twentieth century. These authors were of high distinction: Lorca, Maeterlinck, Rilke, Büchner, Kleist, Poe, Wyspianski, Craig, Bouchor, Jarry and many more. Their plays are published, and it is remarkable that the accessibility of a puppet dramaturgy is now so much reduced. Few modern writers of note have contributed original work to the repertory. Some well-known names have been successfully commissioned by puppet companies: in Britain they include Angela Carter, Adrian Mitchell, Gregory Motton, Wendy Cope, Howard Barker, Michael Rosen, John Agard, Nick Stafford. All have discovered – or been discovered by – a medium which transcends the limitations of the actors’ physical form and gravity-bound existence, giving the writer the freedom to ignore practical difficulties of action, of size and scale, and to give free rein to the non-naturalistic in the telling of a story.

The twentieth century exemplars are heralds of twenty-first century practice which now esteems puppetry as an accepted resource for a ‘total theatre’, which Artaud saw as a theatre to ‘recapture from cinema, music-hall, the circus and life itself, those things that always belonged to it.’ The pursuit of a total theatre that stresses the visual elements of a show has greatly assisted puppetry to gain ground, but may have contributed to the reluctance and scarcity of good writers for the new genre, in that it was (and is) uncharted territory for the literary playwright.

Another reason for the scarcity of scripts is that the current dramaturgy favoured by producing puppeteers is often an expression of a personal vision or conviction, expressed almost entirely in movement and sounds, difficult if not impossible to commit to paper as a script. These artists do not conceive of the use of their shows by others, as the performance-text that the audience witnesses is dependent on a synthesis of design, lighting, music and choreography that is wholly authored by the puppeteer. Examples are many: the soloist Stephen Mottram who explores ‘the basic mysteries of life’ such as the growth of a child in the womb, or miscegenation; Ilka Schönbein, her emaciated body her scenography; Hoichi Okamoto who draws on many Japanese theatre styles ‘as a result of my vision of the relationship between a man and the puppet on his hand’; Faulty Optic, a partnership with a dark but comic vision of a world peopled by the deformed and the desperate; El Periférico de Objetos, sinister, surreal, intellectual; Figurentheater Wilde und Vogel, with a varying aesthetic based in music and storytelling; Neville Tranter, purveyor of grand guignol, a clever actor-manipulator who portrays the villainous and the depraved; Joan Baixas, first and last a performance artist, exciting the spectator through his interaction and transformations with palette and canvas. Few of their shows, memorable as they are, have been made to be re-enacted by others.

Easier for others to borrow but impossible for them to replicate are the performances of larger-scale companies with a strong artistic leadership and a recognisable style, such as Handspring of South Africa and Tübingen of Germany, two out of the scores that may be found in western countries. Their work may be recorded for their own rehearsal and revival purposes, but up to now they have published very little, other than photographs and videoed versions of productions which would be difficult to reproduce for logistic, artistic and copyright reasons.

There are of course exceptions: in 1999 the writer Marion Baraitser edited two issues of the Contemporary Theatre Review, slim paperbacks in which were printed a single work of five living authors, all useful as illustration of a puppet dramaturgy. They consist of Nuptial Night by Johanna Enckell of Finland, which has a cast of actors, puppets including a Parrot and the parrot’s Soul, a mask and a number of bowler hats, echoing the style of the surreal world of Magritte; Odd if You Dare by Nenagh Watson and Rachael Field here written in the form of an essay, with directions for its staging; it might be played by mime actors with scenic objects as well as by puppets and objects alone; the third is Howard Barker’s All He Fears, written in poetic dialogue, the soundscape (wind, violin, screaming, explosion, rattling,) underscoring the blindness and jealous torment of the main character; then Dennis Silk’s, The Head or Watch it, Kid! which features a severed head speaking most of the dialogue in its search for a home within or on the bodies of other characters.
Of this small collection the Handspring Company’s collaboration with Lesego Rampolokeng and the artist William Kentridge, Faustus in Africa, is nearest to a conventional playscript. It was written in South Africa’s apartheid era for a cast of large, jaggedly carved wooden figures, powerful human stereotypes memorably complemented by a Hyena, all by Adrian Kohler.

Uniquely, six plays by the writer-actor-puppeteer Ronnie Burkett have been published as scripts with detailed stage directions. Nevertheless any one of them would be hard to re-stage by any other puppeteer as each is tailored for solo performance, by Burkett himself, who appears onstage with a large number of marionettes to each of whom he gives a distinct voice and a stream of dialogue .

His plays, always for sophisticated adults, have won awards with their themes of unconventional human behaviour. Their range encompasses the relationships of various inmates of a Soviet concentration camp in Czechoslovakia (Tinka’s New Dress, 1999); the existential state of a group of people waiting for release from an institution that is gradually revealed as an anteroom of death (Happy); a grand guignol piece inhabited by a cast of grotesques in which Burkett plays Jesus (Street of Blood); the pursuit and objectification of beauty, European decadence in the belle époque (Provenance); the insouciance of a mentally disabled boy for several days unaware of his mother’s demise in a room of their shared apartment (10 Days on Earth, 2006); and the biography of an ageing cruise cabaret puppeteer at the nadir of his career (Billy Twinkle, 2008).

Dozens of books of plays intended for children, heavy with dialogue, were produced in the middle years of the twentieth century. Surprisingly few – with honourable exceptions such as the pieces by AR (Panto) Philpott and Violet Phelan Philpott, the Czech Jan Malik and the Pole Jan Wilkowski – manifested any sensibility to puppetry aesthetics, knowledge of techniques or the tastes of a modern child.

The most successful are peopled with characters painted with broad brush strokes, recognisable from the children’s own experience as simply good or bad, funny or serious. In performance the scenography will ideally be colourful, magically able to transform itself; the action will be continuously flowing and engaging, and the storyline well filled with surprises. The best productions allow for the perceptiveness and intelligence of children, accustomed to puppetry on television and in the cinema, and to the abundance of wonderfully illustrated literature. For the youngest children it seems that in performance a slower, quieter rhythm is most successful, and even two-year olds recognise and appreciate a scenario that reflects their own concerns and is laced with physicalised, non-violent humour.

Since the 1990s the productions by professional puppeteers and theatre-makers employing puppetry have surpassed – in richness of forms, themes and ingenuity of presentation – anything seen before. This incontrovertible renewal of the art form can be largely attributed to its closer ties with the human theatre. From these ties have come an injection of new dramaturgical ideas springing from a fresh approach by professional artists, theatre-makers trained to stage productions that rely on content as much as form, on adult audiences more than children. They have provided a necessary ballast, as it were, to puppet performance that formerly paid too little regard to theatrical values, relying too much on visual attractions and on craftsmanship. Both are of course intrinsic and essential to puppetry, and, because of the growing numbers of practitioners with little or no experience of puppetry technique, the problem of how to balance the technical, the visual and the verbal, has not been completely solved.

The absence of considered guidelines and trained directors in the preparation of a satisfying show with puppets is a problem for puppeteers and non-puppeteers alike. If not enough attention and time is given to the technical and crafting preparation, the construction, choreography and manipulation, the deficiencies will be immediately evident to the spectators. But most often their dissatisfaction will be attributable to a failure more difficult to identify: in the final performance-text and its lack of coherence. For example, there are productions in which the scenography is beautiful, the objects well manipulated, but the sense of the story is lost in symbol or metaphor too recondite for the average spectator to read; or a folk tale will be told without reference to the inner meaning of a story that has persisted in the canon for scores, perhaps hundreds of years; or there is a simple absence of internal logic in the unfolding of the action; for example, in a performance of Peter Pan where a crocodile is able to roar like a lion; or in a recent Pinocchio, when the dialogue had established that the puppet (operated almost invisibly from behind) had broken free of its controlling forces, yet in the following scene the puppet appeared once again as a string marionette, only too visibly under control.

Large-scale productions featuring puppetry are expensive and unwieldy, but their recent success in London and New York has made puppetry a commercially viable proposition. In each case the main reason for the production’s success has been a satisfactory answer to the question ‘why use puppetry?’. Where in the recent past this kind of main-stage puppet theatre consisted only of comfortable offerings for children (panto, standard animal and fairy tales), the latest have featured satire, sex, daemons and other fantasticks, life-size horses in a cruel theatre of war, the sensuality of the gods, the initiation of the young Gandhi, the legend of Rama and Sita integrated into a sharp modern political satire. All rely on the mixing of the theatre media to spectacular effect; all rely on the spectators’ love of action, colour, music, sophisticated lighting and projections. All are contributing – as they should be - to the dramaturgy of the performance and the rationale for the presence of the puppetry.

In smaller scale works, the creativity of today’s producing practitioners increases exponentially, all over the world, as do all aspects of the art form, including its audiences. The list of ‘satisfying’ shows, fulfilling all my critical criteria, is now long, but still the attention paid to the dramaturgy, the content, is in need of strengthening.

The relationship of puppet to text, Jurkowski believes, has gone through three phases: dumbshow or pantomime, narration, and finally drama and poetry. All three relationships persist, but the field has been thrown wide open by the new expressive resources of theatre: inter-disciplinarity, inter-textuality (meaning the languages of other disciplines), the staging of work in spaces not intended for performance, and perhaps the most challenging and insistent: the dynamic contribution of the technologies of light, sound and projected image. Puppet theatre has adopted and been adopted by them all.


This article includes edited excerpts from Chapter Four: Dramaturgy of a book in preparation for publishers Palgrave Macmillan titled Puppetry, a Reader, by Penny Francis.  It is a twenty-first century perspective on theatre with puppets. The whole chapter consists of a brief presentation and examination of some recent theatre ‘writings’ and productions which have succeeded for puppets (or for human performers with puppets), and why so few are in published form.


Top photo strip left to right:
Doo Cot, Odd if You Dare; NT/Handspring War Horse, photo Simon Anand; Ronnie Burkett 10 Days, photo Cylla von Tiedemann

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