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Animations Online 36

The Puppeteer

An edited excerpt from Puppetry: a Reader in Theatre Practice, a new book by Penny Francis

The primary characteristic of puppeteers is a belief in the hidden life of Things. A crushed piece of paper, a kitchen chair, a box or a book can appear to breathe in their hands. Another hallmark, especially of the designer-maker, is a visual creativity that they wish to express in scenic terms. They see a performance text through a prism of moving pictures; they see camels in clouds, dancers in daffodils, an old man in a black bin liner, wolves in walls.

Puppeteering as a profession, and even the word puppeteer, are as yet an immature presence in theatre histories. The formally trained professional arose only through the establishment throughout the Soviet Union and its satellites, post-1930s, of the first higher education schools, as in Bialystok (Poland), Jaroslavl (Russia), Prague, Budapest, East Berlin. They were provided by the authorities in order to mobilise and prepare the human resources needed for the scores of state puppet theatres established throughout eastern Europe.

The puppeteer, trained or not, can be showman or shaman, exhibitionist or poet. Practitioners in western countries with no specialist formation will usually have a qualification in sculpture, painting and/or scenic design, even architecture - rarely in acting. Many play musical instruments, and you will be hard put to it to find one who is not musical. Most vocational puppeteers were in the past male and many I have met identified their vocation at a pre-pubescent age, a fact that may well be of interest to anthropologists. In northern Europe since the 1980s the profession has by contrast attracted many women and at least half the younger puppeteers are now, I estimate, female.

Their ranks may be divided into three: the builder of puppets and sets who may also be the overall designer of a show, the performer-operator, and those adept at both construction and performance. At the time of writing the majority belong to the third group, but scenography for puppetry is being slowly recognised as a specialist discipline.

The first group, the designers and/or makers, often prefer to remain in the workshop, with little desire to confront an audience. In this category you see the Pygmalion, the sculptor or painter wishing his or her creations to be endowed with breath and motion. Although the best puppet-makers are fine artists their figures and settings are rarely seen in art galleries however high their plastic value. They are primarily making theatre, a theatre of movement and transformation difficult to reconcile with still-life exhibits.

The second group, the freelance performers, is the smallest, but it is growing rapidly. Puppeteer-performers are rarely actors, although they understand many of the techniques of acting. They are a different breed. They do not create their puppets, only animate them, manipulating and often speaking for one or more of the characters. Sometimes they themselves act in a human role alongside their puppet(s), and this duality of performance demands great skill. If they can act, dance or sing they have a better chance of employment in today’s multi-disciplined performing companies. Although they are the animators, not the makers, any of them will tell you that it is difficult to work comfortably with a figure not custom-fitted to suit the manipulator’s physique. As with all performing objects the puppet should handle and be handled as if it were an extension of its operator.

In the third group are the all-rounders, the puppeteers as capable of designing and crafting as performing. Amongst professionals of the western tradition this group has been until now the most commonly found, but their numbers as a proportion of the whole are diminishing. Reasons for this lie in the structuring of the formal training now available in schools and courses all over the world. In the pioneering Soviet establishments, many of which continue their activity, the actor-puppeteers and the designer-puppeteers have found themselves in separate schools. In most western training grounds the separation of performance from design and construction is not an appealing policy, as most would-be puppet practitioners wish for at least some knowledge of both, for reasons practical, artistic and economic. A few schools offer all-round training, as for example the prestigious Institute in Charleville-Mézières, France, which gives the students theories and practicalities of theatre, construction and manipulation, and in addition encourages creative theatre-making in a three-year course.

The training of puppeteers gives rise to much debate and examination of alternative methods. While formal provision is everywhere growing, most would-be professionals still serve an apprenticeship with existing companies, learning on the job. The prospect facing most of them, although their horizons are expanding, is in some respects unchanged from the end of the twentieth century. Those who are producers, builders and performers will be likely to earn their bread within an independently formed small-scale touring company of two to six people, answering the demand for imaginative and educational entertainment for children and families. They play at weekends and through school holidays, in puppetry festivals, arts festivals, folk festivals. Many tour abroad. Their life is a hardworking round of preparing shows, fundraising for the periods of preparation (when performance income can normally not be earned), booking venues and tours, and finally performing a new or revived show for the public. They frequently act as their own production, stage and accounting managers, driving a van all over the country and humping sets and puppets into and out of the playing space. The most active accept as many bookings as they can fit into the schedule, sometimes playing four shows in a weekend in four different venues, sometimes luxuriating in a week when a show has been booked into a single venue. The temptation to experiment with a production based on an unknown story is small: the safe repertoire is the fairy and folk tale or (as at present) an adaptation of a popular children’s book or television favourite. However the statutory funding bodies (at least in Europe) encourage adventurous work that explores new dramaturgies and modes of expression, and it is hoped that the circuits will gradually present more and more of it.

Freelance performer-puppeteers with no company of their own have a precarious existence, like any actor. They wait to be engaged, perhaps by a puppet group, or a theatre company needing specialist input, or most lucrative of all, a television or a film company making a commercial (of which a surprisingly large number feature animated figures and objects). Certainly the freelance category of puppeteer has swollen to a surprising extent since the 1990s.

The designer-maker puppeteers have also increased their market share. More productions mean more work, and the best have plenty of work. Theatre prop-makers are of course asked to make puppet figures, but the experience of the specialist puppeteer is irreplaceable, involving as it does knowledge of the arcane arts of jointing and weighting, of the materials suitable for the production’s aesthetic and so on.

As much as the puppeteers of all these three types have found their world  growing and their chances of employment increasing, it is rare to find a puppeteer, however regularly employed, who does not struggle to earn a decent living. As with actors, they must break into television or lead a company whose standards of excellence will be smiled on by sponsors and awarded generous and regular subsidy if they are to pay the mortgage.

It is evident that in most performances the unconcealed puppeteers have become the accepted convention, except for an uninitiated public which may still demonstrate surprise and even indignation at seeing the puppeteer at work on his puppet, as if robbed of a treasured illusion. But illusion is no longer the sine qua non of puppetry, as it is no longer the stuff of theatre, for the truly modern theatre maker. The rows of bulky spotlights are unmasked, like the marionettes’ wooden controls. The puppeteer’s presence alongside the figures and objects being animated is now taken for granted in the collage of staged media, and has given rise to a great number of deliberations on its meaning.

Puppets are operated by many different categories of visible performer – dancer, singer, dramatic actor, comedian, musician – and the convention of the hidden puppeteer is usually reserved for shows following tradition. However, in spite of its ceremonial connotations, Asian puppetry, as seen in the technique of the Bunraku-za, the Indonesian wayang, the dance puppetry of Cambodia, for example, all display the puppeteer as an essential physical element of the spectacle. This must be accepted as a fact which has exerted another strong influence on western performance.

For some the presence of the puppet operator is not so much a disruption of illusion as the potential for a different kind of focus, with the imagination of the spectator now engaged as much with the visible craft of the puppeteer as with the otherness of the puppet. The exposure of the techniques, for example the source of the puppet’s voice and the control of its movement, the absorption of the performers in their puppet, or their interaction when playing two separate characters, intensifies the interest for many of the spectators, rendering the ‘oscillation’ of their focus a deliberate, not an involuntary choice. Illogically the process rarely destroys the spectator’s belief in the life of the character, if it is animated and not a simple prop.

Halina Waszkiel, Polish critic and teacher, wrote that ‘the essence of puppetry lies in the mysterious bond linking the puppet and its manipulator.’ This was for her the crux of the matter – ‘there can be no magic of the puppet theatre without masterly manipulation’ (2008).

Puppetry: a Reader in Theatre Practice published December 2011 by Palgrave Macmillan at £19.99 (paperback) and £60 (hardback). You can place an order here:

Image credits:
Top strip l to r: NT/Handspring War Horse, Figurentheater
Tubingen, Ronnie Le Drew and Zippy



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