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Figurative puppet and animated object
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Another in our series of articles exploring definitions, forms and modes of practice, by Penny Francis

A puppet is a representation, the distillation of a character, a persona imagined within its form or figure. It is any Thing brought to imagined, perceived life by a human performer who controls it directly. The control may be through corporal contact (hands-on, hands-in), or via strings, wires, or wooden or metal rods. The figure animated electronically or even remotely is still a puppet as long as the performer is present at the other end of the cable or the machinery, controlling the movements as he or she would at the end of a simple string or rod.

There are some who would give the title, the accolade, of ‘puppet’ to the automaton, and it is surely a close cousin. But it is pre-set, repetitive, and normally the maker is not directly operating it. There are also certain ‘media figures’, screened by computer animation, or stop frame or motion capture, and Steve Tillis has argued that these too are ‘puppets’. His arguments are persuasive, and I am almost convinced. They can be read in Puppets, Masks and Performing Objects, a collection of essays published by the MIT Press, USA in 2001.

It’s important to explain the distinction I (and many others) make between the figurative puppet and the animated object. The first is manufactured to depict a stage character, the second is a thing found or manufactured with no thought of any destiny as a stage player. In performance both are puppets.

Of course the intention in animating both figure and object is to convince those watching that the thing contains breath: that it is inspired, that it is alive. In the course of a show more often than not the conviction is temporary and depends on many variables, including the age and experience of the spectators, their technical knowledge of the artform, and the skill of the puppet operators. All but the most naïve spectators will find themselves now convinced, now unconvinced that the creature before them is alive; their focus will shift from the character, to the manipulator (if the manipulator is visible), probably to the puppet’s method of control, and back again to the puppet. If the puppeteer is hidden they will change focus from the puppet to, say, the setting. The shifting of focus indicates an alternating belief and unbelief in the puppet’s autonomous existence, a state of mind which has no scientific label that I can find, but has been described (poetically) as the ‘opalisation effect’ (Jurkowski) and (confusingly) as ‘double vision’ (Tillis). Probably the most accurate word is used by Green and Pepicello – ‘oscillation’.

I have observed that the more child-like (I do not mean ‘childish’) an audience member – of any age - the more engaged by the puppet he or she will be and for a longer passage of time, and vice versa: the more worldly the viewer, the more difficult it is for him or her to enter the illusion. It is, however, worth reporting the case of a highly sophisticated man, not a Christian, who found himself reaching for his handkerchief during an amateur marionette play depicting the sentimental legend of the Christmas rose. Similarly one is conscious of the thousands of spectators visibly moved by the plight of the puppet horses in the current National Theatre adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s story War Horse.

A puppet may take a realistic or abstract form, either as figure or non-performative object. It will often be an artistic representation of a recognisable human or animal or it may even symbolise an idea or an emotion. It can be any kind of Thing and all the while technology is discovering new materials for its construction and new techniques for animating it.

Examples are to be found in their hundreds, thanks to the characteristic imagination and invention of the creative puppeteer. Fantastic characters – many of them creatures from the outer limits of human imagination – represent variations on the theme of the human or animal, monster, ghost, extra-terrestrial, robot. Puppets are supreme in a ‘theatre of the impossible’, (as the 1989 book on Australian puppetry was titled), wherein flesh and blood performers may not enter, bound as they are by the weight and frailty of their physicality, by gravity.

There are no rules for a puppet’s construction, unless it is built to take part in a traditional performance when there may indeed be strict rules, for example in the making of a figure for the Bunraku theatre, which takes years of intensive learning and practice.

As for the ‘object-puppet’ it may be almost any Thing made or in its natural state: a simple piece of material or an item of clothing; a flexible table lamp, a newspaper, a stick, a plant. I have seen animated mathematical forms, letters of the alphabet, symbolic images of the seasons, of spirit, of loneliness and despair all brought to the stage as characters in dramatic or comic performance, invested with energy by the object’s animator and manipulator. Object ‘animation’ is not quite the same as object ‘manipulation’ – the former means the projection of life into the object; the latter demands dexterity in the ‘handling’ of an object. A puppeteer is able to do both: think of the French Jacques Templeraud and the English Steve Tiplady.

To convince the spectator of an object’s breathing presence, to make it become puppet, is, by the way, more difficult for most puppeteers than the animation of a realistic figure. The transference of energy with which the puppeteer must ‘enliven’ the object has to be powerfully projected to the audience who must be convinced of its liveness and convey their conviction to the puppeteer (by laughter, tension, breath and so on). A delicate triangle of projected energy has to be formed, and normally this is not sustainable for long.

A Theatre of Objects is concerned with the onstage presence of things or raw materials rather than crafted, mimetic figures, but it is worth noting that in the playing almost every manipulated object reminds the spectator of a human or animal, anthropomorphic or zoomorphic, with, for example, a suggested location for its head and eyes. Attempts are made to give objects their own essence in performance, and it would be interesting to hear from readers whether they have witnessed such a performance successfully done.

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