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Over the past several decades, puppet theatre in America has experienced a period of extraordinary growth, cross-cultural miscegenation, and technological advancement. Within this relatively short time, puppetry has been transformed from a marginalized and overlooked genre of children’s and folk performance to an integral part of the contemporary stage, film, and television. A whole generation of puppeteers has labored to synthesize stylistic influences from around the planet and to meld emerging technology with traditional forms.
Many factors have contributed to this transformation. But to no small extent it is the activities of the two greatest purveyors of late-20th-century American puppetry, Peter Schumann and Jim Henson, that have revolutionized the field. Their companies, The Bread and Puppet Theater and the Muppets, began about the same time in the early 1960s and have been rocketing off towards diametrically opposite aesthetic poles ever since. Both outfits have produced prodigious volumes of original work that are utterly distinct in style and content, yet both somehow remain faithful to the puppet theatre’s populist, egalitarian roots.
Schumann has developed a style of socially and politically conscious visual poetry, rooted deeply in both old European pageantry and folk traditions and the exigencies of cold-war era, avantgarde agitprop performance. The B&P is the first modern puppet theatre in America to aim its work specifically at adult audiences and to open itself to direct community participation. Schumann insists on using the cheapest materials and simplest technical means available to create moving and disturbing performance pieces directly touching upon social issues of the day.
Henson and the Muppets, on the other hand, discovered an affinity between their warm and fuzzy creations and cool television cameras. Their puppets are tailored to reflect the images and concerns of the giant media networks who sponsored them, marketed their images globally, and helped make them into the most recognized puppet characters on the planet. With the vast resources of these corporate enterprises available to them, Henson and company were able to develop new materials and production technologies that have pushed the envelope in the field of puppet animation and special effects.
The widespread influence and popularity of B&P and the Muppets laid the groundwork for directors and auteurs such as Julie Taymor and Lee Breuer, [End Page 28] who have in recent years given new impulses and critical exposure to the field. Indeed, Taymor’s stage adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King has proved to be an especially huge cross-over hit—garnering rave critical reviews and adulation from audiences, some of whom who had never experienced large-scale adult puppet theatre before. Her work, Breuer’s, and that of many other artists active in the field today, are testament to a growing sophistication in the use of puppetry forms on the American stage.
And yet despite decades of popular success and technical advances, scholarly interest in the field has been scant. Repeated trips to the Drama Book Shop in New York City confirm the depressing fact that more books get published yearly on soap operas than on puppetry. There are few puppet scholars in this country and no puppet critics—no coterie of informed insiders to critique and champion new work; there are no regularly published journals in which to disseminate new work and ideas—except those put out by puppetry organizations themselves, such as the Puppeteers of America or UNIMA (the Union International de la Marionette). Nor have there been many attempts by non-puppet-minded theatre scholars to write about puppetry in a way that relates it to human theatre, dance, opera, vaudeville, or performance art.
Two notable exceptions are worth mentioning. Scott Cutler Shershow’s Puppets and “Popular” Culture is a social history of the puppet as paradigm of popular “sub”-culture in Europe, using puppet performance as a “metaphor for the entwined processes of cultural definition and appropriation” (1995:2). Shershow uses puppet theatre to examine issues of conflict between “high” and “low” and “popular” and “élite” culture, but not as a subject in its own right. Similarly, Harold Segel’s Pinocchio’s Progeny (1995) is a survey of modern dramatic literature seeking evidence of puppetry as a recurring leitmotif. His interest in puppet theatre is primarily as a literary trope exploited by artists in the 20th century to advance the avantgarde. While these books regale us with juicy tidbits of historical research, both approach puppet theatre from without, stressing the distance separating puppets from the mainstream of Western theatre. For insiders, this approach is unsatisfying. Whatever historical conditions contributed to puppetry’s isolation in the past have been swept away by a new set of realities.
It is imperative to delineate these realities. What is the puppet’s nature? Clearly, it is a signifying figure for the stage, as is an actor. But unlike actors, puppets are objects, defined by Frank Proschan as “material images of humans, animals or spirits that are created, displayed, or manipulated.” These material images reflect an “iconicity [...] between a material object (sign vehicle) and the animate being for which it stands” (1983:4). But while actors animate a sign vehicle from the inside out, using their own feelings, bodies, and voices, puppet performers must learn to inhabit the sign vehicle from the outside in. Henryk Jurkowski points to this in his comprehensive definition of puppet theatre as an art in which “the speaking and performing object makes temporal use of physical sources for its vocal and driving powers, which are present beyond the object” (1983:31). The complexities of this relationship and its “constant pulsation” define puppet performance.
By focusing on the dynamic of the puppet/performer relationship instead of fixating on the puppet as an expressive object, Jurkowski points the way. If one focuses on puppets as objects or artifacts, then the best that can be done is to build a system of classification according to means of articulation, materials of construction, place of origin, etc. Edward Gordon Craig did precisely this in 1918 in the pages of his journal, The Marionette:
a. Marionettes suspended from above
b. Guignols or Burattini [hand puppets] [End Page 29]
Craig further classified puppets according to the “materials from which [they are] made,” “costume” and the “country of origin.” Issues of taxonomic clarity aside, such systems hardly do justice to today’s plethora of new technologies and hybrid styles of puppet theatre. It may be good to distinguish between a Chinese shadow puppet and a Sicilian marionette, but much more remains to be said.
But if the puppet/performer dynamic is taken as the starting point, then a useful new kind of classification system can be constructed. Two quantifiable aspects of this dynamic are distance and ratio. By “distance” I mean the level of separation and contact between the performer and the object being manipulated—beginning at the point of absolute contact (where performer and object are one) and running through psychic, body, remote, and temporal degrees of contact. “Ratio” refers to the number of performing objects in comparison to the numbers of performers. Thus a “1:1” ratio indicates a direct transfer of energy from a single performer to a single performing object. A “1:Many” ratio means that one object is the focus of the energies of diverse manipulators, as with Bread and Puppet’s giant Mother Earth Puppet, or a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. “Many:1” indicates a single performer manipulating many separate objects, as a Javanese dalang does during the course of a wayang kulit performance.
I shall use these two aspects of distance as the X and Y axes for plotting the various permutations of the object/performer relationship. The map itself takes the shape of a tree, or more exactly, a kayon—the fan-shaped shadow figure of Indonesian wayang kulit performances, made from delicately punctured and carved buffalo hide, that represents the universe in the form of the Cosmic Tree. The kayon is used before and after the performance to frame the play; it also functions as an act curtain and a set unit during the show. The central spine of the kayon is superimposed on the Y axis, representing the degree of distance, beginning at the point of absolute contact and extending upward to the most tenuous degree of remote contact. The X axis measures the ratio—with the left side of the diagram representing many:1 and the right side representing 1:many.
At the point of intersection of the two axes—a zone of absolute contact—no displacement between performer and performed exists at all. But once actors begin to represent themselves onstage (as do Spalding Gray or Annie Sprinkle) a gap begins to open up between the performer and what is being performed—their stage personae. Even if these personae recreate their offstage personalities precisely, it is still a highly edited, crafted, and shaped self that is being savored by the audience. It is this presence of others, the audience, which compels the first split in the unity between performer and performed. At first the displacement is merely a shift in mental calibration to “performance mode.” But the psychic distance widens as the performer’s role becomes more distinct from the performer. A character role in a play has an objective existence distinct from the actor. Hamlet or Medea is the “object” that becomes embodied in a set of gestures, moves, and utterances enacted by the actor. The role is or becomes autonomous. In some instances, character roles can be flexible, shaping themselves to the impulses and whims of the performers. But in some genres of traditional performance, such as in Chinese opera, roles are tightly defined, with every gesture and expression choreographed, and every detail of facial makeup and costume codified.
At some point, the increasing distance from the performing object means that the actor’s own body can no longer physically accommodate the role. Makeup and costume, prosthetic devices, wigs and body extensions help to a [End Page 32] degree, but eventually the performing object reaches the limits of the human body’s anatomy and must begin to emerge with a physical presence of its own. This first happens with the mask. A mask is an object totally external to the performer, a sculptural expression imposed from without. To be effective onstage, it must appear to be articulated from within by the actor’s own impulses. It doesn’t alter the actor’s center of gravity, but it re-contours her surface, while remaining in intimate contact with the flesh beneath its shell.
As long as the mask’s features correspond more or less with the actor’s own face, the character’s center of gravity remains united firmly to the performer’s. But a mask doesn’t need to be limited to or confined by human physiognomy. It can be oversized, so that the actor peers through the mouth or nostrils (as can be seen in vejigantes, the horned demon masks of Puerto Rico, or traditional European Carnival “fathead” characters); or it can be shifted away from the face entirely, to the top of the head, for example (like the lion mask/headdresses in The Lion King, which are modeled on African antecedents). At this point, a new threshold is crossed and the performing object has become detached from the actor’s body, developing its own center of gravity, its own structure, its own presence.
It is at this point, where the center of gravity of the performing object and the performer are distinct from each other, that the term “puppet” can be used. But like all the different zones of contact I outline here, the divisions are not sharp. There is a liminal zone where the actor in an oversized mask and the puppeteer in an all-encompassing bodysuit overlap (as in sports team mascots or theme park stroll-about characters). But once the performing object wriggles free from constraints of human anatomy and proportion, there is nothing, beyond the practicalities of engineering, to stop it from drastically morphing in form or scale. It could telescope upwards to two or three times human size and be supported from below by a backpack or other frame device, as with Trinidad Carnival mas; or it might shrink to less than a foot tall, its center of gravity migrating to a useful human appendage, such as with hand puppets. Once the object is liberated from the body, it no longer needs to have a one-to-one correlation with its power source. A puppeteer can operate two hand puppets simultaneously, while a giant Bread and Puppet-style rod puppet or an elaborate Japanese bunraku puppet needs several performers to be properly manipulated.
As the physical distance between the performer and the object widens, the amount of technology needed to bridge the gap increases. Moving the puppet’s center of gravity outside the body of the puppeteer requires more and more sophisticated linking systems. Rod puppets use a direct, mechanical linkage to support, lift, torque, and lever the spines and limbs of the puppet figure. One of the simplest rod puppet is the Indonesian wayang golek, with a center rod that runs through a T-shaped shoulder block and attaches to the neck of the solid, carved, wooden head, and two thinner rods attached loosely with knotted string to each hand. The puppeteer operates it from below using both hands; if necessary, the arm rods can be held in the same hand as the body rod. One of the most mechanically complex styles of rod puppets is the bunraku puppet, a type that has become more popular in the West in recent years. It is operated from behind, with parts of the body manipulated by several puppeteers. The main operator controls the head through a control grip in the puppet’s chest, which is also the locus of separate lever controls for articulating such features as eyes, brows, and mouth. The shoulder block is suspended from cords attached to this center rod to give the puppet maximum articulation of the neck. The same puppeteer controls the right arm with a short rod that is hinged onto the lower arm, or attached solidly to the elbow. Often wrists and even fingers are articulated for greater gestural expressiveness. [End Page 33] A second puppeteer controls the left arm, and a third manipulates the feet. If more precise manipulation is required, the operators can slip their fingers into loops in the palms of the puppet’s hands to handle and pick up props directly. Bunraku puppets are notoriously difficult to master, in part because of their complex construction and in part because of the difficulty of melding together the energies of three operators. Even the simple act of walking takes great effort and study to be convincing.
Marionettes use a more tenuous mechanical linkage; they are suspended from above via strings (or in some cases, wires), which means that control of the puppet’s limbs is maintained through a precise play of gravity against the shortening and lengthening of the strings in relation to each other. A simple head turn, for example, requires the operation of four strings: two shoulder strings are pulled up slightly to take the weight of the puppet body off the head and free it to drop forward; then two head strings are altered in length by tilting the main control, which pulls one ear or the other upwards and causes the puppet’s face to turn in that direction. Every articulation of the body requires additional strings to control. The simplest marionette from Rajastan requires only two: a loop from the top of the puppet’s heavy wooden head up to the hand of the performer and then down to the middle of the back, and then another from one puppet hand to the other. A European-style marionette requires 10 or 11, and a Chinese string puppet often has 30 or more.
No matter how attenuated and subtle the control linkages become, rod and marionette puppets still give the operator a linear, mechanical path into the puppet. But as distance between the performing object and its manipulator increases, operating with a direct line of sight becomes untenable. It is possible for puppets to be controlled remotely with hydraulic or radio devices, operating systems that are quite commonly used for film and television special effects. Puppets like the dinosaur heads used in close-up shots in Jurassic Park (1993) may be articulated by dozens of separate servo-motors, which can be operated by a team of puppeteers live on the set, or more distantly via computer. As the level of available technology climbs, so does the ability to operate objects at greater and greater removes. And conversely, the greater the distance between object and performer, the greater the level of technology needed to span the gap. In early 1998 television viewers saw an extreme of such long-distance manipulatory feats when they watched a little sand buggy roving around the rocky surface of Mars, beaming back three-dimensional pictures and nibbling at boulders while its crew of operators sat millions of miles away in Houston.
Physical proximity between performing object and performer is only one dimension of the term “distance.” There can also be a separation between an object and its image. You can notice this separation if you pull a shadow puppet away from the screen and back toward its light source. When the puppet touches the screen, the silhouetted image cast on the focal plane corresponds exactly to the outlines of the object. But as it pulls away from the screen, the shadow image starts to increase in size and become blurrier. The object performing before the audience’s gaze in this case is no longer the puppet held in the puppeteer’s hand, but the image of that puppet seen on the focal plane of the shadow screen. If the image is captured by a camera lens instead of a sheet of fabric, then a further distancing is possible: whereas a lamp can illuminate only a few square yards of cloth, the video camera passes the image to millions upon millions of screens simultaneously. The camera also allows a further bifurcation, a temporal schism between object and image that can be exploited by using the techniques of stop-motion animation. These techniques—objects or poseable models manipulated by hand as the camera is advanced frame by frame, giving the illusion of motion to the object—are almost as old as cinema [End Page 34] itself. An obvious difficulty is that the animator may spend weeks or months posing and reposing objects to make a moving image that is only a few minutes long. This technique does not encourage spontaneity.
But more recent technical developments in the field of digital imaging and computer-generated imagery (already a staple of film special effects, as evidenced by the dinosaur herds of Jurassic Park, the spiffy buff surfaces of Toy Story  and the teaming arthropodal swarms of Antz ) have made real-time puppet animation quite practical. By using motion capture suits and data-glove interfaces to stream digitized movement data directly into the computer, fantastically realistic motion can be given to virtual objects, or objects scanned digitally from real hard copy. The computer-generated avatar becomes a sort of virtual body mask or diving suit, which allows the actor to inhabit the digital environment. With the motion capture suit, the performer can again achieve a kind of direct contact with the object, performing as though from inside the object. But unfortunately, at this level of technology, the complexity of the systems themselves creates impediments; although the cyber-puppeteer is capable of wondrous feats of real-time animation, a small army of technicians and programmers is required to run the system before he or she can take the first step in a motion-capture suit. And once the digitized actors record their object’s movements, a whole other team of specialists must step in to take that data and further massage and render it before it can be finally duplicated in some format that can be shared with others. No wonder at the present time such technology is incredibly expensive, out of reach for anyone lacking access to deep corporate pockets. However, probably in the not-too-distant future such technology will become cheap enough and easy enough to use to be accessible to individuals and smaller production companies. Already something like digital avatars exist for virtual immersion arcade games and for players on video game networks. It is only a matter of time before some enterprising puppeteer converts one for use in a theatrical performance.
Stephen Kaplin is a New York-based artist who designs, builds, performs, and directs for puppet theatre. He has worked with Julie Taymor, Bread and Puppet, Lee Breuer, Theodora Skipitares, Chinese Theatre Workshop, and many others. He is a founding member of Great Small Works, and a graduate from NYU’s Department of Performance Studies. His articles on puppet theatre appear regularly in Puppetry International.
1918 “The History of Puppets.” The Marionette 1:171–74.
1983 “Transcodification of the Sign Systems of Puppets.” Semiotica 47, 1/4:123–46.
1983 “The Semiotic Study of Puppets, Masks and Performing Objects.” Semiotica 47, 1/4:3–44.
1995 Pinocchio’s Progeny. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
1995 Puppets and “Popular” Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.