- Puppetry: A Reader in Theatre Practice by Penny Francis
Puppetry is the second installment in the new series Readings in Theatre Practice published by Palgrave Macmillan, edited by Simon Shepherd. This series explores the tension between the magic of theatre and the material elements that comprise it, seeking a context and vocabulary for both creative practice and critical discussion. In Puppetry, author Penny Francis writes an approachable and insightful introduction to the field, exploring the theory, practice, history, and evolution of puppetry, with a focus on developments from the 1990s to the present in primarily West European contexts. Francis ultimately presents a strong argument that puppetry should be a mandatory course of study for any modern performance-training program.
The opening chapter provides a succinct approach to the understanding of contemporary puppetry in practical, theoretical, and historical contexts. Francis explains and defines the essential aspects and manifestations of puppetry and puppet theatre. She explains how the puppet can be thought of as an animated figure or object that “touches our collective memory of innocence, the simple acceptance of a fiction, such as normal children enjoy” (22). While puppetry is a theatrical form typically associated with children, Francis demonstrates how puppet artists expand upon that correlation and make use of that child-like transcendence to enhance “the value of puppetry as [an] effective and affecting element of a drama” (117). This transcendence is realized and embodied by the manipulating puppeteer, whose “belief in the hidden life of things” (24) is the animating force that gives the illusion of life in a performing puppet.
In chapter 2, the author briefly introduces the related forms of masks, automata (figures that move under their own power), and ventriloquism, all of which share deep histories in ritual, theatre, and magic, and all of which are concerned with the animation of objects and the evocation of awe and wonder. Of particular note is how Francis concludes this and every chapter with a brief list of suggestions for further reading, encouraging the reader to explore more scholarship on the topic and bringing other voices into the conversation.
One of the most prominent aspects of this book (and the series) is the incorporation of many different voices from the world of puppetry. Although it is a “reader” in theatre practice, the author is much more than an editor and brings her extensive experience and insight into conversation with experts from around the world. Extended quotation blocks pepper the pages, providing a spectrum of professional and practical perspectives. Chapter 6 on the aesthetics of puppetry moves the farthest away from her own voice by incorporating a collection of five essays on the art form, all diverse in topic, geography, and chronology. The inclusion of these voices of varied experts in the field helps bring the richness of puppetry in theatrical practice to light, yet the author’s own voice and expertise are typically the most clear and engaging.
Chapters 3, “Techniques,” and 4, “In Performance,” delve concretely into the practice of puppetry. Francis provides concise introductions to the major contemporary types of puppetry (rod, string, glove, shadow, humanettes, toy, blacklight, and so on) and well-grounded explorations of the various aspects of puppet-production elements (writing, directing, design, stage, light, sound, puppeteer, and so on). She demonstrates her practical experience with the form, as well as incorporating various examples and thoughts from experts in the field, to more fully contextualize and illustrate the discussion of puppet praxis.
Following naturally out of a discussion of puppetry practice, chapter 5 on dramaturgy explores texts written for puppet performance and interprets the performance text of the staged interpretations of these scripts. By describing some recent examples of productions that have “perceived the potential for puppetry” (97), Francis demonstrates how puppet performance depends more heavily on the idea behind the text than the actual text itself. Puppetry “transcends the limitations of the actors’ physical form, giving [writers] the freedom to ignore practical limitations of gravity, of size and scale, and to give free rein to ideas of staging the...