Puppetry in Performance

Improbable, The Devil and Mister Punch

 Penny Francis, founder of the Puppet Centre Trust, and a tireless advocate and supporter of puppetry for more than 50 years, casts an expert eye over the archive

When first published, the Total Theatre magazine came as a shot in the arm for puppetry. It was a high-quality platform for a genre still hardly recognised by the mainstream theatre’s publications and their contributing critics. These were and mostly still are a breed of writers and journalists steeped in literature and the scripted play as performance text.

Alien to these critics (and the drama school teachers) was the performance text presented largely or entirely as stage directions, or descriptions of stage pictures or a storyboard. Most of the reviewers and teachers had not learned the language of visual metaphors and symbols which convey the aesthetics of this kind of performance to the reader, the creative team, and finally the spectator. 

The modern theatre critic needs an education as much in the graphic and visual arts as in literature. For puppetry in particular he or she needs a ‘sensibility’, rooted in image, in magic and the surreal, in sound and music, then understanding follows and a connection made. Endowed with that sensibility the theatregoer rejoices in the present era of image- and sound-led work.

Frantic Assembly’s 1999 production of Hymns was an excellent example of a show based largely on visual clues found in the staging, the lighting, the sound and the movements of the four performers, reviewed by Dymphna Callery (11-2, Winter 1999):

‘There are no empty gestures here. In DV8 style (the director is Liam Steel), the choreographic substance is everyday life; moves are drawn from recognisable behaviour and worked into highly inventive rhythms and patterns to become alternately absorbing, moving, funny and always visually surprising… Then there are the words. The piece was scripted from ideas within the company and the text works best when words gloss the action, but flounders when it wanders into “soap-talk”. It’s when words break down and dance is the only option that the show takes flight. When music, sound, light and a scene change fuse on an emotional high point, the effect is more powerful than awkward revelations in words. Light, colour, sound and image merge into a virtual film…’

For me and for large numbers of the public – and even some critics – a revolution came in the form of a show called Shockheaded Peter (based on the gruesome 19th century book of German cautionary tales for children, Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffman). The show was reviewed by Ray Newe for Total Theatre in 1998 (issue 10-2):

‘Using puppetry, music and performance, Shockheaded Peter recounts the grisly and comic fates of errant children. The backbone of the portmanteau of terrible tales and tall stories is provided by the story of Shockheaded Peter himself, a child so ugly his horrified parents feel obliged to hide him beneath the floorboards, where he grows to an enormous size until he completely dominates the stage. This is achieved with a series of grotesque puppets manipulated by a skilled cast…’

Created by the scenography of Julian Crouch and the direction of Phelim McDermott, both brilliantly unconventional members of Improbable Theatre, with music by the Tiger Lillies, the show was a phenomenal success, a watershed in English theatre. Described as a ‘junk opera’ it started timidly with short seasons in England and abroad, returning several times to London, where it played to packed and appreciative houses in the West End, and garnered many awards including an Olivier. It was, as Susannah Clapp (reviewing for the Observer in 2001) put it: ‘the two-word answer to people who think that theatre has had its day’ and proved there was an appetite for an entirely new kind of mainstream theatre based on a performance text of visual dramatics and strange music. Puppetry was a strong element: no one who saw it is likely to forget the moment when Suck-a-Thumb Peter’s thumbs were cut off with giant scissors and red ribbons of blood flowed from his hands, or the finale to the show which was a forest of tombstones, memorials to the naughty children who died during the action. Children and adults loved it; its appeal was almost universal.   

Another – more personal – shock came in 1992 when I was recruited by the Central School of Speech and Drama in London to lead a new Postgraduate Diploma in Puppetry, the first of its kind. The course taught innovative theatre employing  animated objects and materials in new dramaturgies. 

In 1996, the course, still based at the Central School, was drafted into a groundbreaking MA in Advanced Theatre Practice. Total Theatre magazine asked me for an article, ‘Total Training’ (8-3, Autumn 1996) to explain the thinking behind what was the first fully integrated, cross-disciplinary postgraduate course in theatre training in the UK. 

‘For those who believe that the dynamic and changing world of contemporary theatre demands a total approach to theatre training… [the new course] takes in a wide range of theatre practitioners – writers, directors, dramaturgs, performers of diverse skills, designers and puppeteers. It pitches them into a series of production projects which feeds into the most interesting currents of modern theatre. These productions are based on a strong commitment to visual strengths and physical skills and [the students’ projects] are based on devised as well as classic texts. This defies the traditional hierarchical, compartmentalised approach to a production wherein the director automatically calls the shots, the writer is invisible, the dramaturg non-existent, the designers rarely meet the actors, and the actors know almost nothing of the other theatre-making strands least of all design, object animation, or the creation of stage pictures.’

The course itself, and changes in the climate of theatre at the close of the 20th century, seemed to galvanise puppetry and to plant an unprecedented respect and interest in its employment by ‘mainstream’ theatre-makers who brought to the artform new horizons and ideas for original themes and better-resourced productions. Puppetry as a whole raised its game.

Now well into the 21st century, we see new dramaturgies emerge. The range of visual and textual potential for puppet-led theatre is wide and varied, against most expectation. For this new ‘visual theatre’ a ‘text’ or dramaturgical source may consist of a piece of music, a painting, a poem, a story, in giant or miniature form. Even an existing play if sensitively adapted to the medium can result in a fascinating experience which may truly be described as ‘total theatre’.  Ideally, it offers a combination of predominant visuals – the scenographic and aural elements. The soundscape is almost equally important. 

In an article titled ‘Lost in Music’ (22-4, Winter 2010), Dorothy Max Prior reflects on music theatre, and music in theatre:

…On the evidence of performance work seen in 2010, I’d argue that “music theatre” is a much broader genre than is usually discussed; that this genre is thriving; and that it is, and always has been, an important strand of the total theatre family of performance practice.’

The article reflects on a broad range of cross-artform work, seen by the author in 2010, in which music is a key element of the dramaturgy, from Laurie Anderson’s Another Day in America to Catalyst Theatre’s Nevermore.

No one is more sensitive to the music and sound needed in a performance than Phelim McDermott of Improbable. Separately Phelim has directed several operas in the States and in London, and has cooperated with Blind Summit in staging the puppetry for a handful of successful shows, as referenced in Dorothy Max Prior’s article, which highlights the role that English National Opera have played in the commissioning of new work of a ‘total theatre’ persuasion:

‘ENO have, in recent years, welcomed the physical/visual theatre community into their arms. Madama Butterfly, directed by the late great Anthony Minghella introduced contemporary puppetry to the mix in the form of Blind Summit. This collaboration paved the way for further unusual pairings with UK theatre-makers. Improbable designed and directed the Phillip Glass opera Satyagraha for ENO…  Blind Summit are currently (November-December 2010) working in collaboration with Simon McBurney of Complicite on another ENO production A Dog’s Heart, which also draws connecting threads back to that seminal Minghella production through designer Michael Levine, whose work for A Dog’s Heart is breathtaking (snow drifts, water floods, and blood flows across the stage; an every-which-way set that tilts and over-sized furniture that skews perspective; and the customary Complicite clever integration of moving image into the live action)… McBurney says that his work is always “intimately bound up with music”. Often in Complicite’s work music isn’t decorative or mood setting, it’s integral to the dramaturgy of the piece.’

Successful shows were of course also produced by the puppet companies, if mostly in a different form and a smaller scale. Different, that is, from the puppet theatre of before, when a production was frequently played with realistic, usually humanoid or animal puppets. Gradually, through the 80s and 90s, the growing stage presence of the puppeteers themselves was to be remarked, and – very gradually – fresh themes explored. 

Faulty Optic was a prime example of a company which presented original work uniquely suited to the genre. In Darwin’s Dead Herring (reviewed by Jonathan Megaw, 15–2, Summer 1993) the two puppeteers were glimpsed as pale silhouettes behind the table-height set, wearing heavy gloves, making the precision of the manipulation more than surprising: 

‘Unlike recent trends in the visual arts the hand of the maker is very much apparent and indeed a major theme of the piece. While the mass-produced bunnies were whirred and jerked by mysterious systems of mechanics, the “Texans” were visibly manipulated by puppeteers whose faces reflected the effort and emotion with which they imbued their creations. The awesome Godhead character, cobbled together with a staple gun, reflected the methods of his makers whose stage environment is thrown together from jumble to form a whizzing, wheezing garden-shed-Blade Runner aesthetic. This stage picture is so idiosyncratic that it cannot satisfy every demand but it should provide plenty of wonder for any audience.’

The production demanded a great deal from its two practitioner-producers, who like all vocational puppeteers, drew on an innate talent, akin to a basic instinct, that brought the characters to life in their hands. The talent is a prerequisite for any performer-puppeteer, often deployed with a range of making and performing skills that add up to form a super-performer. 

Producing a successful puppet show is exceedingly difficult, not to say expensive. It draws on all the theatre skills, and needs the kind of preparation – crafting and rehearsal time – which few non-puppeteers, commonly the director or the other performers of the group (new to puppets), are prepared to give. 

The Swedish Marionetteatern’s interpretation of Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata, seen at the London International Mime Festival 1995, proved my point. Roman Paska was the American director, himself a puppeteer and a dramaturg. He rehearsed the well-financed company, a mixture of human and puppet characters, as meticulously as any dance choreographer, producing a show which most viewers and reviewers, including Jac Wilkinson in her Total Theatre piece ‘Marionetteatern, Multimedia Puppetry’  (7-1, Spring 1995) found a deeply satisfying example of puppet-led, mixed-media theatre:

‘Marionetteatern obviously have immense ability and explored their theatre most attentively…. I feel it is still a rare thing to witness a puppet or animated theatre company that manages to combine both polished artistry with challenging, stimulating, engaging and amusing material for adult and family audiences.’

Examples of three shows in which the scenography was as entertaining (and even animated) as the puppets were staged at the Little Angel theatre in Islington, London. The scenographer was Peter O’Rourke, already known as a designer with the puppetry sensibility in spades, manifested in his sets which were almost as animated as the puppets. The shows, all seen in 2014 or 2015, were Jabberwocky, The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me, and Fantastic Mr Fox. 

See, for example, David Harradine’s review of Jabberwocky (16-2, Summer 2014)

‘…Opening with a surreal birthday ritual, Jabberwocky unfolds as a journey that obeys the peculiar, uncanny, impossible logic of the unconscious: two military prawns swim through the forest as though it were the sea; Milo and the Bandersnatch dance a horizontal ballet on the trunks of the trees.…. Steve Tiplady’s staging fully exploits the potential of the puppet theatre stage, and brilliantly deploys the depth of field, and play with scale and perspective, that such a space enables. The production treads the fine line between pleasure and fear that is characteristic of much children’s art, and is vitally supported in its exploration of the dark heart of the poem by Hannah Marshall’s wonderfully evocative and rhythmic score, a bold and urgent combination of live and recorded cello. This thrilling darkness – the darkness of dreams and of nonsense – and some gorgeous visuals, will stay with me for a long time.’ 

None of the shows I have referred to so far employed the traditional string puppet or marionette. Only a very few companies employ them now, because they are the most difficult to operate well, and are awkward to store and to pack for touring. 

When well operated, the marionette is a joy, as a display of technical brilliance always is. In the 19th and early 20th centuries Britain was renowned for its family marionette companies which were invited to perform abroad as frequently as at home, taking with them a fit-up theatre which seated a large audience and dozens of puppets with elaborate costumes and sets. Today none remains, the nearest being the Middleton family company headed by Gren and Juliet which plays in a barge theatre on the Thames. Several of the family are also skilled puppeteers including their son Stan who has founded a second company, Strings.

There are as usual exceptions to prove the rule: Stephen Mottram confounds the generalisation, being not only a master of the technique but finding original themes which invite thought as much as admiration: Stephen Mottram’s Animata, Organillo was reviewed by David Harradine (13-3, Autumn 2001):

‘Mottram’s creations are enchanting and at times disturbing. Exploring a theme of reproduction and transformation in a strangely amniotic sea, he conjures shoals of fish, finned humanoids with the distended eyes of aliens, strange creatures and a pair of disembodied hand puppets that are uncannily alive and incredibly expressive. As an exercise in constructing narrative through fragments and images, without any reliance on text or explanation, this production is really strong…’

Then there is the Canadian, Ronnie Burkett, who is, quite simply, a phenomenon amongst puppeteers, a brilliant marionettist/actor/designer/craftsperson/playwright, performing mostly for adults and winning awards for his original scenarios. His is a gay aesthetic, delicate, exquisite. Beccy Smith reviewed his show Requiem for a Golden Boy (21-2) when he came to the Barbican in London in 2009. She wrote: 

‘It’s difficult to watch any Ronnie Burkett performance without the insistent awareness you are witnessing something remarkable. Burkett has created himself as the master of a rather esoteric craft: whilst puppetry has been vigorously reinventing itself in British theatre of late, the art of marionetting remains somewhat arcane. Add to this the sheer scale of Burkett’s production: rows of ornate crafted figures hang at the back of his stage; his score… and set are ambitious; even the meaty length of his performance far exceeds the norm.’

If no more string puppets, then what techniques have replaced them? The puppet-makers continually invent new ones, new materials, new controls. Often employed are shadows, like the string puppets an ancient tradition brought up to date with changes of scale, technique and dramaturgy. Some fine groups experiment with satire, with fantasy, with human shadows, with projectors and slides. Most recently 3D figures and avatars are making an appearance.

One of the more unusual manifestations of shadow theatre, The Theft of Sita, was seen at London’s Riverside Studios in October 2001, an international collaboration between Australians and Indonesian puppeteers, presented at LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre). It reworked part of the classic Ramayana text as Wayang Kulit (shadow theatre) for the 21st century. Total Theatre Magazine (13-4,  Winter 2001) carried my review: 

‘The show’s message was the loss of beauty and innocence in a modern industrialised world, and the medium was shadow theatre, in particular the seamless transformation of a traditional form of Indonesian Wayang Kulit into jagged modem shadows with a harsh contemporary aesthetic. East met West, the Balinese dalang (performer-puppeteer) was joined by an Australian master puppeteer; the glorious sounds of the Indonesian gamelan orchestra were gradually subverted by a clutch of western instruments, a metaphor for the invasion of the paradise jungle by western capitalism and its attendant detritus… The performance, directed by Nigel Jamieson, was a theatrical triumph… Julian Crouch was chief designer, complemented by others who produced additions to the scores of marvellously manipulated characters.’ 

Most current puppet theatre productions are performed with ‘tabletop’ or ‘bunraku-style’ figures, both misnomers. The figures have rods inserted into the head or the back or both. Alternatively they can be ‘hands-on’, directly operated figures with no rod control. For all of these the puppeteers are in view, often speaking or singing either as the character being operated or as a separate character, part of a dialogue with the puppet being manipulated. 

It becomes clear that much is demanded of the modern puppeteer-performer. He or she may be called on to play not one but two or three or four characters at a time, changing voice and physicality for each, switching from children to animals, to the other-worldly: ghosts, angels, demons.

Today’s puppeteers are by nature inventors, innovators, constantly trying out new mechanisms, exploring the potential of scientific discoveries in forms and materials. Most I find too conservative in their choice of themes, especially for children’s work. ‘Writers’ of original stories and designs do exist, and when one appears, as Violet Philpott of Cap and Bells appeared in the 1960s, with her own stories perfectly suited to puppets, it is a breath of fresh air. She was one of the half-dozen artists which drew me to puppetry.

The list of puppet-related productions reviewed in Total Theatre is a long one. I would like to refer to them all and describe all my favourites. The magazine is witness to the broad range of work to be seen, made in Britain and abroad. There are 131 articles and reviews devoted to the puppet-related arts (taking in artists, companies, festivals, and training initiatives over the years). The editor, Dorothy Max Prior, is an internationalist (as are all the best practitioners) and in the magazine there are references to and reviews of shows from France, Catalunya, Poland, Georgia, the United States, Spain, Holland, Czechia, Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Norway. The list goes on and so does the variety of the productions and the diversity of the dramaturgies, the stories, on which the producers base their shows.

Over the years that Total Theatre has been in existence, UK puppetry has gone from strength to strength. In an article titled ‘The Puppet Revolution’ (10-4, Winter 1998): Ian Grant reflected on the work of Green Ginger, one of the puppet theatre companies taking the form in new directions. Green Ginger were already 20 years old in 1998:

‘Anyone who thinks puppetry is an insular, conservative and dying artform, need look no further for remedy than the work of Terry Lee and his co-creators at Green Ginger. So remove the swazzle from your poodle, spit out those chess pieces, pour brandy butter down your wellies and scratch, scratch, scratch at your in-growing follicles – welcome to the world of Green Ginger!’

Puppetry sits easily alongside all the other forms of performance with the exception of the literary well-made play and grand opera when it needs delicate adaptation and exceptional attention to be comfortably integrated. The work of the late great puppeteer Barry Smith drew on Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson and epic poetry to good effect, proving yet again that puppetry is blissfully free of hard-and-fast rules. Ian Grant, in his aformentioned article on Green Ginger, notes the legacy of Smith’s work:

‘[Green Ginger] is rooted in the history and tradition of British puppetry. Terry Lee was an early Puppet Centre bursary winner and was "apprenticed" to Barry Smith (1930-1989), who founded his Theatre of Puppets in 1969. Smith has been long recognised as excelling within the field of children’s entertainment whilst innovating and helping to establish British puppetry for adults.’ 

2009 saw another milestone for UK puppetry with the founding of the Suspense! festival, a biennial event. Reporting on the 2011 edition, Beccy Smith wrote (in 23-4, winter 2011):

‘London’s celebrated Little Angel Theatre inaugurated the Suspense Festival of adult puppetry in 2009, both responding to and feeding a growing appetite for puppetry within more mainstream adult theatre fare… What Suspense highlights is that in practice, puppetry can be not one form but many. The festival prisms out some of the diverse influences and forms that converge in puppetry, continuing to demonstrate audience appetite for puppetry as visual art, as storytelling, as material theatre, and as emotional drama. It is at its most potent for me, though, when these forms and styles, embodied in the art of masterful puppeteers old and new, empower one another and work together…’

It is impossible, in an article discussing puppetry in contemporary theatre making, not to refer to a production which attracted more spectators and earned more money at the box office than any other of its kind, the peerless ‘theatre-with-puppets’ production of Michael Morpurgo’s World War I drama War Horse, a collaboration between the Royal National Theatre and South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Theatre. Reviewing War Horse (21-2, Summer 2009) on its transfer to the West End’s New London Theatre from the National, Dorothy Max Prior writes:  

‘…Enter the performers, a team of actors/musicians/puppeteers who eloquently and efficiently bring us a tale of two horses, told using all the tricks of the physical/devised theatre trade. Thus, a row of men holding sticks becomes a horse pen, a sea crossing is denoted by miniature boats danced across the stage, and paper birds fly above our heads at the end of bendy sticks. The birds are OK, but they aren’t a patch on the goose, a very wonderful push-along puppet-on-a-stick. And then there’s the horses… [who] have won the heart of everyone who has seen the show. Beautifully manipulated, they are the essence of horsey-ness. The scene where the horses are sent onto the battlefield is one of the most poignant pieces of visual theatre you are likely to encounter. As each horse falls, its operators roll to the ground slowly, moving away to leave a heap of woody carcasses. What is most extraordinary about seeing this show in this environment is witnessing the arrival of physical/ visual theatre into the mainstream. A battle is won.’

Since War Horse and even before, you could find dozens of productions up and down the country which included puppets, usually in combination with other means of expression, such as human performers. All the current productions fall into two categories: shows which can’t be said to be ‘puppet-led’ but where the puppets are essential to the aesthetic and the action (like War Horse), and shows where only the puppets lead the show (like Ronnie Burkett’s adult plays, and others intended, by contrast, for young children). A production played entirely by puppets with hidden operators is hardly to be found. 

This, by the way, is observation, not criticism. 

In fact, since we are here focused on Total Theatre we might say that the modern mixed-media ‘theatre-with-puppets’ – a blend of fine art, scenography and soundscape, which may include human actors, dancers and electronic media of every kind – can be described incontrovertibly as true examples of ‘total theatre’.

One way and another, puppetry’s present mode of existence proves the contention that, given generous material resources, generous amounts of preparation time and generously talented humans, it is a delicious, intriguing and crowd-pulling member of the universal alliance of the performing arts. 

Penny Francis is a writer, editor, educator, and dedicated advocate of the performing arts of puppetry. Her book PUPPETRY. A Reader in Theatre Practice was published by Palgrave Macmillan (2012).