The Marvelous Magic of Puppetry
Puppets are marvelous and magical things. Many people around the world are introduced to puppetry at a very young age, whether it's through a Punch & Judy show or Jim Henson's Muppets on TV shows like Sesame Street or Fraggle Rock, because something about puppets capture the imagination in fascinating ways. But puppets aren't just for children. They're a unique form of expression with a long history for performance spanning thousands of years.
Puppets have been around for a long time. Sesame Steet is going into their 52nd season on television and Punch and Judy shows have been popular in Europe and abroad for nearly 350 years! Bunraku, a Japanese style of rod puppetry, as been performed since the mid 1600s as well and shadow puppetry has reportedly been performed in China and central Asia for two thousand years. Obviously the art form isn't going away any time soon, so what about puppets is so enduring? Why are people so drawn to them and why do we keep finding new ways to create art with puppets?
I was first introduced to puppetry as a small child because my mom had her own children's television show on the local TV station called The Puppet Tree. Muppet-style puppets were always around my house when I was a kid. Because of this, and because my mom was such a fan of puppets herself, I watched a lot of Jim Henson's classic movies as a kid growing up in the 90s. (My favourites are The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, thanks for asking.) When I got into my twenties I didn't think much about them except as fond childhood memories.
I had used puppets and masks a little bit in my career as a stage actor, but I didn't get seriously into puppets as an adult until I took the 2016 Banff Puppet Theatre Intensive with Peter Balkwill of The Old Trout Puppet Workshop. It was a revelation! I was fascinated and delighted by the wonderful ability to bring so much life into inanimate objects. Something really sparked inside me and I was reminded of that childhood wonder I felt watching puppetry as a young person. Since then, I’ve been obsessed with puppet performance and creation and I'm always looking for new ways to explore puppetry. I've been consistently using puppets and masks in my artistic practice ever since.
As a theatre creator, I'm focused on making new Canadian work. One of the reasons I love using puppets and masks in the shows I create is because of the ability to share a story without the reliance on language. Because of my background in dance and choreography, I'm very intrigued by telling stories through physicality. Of course, some puppets speak quite a lot, but I'm really drawn to puppets on stage who don't say anything at all. Great stories all have universal themes that speak to the human condition and being able to share those stories on stage without the barrier of language is something I find very compelling.
I also love puppets because they’re inherently theatrical. I think that theatre is all about asking the audience to use their imagination and suspend their disbelief. Unlike film, which does a great job of replicating life realistically on the screen, theatre asks the audience to suspend their disbelief quite a lot more. Theatre invites the audience to play along with the story and puppets are so great at this because, simply put, they’re not real. Puppets force the audience to engage their imagination and invite them into the world of the play. This is one of the reasons that puppetry is so effective with children and also why it's so important that more adults engage with puppets. We need imagination and wonder now more than ever, whether you're 4 years old or 84 years young.
Don't think puppets are for adults? The hit Broadway show Avenue Q begs to differ! It's a parody of the Muppet-style children's TV show and it is a riot. In 2004, the show beat out fan-favourite Wicked for Best Musical at the Tony Awards and went on to run in New York and tour across North America for years afterwards.
And speaking of musicals with puppets, the best-selling Broadway musical of all-time is The Lion King which combines the beautiful music from the Disney movie with, you guessed it!, the magic of puppetry! Okay, I digress; enough about musicals, back to puppets...
All of this brings me to the central question that I want to ask: why should a story be told in a certain medium? This is an incredibly important question that I feel sometimes gets overlooked or forgotten when creating art. When taking on a project with puppets, the first question to ask is "Why puppets?" If there isn't a compelling answer - it must be above "I like puppets and think they're cool" - the piece should be thought out again. Each art form, puppetry included, does some things very well and other things not as well. No art form can do everything. And, in addition to this, certain mediums are more conducive to certain art forms.
This same consideration should be thought about for any medium of creation. Why is this story suitable to be a play? Why a film? What about a novel? These are all very different ways of telling a story and they create great opportunities for exploring stories in different ways. When creating a piece of visual art, painting with acrylics is very different than watercolours. And they're very, very different than building a sculpture! The form or the medium of the story is equally as important as its content. I wrote an entire post about audio fiction and why it's so good at what it does!
And even if you do sort out why a show should have puppets, it doesn't stop there. There's so many questions on what kind of puppets will be used (shadow puppets, rod puppets, hand puppets, animated objects, masks, etc.) and what medium will they be used in (in-person, stop motion, film, etc.). The sky is the limit when creating with puppets! Recently, I've been fascinated by the intricate world of stop-motion animation. This past Halloween season, I watched two of Tim Burton's films, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, and I was absolutely blown away by the detail, precision, and expression that they achieved using puppetry. It's a painstakingly time-consuming form of puppetry but it draws me into a story in such a unique way. Maybe one day I'll try my own hand at stop motion (if I can muster up the patience for it)!
For a great example of beautiful stop motion, check out this adorable short film from Omeleto about a dinosaur and a fox:
So you love puppets and you think they're great and now you have to answer that question of "why puppets?". How? Personally, I like using puppets because they can do things that human actors can’t do on stage. When I directed The Three Munsch-keteers for Project X Theatre, I decided to use puppets for one of the stories about a little girl who gets three hundred balloons and flies down the Trans-Canada Highway. Having our little girl puppet really lift off the ground and float away was a really magical moment for the audience. It brought a sense of wonder to the production that couldn't have been achieved otherwise. This puppet, built and performed by the formidable Randi Edmundson, also rode a bike, danced, and dabbed. She was a big hit! In The Robber Bridegroom, which I toured across Western Canada to critical success in 2019, we had a character who gets brutally murdered and chopped into pieces by an axe. (A classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale, of course...) This is, obviously, also something that we couldn’t do with human actors (at least, not without getting into a lot of trouble).
Scale and perspective are two more great examples of what puppetry excels at. I recently got to take part in an amazing puppetry event called The Ascent, produced by Beakerhead and Calgary International Film Festival. Throughout the evening, a 34-foot-tall marionette puppet named David climbed 39 storeys to the top of the Devon Building in downtown Calgary. The sheer scale of this event was so impressive. Having a puppet that size do almost anything is fascinating to watch, as proved by Little Amal, the eleven-and-a-half-foot-tall puppet who crossed Europe this year. During The Ascent, the vantage point of the viewers from the bottom of the tower looking way up offered a unique perspective to the story of David to unfold. It was a monumental feat and it was truly a delight to be a part of.
Two shows that played with scale and perspective beautifully are Famous Puppet Death Scenes from The Old Trout Puppet Workshop and Ghost River Theatre's GIANT (which was on my list of Top 10 Shows I saw in 2019). Each show really wowed me with what they could do on stage and created stunning and provocative images and stories through puppetry. These shows scream out answers to the question of "Why puppets?" throughout their performances.
In summary, puppets are really great. They're marvelous and magical. I love working with puppets and am excited to keep exploring everything they can do on stage and on screen. So what are you passionate about? Find your spark - the thing that ignites your brain and gets your heart pumping! Go out and try something new with it today.