project x: a puppet primer

My artistic collaborator on Project X has requested I describe the types of puppetry available to us, and so this post is intended as a whistle-stop guide. If much of what’s on view below is in the asian/eastern tradition, it’s because that’s where the roots of puppetry lie, and where even today the art of the puppeteer is most honoured. This is a bit of a marathon post, with a lot of links to be explored in it. However, if you’ve an interest in puppetry as a performance art, then don’t miss any of them. The skills and artistry on view in the clips are immensely impressive.


‘Marionette’ is the name of any puppet worked from above by strings. Marionette puppeteers can either stand in full view of the audience as they operate… as often happened in popular cabaret performances of the past… or work from a gantry above the puppet stage, out of public view behind the proscenium arch. In the past, opera performances were often given by marionettes, the singers out of sight in the wings. Mozart himself would have been entirely familiar and at ease with performances of his operas given by marionettes. There were all sorts of good reasons for this approach. The elaborate sets, special effects and costumes could be produced at a fraction of the cost of any full-size production.

However there is another reason that is far more to do with aesthetics. For anyone who finds the overblown theatrics of grand opera to be distracting from the music, then a well produced marionette version will be a revelation. Stage effects and dramatic scenarios that have the potential to become ludicrous with singers and stage machinery, work wonderfully with marionettes. Being constructs, creatures of wood and paint and mechanics, they fit better with the ornate and artificial world of the music, and whatever unlikely antics the puppets get up to, are far easier on the eye and the imagination than when corporeal flesh is involved. How often I’ve sat in an opera house bewitched by the voices and music, and yet brought down by the inability of the singers to visually match the sounds produced. For me, marionette operas are an art-form I’d love to see revived.

Click HERE

to see an extract  from a Salzburger Marionettentheater performance of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. The elegantly proportioned puppets work with tremendous liveliness and precision, the latter not a quality that comes easily to marionettes. This is as far away from the bobbing dolls of Gerry Anderson’s various t.v. series that it’s possible to get.


And click HERE

for a more contemporary spin on the marionette, with some wonderfully creepy puppets for Phantom Limb’s The Fortune Teller, designed by Eric Sanko. Imagine a production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd as imagined by Sanko! It would be a triumph against which to measure the lamentable mess Tim Burton made of the film. (Just my opinion here.)

Just to wind up the marionette section, don’t miss this bravura  performance by a Chinese stringed puppet. If you think it’s easy for a marionette to pick up a jug of water and to pour from it, and afterwards to put it back down again, then I suggest you try making a marionette and repeating the trick. I’ve been looking at puppets all my life and I wouldn’t know where to begin! This puppeteer smoothly defies every known law of what can’t be done with a marionette.

Click HERE and be astounded!

Quanzhou Marionette Theatre

Rod Puppets

Rod-puppet shows in the west are usually performed on raised stages called play-boards, with the puppeteers hidden from view. But in the clip below you can see the Chinese tradition of rod-puppets performed with the operators in full view. These are large puppets, and the strength and stamina required to perform with them when raised to such a height is impressive. But what blows me away with this performance, is the vitality the puppeteer imparts to the dancing Princess. Watch her hands. They never hit an ugly position. I’m enchanted too by her head movements, and the wonderful way the whip-like pheasant feathers arc and swoop, lending yet more dynamic movement to the puppet. This puppeteer certainly knows how to use the stage.

Click HERE to see the Chengdu Chinese Opera Rod-Puppets.

I’ve just watched a moving interview with head rod-puppeteer at Opera in Focus, Justin Snyder, who eloquently describes his experience of puppeteering as a skill being passed down generation to generation at the company. My thanks to Artlog visitor Robert (read what he has to say in the comment boxes at the end of this post) who alerted me to this wonderful Chicago-based puppet opera. I’d never heard about it until today, but it’s sure as hell made we want to get on a plane and visit!

Click HERE to see the interview with Justin Snyder.

Rod-puppets at Opera in Focus.

Bunraku and Bunraku-Style Puppets

Click HERE

to see the most wonderful example of classical Bunraku operation. The beginning of the film gives an account of what Bunraku is, and then the performance extract shows a master puppeteer of the highest order.  His face is uncovered… though always impassive… while the two assistant puppeteers are masked. Marvel at the dramatic manner in which the puppet climbs a ladder in her beautiful kimono, her hair and garment swinging to suggest the heightened emotion. Subtleties to watch for include those tiny articulated hands. Near the end the character strikes sharp, dance-like positions, and the feet stamp and the hands flex and arch to punctuate them. Bunraku puppet hands are mechanised to sharply close and open by the use of  levers hidden under the sleeves. Long ago when I attended a performance by a visiting Bunraku company to the UK, I was so close to the stage that I could hear the clickings of the mechanisms, an effect I found enchanting. I never mind being reminded that what I’m watching is not a living person, but a simulacra of great artistry. I enjoy too, being close enough to the front when attending the ballet to hear the hardened toes of pointe-shoes rapping on the stage. Not everyone would agree with me on that, but as one-time choreographer, I love it!

Bunraku has been much imitated in the west. Bruce Schwartz was the favourite puppeteer of the great Jim Henson, and appeared as a guest performer on the Muppet Show. Interesting in the clip below to see Kermit and Fozzie Bear, themselves types of  ‘play-board puppet’, introducing a solo-puppeteer using ‘table-top’ puppetry to imitate the far more ornate traditions of Bunraku. (In Bunraku the puppets are much bigger and heavier, and each principal character is manipulated by three puppeteers: a lead puppeteer operating the head and right hand, and two assistants, one for the left hand and the other for the feet.) Although Schwartz’s puppet lacks the refinements of the Japanese tradition, he performs with considerable skill and delicacy. Watch for the moment where his puppet picks up a puppet and performs with it.

Click HERE

for Bruce Schwartz performing in the Bunraku style..


This clip of a Chinese shadow-puppet play filmed from the audience might be bettered, but not the puppeteering. Note the gracefulness of the crane and the precision evident in every movement. The manipulation suggests the proper weight and gravity when the bird hops to the ground, and also the speed with which a crane jabs with its beak. The audience are noisily appreciative, and the performer, hidden behind the shadow-screen, is rewarding them with consummate skill. Shadow-puppetry is one of the most ancient forms of the puppet arts, and yet it here it reaches across time, fresh and vibrant and newly-minted to delight.

Click HERE to see the Chinese shadow-puppet performance.

The incomparable Lotte Reiniger adapted the art of shadow-puppetry for use as a filmed medium. She took the vertical, opaque illuminated screen of traditional shadow-puppetry, and turned it into a horizontal animation table. Her films of folk and fairy tales are as ravishing today as when they were first created. There has been no-one her equal at making the most elegant of articulated paper puppets.

The masterpiece she is most celebrated for is the feature length The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) the entire film of which may be watched


Glove -Puppets

I think that most will be familiar with this simplest form of puppetry, forever associated with seaside Punch and Judy shows. Julian Crouch draws on Punch tradition for his The Devil and Mr Punch (see image above) but as befits that most anarchic of ‘everyman’ archetypes, shakes him up and reinvents him in a production that uses glove-puppets, glove/rod-puppets and various hybrids, including masked actors. With a stage crammed with multiple levels of action, it resembles nothing less than a magician’s cabinet out of which burst endless surprises.

 Click HERE to see a trailer.


The Thai puppetry on display at the video link below combines diverse techniques to great effect. Bunraku, rod and table-top puppetry come together with kinetic energy and precision, two of the qualities that most define the puppet traditions of Asia. The six-armed puppet in the clip is performed with such fantastic energy and grace that it’s almost impossible to believe it isn’t a human actor.

Click HERE to see the Thai puppet show.

What’s New?

Puppetry has probably never been as high-profile as it is today. Groundbreaking progress has been made in the depiction of movement, particularly the locomotion of animals. Anyone having seen the National Theatre’s production of Warhorse will know that it’s the puppets that steal the show. Royal de Luxe from Nantes in France have produced extraordinary puppets for their street theatre presentations, and city-centres around the world grind to a halt when the company stages its shows. Their dog Xolo is an outstanding creation.

Click HERE

to see just how magnificent the horse puppetry of Warhorse is, and

click HERE

to marvel at Xolo the giant dog of Royal de Luxe.