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.

Marionettes

‘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..

Shadow-Puppets

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

HERE.

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.

Hybrids

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.

19 thoughts on “project x: a puppet primer

  1. Pingback: Diversity Puppets | Mucugi

  2. Wow, I don’t know how I missed this post Clive. What a posting, just fabulous. Your artlog is so much more than just a blog! I think it should be called an ArtKnowledge I need some quiet time to sit and enjoy all this and soak up all the extraordinarily beautiful things here.

  3. Your comment about grand opera and puppets brought to my mind the puppet theatre at the old Kungsholm restaurant in Chicago. For several decades beginning around 1940 this was a popular Swedish smorgasbord restaurant, but its big draw was its puppet theatre which performed grand opera. This doesn’t really compare to the performances you linked above because it was entirely mechanical, but I thought it might still be of interest. In 1971 the restaurant closed and the theatre was dismantled, but it and the puppets have been preserved at the Museum of Science and Industry. The Chicagoland Puppetry Guild is now working to restore the puppets and possibly reopen the theatre in a new place (http://chicagopuppet.org/2011/11/kungsholm-awakes-maybe/).

    • Robert, that’s an extraordinary history, and one I’ve never come across. Thank you for the link.

      So often it would seem in the world of puppetry, the grandest scheme is the notion of one man or woman with a dream. A puppet opera in a restaurant isn’t the first thing that might spring to mind as a draw for customers. I wonder if this was the only one of its kind, or did such things evolve in other parts of the world. Leonard Greco has commented below on the ‘epic’ shadow-puppet shows that once were a feature of the Chat Noir cabaret in Montmatre. I would have loved to have visited either of these places in their heydays, and to have seen such wonders with my own eyes!

      • I have just discovered that there is a descendant of the Kungsholm puppets in Rolling Meadows, a suburb of Chicago. William Fosser, who started working with puppets and opera at Kungsholm, created “Opera in Focus”, which seems to be a more sophisticated puppet theatre than Kungsholm’s, but unfortunately it is not in a restaurant.

        In case you’re interested, here are some links to more information on Kungsholm and Opera in Focus:

        http://www.operainfocus.com/
        http://www.youtube.com/user/OperaInFocus
        http://blogs.wttw.com/moreonthestory/2011/03/24/origins-of-puppet-opera/
        http://chicagotonight.wttw.com/2011/12/29/puppet-opera (includes a video segment on Opera in Focus)

        I have looked for video of Kungsholm but have not found anything. The exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry used to include a filmed performance, but that doesn’t seem to be available online, and apparently the Museum has removed the Kungsholm puppets from current exhibit.

        • Thank you Robert. I’ve just watched the YouTube clip at the second link in your comment above, and the rod puppets are absolutely extraordinary. When Fosser demonstrates the range of movement in the last puppet of the clip, you can see just how physically expressive these tiny, meticulously wrought wooden performers can be.

          I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve offered you a more formal thank you in the ‘Rod-Puppet’ section of the main post. I’m blown away by the chicago company, and I’m delighted to have had them drawn to my attention.

  4. Wow, I have just watched though them all – very impressedand entertained by the skill and the variety of styles. I’ve learned so much from this, thanks for the show, Clive!

  5. My goodness, you have really put together a marvelous primer on the art. Just fantastic, I like to think I have loved and appreciated puppets but clearly I haven’t seen anything.

    I must say I have never felt a disconnect with reality/fantasy concerning opera. I am at heart a Wagnerite and nothing seems alien to my soul. That said, the Magic Flute, magic indeed. That dragon, be still my heart.
    The drunken mandarin (?), hilarious and stunning, and yes quite a feat, kudos to his master.
    Unfamiliar with bunraku , incredibly elegant. I confess I have never been able to tolerate the Muppets, you changed my opinion. That clip was wonderful , the puppet puppeteer a creature of great beauty and grace.
    The shadow puppet, which was very funny, seems to have been performed here in LA, Pasadena to be precise, at the Huntington Gardens. They have many many wonderful gardens and a new spectacular Chinese garden. The Chinese Americans have really embraced the garden and have made it very much their own pleasure garden. I am not at all surprised by the appreciative rowdiness.
    The Thai demons ” making out “, too fantastic.
    Must say I didn’t want to like the Warhorses or the dog, Mr. Punch being so very spectacular and so very much to my tastes. BUT how in the hell could I resist such realism. Incredible, just incredible.
    Although I still love Punch the best! I have a soft spot for the old reprobate , and glove puppets in general, so simple and accessible.
    Just my two cents, but given your interest in shadow puppets , you might want to remember that the Montmartre cabaret Chat Noir was famous for its epic shadow plays.
    Well, once again, thank you, such a treat.
    LG

  6. I’m wonderfully excited that your project involves puppetry, Clive!
    I wonder if you’ve come across my friends at the Puppet Barge? – a marionette theatre on a barge in Little Venice in London : http://www.puppetbarge.com
    And while I’m here – I have another maquette artist recommendation 🙂 – you simply must invite my friend Linsey Carr – artist and paper engineer – http://www.lindseycarr.co.uk and http://pickle-town.typepad.com
    🙂

    • Rima, I love Lindsey’s work. I’ve admired it in the past and have commented on her site. I also recall that she used to make beautifully painted maquettes. Do you think that she might be open to joining in? Would you like to ask her? It might be better coming from someone she knows. The fact is I’d be delighted if she would, and I’d be happy even with an image of one of her older articulated figures.

      I know the work of the Puppet Barge, though I’ve never been to a performance. In my younger days I was a puppeteer with the Caricature Theatre, and the experience later fed into my work as a choreographer, stage director and designer. Puppetry has always been in my blood, and so it’s little wonder that I make maquettes as part of my studio practice.

  7. Oh my, right up my alley, alas I will need to return to read it carefully.
    My maquettes are awaiting their Cecil B. DeMille moment.

  8. ok,
    first of all, that last one was sooooo amazing!! i loved it! what a bunch of magicians! i love the mix of everything…
    the dragon in the mozart piece was fabulous; i really wasn’t expecting such a large creature, and it worked wonderfully! and the phantom limb top-hat-man was extremely creepy, but the accordion-player? haha!!!
    i think that marionettes are my favorite, because i’m partial to the puppeteer being hidden…i found the bunraku a little unwieldy, except the table-top version by schwartz was amazing! the fan-work was fantastic, and the surprise at the end, crazy!
    thank you for all this!!

    • The Salzburg Marionettes are wonderful aren’t they? Those sharp movements and hit-and-freeze positions are difficult to achieve with puppets on strings, which often tend to wobble about. The Salzburg Marionettes must be relatively heavy in order to achieve the style of movement apparent in clips of performances. Lead weights in the feet mean that they’re less likely to slide about or create that unconvincing, floaty gait so typical of many marionettes. These are firm of step and able to hit their marks on the beat of the music. There’s a quality of old theatre prints in their acting style, which would be over-egged in people, but works wonderfully with the puppets. I’m a huge fan of these marionettes and their repertoire. Their performances, together with the music, singers and design, make a complete and compelling world.

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