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Puppets: Historians, Teachers, Educators & More

A Quick History Lesson

You will find that the general definition of a puppet is that of:

“An inanimate object being manipulated in order to create the illusion of life.”

The history of puppetry is long and somewhat obscure. While today they are widely considered to be entertainment for children, more and more people have found that puppets have always held a place in history as a form of entertainment and education for all ages. By looking at the history of puppets, you can see that the contribution of puppets to art and entertainment is amazingly long and diverse.

While it is impossible to be certain, there are two rules of thought; one, that puppetry had its birthplace in India, almost a thousand years B.C. From this era, you can find stick puppets that were used to play out the Indian epics. Two is that they were originally used in China in the form of Shadow puppets. In either case, puppetry has been around since the dawn of recorded history, not only as entertainment, but also as sacred tools for relaying the history of a culture to its future generations.

A good example of this is in the Indonesian culture with their use of Wayang puppets. The shows were always opened with a narrative speech and blessing from a holy man and the entire performance was treated with a high level of respect and honor.

Centuries later, Bun-Raku puppets were large, extremely expressive puppets used in Japan in place of actors. In the art of puppetry, it is believed that these were the first puppets to use animatronic features. There is a legend that a famous playwright grew tired of actors demanding that their parts be enlarged and that his plays could be much better acted by wood puppets that weren’t so tiresome. This being true or not, it led to a very colorful and imaginative world of theatre that still holds a place in Japanese culture today. To show the elaborate nature of these performances, there were, at times, up to three to four men operating one single puppet on stage at a given time. All hooded and weighed down with dark clothing to enhance the illusion of the story.

In many places across Europe, puppets were used by the church to act out morality plays to teach pagan cultures Christian virtues and values. By the early 19th century, a Venetian puppeteer, Pietro Radillo, started creating marionettes that included as many as five to eight strings. This extra control gave the puppets a wider range of movement as well as adding to the level of belief the audience had toward his creations.

At this time in history, puppetry was looked upon as more of a low-brow form of entertainment when compared to the traditional acting forms. Puppetry was versatile and you could find puppet shows in all sorts of venues such as resort entertainment and nightclub filler acts. You can still see this today.

In the early 19th century, there were discussions as to the viability of puppetry as an actual art form. There were even discussions that went as far as to argue that puppetry performance was better, in many ways, than real actors. You see this argument going on today with the advancements of CG animation. Puppetry has been as controversial through the years as it has been entertaining.

Here of late, there has been a growing, almost retro-style interest in puppetry. Using puppets in many different capacities and fields, from Vegas performance to police departments using them to help children open up about abuse; puppets have come a long way. Puppets are here to stay, no matter how advanced our levels of entertainment become.

Thousands of years of history discussed in a few paragraphs do not do justice to the almost mystical history behind the artistic form of entertainment known as puppetry. If this is something that you are passionate about (and if you are reading this, you are) I would encourage you to research on your own and learn the history of each type of puppet and make yourself familiar with them all. You may find that, in your performances, you will want to explore the use of different styles and not just stick to one style in particular. I find research fun.

I do plan on doing walkthroughs of different types of puppet builds to give you ideas and inspire you to try your hand at different puppet types as well as getting your creative muscles to work.

Types of Puppets throughout History

Remember that puppetry is basically giving the illusion of life to an inanimate object; that being said, there are many types of puppetry. I will attempt to give you a brief overview of each here. This list is in no way finished and is not here to define each, but rather to give awareness of how advanced puppetry is.

Animatronics (mechanically manipulated puppets) – These are puppets that have advanced cable mechanics or remote control motors to assist in the movements.

Blacklight Puppets (puppeteers invisible) – These are used to give a free body form to fluorescent puppets. The puppeteers are not limited by the edge of the puppet stage.

Ban Raku (Japanese rod puppets) – These are beautifully hand carved wooden rod puppets, which have been in use for around 200 years. Used both on stage, visible to the audience as well as behind the screen as shadow puppets.

Costumed Puppets– These are oversized puppet bodysuits. You wear these puppets so that you can interact as a full character.

Finger Puppets– Small dolls with no filler that fit over your fingers. Most commonly made of glove fingers.

Found Puppets – Anything that you can find that you can give life to. I once made a dinner roll entertain some kids at a local restaurant.

Javanese Wayang Golek (wooden rod puppets) and the Javanese Wayang Kulit (shadow puppets) – The puppets ('Wayang Kulit') are made from animal hide and are richly decorated and colored, since originally one half of the audience (the men) would sit on the side of the screen where the actual puppets could be seen, while the women watched the shadows. The puppets are stylized versions of people, with the head and hair being particularly prominent, since it is normally these attributes, which are used to identify the different characters.

Kirigami Bunraku- Similar to origami, these are multi-functioning, puppets made from cut paper that is fit together in a manner which gives it a 3D feel that works great on its own or as a shadow puppet. The amazing thing is that none of it is glued and many of these can be made using only two sheets of 8 ½ x 11” cardstock.

Marionettes (string puppets) – Marionettes are merely loose-jointed dolls attached to and controlled by a series of strings attached to a wooden control.

Muppet-types (mouth puppets) – Most common in today’s culture, are foam and fabric puppets that have moving mouths.

Parade Puppets (puppets used in outdoor setting) – These are oversized bodysuit type puppets with very exaggerated heads, used to attract attention in parades or major events where the performance consists of being seen, such as mardi gras.

Human puppets (three arm puppets) – These are puppets that have a moving mouth but also have the ability to have two human hands. To have both arms operating as well as the mouth, it generally takes two puppeteers oddly contorted to operate, but gives a great effect.

Nip & Tuck-This design and pattern was originally used for the puppet in Nunsense which is a musical. Later it became popular with builders down in Brazil and many of them have released it as their own pattern. Grey Seal Puppets termed a phrase "Nip and Tuck" for this type of construction where you take a full sheet of foam and a simple shape then start creating the puppet from there by cutting away bits of foam or folding them and gluing them.

Peeps – Commonly referred to as Oobey eyes do to a popular preschool character. Peeps are basically a pair of eyes attached to a ring. By wearing this ring, your hand becomes an automatic puppet. You can dress your hand up in costume or makeup, but it is not necessary. These are the easiest puppets to use, especially in missions work, because they slip easily into your pocket and go anywhere.

Rod puppets – Rods are attached to the arms in order for the puppeteer to control the arm movements of mouth puppets. It takes a little practice, but worth it.

Shadow puppets – Character images are used with backlighting to project the images onto a screen or reflected onto a wall to create the puppet.

Sock puppets – As the name suggests, these are puppets created out of socks. Today you can find patterns for what is commonly referred to as a glorified sock puppet, which used the same concept, but takes it one step farther; easy to make and inexpensive.

White light theatre (puppeteers visible) – This is not really a type of puppet as much as it is a type of performance.

Ventriloquist puppets/ventriloquism – These are puppets specifically designed for white light theatre performance. We will get into ventriloquism later in future trainings.

Vietnamese water puppetry – This is a simple yet beautifully mastered style of puppetry. The puppets themselves are wooden figures that are attached to a floating pontoon, which floats just beneath the surface of the water; and makes the puppets appear to be floating. The pontoon is attached to a long pole, which allows the puppeteer to push or pull the puppet depending on the movement that is needed.

As stated earlier, this is not a finished list and should you decide to research in more detail, you will come across some that I have not listed here. The history of puppetry is vast and has many interesting facts. Research and have fun learning about this creative art.

Join me in my next training as we start learning the five basics needed to become a professional puppeteer.

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