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Puppets and Performers on Stage Together Creating Reality

Avenue Q Performer and Puppet, As One - Michael Schamis


Even when actors manipulate puppets in front of audiences, the puppet comes alive, absorbing, compelling, believable. It’s a powerful dramatic device.

‘Puppet’ has been a useful English language word for centuries. Some kind of political leader installed by a more powerful force is often referred to as ’puppet government’ or ‘puppet regime’. The term, broadened out, means simply anyone weaker controlled by somebody stronger: a puppet, pulled by strings at the behest of a controller.

Some have it that ‘poppet’, meaning a term of affection for another, as in ‘pet’, ‘doll’ or ‘dear’, is from the same root. It is a representation of a person, a kind of surrogate human-being, which on stage can be extremely moving, unpleasant, sinister or comic. Puppets are, in fact, a very ancient theatrical form.

Historic, Cultural Puppet Artifacts

From simple, found-objects, silhouettes, shadows, stringed or marionettes, rod, hand/glove, arm, finger, sock, chin-face to video animations, puppets are made of virtually anything. Punch and Judy is a particular kind of puppet art form, with stereotypical characters playing a well-known story of challenging authority with myriad variations, stemming from the 16th Century Italian commedia dell’Arte.

Carnivals, religious ceremonies, circus-like entertainments, miniatures, life and larger replicas, children’s toy puppet theatres have all been part of puppet history. Puppets have been, even if small, parts of cultures from around the world, from Java to Vietnam, Italy to Thailand and Japan.

Developed in Japan over, literally, thousands of years, Bunraku puppets were about two thirds life-size wood carvings standing against illumination, manipulated by three puppeteers, dressed neutrally and adding mystery themselves to the stage.

The body itself (particularly hand, forearms and face), has been utilised in puppetry. The ventriloquist’s dummy, operated on the knee or arm of the manipulator while he/she ‘throws’ the voice to make it sound as if the dummy is speaking, is another form of the art.

Puppets in the Movies

The dummy coming alive is spooky; most famously used in Dead of Night (1945) and Dead Silence (2007) which Internet Movie Database described as; ‘widower returns to his hometown to search for answers to his wife’s murder, which may be linked to the ghost of a murdered ventriloquist’.

Movies such as The NeverEnding Story (1984), Labrynth (1986) and The Dark Crystal (1982) have used real life puppets, rather than animation or computer graphics. Thunderbirds was a successful children’s TV programme of electronically operated marionettes.

A particularly 20th century development was the visibility on stage of puppeteers, not only manipulating puppets but interacting as characters, alter-egos and puppet voices. Most observers find after a time of such shows, that it’s the puppet absorbing interest, rather than the operator.

The Muppets were a successful TV and film brand first created by animator Jim Henson in the 1950s. A ‘muppet’ became any puppet in his Muppet Show style, and was supposed to be ‘marionette’ combined with ‘puppet’. The children’s TV series, Sesame Street employed that style and the Disney empire took over the trademarks and names in 2004. TV, films, spin-off merchandising have established puppets and humans visible together as a distinct sub-genre.

Avenue Q Is Any Place, Any Time

The hit musical Avenue Q (2002), grew from an original adult puppet idea for a TV show (which it never was) to off-Broadway, to Broadway to London’s West End to touring. The creators, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marks wanted a new form of musical, tapping in to people’s love of Disney cartoons and animation, The Muppets, Sesame Street with eclectic musical styles and contemporary themes.

Marks said at the UK tour start in 2011: ‘Let’s do something funny and relevant about people like us and appealing enough for people to get over the hurdle of it being a musical’. There is, according to Cameron Mackintosh, UK’s most successful producer, ‘an element of familiarity in the music, but it’s not a pastiche of show business and neither are the jokes’.

Politically correct, it wasn’t. Sketches/songs about being gay, unemployed, black, mixed race relationships stood alongside more old-fashioned romance, hurting people and disappointment, community spirit; all played in a larger than life, clean-cut smiley 1950s style but with a darker under belly that made it very early 21st Century.

The puppets were the stars. UK tour Puppet Coach Nigel Plaskitt came from experience in Doctor Who, Combat Sheep, Alice in Wonderland, children’s programmes Pipkins and Heggerty Haggerty and was principal puppet performer on Spitting Image. The puppets were the essential face of Avenue Q, a unique selling point.

Rachel Jerram, star of the British tour said: “It’s so human, even though it’s actually puppets, but there’s a human heart to it’. The fact that puppets seem like human beings, with their mouths more or less in synch with their actor/operators, the almost shared facial expressions, the arm that moves in a human-like way: is the magic of human-puppetry on stage.

Almost Everything Can Be Made Into Puppets

In a powerful mix of emotions, Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel War Horse became a play, and later in 2011 will be a Spielberg movie. Set during the First World War, cataloging the appalling loss of human and animal life, the big challenge was producing life-sized horse puppets. It was a huge stage success, winning awards on both Broadway and the West End.

Handspring Puppet Company made the horses. The operators were on stage, like grooms caring for the animals, but bringing the skeletal representations alive, exacerbating poignancy of the narrative, the quality and believability of the actors. Suspension of disbelief for the puppet master makes an absorbing theatrical experience.

Blind Summit Theatre, performing at Norwich Puppet Theatre in 2006 with a piece of actor/puppet work called Low Life, or Trestle Theatre’s 2004 true story interpretation of the Smallest Person , about a nineteen and a half inch child, played by a puppet given life by the ‘unseen’ animator. Disney’s The Lion King has done it on stages around the world since 1997.

Big scale or small, puppets with actors bring the inanimate to life but in such a variety of ways that performances are enhanced, skills developed and theatre’s boundaries are pushed ever further out. There is no limit on the strings that move this style of theatre.

First published on Suite 101, 16 March 2011.

Image: Avenue Q Performer and Puppet, As One – Michael Schamis

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