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What is a puppeteer?

November 24, 2012


When I met the fourth year puppetry students of the Turku Arts Academy in spring 2011 I asked them what they would still like to know before graduating in the summer.

One response was rather surprising: “What is a puppeteer?” someone asked, “it seemed so obvious in the first year, a puppeteer animates puppets, but now I’m not so sure”. And the rest of the group agreed.

You might wonder (as I first did) why graduating puppetry students would ask such a simple thing – have they learned nothing? – but it is in fact an excellent question that shows how they have expanded their vision of puppet theatre. These artists know there is no one way to be a puppeteer.

We decided to examine the question “What is a puppeteer?” by creating a shared online document where the students could post their views and read what others had written.  And it soon became clear that the question was not as simple as it seemed.

English dictionaries define a puppeteer in more or less the same way as “a person who manipulates puppets ” or who “entertains with and operates puppets” “by the use of strings, wires or their hands”.

So here we are at the beginning again: a puppeteer animates puppets.  Yet while most of today’s puppeteers do use puppets, there are quite a few who don’t.  And of those who do they don’t always manipulate them “by means of strings, rods or by inserting one’s hand into the puppet”.

Until not very long ago in England (and in many countries it is still so) you became a puppeteer by learning the traditional puppetry techniques of rod, string and glove puppets, sometimes specialising in one technique to become a ‘glove puppeteer’ or a ‘string marionettist’.

But the contemporary puppeteer is not bound by the traditional techniques and today’s puppets come in all shapes and sizes, with or without control mechanisms.  A puppet might not even be constructed as such and a found object or material may become a puppet – kitchen utensils, a scrap of paper, clothes, parts of the human body, sticks and stones.

It is now understood that any object can be considered a puppet if it appears to be alive.  And this expanded notion of the puppet has also changed the notion of the puppeteer so that, according to the latest Wikipedia definition, a puppeteer is “a person who manipulates an inanimate object, such as a puppet, in real time to create the illusion of life”.

Here the key to being a puppeteer isn’t the object-puppet itself or its manipulation technique but the fact that the object is brought to life.  And ‘life’ doesn’t necessarily mean imitating human beings or animals.  A puppeteer might make books fall like leaves or animate a rope to become the waves of the sea or create an atmosphere of suspense through the rhythm of swaying chains.

The identity of the puppeteer has become further complicated since the boundaries between puppetry and other forms of theatre have become blurred.  Nowadays we are just as likely to find animated figures and manipulated objects in actor’s theatre, performance art, opera and dance, which raises the question to what extent can the manipulation of objects on stage be called puppetry and the manipulator a puppeteer?

A bag of flour bursts, screens slide into place, a black plastic bag swooshes as it opens and the way these materials are handled, brought into focus and given meaning certainly involves puppetry sensitivity even if it is not actual puppeteering in its purest sense of bringing an object to life.

Performers who wouldn’t call themselves puppeteers are using puppeteering approaches, often without realising it, and those that do call themselves puppeteers frequently take on an actor’s role besides animating puppets.

Even the mere fact of manipulating a puppet on stage doesn’t automatically make someone a puppeteer, as is evident when actors are required to move puppets; whilst some actors manage to animate their figure so that the audience sees an independently alive character, others quite obviously remain the centre of attention and the puppet is merely an object in their hands, a figure that is ‘being used’ by the actor.

More than knowing how to tweak a rod or pull a string to make a puppet move, being a puppeteer is a mindset.  It is a willingness and ability to tune oneself out of the picture and let the object have agency.  A puppeteer guides the spectator to ‘look at this’ rather than ‘look at me’. And look at what it does.

In a puppeteer’s hands, objects are transformed.  A sculpture breathes. A knife becomes a fish. A white dress is the river in which a bride drowns herself.  And to create these new meanings the puppeteer becomes not only a manipulator of objects but a manipulator of associations, signs, symbols and codes.

So to come back to the beginning again: being a puppeteer is not just about animating puppets.  It is not about strings and rods and wires and gloves and moving mouths.  All these things are a part of puppetry but they are not what defines the puppeteer.

In essence, being a puppeteer is an approach to materials.  It is a way of handling them. Of transforming them. Of giving them new meanings.  And, ultimately, of bringing them to life.


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