A booth is a relatively temporary structure erected for a purpose. It is cognate with the English word “abode”. In a theatrical sense it generally means a temporary structure in which performances can take place. Its secondary meaning, more specific to puppets, is that of a portable stage such as is used for Punch and Judy or Guignol (French: castelet).
In medieval Europe performers might present farces on a stage of bare boards or trestles, behind which there was some sort of structure or tent which served as a changing room (tiring house), and also provided a place from which they might come on the stage. This was effectively the “booth”.
The most basic booth is little more than a tent. It provides an enclosed and covered space which may contain anything from a bearded lady to a fortune teller, a scientific demonstration or a performance by actors or puppets. Unlike the open-air trestle stage it makes it possible to have a paying audience. In Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair (1614) the main characters go to a puppet show in Act IV and there are references to paying two pence to enter.
Fairs, many of which lasted only a couple of days, had, since the Middle Ages, provided a situation where performers could find ready-made audiences in a mood to spend money. In some cases the fairground was already provided with a number of light structures which could be occupied by performers. Such was the case in Paris with the fairs of Saint-Germain, Saint-Laurent and Saint-Ovide. Initially the booths were light wooden buildings but gradually acquired a degree of semi-permanence and might house some hundreds of spectators seated in a parterre and boxes or galleries. In some cities booths, as distinct from the “official” theatres, existed for many years and were occupied by passing entertainers, who sometimes became virtually permanent occupants. In the later 17th century the Judenmarkt in Vienna had a large rope-dancers booth, and close to it one occupied by the marionettes of Pietro Resoniero, which lasted some forty years.
Puppetry has always been primarily an itinerant occupation where performers have to go in search of audiences. In many cases a booth was a portable theatre which might be anything from a small tent to a structure with a gallery and an audience capacity of 1,000.
There was very little difference between a booth for live actors and one for puppets, and in many cases both might occupy the same booth. Some 18th-century German companies might use either actors or puppets and perform more or less the same repertoire. The Scots showman, Billy Purvis, in the early 19th century on one occasion had a disagreement with his actors, whom he probably could not pay, and simply replaced them with puppets. In 1896, portable theatres became the first places for the showing of films, which were simply a novelty to add to the programme. In the 1950s in Ireland there were “fit-ups” (booths) where live actors and marionettes might both appear on the same stage as part of the evening’s entertainment.
The portable puppet theatres in most cases were little more than a tent with a puppet stage at one end and a standing audience. Gradually the walls became wooden panels and the whole was covered by a canvas roof or “tilt”. The development of transport, first canals and rivers, then roads and, from the mid-19th century, railways meant that performers could travel with ever-increasing loads of equipment. By the 1880s John Holden (brother of Thomas Holden[lier]) required an entire train for his equipment, which included a booth with a highly decorated facade measuring 30 metres, and the same was true for other larger travelling companies, such as [lier]Schichtl’s in Magdeburg (who had a special railway siding built to their house). The late 19th-century Dutch impresario Van Lier had two booths. One he used for the company he had engaged, whilst the other was sent ahead, usually to the next fair, to be erected and ready for that company to occupy as it toured the country.
The secondary and more specific meaning of a booth as a free-standing puppet stage is specially associated with the street.
By the 17th century there are many engravings of mountebanks or “ciarlatani” (modern English “charlatans”) who presented an entertainment in order to draw custom for their activities as dentists or vendors of quack medicines. In some cases a puppet stage (in the sense of “castelet”) is placed on the trestles, where it is clearly visible, and the puppets act as the come-on for whatever is being sold. By the 18th century a simple glove-puppet show, such as can be seen in Hogarth’s “Southwark Fair” might be placed on the parade space in front of a portable theatre (which itself may have been showing marionettes inside) so as to attract an audience. In the 19th and early 20th centuries we can find various examples of large travelling marionette shows that had a glove-puppet booth on the parade space.
The main function of a booth is to conceal the performer. However, it is questionable whether such things as the cloak stages of Iberia, or a simple curtain slung across a doorway, can be defined as booths. The same is true of the stages worn above the heads of performers in various parts of Asia and apparently used by 17th century skomorokhi in Russia (actors, who could also sing, dance, play musical instruments and compose for their oral/musical and dramatic performances) or the little body-mounted stages of some Ukrainian vertep today. Broadly speaking this sort of booth is either an open-topped screen which may or may not surround the performer completely, or such a structure with a miniature proscenium-arch stage at the top. The latter, with its reference to the Italianate theatre is the classic Punch and Judy booth, but was also in use for street “fantoccini” (trick marionettes) in 19th century Britain. Such booths were often mounted on wheels which meant that the showman could easily drag his equipment behind him as he made his way from one pitch, or even one town or village, to the next. In other cases everything was thrown onto a small cart, or simply carried through the street.
In Italy until at least the mid-20th century puppeteers often travelled with a complete enclosure, including seating, which was more like a portable theatre without a roof, generally referred to as an “arena” and the booth stage would be set up in this.
The classic booth stage usually consists of four linked upright poles covered in a cheerful fabric (often striped). However, more solidly constructed booths are also used when the booth is placed within an enclosure and has a greater degree of permanence, especially when situated in a public garden rather than the street. The basic booth allows for a single performer, but where more than one performer is involved the booth is proportionately bigger. This is particularly true of the Po valley in Italy. The original Guignol booth was for a single performer, but by the 1830s had been enlarged to allow for two or more.
Variants of the booth exist in many cultures. Amongst the most decorative are the elaborately carved and painted ones of southern China and Taiwan which also allow for a range of windows at a higher level.
In parts of Africa the puppeteer crawls under a small partly framed structure about one metre high and pushes up the figures through a hole in the middle. In Mali the great Antelope theatres, which are both a stage that can move around and a puppet in themselves, also serve as stages for other figures.
If the essential criterion for definition is the concealment of the performer, the term booth might even be extended to the elaborate pagodas through which the Vietnamese water puppets appear, but this does not correspond readily with the idea of a small, free-standing structure.
(See also Puppet Stages.)
- Kuret, P. Niko. “La marionnette traditionnelle des Slovènes” [The Traditional Puppet of the Slovenes]. Catalogue du Festival international de la marionnette de Liège. 1958.
- Malgras, Denis. “Marionnettes bambara à Sikasso” [Bambara Puppets from Sikasso]. Unima-France. No. 61, 1978.
- Obry, Olga. “Heurs et malheurs de la marionnette au Brésil” [Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Puppet in Brazil]. Théâtre dans le monde. Vol. 14, No. 5. Bruxelles, 1965.