A form of puppet with the manipulator inside, often equipped with a harness and/or a helmet and/or shoulder-belt on which the figure is mounted. To bring the figure to life, the head is sometimes manipulated with a rod. These puppets are a subset of giant puppets. Examples of these costume puppets exist throughout time and in many countries.
The giant heads (“Big Heads”) used in the Carnival of Nice are grotesque caricatures representing various professions (merchant, flower vendor, police officer … ), show business and political personalities, stylized animals and people, and cartoon characters. The papier-mâché heads are built year round in the workshops of the Old Town. This is also where the parade floats are made.
A creative example of costume puppetry is the Swiss troupe [lier]Mummenschanz. In 1972, Italian-American Floriana Frassetto and two Swiss artists (who had been through the Jacques Lecoq school), Bernie Schürch and Andres Bossard, created a completely silent show called Mummenschanz. The show was received with unreserved acclaim when it premiered at the Festival d’Avignon, and the troupe Mummenschanz was born. Great mimes add a surreal dimension to their masks – “They walk on the teeth and grind their feet” was the review of Die Welt (The World, a German national daily newspaper) in 1974. Mummenschanz brings to life abstract forms; ventilation tubes, inflated clear plastic bags, foam sculptures, huge hands …or even a giant octopus, all showing an imagination that draws inspiration from the world around them.
A centuries old form of oversized “costume” puppetry, the traditional Chinese Dragon Dance (as well as the Lion Dance), is performed for New Years’ festivals in China and in China Towns around the world. This spectacular dragon puppet can be anywhere from 25 to 70 metres long. It consists of a head and articulated jaw built on a bamboo frame and covered with papier-mâché as well as a body made of a bamboo frame covered with bright fabrics. There is also a tailpiece. (Nowadays more modern materials like fibreglass and aluminium may replace the traditional bamboo.) A manipulator may wear the head as he/she dances, moves, and snaps the jaw, while the body is held aloft on poles by the dancers/gymnasts. In a series of demanding, choreographed moves, the puppeteers dance and jump to the sound of cymbals and drums, simulating the flowing movements of this water creature, considered a fierce but benevolent bearer of good fortune.
Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Lions (shi-shi) and Indonesia’s barong (animal figure) are other examples. The Balinese barong ket is a lion-like creature. He is generally thought of as a lion and is considered “King of the Forest” (other protective barongs are the boar, tiger, snake-like naga, etc.). The costume has a carved wooden mask with a hinged jaw that is decorated with gilded, cutout leather. The body gains volume from the raffia-like vegetable fibre used for the body and the tail end is a wooden crook with gilded, cutout leather. The leatherwork may be adorned with thousands of small round mirrors. Two puppeteers, one for the head and the other for the tail, operate the barong who can appear as a processional figure, appear in certain narratives, and is generally accompanied by loud music that follows the movements of the manipulators.
There are many other examples of costume puppets. In Taiwan, large costumed figures representing the gods are kept in temples and brought out to participate in processions. Where Vajrayana Buddhism has gone we may find a giant image of the saint-culture-bringer, Padmasambhava, or other figures, like the Lord of Death. Ondel-ondel in the Jakarta area of Indonesia has large male and female figures that are danced and carried in processions and clown figures and other characters may be added.
In Bread and Puppet Theater’s Cantata for the Gray Lady No. 2 (1970) such puppets are large celastic masks with draped, painted fabrics. Protest parades or holiday celebrations may involve such large figures which draw the eye and energy of those out walking toward the event.
In South America, costumes originally from the Amazon are used by the Takuna (Alto Rio Negro, Bolivia). These are made of beaten palm fibre (buruti) decorated with geometric designs drawn with charcoal and red clay powder. These puppets represent different living animals, indicated by the dance and songs that accompany them.
The Spanish puppet troupe Putxinel·lis Claca (founded in 1968 by Teresa Calafell and Joan Baixas) presented Mori el Merma in 1978. This show had giant puppets painted by Joan Miró from drawings inspired from the theme of Ubu.
In Africa, the Pende of Zaire use a ceremonial puppet called Gikuku, or “Grandfather”. The head is small and carved from wood, while the larger torso is made of sticks covered with raffia. A loose robe of raffia hides the manipulator and masked men below who shout out, “Propagate Grandfather!”
- Armengaud, Christian. “Mori el Marma”. Revue Unima-France, No. 61, September, 1978.
- Bührer, Michel. Mummenschanz. Lausanne: Favre, 1984.