Halfway between a glove puppet and object theatre, this type of puppet manipulation does not consist of any mechanical devices for gripping the puppet such as rods or strings. In direct manipulation, the puppet is worn directly on the hand, arm, or worn around the waist and is an extension of the puppeteer, not worn as a costume. The puppeteer is seen, and enacts a sort of pas de deux with the puppet who has its own dramatic autonomy, independent of the puppeteer. “It is the play with the set – the material of construction in full sight of spectators, where the puppeteer uses everyday objects, with the evaluative structure of Garganthéâtre, which is both the object-puppet and the object-set or background at the same time, the objects are held directly by the puppeteers.” (Claude Monestier, “Un marginalisme nécessaire”, in Théâtre de Gennevilliers, Théâtre public. Le théâtre de marionnettes).
In Africa, many puppet-like figures are handled directly. Nsiba, Congolese puppets/musical instruments (trumpets and flutes) that are used in a burial ceremony for important members of the Bembe community, are manipulated around the waist, the performer blowing into them to make them resonate.
In 1973, Michael Meschke of the Stockholm Marionettentheater presented The Splendour and Death of Joaquin Murieta, a play by Pablo Neruda, with actors who manipulated small figures directly by hand on a tabletop set.
Marcel Violette, a set designer, conceived of directly manipulated puppets between 1970 and 1982 for a production of Eugène Ionesco’s Le roi se meurt (Exit The King, 1974) by the company Houdart-Heuclin. The characters were represented by large stained and painted jute fabric figures mounted on large springs, measuring more than 2 metres. At the beginning of the production, they were fully extended and carried by the actors. Gradually, as the government and society fell apart, they retracted and curled up. As the king died, they disintegrated fully down the floor, to reveal the actors by themselves.
For Théâtre de la Manicle of Le Havre (France), directed by Georges Vérin, Violette created puppets in a theatrical adaptation of the novel Mister Butterfly (1999) by Howard Buten. Four characters with disabilities, all made with items that conceptually would have been “lying around in a bar” – a sugar bowl, a mop, a guitar, and a boa – were assembled live by the actors. In dramatic scenes of joy or violence, they were handled like directly manipulated puppets.
We see this technique again in Fissures (Cracks), a show put on by the Nord-Ouest Théâtre – La Famille Magnifique (The Great Family) directed by René Pareja, wherein the character Roland Fichet recounts the rape and murder of a woman. Creating a theatrical illusion to depict this sensitive scenario was a challenge for the production, but simply by tearing a sheet of paper folded in half, the actor created the shape of a woman’s body: a silent, fragile, broken figure that spoke volumes, and was authentic to the emotions present. The puppet was then symbolically torn into little pieces and drowned.
Frank Soehnle of the Figurentheater Tübingen (Germany) most notably and remarkably performed what can only be described as a “frantic skeleton dance” in Flamingo Bar. The puppet was made up of several directly manipulated elements: a hollow head with a movable jaw, articulated limbs hung across the shoulders, and a long rag-like costume piece from the waist down. With one hand placed in supination, with the palm facing anteriorly and arms up-bent, as one commonly sees with glove puppets, he manipulated the head of the puppet with his thumb, and straps attached to the shoulders and wrists provided extra support. The other fingers were placed inside the head to move the puppet’s jaw. His other hand directly represented and directly manipulated the puppet’s hand.
The company S’appelle Reviens presented États de femmes (States of Women, 2005) as an experiment in direct manipulation and puppetry, using objects and materials to build and perform the characters. They used such diverse materials as sand, latex, and sugar to express their emotions and their nightmares.