The term “manipulation” came into general use in the 18th century, often in a scientific context, and implied handling with skill. It does not seem to have appeared in the context of puppet theatre before the 20th century, and here it is most common with marionettes (string puppets) rather than glove or other types of puppet. In the 19th century, a showman or proprietor who owned a marionette show, went under a variety of names ranging from “puparo” in Sicily to “physicien” (with scientific overtones) in France to “Professor” in Britain, a term that has survived with the Punch and Judy performer today and was used to imply profession or métier. The performers who spoke or sang were regarded as important, but those (other than the showman) who operated the figures were of comparatively low status and often referred to as “figure workers”.

In the first half of the 20th century, “manipulation” gradually became a more general term for the handling of puppets of any sort. Today it has lost currency, partly because of pejorative associations of the word and partly because of developments within puppet theatre itself, most notably when the performer shares the stage with the puppet (or object) which now becomes one of the means of expression of the performer rather than a figure to be manipulated. Many puppeteers now find the term “manipulation” unacceptable. However, like the different instruments of the orchestra, every type of puppet demands the development of certain skills which allow the performer to endow it with maximum expressivity.

When a spectator goes to a puppet show, he is unlikely to question the professional secrets behind the presentation (see Secrecy). However, this depends on certain conditions, of which the manipulation of the puppets is one of the most important, for it is this process that underlines the phenomenon, both fascinating and bizarre, that attracts people to puppets: seeing life where we know it does not exist.

There is no one single manipulation technique, but rather a wide spectrum of possible ways of animating inert material, characters or objects. In Europe and the Unites States of America the classic manipulation techniques have given their names to different types of puppet: the glove puppet, worn on the hand and operated from below (thus called hand puppet in the United States); the marionette or string puppet operated from above by means of strings, wires or rods; and the rod puppet operated from below by means of rods. In the 20th century, this classical order was shaken by the arrival of new techniques that mix and combine a variety of different styles. Many are influenced by diverse cultural traditions, notably from Asia. In Asian culture alone, the variations are numerous, from puppeteers who lie on the ground with puppets on their toes to Japanese robots that play the piano and are controlled by a built-in computer. However, quality is not merely a matter of technical complexity.

In the case of string puppets, for example, contrary to the widely believed idea, there is no necessary correlation between the number of strings and the quality of movement: a dancing puppet can be more gracious suspended by one string as opposed to twenty, and a galloping horseman couldn’t turn around the stomach of his horse if he was controlled by numerous strings. To obtain this sort of virtuosity, the puppeteers of Rajasthan, in India, require no more than three strings (except for their dancer puppet, Anarkali, who has four) which they hold in their bare hands (see Kathputli ka Khel). A control consisting of a piece of wood to which all the strings are attached does not necessarily have a universal relation to the quality of manipulation. Such a control may be held in a vertical or horizontal position. Usually the puppeteer will hold it with one hand, using the other to pull individual strings. Controls come in every shape and size from the large and complex ones used by Harro Siegel or Greta Bruggeman to the very simple little ones in the shape of an H that can be found in Myanmar (Burma).

The quality of manipulation isn’t measured by the quantity or size of movement either. A character isn’t more alive because it moves a lot. Quite the opposite is the case. The more it jerks and jumps about or moves all over the place, the less it keeps our attention, as the movements cancel each other out. Quality manipulation depends mainly on a good knowledge of movement and how to apply it. Thus, the best technique is the one that goes unnoticed and has no other function than to diffuse the message. Consequently, once technique has been acquired it must, in a sense, be forgotten.

String Manipulation

The marionette operated entirely by strings has been one of the classic forms in Europe since the beginning of the 20th century, although the rod marionette has also survived in some traditions and is interesting because the more direct control of the figure involves a different mode of manipulation. The essential feature of the strong marionette is its dependence on gravity.

After analysing the piece or play, its characters and the idea behind it, just as a typical actor would, the marionettist examines his instrument. This is a basic workmanlike exercise that begins in the workshop where the strings are attached, their length measured and their tensions balanced. The shoulder strings, for example, have to be tenser than the others, as they hold the weight of the body. Those of the hands, in contrast, must hang, loose, to stop the extremities from moving spontaneously. Once the strings have been put in position, the puppeteer discovers what he can do with them. Each puppet has its own specific possibilities that are peculiar to it.

Unlike classical dancers, who train at the bar every day, the puppeteer works directly on the stage, and every movement that he or she attempts has a precise motivation. It is here that the puppet’s capacity to move and the puppeteer’s ability to interpret are put to the test. To know movement, even in its most extreme and stylized forms, the best master will always be nature. Nature provides the elementary laws of rhythm, of dynamics, of balance and counter-forces, the relationships of cause and effect and the balance between states of effort and of repose. Nature also guarantees the authenticity of artistic expression. At an aesthetic level, authenticity also gives credibility to what is presented on stage. Each movement has a meaning and this invites us to eliminate the insignificant. Each individual movement starts from a state of immobility and ends in a new state of immobility. It develops within a specific space, the extent of which must be measured. Every movement takes a certain amount of time and its duration influences its meaning. Only one movement should be executed at a time. For example, to show the loss of balance of a character that falls forward, we must start from a balanced position: in testing this movement on his own body, the puppeteer will realize that, when his centre of balance is lost, his body falls without being able to correct itself. Thus, if a puppet finds this same point of disequilibrium, his fall will be more convincing.

The “Achilles’ heel” of the string puppet is its way of walking: if the manipulator pulls the knee strings too much, the legs advance ahead of the body and give the puppet a ridiculous, sitting-down type of walk, and when the character is lifted off the ground, its legs hang in the air, revealing that they are in fact just pendulums. We don’t walk with our feet but our bodies and the legs simply accompany this movement. The manipulation technique and the aesthetic of the puppet become one in this instance. However, we must not limit ourselves to a single aesthetic born of our own culture alone. There are other conceptions of what quality is. An example: in India, in the state of Andhra Pradesh, the shadow theatre is performed with “giant” characters (between one and two metres tall), held against the screen with bamboo sticks (see Tolu Bommalata). A Western visitor would like to see the outline of the shadows clearly defined, which would give value to the intricate detail with which they are cut out. But one could respond as this Indian puppeteer did: “Our shadows represent man. Have you ever seen a clearly defined man?” Outside of Indian and Chinese theatre, of which the virtuosity is renowned, it is in Japan that we find a particularly rigorous search for perfection. One can start with, one of the most important string puppet theatres of the 20th century, that of Takeda Kinosuke and Takeda Sennosuke. They portrayed a white crane with a broken wing that tries desperately to migrate before the glacial winter, and then dies. It is one of the most extraordinary scenes created by Takeda Kinosuke. Here, the complex manipulation reinforces the artistic expression. With the aid of several supplementary strings, a wing with quivering feathers tries unsuccessfully to unfold and this gives rise to a very special emotion.

Glove Manipulation

The glove puppet may seem easier to use, but its manipulation is also an art. As the Italian puppeteer Romano Danielli (of the Bolognese theatre that carries his name) reminded us in Fagiolino c’è. 50 anni di burattini bolonesi (Fagionlini Exists. 50 Years of Bolognese Burattini), this kind of manipulation has to respect a certain number of rules. The movement of the entire body of the puppet is provided by the arm, whilst bending and turning the wrist determines movements such as bowing, bending and stretching from the waist upwards. The puppet must be held upright and every movement must be calculated and controlled. An error made by beginners is to move the arm and the wrist frenetically and this produces very boring jerky movements on the stage. With regard to this, Danielli cites Ciro Bertoni, the grand master of Italian manipulation, who said: “If during scenes of ordinary dialogue the puppet starts dancing on stage, what would it do at moments of action and agitation? Jump in the air?”

Another error is the confusion created by the entrances and exits of characters if the space where the action takes place is not firmly respected. The acting area is defined by wings, stage right and stage left. Once inside the booth or puppet stage, the puppeteer must already have decided by which wing each character must enter and exit. A character that enters at one point must take the same route to exit. Respect of this order is essential for the show to be clear and understandable. Moreover, some puppeteers are certainly particularly adept at doing several voices, but if all the characters move at the same time, a change in voice will have less effect.

In regard to fights with sticks, without which a guignol show, or any other with glove puppets for that matter, would not be what it is, the technique appears simple but is acquired after much practice. The stick or club must be held at a slight angle in the puppeteer’s palm, so that it rests on the puppet’s shoulder, on the side where the arm is controlled by the puppeteer’s thumb. With this hold, the little wooden hands cross and give the impression that the puppet really is holding the club. Blows to the head of the other puppet should not be too violent and should strike its neck. Just as the blow is given, the puppeteer must make the character fall and turn, making it loudly knock its head on the playboard, thus provoking the characteristic sound that, after several repetitions, concludes disputes between puppets. There are two ways to use the club: one loud and exaggerated, the other more controlled and realistic. Ciro Bertoni, ever a manipulation purist, would not allow a puppet that had received an initial blow and fallen to get up to receive a second one. Many puppeteers do not share this rigorous interpretation: the puppet must fall when hit, produce the classic sound of shock and then get up immediately to receive a second one. This is how the sort of ridiculous ballet that is so characteristic of the glove puppet stage is obtained.

The Example of Bunraku

Among the rich traditions of Japan, that of Bunraku (ningyō-jōruri), stands out because of its out of the ordinary power. Going well beyond mere techniques of manipulation, this art form expresses a completely different conception of theatre. The National Bunraku Theatre (Kokuritsu Bunraku Gekijyō) in Osaka carries a tradition that is over three hundred years old, thanks to the works of Chikamatsu Monzaemon and also to a demanding ten-year professional training based on a rigorous hierarchy amongst the performers. The presence of three men for one single puppet requires breathing with a single breath that is not that of the leading puppeteer but of the puppet. These artists are not directed by a director in the auditorium. The old masters alone observe and advise. The three men do not speak to each other. The movement is coordinated thanks to discreet signals from the principal puppeteer. To show his intention to move the puppet, he draws it back a few millimetres before advancing, and the two others know exactly where to go. The Bunraku puppet makes no attempt to imitate trivialities of human behaviour, but observes a refined attitude, particularly visible when it walks or in moments of emotion. Stylization eliminates small, insignificant movements, retaining only what is essential. It purifies the language of gesture and renders it perfectly “natural”. The most important difference between Bunraku puppets and all other forms of manipulation is of a “dramatic” nature: the puppeteers touch the character directly, without the use of strings, rods, sticks or any other intermediate medium, which explains their unique dynamism. The mime Étienne Decroux defined the word dynamism as a combination of two elements: muscular energy and speed. Depending on how they are combined, these two elements give each movement a meaning. The dynamism of Bunraku has inspired a lot of puppeteers worldwide. For example, the creation of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone in 1978 by the Marionetteatern in Stockholm, with its violent confrontations, respected the articulation of the Japanese figures, including the mobile faces, whilst adapting the movements to Western body language.

Also in Japan, a surprising cousin of Bunraku is kuruma ningyō, “the puppet in a wheelchair” of Koryo Nishikawa. A puppeteer sits on a little wooden box, the kuruma. With one hand inserted into the body of the puppet (ningyō), he directs the head, whilst with the other he moves the arms and uses his toes to grip the puppet’s heels. When, dressed in black (and so invisible), he propels himself forward using his heels, the puppet moves forward as well.

If, until now, manipulation has seemed to be of a technical nature, these Japanese examples illustrate that it is also, and principally, an art. The work of the puppeteer isn’t a mechanical process; it isn’t enough to just “pull the strings”. Every movement is born in the body of the puppeteer. When this movement is continued into the smaller body of a puppet, its authenticity must not be lost. Furthermore, what the puppeteer sees from above (or below) is not identical to what the public sees from the front.

Manipulation is complex and has to be learnt, but the talent and individual sensitivity of each puppeteer counts, potentially, just as much. Some succeed from the first touch; others move puppets without giving them life. A sensitive puppeteer is gifted with a peculiar quality, that of being able to “understand” his puppet. Each puppet poses limits, either due to the material in which it is made (paper, wood, foam, textile, etc.), its articulations (hard or soft, rigid or flexible, small or bulky) or its manipulation technique (the type of control, rods or other). But good manipulation also signifies knowing how to “follow” the character, respecting what its construction allows and not forcing it to do what it cannot do.

However, puppets can surprise us. At the end of an arabesque (a ballet pose), with one leg in the air, Baptiste, the emblematic string puppet of Michael Meschke, executes a supplementary movement without the intervention of the puppeteer: he points his foot with the elegance of a dancer. Is this magic? A chance movement created by tensions between the strings and joints? No one could ever say. Could the puppet be manipulating the puppeteer?


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