New Zealand (Maori: Aotearoa), an island country in the south-western Pacific Ocean, east of Australia across the Tasman Sea, comprises two main land masses – the North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui) and the South Island (Te Waipounamu) – and numerous smaller islands (see Oceania).

The country can boast a puppetry heritage extending several hundred years, beginning with an indigenous puppetry form and then with more recent influences from European and Asian migrants. New Zealand is currently in an interesting period of cultural development as it seeks to embrace its Polynesian and European traditions while articulating a new national identity in this era of mass migration, globalization and high technology. Film-makers like Peter Jackson have eagerly embraced and developed new technologies to create animated fantasies such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and many contemporary theatre-makers often utilize puppet and mask forms in their exploration of the migrant experience. Like their contemporaries everywhere, the puppeteers of New Zealand have – and will continue to be – possessed by the desire to bring life to the inanimate object.

Early History

Nga Karetao is a rare puppetry form that has its origin with the Maori, the Indigenous people of New Zealand. Some tribal groups practised this genre of puppetry known variously as Karetao (by the Ngati Tuhoe), Karari (by the Ngati Porou) and Toko Raurape (by some of the Far North Tribes). These wooden figures represented ancestors and were intricately carved, often with moko – a facial tattoo – indicating the high status of the ancestor. Karetao were considered to be taonga – sacred objects – meriting great reverence and respect, as it was believed that they possessed the mauri – life force – of the ancestor, which manifested when handled by the operator. The operator held the figure by a handle carved below its legs and pulled flax strings from behind to animate the loosely jointed arms. Special songs were composed for these figures known as oriori karetao.

Following European settlement in the early 19th century, the traditions surrounding the use of these puppets were suppressed by the imposition of Christianity and general effects of colonization, therefore very little is known about the role or status of the operator nor the context in which the Karetao were used. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that they were used to instruct youth in tribal history and genealogy and, in some cases, women used figures known as Pakoko in a satirical way to resolve personal disputes. The noted Maori academic and composer, Dr Hirini Melbourne (d.2003), who researched Taonga Puoro (sacred musical instruments), stated that the Taonga Puoro and Karetao were used for the same purpose “for the healing of the land and the people”. Very few figures remain in existence but there are some fine examples in museum collections in New Zealand, Britain and the USA.

The first recorded European puppeteer to perform in New Zealand was “Professor” Barney Whiterats, aka Robert Winter. In 1849, Barney Whiterats worked his passage to New Zealand from London where he had allegedly been a “Punch & Judy Professor”. On arrival at Port Chalmers, Dunedin, he jumped ship and immediately began a career that was to last some sixty years as an itinerant Punch Professor, shadow puppeteer, showman and trainer of rats . He performed wherever he could, from music halls to shearing sheds. However, conditions were not easy and life on the swag, even for an entertainer, consisted of walking many miles for meagre return. Often his shows would only have earned him some food and/or a place to sleep. Without doubt Barney Whiterats was a colourful character, carrying “a box almost as big as himself. This box contained his screen, the puppets and the performing white mice”, and he was much beloved by South Island school children. He continued to perform up until three months before his death in 1911, aged ninety.

First Modern Troupes

In the latter half of the 19th century, various marionette troupes – including the Webb’s Royal Marionettes – made tours to New Zealand. However, it was not until 1939 that Arnold Goodwin established the first significant modern troupe in New Zealand: The Goodwin Marionette Theatre. This professional puppet theatre had its origins in 1937 when Arnold Goodwin – then a tutor at the Elam School of Fine Art in Auckland – added theatre design to the curriculum. A miniature stage was made and the students added marionettes to bring their theatre to life. Goodwin was struck by the dramatic possibilities of these animated figures, and began the long task of carving the cast of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In 1939, he then formed a troupe consisting of Raeburn Griffiths, Freda Crosher, Arthur Thompson, and Barbara Thompson, Goodwin’s daughter. The company performed principally for adult and family audiences on national tours of the country. Their artistic integrity, high production values and commitment to serious plays had a significant influence on a number of puppeteers in both New Zealand and Australia.

Until the beginning of World War II, the Goodwin Marionette Theatre toured schools presenting a varied programme including The Tempest. Early in the war, the Army Education Welfare Service contracted the theatre that, over the next two years, it gave some fifty performances to 20,000 members of the Air Force, Army and Navy, and at hospitals. At the end of the war the company took to the road in a converted bus – taking a marionette show onto the fairgrounds of New Zealand. Over two years, the Goodwin Marionette Theatre covered 12,000 miles and performed to over 120,000 people in venues ranging from the main centres to remote country areas. As well as performing The Tempest and Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon, a new performance, The Jollywood Revue, introduced a host of new characters, many of them trick marionettes (see Trick and Transformation Puppets). Glove puppets were introduced for the first time for the 1948 tour performance of Alice in Wonderland.

In 1949, following a series of tours with the Community Arts Service, the puppeteers went in different directions. Arnold Goodwin returned to live theatre, although he and his wife Mary later toured The Tempest again. Raeburn and Freda migrated to Australia where they established the Griffiths Marionette Theatre. Arthur Thompson became involved in films and advertising while Barbara Thompson and her sister Joan Chalmers moved into glove puppetry, puppet films, and promotional work for commercial products. Under the Goodwin Marionette name they continued performing until 1961, when Arthur and Barbara left for England. In 1983, the Goodwin Marionette Theatre puppets were restored by Anne Forbes and formed the basis of The New Zealand Puppet Theatre. The Goodwin Marionette Theatre Puppet Collection is now housed at the Auckland Museum.

In the 1950s, 60s and 70s

Born in London in 1928, Raymond Boyce became interested in puppetry before he left school. With the help of parents and friends he had made his own marionette theatre that helped raise money for blitz relief and Red Cross funds during the early years of World War II. During his two years of British Army service, Boyce designed a full puppet production of Bizet’s opera Carmen. He later studied scene design at London’s Slade School of Fine Arts, and at the Old Vic Theatre School. His interest in puppetry continued and, in 1949, he was invited to perform in Budapest at the Hungarian National Puppet Day. Boyce also did holiday shows in London parks, and worked as a manipulator for the John Wright Marionette Theatre. Extensive puppet work on BBC television followed, as well as repertory and freelance work.

In 1953, Boyce was invited to New Zealand to join the newly formed New Zealand Players as a scenic designer. There he met Geraldine Kean, the property mistress for the company who had previously used puppets in her work as an occupational therapist. In September 1957, Boyce and Kean left to form The Puppet Theatre, and subsequently married. The new company first toured for the Community Arts Service. This eleven-week tour used rod, glove and shadow puppets. The repertoire included The Birds by Aristophanes, Hero and Leander by Ben Jonson and The King Stag by Carlo Gozzi. The Puppet Theatre continued full-time until 1961, and then performed for special occasions only up until 1981. Raymond Boyce’s career as a scenic designer flourished and he designed over 130 productions for opera, ballet and theatre.

Greer Twiss, acclaimed as one of New Zealand’s foremost sculptors, was born in Auckland in 1937. He is also a master puppet-maker and has created some exceptional marionettes and a fine set of Punch and Judy figures. As a boy, Twiss made and performed string puppets and, while still a pupil at Auckland Grammar School, he produced a puppet performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury. He continued his puppetry career throughout the 1950s – as Greer Twiss Marionettes – and at its peak, his theatre numbered some two hundred marionettes. Unfortunately, many of these were destroyed in a house fire in 1985. From 1957-1961, Greer studied sculpture at the Elam School of Fine Arts. Since then, apart from two TV series in 1960-1961, he has devoted his time to sculpture, and for thirty-three years lectured at Elam.

Hazel “The Puppet Lady” and Murray Gittos met through their involvement in Unity Artists, a left-wing cultural organization, formed in the early 1950s, that aimed to “take the arts out to the people”. Both were interested in acting and Hazel performed sketches and monologues. Then in the mid 1950s she took up glove puppets, and under the name Unity Puppets performed for adult audiences. Her plays, written by husband Murray, were topical and satirical; they included titles like Equal Pay and Elections.

Formed by Scottish immigrants – Jim and Edna Burton – The Burton Theatre of Puppets toured schools from 1964-1981. Every year the Burtons selected a traditional folk tale from a different country, which they then adapted for rod puppet performance. The puppets were costumed in the traditional dress of the country and they recorded a sound track of folk music from the featured country. Jim Burton was very active in UNIMA and for many years was the New Zealand representative on the UNIMA Council. The Burtons represented New Zealand, by invitation, at the first Asia-Pacific Puppet Festival, held in Tokyo in 1979. Edna Burton has written and published a book on “junk puppets”.

During the 1970s, Red Mole Theatre (Alan Brunton, d.2002, and Sally Rodwell, d.2006) used all forms of puppetry to create political cabaret. They also formed White Rabbit Puppet Theatre, which created glove puppet shows for touring to schools. Two other members, Deborah Hunt and Rose Beauchamp, have pursued careers in puppetry. Hunt relocated to Puerto Rico where she teaches and creates mask and puppet theatre for and with community groups. Beauchamp has continued working as a shadow puppeteer. Her portable, solo shadow performance – The Blue Shoe Show – explores an environmental theme and has toured to puppet festivals internationally.

Into the 1980s and Beyond

In the early 1980s, Rose Beauchamp was instrumental in bringing Welfare State International (UK) to New Zealand for workshops and community performances. In 1986, she produced the First New Zealand International Puppet Festival in Wellington and was instrumental in establishing PINZ-UNIMA (Puppeteers in NZ affiliated to UNIMA). Beauchamp worked tirelessly for PINZ-UNIMA for many years and has conducted research into the links between traditional Maori puppetry and the living tradition of Kami Sumo or God Sumo wrestling kugutsu – sacred puppets – of a Shinto Temple in Southern Japan. Throughout the 1980s, director Warwick Broadhead – influenced by companies such as Welfare State International and Drama Action – created many large-scale community events using giant puppets and animated imagery. In the late 1990s, Broadhead changed direction to performing tiny dramas using puppets and objects in people’s living rooms.

Anne Forbes founded The New Zealand Puppet Theatre (NZPT) and Museum of Puppets (1984-1994). An Arts Council-funded professional company, it toured nationally and created works for children and adult audiences. Its initial repertoire was founded on the Goodwin Marionette Collection (see above) and adapting contemporary children’s literature into puppet plays. Under her directorship it quickly moved to devising and developing new work with an emphasis on themes relevant to New Zealand culture and society. The company boldly experimented with a variety of puppetry styles and techniques and was abreast with the international trend towards non-verbal visual based theatre. Forbes’s critically acclaimed solo work for adults, Out of Hand (1989), was a hybrid form of object theatre and physical theatre. The NZPT offered structured training for puppeteers, including master classes with Philippe Genty and Richard Bradshaw. It also initiated a training programme for a group of young Maori puppeteers who formed a self-determining subsidiary to the NZPT, known as Nga Karari Maori o Aotearoa. Nga Karari devised contemporary performances, often with native birds and animals as characters performed in te reo (Maori language) at Kohanga Reo (Maori language pre-schools), Kura (Maori language schools) and on Marae (traditional meeting places).

In 1991, Forbes formed Out of Hand Productions, an independent puppet-based theatre company, with a former NZPT puppeteer, Rebekah Wild (formerly Whiteside). Later, Wild moved to London where she worked with the Little Angel Theatre. She regularly returns to New Zealand for projects both making and performing puppets. In 1994, Forbes joined forces with Tim Denton, a mask, giant puppet and visual theatre maker and performer. Their company AboutFace Productions tours nationally and internationally to festivals with both in-theatre shows and large-scale roving puppets. In 2004, they moved to Tasmania when Forbes was appointed artistic director of Terrapin Puppet Theatre. AboutFace Productions is now based in Melbourne, Australia, where Forbes and Denton continue to teach, create and tour puppet performance.

Various other puppeteers have performed and taught their skills. Jonathon Acorn is an accomplished showman who works in glove puppetry and object theatre, while Norbert Hausberg, a German string puppeteer, has toured schools for many years. In the South Island, Briar Middleditch’s Flying Hat Puppet Theatre created ambitious visual puppet theatre exploring adult themes as well as community-based projects. Leslie Trowbridge (d.2002) developed and toured his unique form of puppet opera. Dr Joko Susilo, an eighth-generation Indonesian dalang, married a New Zealander and settled in Dunedin; in 1997, he created a project called Wayang Karetao integrating Javanese shadow puppetry and Maori legends (see Wayang). He continues to teach and develop cross-cultural projects both in New Zealand and internationally.

Film director Peter Jackson’s 1989 low-budget puppet “splatter” movie Meet the Feebles achieved international cult status, creating a new audience for puppetry in film (see Cinema). In the 2000s, Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy made important developments with motion capture techniques and digital puppetry that continue to be an industry standard. Peter Jackson’s commitment to making creature and fantasy-based films in New Zealand has given opportunities and exposure to a whole new generation of makers and performers interested in puppetry. Many of those people who have gained their skills through working on a Jackson film also create large-scale animated imagery for sports events and Arts Festivals. Others work in commercial animation studios.

New work created for “live” theatre often features puppetry, mask or visual elements.  Australian L. Peter Wilson has introduced puppetry into the repertoire of the National Theatre for Children. Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis – Indian Ink Theatre Company – utilized puppet and mask in their award-winning production The Candlestickmaker (2000). Kate Parker and Julie Nolan – Red Leap Theatre – integrate various forms of puppetry into devised theatre performances such as in their highly acclaimed adaptation of Shaun Tan’s book The Arrival (2009).

The way New Zealand puppeteers live by their work and how audiences experience them has changed greatly over the last fifty years. However, like Barney Whiterats a hundred years ago, travelling puppeteers can still be found performing in schools, fairs and festivals, though – unlike Barney – their range is no longer limited by how far they can walk in a day.


  • Beauchamp, Rose. Living Puppets. Wellington (NZ): Steele Roberts, [n.d.].
  • Best, Elsdon. Games and Pastimes of the Maori. Wellington (NZ): Government Printer, 1976.
  • Burton, Edna. Just Junk! How to Make Puppets Out of Everyday Items. Palmerston North (NZ): Kanuka Grove Press, 1999.
  • Harcourt, Peter. A Dramatic Appearance: NZ Theatre 1920-1970. Wellington (NZ): Methuen, 1978.
  • Henderson, Jim. Swagger Country. Auckland (NZ): Hodder & Stoughton, 1976.
  • Nicholson-Garrett, Gladys. St Bathans. Dunedin (NZ): McIndoe, 1977.