The history of North America is a history of arrivals of diverse peoples trying to adapt to a new land and to each other. The pre-historic immigration from Asia became the population of Native American Indians who developed the first puppetry on the continent. The heritage of ceremonial Native American puppetry and masks is a reminder of the religious roots of theatre.

The European Origins

It is recorded that when Hernando Cortez set out to conquer Mexico in 1524 a puppeteer was in his personal entourage of entertainers. In 1569, Juan de Samora applied for permission to perform a puppet show in the town of Tezcuco, Mexico. It seems extraordinary that 16th century Spanish records of puppetry in the “New World” actually pre-date the first specifically named puppeteer in Great Britain and pre-date the creation of Bunraku (ningyō jōruri) in Japan. Mexico clearly has the longest history of puppetry in North America.

The Spanish, French, and Portuguese brought the European tradition of Carnival and Mardi Gras to the Americas. The use of carved or constructed masks and colourful costumes sometimes crossed over into puppetry. Carnival also provided an opportunity to blend Christian pageantry with the crafts and symbols and celebrations of Native Americans and Africans as well.

The 18th and 19th Centuries

Through the 18th and 19th centuries various European forms of puppetry arrived in North America. Marionette (string puppet) companies would come by ship to coastal towns and cites. European style shadow puppets and glove puppets came to North America in the late 18th century. Mechanical spectacles such as the puppet-like chess player came to America after European tours (see Automata, Androids and Robots, Mechanical Theatres, Theatrum Mundi). Although the traditional puppets of Spain and France made visits to North America they did not take root as an integral part of the popular culture. Punch and Judy from England made a somewhat more lasting impression in the United States of America and Canada.

The 20th Century

As immigrants settled in North America they brought puppets with them from Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Greece, and China. The puppet traditions of these cultures provided inspiration to a few discerning artists who were lucky enough to see performances found in ethnic communities in larger cities.

In small theatres, circus tents, and town squares puppeteers presented light, entertaining performances for children and adults. In 1874, the Royal Marionettes of Liverpool, England (see Bullock’s Royal Marionettes) travelled to North America for a spectacularly successful international tour that took the company all the way to Australia. In the 1920s Italy’s Teatro dei Piccoli toured several times inspiring and influencing American puppeteers. After World War II, the Salzburg Marionettes (see Salzburger Marionettentheater) made the first of many successful tours. Visits by Yves Joly of France, by the Bunraku Theatre of Japan, Sergei Obraztsov of the Soviet Union, Albrecht Roser of Germany, the Hogarth Puppets of Britain, and Divadlo DRAK of Czechoslovakia all played a role in widening the vision of North American artists.

Within North America, puppeteers and material frequently crossed national borders.  Louis Bunin created puppet theatre in Mexico, and Roberto Lago was a mentor to puppeteers in the United States. Luman Coad (of Coad Canada Puppets) and Ronnie Burkett of Canada are well known in the United States, and Jim Henson used studios in Toronto (Canada) to produce some of his finest television work.

Representatives from North America attended the first UNIMA festival in Bucharest, Romania. Petrushka and Peter and the Wolf became instant classics of the puppet theatre in North America soon after they were created in the Soviet Union, just as American jazz and Walt Disney cartoons had a major impact in Europe.

In fact, good ideas in puppetry seem to circle the globe and transcend cultures and national boundaries. The carved wayang golek of Java arrived in Amsterdam and inspired the Austrian Richard Teschner, who inspired the Russian Nina Simonovitch-Efimova, who inspired the American Marjorie Batchelder, to introduce the rod puppet to America. It was the rod puppet re-imagined as Jim Henson’s Muppets, and the power of television, that put rod puppetry in homes and classrooms of one hundred nations. Peter Schumann, born in Germany, first encountered Sicilian marionettes (see Pupi) while living in New York City. The size and bold movements of the puppets helped to inspire the creation of Bread and Puppet Theater’s large parade puppets that are now seen at political protests everywhere from Barcelona to Jerusalem.

Funding and Grants

As puppetry began to gain some respect as an art form and as a teaching tool, from time to time national governments provided financial support. For a short time in the 1930s the United States provided some funds for puppetry through, for example, the WPA (Work Projects Administration), and since 1981, funding has come from the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts). In Mexico, Cuba, and Canada (particularly Quebec) there have been varying degrees of government-financed puppetry. But in general most of North America did not have anything like the historical state supported puppetry of Eastern Europe. Support comes from diverse sources.

In the United States, for instance, Peter Schumann encourages people to work at a local level independent from corporations or cultural institutions. Some universities provide support by adding puppetry to the curriculum. Theatres and festival organizers provide the facilities to keep puppetry in the public eye. The National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, The Jim Henson Foundation, the Center for Puppetry Arts, UNIMA-USA, and Puppeteers of America have all reached across international boundaries to nourish puppetry. Over the past four decades, public broadcasting’s support for Sesame Street educational programming introduced generations of North Americans to the Muppets, and this prompted subsequent Muppet programmes on commercial television stations and even a series of feature films (see Cinema).  

The Profession of Puppeteer

However, the vast television audience for children’s shows has not yet made puppetry part of mainstream American popular culture. The art of puppetry is still considered somewhat obscure and mysterious. The American audience for live performances of jazz or classical music is very small in terms of the entire population. The audience for puppet theatre is even smaller. Very few puppeteers achieve international or national attention. Most puppeteers in North America reach a local or regional audience.

The American word “puppeteer” is ambiguous. It can refer to people who make puppets, who perform with puppets or people who do both. The term “professional puppeteer” is equally imprecise, as it may refer to a person who is occasionally paid to perform, or someone who derives most of their income from puppetry. Puppetry is a difficult career choice and even very gifted artists sometimes move on to other pursuits. There are no precise figures, so it is impossible to offer any kind of remotely scientific estimate of the number of professionally involved puppeteers in North America, but an educated guess would place the number below 10,000 and perhaps as low as 5,000 for the entire continent. The skilled puppet builders and actors who bring puppets to life in films, theatres, and television studios tend to remain invisible. The rare and dedicated puppeteers on the road most typically work in companies of two, three, or four performers, or sometimes as solo artists.

The Puppeteer and the Audience

In North America the traditional forms of glove, string, rod, and shadow puppet exist side-by-side with adaptations using new technologies. There is perhaps a trend towards work with the visible puppeteer using a variety of methods including: tabletop puppetry, found objects, and bunraku-style. As in the past, puppeteers continue to invent entirely new and un-named methods of manipulating puppets, just as they continue to explore new sculptural materials. Audiences in North America, like audiences everywhere, have widely ranging tastes. Puppetry can be light entertainment or intellectually challenging. Texts can be symbolic, political, instructive, or deeply emotional. Puppets can be complex or simple, finely crafted or rough, realistic or abstract. At two recent puppet festivals it was possible to sample work from many of these diverse styles. At the present time, the number of puppeteers living and working in New York City also provides a unique opportunity for audiences and artists to enjoy a wide spectrum of performances.

In Costa Rica, Cuba and Puerto Rico, and in the state of Iowa, USA, and the province of Saskatchewan, Canada, there is high quality puppetry reaching appreciative audiences. A museum in Mexico or Quebec, a university professor at Storrs, Connecticut, or a world-class artist in Putney, Vermont, can create an oasis of puppetry in isolated or unlikely locations. Awareness, appreciation, and financial support for the art form tend to be scattered and inconsistent.

Who Does What?

It is certainly a welcome development when major authors, composers, choreographers, or theatre directors sometimes choose to collaborate with puppeteers to widen their expressive range. A theatre director who blends puppets with masked actors and other elements of spectacle might or might not choose to use the label “puppeteer”. In television, film, or theatre, productions with puppets may employ a whole team including designers, sculptors, costumers, authors, composers, voice actors, puppet manipulators, and a director. It is the director who is frequently, but not always, considered the “auteur” or “animator” or “puppeteer”.

In the past, the press, at least in the United States, has often treated puppetry as a quaint or eccentric curiosity but very recently the media in North America has discovered that puppetry can express an impressive range of adult emotions for highly sophisticated audiences.