In object theatre the untransformed “thing” is explored, either in itself (to find its inherent movement/physical properties) or to use as a character/symbol in a story. The popularity of this practice developed in the 1980s, though the genre of course has older roots (see Theatre of Objects). Puppeteers have embraced the form, often as a method of “quick and dirty” art-making that does not demand high costs of developing special figures, long period of building, or extensive technical/visual arts training. The practice is not confined to puppetry, but shared with allied fields, including dance and performance art. Due to its “ready-made” nature, object theatre has been popular in workshops for community participants who may not be trained in building or animation of figures. Since any object can become a puppet, a trip to the second hand store or a quick tour around one’s home can become the basis for a performance or figures for a political protest piece. Most productions are evolved in the workshop format as animators find the possibilities in movement, sound, and character (where used) for the object. A scarf becomes a “dancer”, a hat becomes  “authority”, and white plastic packaging pellets become “snow”. Well known practitioners include Paul Zaloom, Christian Carrignon, Jane Catherine Shaw, and Agus Nur Amal (who has used the form in Sumatra and Jakarta, Indonesia, using object theatre to relieve post traumatic stress in the wake of violence and Tsunami).

Though performances may use full stage, many performances are presented on a tabletop with one narrator/manipulator presenting all the “object-characters” and with his/her own voice. The metre space becomes the width of the universe and the half hour performance can encompass the big bang to the present. Because of the abstraction already implicit in the choice of an object as living/talking/performing, the genre invites the audience into non-literal thinking. Metaphor, metonymy, humour, and poetic thinking are evoked by the genre. A miniature Eiffel Tower becomes “France”, a Statue of Liberty becomes the “US” and the two may meet to discuss “Africa “represented by a map of the continent with statistics of AIDS deaths escalating. Performers may present with a simple set of objects in the open air or elaborate offerings that mix objects, shadow figures, projections, sound, and light design.

Object theatre workshops often invite manipulators to return to the immediacy of childhood play to find the “movement” implicit in the object. This tendency to call for the immediacy of improvisation points toward one of the roots of this practice: the toy/object as already a puppet. Indeed a number of practitioners may use toys as characters. Figures like the iconic American “Barbie” doll have been deconstructed (literally and figuratively) onstage to talk about objectification of woman. Barbie’s wealth of “things” (house, car, boyfriend, etc.) has allowed her to become an easy tool for comment on materialism. The great battles of World War II may be revisited as a manipulator uses model planes or ships on a tabletop with the “general” (narrator/manipulator) throwing handfuls of “toy soldiers” into the maws of death. Such productions could be considered a variation on child’s play or related to toy theatre (paper theatre) practices, which may form one root of the current object theatre trend.

Another workshop practice might invite practitioners to “find the movement in the object” and construct the “character” from the inherent animation possibilities of the object. New York based Jane Catherine Shaw’s presentations of Folk Tales of Asia and Africa used kitchen utensils to tell her tale. In the telling of Greek myth, cloth curtains represented the iconic heroes and heroines. Paul Zaloom holding a pink feather duster in a workshop notes the “femininity and sexiness” such an object might invite. Such explorations of the moving object as puppet may hearken back to some of the explorations of movement-object interface that were part of Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus experiments which had analogues in the work of modern dance artists like Alvin Nikolai in 20th century New York where dancers manipulated stretchable fabric into aesthetic shapes that may mirror abstract expressionist experimenting in visual arts, a tradition sometimes echoed in the work of Pilobolus. Explorations of objects (tubes, toilet paper rolls, etc.) found in the work of Lecoq-trained members of Swiss company Mummenschanz. These explorations may depart from the iconic use of the object within the real life frame and explore or cast it based on its movement or sound characteristics that may or may not relate to its actual use. In other instances, of course, the object might be used rather literally. The policeman’s truncheon becomes an image of power and force.

A final root that some practitioners refer to is the “ready-made” conceptualized by Marcel Duchamp. This branch of performers may also be influenced by the Fluxus movement in the United States (John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Joseph Cornell and others) or Germany (Joseph Beuys). While these figures, coming largely from the world of visual arts, music, and dance, enhanced their practice with considerable theoretical discourse, this root highlights the two potential directions that object theatre goes: it has a populist stance (cheap, lower class, “because it is there” we do it) while it may have a highly theorized conceptual subset of practitioners.  

If we think of the Duchamp presentation of a urinal (“The Fountain”) as “art” once it is chosen and framed by the “artist”, we have one pole of the object theatre artist’s practice. The object is endowed with agency (character, narrative, movement) through its use by the puppeteer who gives it meaning by putting the thing into the performance frame. On the other hand, there is a counter theme which many practitioners allude to: the object does have tendencies (ways of moving and sounding) that are its own and only revealed to the manipulator/narrator through improvisation in the workshop. Just as a pianist sitting still at a piano and making the audience listen to the ambient “noise” in the concert hall made a point for composer John Cage about “music”, so the puppeteer who is willing to let the object “act” by finding the limited movement inherent in it, releases us to see the material world in a new light. The latter group may take a “trickster” stance and belittle members of the conceptual school.

Members of the first group are sometimes accused of forcing character and meaning onto the object, by fitting it into their highly constructed format or story. Members of the second group argue that their approach is more pure, that it makes the performer more open to the material world and able to learn from the object in itself. The romantics argue that object theatre can awaken us again to a fuller appreciation of the non-human world. Practitioners like Christian Carrignon feels that the interest in object theatre is a reaction to the materialism and accumulation of possessions in the post World War II era, as the artist rethinks the wealth of things that they have accumulated. Others speculate it may be linked to ecological awareness and the efforts to recycle and reuse. Others feel it merely comes from its simplicity and accessibility as part of the “do-it-yourself” movement. The object becomes the character because it is there.  

The form offers opportunities for humour and playful creativity and the genre works well in workshops with children, youth and community groups.

(See Theatre of Objects.)