The traditional image of the wandering puppeteer who sets up his stage in towns during fairs or village fêtes should not overshadow the fact that there are also permanent sites where puppet shows were regularly performed. This has led to the settlement of puppet theatres in some countries. In Italy, for example, from the second half of the 16th century, certain specific places welcomed showmen. Amongst these places in Italy, for example, were the sites of Largo di Castello and the Via Toledo in Naples, the Piazza del Duomo in Milan, the Piazza Navona in Rome, or the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence. And when the Church forbade these shows, notably during the Counter-Reformation, the artists moved to the small, private theatres of aristocratic palaces.

The 17th and 18th Centuries

In the second half of the 17th century, in Venice’s Teatro Zane in the San Moisè area, human performances alternated with puppet operas such as those of Filippo Acciaiuoli (1637-1700): Damira placata (Damira Appeased, 1680) and Ulisse in Feacia (Ulysses in Phaeacia, 1681). During the carnival of 1694 in Bologna, two puppet operas were presented: Aurelio Aureli’s Olimpia vendicata (Olympia Avenged) was shown in the hall of the Teatro Pubblico di Bologna and Tommaso Stanzani’s La Bernarda in the Teatro San Paolo (see Opera).  

However, it was in Vienna, it would seem, that the first truly permanently sited puppet theatre was opened in 1667 by Pier Resonier. Whereas in Paris, in 1676 with support from Jean-Baptiste Lully, La Troupe Royale des Pygmés obtained the privilege of presenting its first production “in their Royal Hostel, at Marais du Temple”, after having to content themselves previously with performances at the Saint-Laurent Fair.

But it is especially in the second half of the 18th century that theatres exclusively for puppets were built. If we put aside the princely and royal theatres such as the small theatre in the Palazzo della Cancelleria (Palace of the Chancellery) in Rome commissioned by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni in 1708, or the puppet theatre of the Schloß Schönbrunn (Schönbrunn Palace) in Vienna, Austria, built in 1777, these new performance spaces were often born from the initiative of companies that had gradually stabilized.

In 1767, in Turin, Italy, Lorenzo Guglielmone, a tailor by trade and puppeteer by vocation, built a wooden building, which he called Tailor Guglielmone’s Theatre (Teatro del sarto Guglielmone), which he led until 1786, when it was destroyed and replaced by the Teatro d’Angennes. In Milan, the first permanent theatres also appeared in the second half of the 18th century: the Teatro Gerolamo, established in 1795 when the puppeteer Giuseppe Fiando moved to Milan to open a theatre in a room of the hotel Albergo del Dazio Grande in the Piazza del Duomo. In France, the Théâtre de Séraphin lasted nearly a century after it was established in 1772, distinguishing itself with its work in both shadow theatre and string puppetry. In Austria, the abolition of the State monopoly on theatre in 1776 not only led to the influx of itinerant troupes but also to the construction of new theatres such as the Leopoldstadt (1781), now closely linked to the name of Johann Laroche, the creator of Kasperl.

The 19th and 20th Centuries

In the 19th century, new theatres were born in the wake of industrialization. In Italy, the Teatro Gerolamo was built in 1868 and Angelo Fiando, Guiseppe’s grandson, presented there his shows until 1882, at which time other string puppet companies (the Croce family, Antonio Colla, Luciano Zane, Carlo Sebastiani) and glove puppet companies (Francesco Campogalliani) also began to perform there. In Turin, the Lupi company settled in 1884 in the Teatro d’Angennes, which took the name Gianduja in 1891. In Rome, since the early 19th century, puppet shows were performed all year round, including during Lent, in the small theatre Fiano in the Palazzo Ludovici in Rome. The “masque” of Cassandrino was presented there by Filippo Teoli, incorporating very elegant music, scenography and costumes. This theatre, where the ticket price was relatively high, was regularly frequented by illustrious representatives of Roman culture, but also by Stendhal, Charles Dickens, Ferdinand Gregorovius and Giacomo Leopardi. In Palermo, Sicily, the pupi companies moved into permanent houses in the first half of the 19th century because their performances were usually divided into cycles often comprising over three hundred episodes that the public could thus follow each evening. While in Naples, the Teatro San Carlino was, from the 18th century, home to farces and comedies with Pulcinella, but also, on occasion, pupi productions.  

In France, shadow showman Séraphin opened a new theatre venue in 1858 at Passage Jouffroy in Paris; in Lyon, while the guignol theatre, which had multiplied in cafés but had begun to lose its subversive energy, Pierre Rousset bought the Café Condamin in 1878 and began to attract a new audience in a real theatre, the Guignol du Gymnase (Guignol’s Gym), founded in 1887. At the end of the century, the number of performance spaces open to puppet shows grew, including the Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat), a cabaret which opened in Paris in 1881, the short-lived Théâtre des Pantins (see Alfred Jarry), and the Guignol des Quat’z’arts (literally, Four Arts).

In Asia, the puppet theatre was often performed by itinerant storytellers and puppeteers, especially in areas where the climate was mild, but permanent sites are also found. Performers might also have permanent stages that were built in temples. This was the case in Kerala, India, where we find the shadow drama of Rama, tolpava koothu, performed in its own permanent stages – the koothu madam – as a standard part of 104 temples for the Goddess Bhadrakali (Bhagavati); performances of this shadow puppet art was a regular part of the temples rites. Palaces and aristocratic houses in Java, Indonesia, had permanent pedopo (roofed pavilions) which while available for other activities were designed as sites where wayang performances (both puppet and dance drama) could be presented when such entertainments were required. In Cambodia and Thailand palaces likewise had roofed pavilions that served as the site of puppet/dance drama performances undertaken for important court festivals and available for rehearsals as the events approached. Such connections to courts or temples might mean that different performers might be called upon for different events at the place, but the stage site was “built in”.  

In Buddhist communities from very old periods we also find that monks might have certain cave sites which seem connected with genres like shadow puppetry, though the evidence is often limited to passing quotes in scriptural materials. In Chinese temples we find stages that likewise seem to have been used for either human or puppet performances.

Historically, we find that some of the more prestigious performers might align themselves with either temple or aristocratic or royal houses (in areas like Indonesia, Japan, Korea, India we find such instances), and selected artists and sometimes their lineages might be associated with certain sites, though their performances might not be the sole genre presented in that space. Most puppeteers did a combination of accepting outside commissions and performing for a designated patron/temple (if they could obtain one). With the growth of cities and the rise of entertainment areas, more secular stages became established in some countries. In China puppetry might be offered in teahouses during the Ching period (1644-1911) with patrons knowing that they were going to an evening of eating, socializing, puppetry and other arts. Likewise in Japan, the ningyō-jōruri which began without a permanent base, first established itself in temporary booths in the entertainment areas of the evolving cities but transitioned into permanent sites. The Takemoto-za (竹本座 Takemoto Theatre) of famed narrator/singer Takemoto Gidayū was the first theatre built for doll puppets in 1684 and was established on the Dotomburi Canal in Osaka. The Toyotake-za (豊竹座 Toyotake Theatre) of chanter Toyotake Wakadayū, established in 1703, on the opposite bank of the canal became a rival house. In 1805, the Awaji puppeter Uemura Bunrakuken settled in Osaka and by mid century was proprietor of the most important house. His contributions further developed the form and his prominence led to what we in the West now know as Bunraku. The company he founded moved in 1872 into a hall named Bunraku-za (文楽座 Bunraku Theatre) in honour of Bunrakuken, and the group continues to have a permanent theatre in the same area, the most recent building dating from 1984.

Meanwhile the karakuri ningyō automata were also popular and had set up in the same Dotombori district of Osaka as early as 1662. From then until 1728, Takada Omi and later his descendants managed this house, as well as some of them moving into the ningyō-jōruri business, bringing mechanical puppetry’s spectacular scenographic effects with them. Other permanent theatres were open elsewhere in Japan. For example, by the third generation of the Takada family they ran five theatres in Osaka before declines pushed them back to touring performances before transitioning to permanent sites in Edo (Tokyo) in the 19th century.

The movement to create fixed, permanent venues for puppetry was intensified in the 20th century in Europe, for example in Germany, with the transformation of the Münchner Marionetten-Theater (Munich Marionette Theatre), founded in 1858 by “Papa Schmid” (see Josef Leonhard Schmid), into a permanent establishment in 1900; the creation of the Marionettentheater Münchner Künstler (Marionette Theatre of Munich Artists) in 1906, which was directed by Paul Brann; the foundation of the Baden-Badener-Künstler-Marionettentheater (Puppet Theatre Artists of Baden-Baden) by the painter/illustrator Ivo Puhonný; and in Austria, with the inauguration of the celebrated Salzburger Marionettentheater (Salzburg Marionette Theatre) in 1913. In Italy, the most famous stage was the Teatro Odescalchi which, from 1914, was home to the Piccoli company – Teatro dei Piccoli – directed by Vittorio Podrecca. It was also here that the Balli plastici (Plastic Dance, 1918) were created, using puppets drawn by the Futurist Fortunato Depero. Elsewhere, the company Carlo Colla and Sons, beginning in 1906 and assuming management from 1911 until 1957, were based at the Teatro Gerolamo in Milan.

In the Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries, the resurgence of puppet theatre was based in permanent theatres before the Russian Revolution. In 1915, in Petrograd, Yulia Slonimskaya (1884-1972) and Pyotr Sazonov (1882-1969) founded a company that would by 1919 become the Petrograd State Marionette Theatre. A fundamental step was taken in 1931 when Sergei Obraztsov was appointed head of the Moscow State Central Puppet Theatre which, though originally a company with twelve collaborators, became an enterprise uniting three hundred and fifty people (see Gosudarstvenny Akademichesky Tsentralny Teatr Kukol imeni S.V. Obraztsova, Sergei Obraztsov State Academic Central Puppet Theatre). After World War II, while in Western Europe the puppet theatre was suffering being eclipsed by other mediums, in Communist countries, on the other hand, the genre saw a growth of interest from the State as a pedagogical tool, leading to the creation of numerous permanent theatres, of which the most famous are: in Romania, Ţăndărică Theatre in Bucharest (1949, today: Teatrul de Animaţie Ţăndărică); in Czechoslovakia, the Spejbl and Hurvínek Theatre (Divadlo Spejbla a Hurvínka, 1945) and the Central Puppet Theatre (1949-1991), since named the Divadlo Minor (Minor Theatre), in Prague, the Radost Theatre (Loutkové Divadlo Radost, 1949) in Brno, the DRAK Theatre (Divadlo DRAK, 1958) in Hradec Králové; while in Poland, theatres such as the Groteska (founded in 1945) in Krakow, were also run by the State.

In China, in a similar spirit, as traditional theatre was in decline due to the Sino-Japanese fighting, World War II, and struggle for political control that was resolved by 1949, a new theatre was born in permanent spaces as the Maoist State sought, as in the Soviet bloc, to initiate theatre for child audiences for pedagogical and other reasons. A national puppet company was founded in Peking (Beijing) in 1955 under the direction of the Ministry of Culture (see China Puppet Art Troupe, Zhongguo Muou Yishutuan), and from the early 1950s, other companies in many Chinese cities were being developed as communist State educational troupes preparing work for young audiences in permanent theatres. At present many major cities have a professional puppet company dating from this era. In Vietnam, similarly, under the Socialist-Marxist government, permanent theatres for both educational puppets were established beginning in late 1956 in Hanoi with Central Puppet Theatre (Vietnamese National Puppet Theatre). Permanent houses for Vietnamese water puppetry came later – Nhà Hát Múa Rối Thăng Long (Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre) in 1969 had the first permanent water puppet stage – and were established in Hanoi (also see Nhà Hát Múa Rối Quốc Gia Việt Nam, Water Puppets).  

Today, even though historical permanent theatres still exist (in Munich, Salzburg, Geneva and Brussels, for example) and although other permanent performance spaces continue to be maintained (in France, for example, there are currently twenty-seven), puppet shows, outside of festivals, are also very often part of children’s theatre programming.