Theatre structure specifically designed for puppetry. Puppet stages can be fixed, permanent structures or portable frameworks that can be disassembled. They can be grand or humble or anything in between.
The English term booth, for instance, is a relatively temporary structure erected for a purpose. It is cognate with the English word “abode”. In a theatrical sense “booth” generally means a temporary structure in which performances can take place. Its secondary meaning, more specific to puppets, is that of a portable stage such as is used for Punch and Judy or Guignol. The word “castelet” is the French term for a theatre structure where puppetry is performed, and it can also be a more substantial structure than the booth.
The puppet stage evolved in style and shape over time as a result of changes in the religious status of puppets in European culture. Indeed, puppetry, with its rebellious tendencies, was first relegated from inside the church to its courtyard and then to the fairgrounds, due to its insolent, if not blasphemous predisposition. These changes in the venues were reflected in the terms favoured over time for their use: “tabernacles”, “retables” or altarpieces, “crèches” or cribs and Nativity scenes, “mansions”, “tréteaux”, trestles or “the boards”, baraques foraines or portable fairground booths, and “castelets”, the generic term used in Francophone countries. Other performance sites where puppet shows were performed dating from the 19th century were fairground theatre (French: théâtre foraines) and taverns (French: “estaminets à marionettes”) where successful plays from the actors’ theatre were adapted for puppets.
The French word “castelet” is derived from “castel” and has been associated with the meaning of “little puppet theatre” only since 1907. However, judging from Middle Age imagery, “castelet” found its origin due to its appearance as a castle with battlements as seen in the two miniatures by Jehan de Grise (Li Romans du boin roi Alixandre, 1344). The back of the castelet as shown in these miniatures is formed by a low arch as the manipulators, undoubtedly hidden under the playboard (French: tablette), are concealed by a curtain. Later, in France as elsewhere, it was of the utmost importance that these small puppet theatre stages resemble as closely as possible the larger theatres, with an Italian style stage (see Décor / Stage Setting and the Italian-style Stage). The castelet thus became its replica in miniature. The public’s taste in France, for example, also changed away from the Polichinelle rod marionette (French: marionnette à tringle) and towards the Guignol glove puppet. Thus affecting the kind of puppet stage that would house such a show.
As mentioned above, there are several types of puppet stages: permanent stages, portable stages, and stages that can be disassembled.
Permanent Puppet Stages
These puppet stages can be installed in classrooms, libraries, halls, or living rooms, and can be constructed from an immovable, hard material. However, these could wind up unused for most of the time, and would have the effect of limiting the creative aspect by confining the puppet to only one technique and only one type of manipulation – usually operated from below, and most particularly that of glove puppetry.
Several centuries ago, many Venetian palaces would house a private puppet theatre for rod marionettes (French: marionnettes à tringle). The Ca’ Rezzonico Palace, located on the Grand Canal in Venice, retains an 18th century puppet theatre with its cast of puppets. The Palazzo Carminati in Venice also had a puppet theatre that was described in the Hotel Drouot’s 1933 auction catalogue as a “wood sculpted puppet theatre, painted and gilded, with flower-vase decorations, foliage, emblems and masks and, at the top, a mirror and a coat of arms. It is accompanied by scenery, puppets, costumes and old oil lamps.”
An unsigned 17th century engraving shows a puppet theatre integrated into the décor of a salon. The platform (French: plateau) is approximately one metre in height; the stage/proscenium (French: cadre de scène) measures about two metres high and four metres wide and is comprised of rigid painted flats (French: châssis). Inside, two decorated side flats allow for entrances and exits both to and from stage right and stage left. A backdrop, probably made of painted canvas, shows a garden with trees. Two rod marionettes roughly one-metre high and representing Pulcinella and Arlecchino are on stage, lit by a chandelier placed on each side of the platform and by two candelabras with six suspended candles. In the room, a violinist is seen standing against the platform, stage right, accompanying the performance. Nine adults are shown seated in the salon and a curious child is approaching the stage.
Another illustration, taken from the Magasin Pittoresque with an article on the Théâtre Séraphin, shows the interior of a puppet theatre stage inside Séraphin’s new hall, which opened on September 8, 1859 on Passage Jouffroy in Paris. Seven manipulators, hidden from the public by a flat topped with a 1.20 metre-high ramp, are busy working in a small space 20 centimetres high. On the other side are rod marionettes and string puppets on stage, operated from above. An assistant gives a Polichinelle to a puppeteer; another prepares a puppet; a stagehand manoeuvres a pole with a curtain, and the fireman on call, seated on a stool, watches the scene with interest.
In Taiwanese studios, complex platform-stages at the height of the playboard are installed for operating from below the rod- and lever-operated pili puppets. These have been conceived for the shooting of television series in the genre of epic Chinese films in which heroes leap, twirl, fly, fight, disappear and transform themselves with amazing pyrotechnic effects (see Television).
Theatrical locales specifically designed for puppets are rare in France. The Théâtre des Marionnettes de Montrouge, residence of Compagnie Blin, a family of string puppeteers, father and sons, has been in existence for seventy years. The Théâtre Picard, Chés Cabotans d’Amiens, is home to Lafleur, Sandrine, Blaise and other traditional rod marionette characters. The permanent castelet in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris has been conferred to the Robert Desarthis family since 1932.
The term “castelet” has also given birth to the word “castelier”, denoting a puppeteer who works in permanent castelets in France, usually located in large town squares. In Belgium, the Royal Theatre of Toone, located in the old quarter of Brussels called “l’îlot Sacré”, presents a very comical Woltje who, from the tip of his rod, welcomes Napoleon, the Three Musketeers, William Tell, and others, all while commenting on current Belgian affairs. Another theatre that needs to be mentioned is Josef Skupa’s puppet theatre constructed in Prague in 1920 for his string puppets, Speblj and Hurvínek. In 1945, Skupa built another theatre for his comic duo, Divadlo Spejbla a Hurvínka (Spejbl and Hurvínek Theatre, also known as S+H Theatre).
There is the unique staging of Vietnamese water puppets, which in the past were performed in paddy fields and also on permanent stages. Puppet stages may be part of temple complexes. At Thay Pagoda in Thai Binh province a water puppet stage from the Later Le period (1428-1788) on Long Tri Lake faces the sanctuary. Water puppets were performed at temple or village festivals on a muddy pond while audiences watched from the banks. In the 1930s, a portable pool was invented, allowing touring. Since the 20th century, water puppets have been performed on portable stages set in a body of still water, including swimming pools. Manipulators, waist-deep in the pool’s water, hide behind a temple-like façade covered with a bamboo screen in their staging house. The performance area is in the central area of the pool which may measure 15 metres in length and 10 metres wide with audiences on three sides. The movable pool used in international performances is 30 metres square. A richly decorated “pagoda” forms the back of the set and shelters the manipulators, orchestra, announcer, singers, and directors. The roof is of bamboo or wood on a structure which may be of brick. Traditionally, inside there are three distinct spaces. The central space (buong tro) is reserved for the manipulators who are in water up to their waists. They are hidden from the public by a suspended screen that goes down to the water level. Made of fine strips of bamboo that provide a clear view, this allows the operators to make the entrances and exits of the characters and to see as they manage the manipulation of their puppets. To each side there is a dais above the water, one given to the musicians and the other to the director. These platforms, hidden from public view, can also be placed at the back part of the buog tro.
Portable or Street Puppet Stages
Portable puppet stages or booths, mostly used for puppets operated from below, must be light, small and easy to set up and take apart. They are usually composed of a tube-like aluminium structure assembled by connecting joints, or made of wood, mounted on hinges, or special theatrical set hinges, and covered with drapery. They are easy to travel with and can be set up anywhere in a street as well as inside areas. There are a number of 19th century scenes that illustrate portable puppet stages. Prints by Marlet, like Polichinel (sic) près le pont des Arts and Le Polichinel (sic) du pont des Arts (Paris), show a puppet booth, just big enough for one puppeteer, in which a Polichinelle scene is being played while a child is passing around a hat for money. On the side sits an old woman holding an infant, no doubt to create pity among the spectators. Another print by Charlet depicts a very young puppeteer on his knees manipulating Polichinelle and a devil in a rudimentary puppet booth made of patched-up round wood, covered with fabric. A drawing by Gavarni shows a young Italian carrying his puppet booth and setting it up on a corner street to perform a sketch with some burattini. Another coloured print by Pinelli entitled Il Casotto dei burattini in Roma (The Puppet Kiosk in Rome, 1815), represents a booth in which Pulcinella, armed with a stick, faces a female character (perhaps Colombine), while a motley crowd watches the performance and a curious child peers in to try to see what is going on inside.
In terms of its size, the French Guignol booth (castelet) is large enough to accommodate several puppeteers compared to the British Punch booth, which usually has only room for one. In the Ca’ Rezzonico Palace in Venice there is an 18th century painting by Giovanni Antonio Guardi showing a narrow portable puppet stage, approximately 2.20 metres high, with brown and tan vertical stripes, installed, unusually, in the parlour of a convent to entertain the nuns (who would sit behind the grille) and their visitors. Two children are watching a commedia dell’arte Pulcinella and another glove puppet perform in a proscenium of approximately 60 square centimetres.
In India, the traditional Rajasthani kathputli puppets (manipulated by a single looped string or by several strings for dancing puppets) perform in a portable tent-like booth called tamburi. The horizontal pole and the back cloth (which hides the puppeteer’s legs and provides a convenient place for hanging puppets when not in use) is attached to the two poles which hold up the tent, with space on either side for puppets to be introduced either from the sides of the supporting poles or from above. The front of the stage is composed of an upper section of cloth (jhalari), which hides the upper part of the puppeteer, and the lower section (tibara or taj mahal), generally a patchwork scalloped-shaped cloth in imitation of Mughal arched structures, which stands at ground level. About a metre behind this is the cloth that hides the puppeteer’s legs and provides the background against which the puppets are seen. The puppets, approximately 40 centimetres high, are, for example, participants of a feast in the court of the great Mughal emperor Akbar. A tabla player and another musician accompanying him on the harmonium are seated in front on the side of the booth.
In China in the past, puppeteers used to perch themselves on a stool in the street and perform with their glove puppets. They supported a small puppet booth on their shoulders and head, and their bodies were enclosed in a fabric tube bound at the feet. The same apparatus was used for miniature shadow shows. A 1636 Russian engraving shows the same thing – a puppeteer with a simple, undecorated playboard (French: tablette), to the feet, which is enclosed in a fabric tube bound at the waist. He performs Petrushka with his glove puppets. In Uzbekistan, a 17th century shoulder model portable puppet booth, very similar to the one mentioned above, consists of a kind of fabric pocket hung by its top to the half-circular playboard located in front at the level of the puppeteer’s head and tightened at the level of his buttocks. The glove puppets perform in front of a backdrop mounted on a frame, 80 centimetres square, located in the rear.
In Africa, in Sikasso, Mali, ritual dances and zoomorphic rod puppet shows, accompanied by a drum orchestra, are performed in portable puppet booths. Denis Malgras gives us a description in the UNIMA Magazine No. 61 (1978). “The booth (kalaka in Bambara) is presented here under two forms: the long-ringed horned antelope tyi-wara, and the grazing antelope (Hippotraginae) with its thicker profile and more massive crenellated horns. In both cases, the puppet booth is portable and walks like the animal represented while shaking its mane to the rhythm of the dance that accompanies the performance. To hide the two stagehands, a striped cotton blanket is placed on the back of the antelope and a soft mat is wrapped around their legs. The head, carved from kapok tree wood, is carried in front by the first stagehand and is connected to the rest of the body by a multicoloured fabric. In the first puppet booth-stage (tyi-wara), a slot on the back of the mythical animal allows for the handling of a small wooden puppet representing a woman crushing millet in a mortar to the rhythm of the dance. In the second booth-stage (that of the grazing antelope), moved by a rod and emerging from the head, a small character represents a farmer working with the daba, the traditional hoe.”
In 18th century Brazil, those performing with cape puppets (titere de capote) in Rio de Janeiro dressed in a large coat or wide cape which served as the puppet booth. As the puppeteer played guitar, a child enclosed in the cape in front of him would manipulate puppets made out of cardboard and fabric. These popular street performances have disappeared.
The lilek (or lileki), an old tradition of popular puppets (marottes) in Slovenia resembling scarecrows, was in the past mostly performed at weddings and on other special occasions. These puppets were performed on a simple bench covered by a blanket. The puppeteer would lay underneath this improvised booth and manipulate the puppets from his hidden position.
Stages That Can Be Disassembled
Puppet stages that can be set up and disassembled – formerly called in French, “de salon” – are designed to be installed in theatre halls. For financial reasons, they must not be heavy, the material must be well packed to avoid breakage, and the setting up and dismantling must be uncomplicated and fast.
Stages for puppets operated from below are in the shape of a parallelepiped rectangle. The playboard, simulating the ground, is placed just above the head of the tallest manipulator; the other puppeteers wear high heel shoes or even buskins for shorter puppeteers. A front curtain is stretched between the playboard and the ground and side curtains run all the way up on both sides of the booth. The stage background, which is the space between the playboard and the top of the puppet stage, can be opened or closed by a frieze that can hide top lights, battens, or even another curtain. The sides and the back are also closed by curtains in order to keep the mystery of puppet design and manipulation safe as many puppeteers jealously safeguard their secrets (see Ensecrètement, Secrecy, Slangs). The stage house can be outfitted with background scenery and side curtains (or flats) allowing for side entrances (reminder: entrances “by the cellar French: cave” and exits “by the back of the stage French: fond” are not considered as being proper, unless the player expressly wills it). The architecture of the puppet theatre stage can take different forms. They can have small, curbed playboards or multiple playboards, and these can be placed at different heights. There may be openings under the playboard, or there may be side panel flaps, curtain slots for apparitions, or vertical sets with balconies and towers.
The Swedish director, Michael Meschke, staged his Ubu roi (King Ubu, 1964) on multiple levels that included a stage for rod puppets. Riders were mounted on rolling carts which rotated on the ground like toy targets to be shot at. A live actor playing Ubu, all in white, walked up a step stool in front of the puppet stage, while an actor inside a costume puppet made his entrance downstage.
When the playboard represents the ground and constitutes a horizontal surface reference, puppets can place their accessories on it and the scene can be played all along it without the need for depth. As soon at the puppet backs away from it, the puppet must be elevated so that the spectator (located in the room at the same level as the puppet stage) does not get the impression of seeing a legless puppet. This is a potential drawback in performance spaces with bleachers or with spectators seated in balconies – the audience can see the puppeteers all the way down to their feet.
Puppet stages for puppets operated from above have the same specifications as those built for puppets operated from below. They consist of a walkway (French: passerelle), a bridge, on which the puppeteers are perched at a convenient height in relation to the length of the rods and strings of their puppets. The façade/front of the puppet stage can be made of fabric or painted canvas, mounted on tubes, pipes or a wooden structure, with a proscenium which is often elevated to give a better view. A curtain hides and reveals the scene, which is usually made of a backdrop and side curtains in order to allow for several entry and exit points.
As for those puppet stages used for shadows, they are both simpler, with a front panel screen stretched on a structure, and more complicated as “light leaks” and the puppeteers’ shadows towards the public must be avoided. The space must also be completely darkened.
In Indonesia, wayang kulit is the shadow play of Central and East Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan, Bali and Lombok. On Java, for example, performances are usually presented outdoors, either in a permanent pavilion (pendapa) or one which is built for the occasion by the host who hires the performance. The puppeteer (dalang) or his assistants will oversee the setting up of the stage. The wayang kulit of Java is presented on a large thin white screen (kelir) approximately 5 metres x 1.5 metres stretched between a strong wooden frame made up of two side poles anchored firmly into the ground and a heavy crossbar, often crowned by a pair of outward looking carved serpents. Darker bindings at the top and bottom of the screen (usually red or black) represent the limit of the universe – the sky and earth. Two banana trunks (debog), an upper and a lower one, provide the bases into which the puppets’ sharp pointed main handles can be “planted” when at rest or when only the arms require manipulation. The dalang will place the puppets not being used in the performance into the upper debog, to the right and left of the playing area, with virtuous characters to the right of the dalang and less virtuous characters to the left. The overall effect is of an entire world populated in brilliant colour. The stage area that remains is about 1.5 metres in the centre of the screen. Electricity has replaced the oil lamp (blencong) of the past as a light source. A kotak (puppet box) on stage includes hundreds of intricately carved puppets, painted or covered in gold leaf. Figures range from 20-50 centimetres in height, and up to sixty may appear in a single show. The kotak also provides a sounding board on which the dalang strikes his mallet (cempala) to set the tempo and on which is suspended metal plates (kepyak) that the dalang strikes with his foot to provide dramatic sound effects. A large gamelan orchestra and singers, seated with their instruments behind the dalang, provide musical accompaniment. Invited guests are seated on chairs and watch the dalang side of the screen, while uninvited watchers may view either shadows or puppets and stand or sit wherever space allows. Audience members come and go during the evening, watching when they like or eating, visiting, and enjoying the carnival atmosphere of the event.
Puppet stages for puppet manipulation from behind include systems ranging from the simple Chinese or Japanese box, hung around the neck and placed around the chest with the back open so that the showman can pass his hand through and manipulate the small puppets, to that of black (light) theatre where the entire stage is plunged into darkness. A frame of light acts as the puppet stage while the puppeteers, dressed in black, are invisible against the black backdrop. The puppets are only seen when inside the shaft of light. A spotlight piercing through the darkness eliminates everything around it and focuses on the image, becoming a sort of virtual puppet theatre stage. In 1979, Peter Waschinsky performed his theatrical work seated all alone on a vast stage using his hands to tell the ancient Vietnamese legend, Ver de terre (Earthworm).
The puppet stage is thus multifaceted. In its simplest form, it can be an abstract stage, like that of Claude and Colette Monestier’s Théâtre Sur le Fil (Theatre on a String). Or it can multiply itself as in Les Portes du regard (The Doors Gaze, 1985) by François Lazaro. It can be portable (Compagnie Théâtricule of Jean-Paul Hubert), or a foldout stage (the Vélo Théâtre of Charlot Lemoine and Tania Castaing). It can be transportable (like the Chaozhou Chinese tabletop puppets, operated with horizontal rods), or minuscule (Paris bonjour, armoire et persil of Jacques Templeraud of Théâtre Manarf).
The puppet theatre stage can be highly decorated or intricately carved, lacquered and gilded like that for the Taiwanese glove puppets of Jean-Luc Penso’s Sun Wu Kong, roi des singes (Monkey King) performed by his Théâtre du Petit Miroir. It can become a gigantic machine in the shape of an 18 ton, 15 metre high rolling bridge, as in Royal de Luxe’s Le Géant tombé du ciel (The Giant Who Fell from the Sky). On the other hand, it can take the shape of an immense screen, 14 metres long by 3 metres high, stretched in between bamboos and lit by torches showing the large panels of sbek tom dancing shadows for the nang robam of Cambodia.
The puppet stage can also have two types of manipulation, like the triangular one in Figurentheater Triangel of the Boerwinkels, which allows Ans Boerwinkel to operate from below (the glove and rod puppets) and Henk Boerwinkel to operate from above (the string and rod marionettes).
It is always surprising to see the unusual forms puppet theatre stages can take. One instance is the huge garbage can used in Container folies by Jean-René Bouvret’s Manches à Balais. In another case, an immense moving camera type iris constantly reframed the image in the children’s opera, Le Plus Courageux (The Most Courageous) from the Marcinek Theatre in Poznan. A wheel chair was used in Samuel Beckett’s Fin de partie (Endgame) in which Ham moves around, manipulated by Hubert Jappelle. Other examples include an arm-pulled chariot in the shape of a golden sculpted temple in karakuri ningyō from Japan and a game machine in the form of a barrel organ in Offenbach’s Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), directed by Dominique Houdart, which featured scenography by Marcel Violette (see Houdart-Heuclin).
The puppet stage is at the same a stage and a control room. It can hide the puppeteer and his equipment in order to preserve the mystery of his puppets. It centres the focus and captures the spectator’s attention so it does not wander. It is a dream factory and the epicentre of emotions even if it constitutes only one of the theatrical choices that are at the disposal of today’s creators.
(See also Booth, Fairs and Fairground Performers, Itinerant Troupes, Permanent Site Puppet Theatres, Stages and Performance Spaces, ToyTheatre / Paper Theatre, Travelling Puppeteers, Water Puppets, Wayang.)
- Kuret, P. Niko. “La marionnette traditionnelle des Slovènes” [The Traditional Puppet of the Slovenes]. Catalogue du Festival international de la marionnette de Liège. 1958.
- Malgras, Denis. “Marionnettes bambara à Sikasso” [Bambara Puppets from Sikasso]. Unima-France. No. 61, 1978.
- Obry, Olga. “Heurs et malheurs de la marionnette au Brésil” [Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Puppet in Brazil]. Théâtre dans le monde. Vol. 14, No. 5. Bruxelles, 1965.