The term “puppeteer” is thought to have been coined between 1912 and 1915 by Ellen Van Volkenburg, the American wife of entrepreneur Maurice Brown with whom she set up the Chicago Little Theatre.
Supremely independent, able to choose more freely than other theatre artists, the puppeteer is also his or her own artisan, visual artist, performer and Jack or Jill of all trades. Puppeteers usually create their own puppets and often their own puppet stages, booths, sets and props, as well as the special effects and transformations (see Metamorphoses, Trick and Transformation Puppets) of which they are particularly proud. Even if they don’t build their puppets themselves, they appropriate them shamelessly, seeking to make them an extension of themselves. The puppeteer’s craft is made up of ideas, emotions, enthusiasms and abstractions, which are brought to bear on the stage only after months of manual labour: wood and metal work, sculpture, painting and costuming. The profession has several aspects, once one adds administration, publicity and the organization of touring dates, since puppeteers rarely have agents and often manage themselves.
Today, at least in the West, most puppet groups must mount a new or revived performance every year or two, whether out of a deep artistic need, or in response to the demand for novelty on the touring circuit. The process is always the same: an initial idea, writing the scenario, design and construction of the puppets and their settings, selection or composition of music if required, recording voices or learning words and songs to be performed live, bringing together diverse elements, making the inevitable modifications, and devoting as much time as possible to rehearsals.
Traditionally, the art of the puppet is primarily a personal art: that of a man or woman, a couple, a family, or sometimes a small troupe which comes to resemble a family over time. This ability to create relatively ambitious theatre productions alone, or in a couple or a small team, has given continuity to the profession, even if large marionette (string puppet / string marionette) shows may be giving way to tabletop, glove puppets and new forms of animation which require fewer manipulators. Aficionados of the marionette will often see solo shows: the puppet showman (French: “le montreur des marionnettes”) is still alive and well.
The Forms of the Profession
In Europe today the profession of puppeteer is less and less often a family business, but there are exceptions. In Eastern Europe after World War II, large state companies were founded in which the puppeteer, far from being a solo, sovereign artist, was engaged like a member of a theatre company and surrounded by dozens, and sometimes scores of servants of the puppet: dramaturges, scenographers, painters, sculptors, constructors, administrators, even political advisors. The majority of these companies disappeared after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the most motivated of their puppeteers having to discover the advantages and disadvantages of working in very small private groups. In the West, there remain only a few large or medium-sized companies, such as that of the Colla family in Milan, Italy, whose monumental productions with long-string marionettes and numerous sets required a score of puppeteers. But the 21st-century puppeteer is most often an independent creator, available for employment by film, television and theatre companies including puppets in their productions.
Though less common, puppet dynasties are still perpetuated. In England, the famous Covent Garden puppeteer, Percy Press, passed on his Punch and Judy show in 1980 to his son, who took the name of Percy Press II. In Belgium, the Toone dynasty has been celebrated for generations and when a Péruchet (both the name of the artist and the name of the theatre: Théâtre du Péruchet) gives up his booth, the show is handed on to the most talented of the younger generation, whether they are related or not. In Italy, many puppeteers are figli d’arte (born into the theatre) and pick up the baton of the family business at the appropriate moment. Others – many others – choose this strange trade independently, struck by a chance encounter with a puppet show in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, in a Catalan village square, on the streets of Kathmandu or on television, where the stars have included Nicolas and Pimprenelle, Topo Gigio, Cacciavitissimo, Muffin the Mule and the Muppets. The contemporary puppeteer comes from various backgrounds: most often the visual arts, but also theatre, street theatre, education, “alternative” movements, university. The generation of puppeteers of the early 20th century sometimes emerged from the lyric arts and cabaret. No generalization is possible other than the fact of a predisposition, a vocation. Puppetry is an art unlike any other; each puppeteer finds and interprets it in his or her own way.
The puppet is also an instrument, which one must learn both to construct and to master. The profession of puppeteer begins, like all others, with apprenticeship and study. There are three main routes to the profession: puppet school, an apprenticeship with an established company, or self-directed training. Puppeteers often follow more than one route, either successively or at the same time. They have many skills to learn, most importantly manipulation, puppet-building and how to create a performance (see Training).
Manipulation is an essential training in the grammar of puppet-play. Techniques vary according to the type of puppet, but the basic grammar is unchanging, allowing the puppeteer to adapt to any instrument: glove puppets, rod puppets, string puppets and rod marionettes, marottes, shadows and innovative forms (see Manipulation). Puppet-building is similarly specific to the technique of the figure. To learn how to construct marionettes (string puppets), the secrets that were once closely guarded – concerning weight, joints and other anatomical elements – are now revealed (see Ensecrètement, Secrecy, Slangs). Glove puppets and marottes – indeed all the different types – also make particular demands. Finally, creating a performance is a matter of the most delicate training.
A puppet troupe is a small business, producing and selling its shows. But to whom? The market for puppets is growing worldwide and is no longer made up mainly of schools, fairs and fairgrounds, local events, and Christmas festivities. Theatres, arts centres, festivals, whether specifically arts or puppet festivals, all feature puppet performances regularly in many if not most countries. Puppeteers, like actors, are still forced to undertake parallel activities to make ends meet: they may become theatre programmers, festival organizers, exhibition curators or – most often – workshop leaders, hoping to develop the audiences of the future.
Barring accident or illness, a puppeteer’s career can be long, although the work is physically hard. The practices and status of the puppeteer are slowly improving, as they have done across the centuries, yet the essence of this passionate profession, something between alchemy and craftsmanship, remains exactly the same.