Neither scenery nor stages are essential elements for either puppets or live actors. Street performers in different parts of the world perform without any type of stage. But the stage can also be a prominent and sometimes a highly distinctive part of performance, as in the case of the Japanese Bunraku, the arcaded background of the Indian kathputli ka khel, the highly carved glove puppet stages of Taiwan and South China or the antelope stages of Mali. The simplest stages usually consist of nothing more than a screen to hide the performer.
Emphasis on scenery and the idea of the stage as an animated picture is something that developed most fully in the European theatre. Before the 16th century the idea of a complete scenic environment, whether for actors or puppets, did not really exist. Whether it was a question of multiple locations, such as the Mystère de Valenciennes, or a single location on a small trestle stage or mobile float, scenic elements or “mansions” provided little more than an emblematic background, sometimes with functional elements.
Functional scenery is directly linked to the performance and may range from practical elements such as doors that can be opened to large props that play an important role and relate directly to the puppet and the actions being performed. For example in a Guignol show the skill of the puppeteer is often indicated in a sequence in which Guignol goes to bed and makes extensive use of the mattress and bedding.
The simplest scenery is a painted cloth or curtain that may be used for any performance. The street background of a Punch and Judy show, or the view of the Bay of Naples with Vesuvius in a Pulcinella one are examples of this. More elaborate examples are the succession of cloths used in performances of the Sicilian opera dei pupi which, as well as indicating place in a rather schematic manner, are also a device to indicate chronological sequence, or sometimes a parallel action. A company possesses a collection of scenes that can be used again and again according to the needs of the show – Christian and Saracen camps, royal palace, forest, countryside, etc. This is comparable to the stock scenery that was generally used in European actors’ theatre in the 18th century (and even later), where the scenery was little more than a generalized indication of place and used as an additional way of indicating the development of the story being told.
Even the simplest glove puppet stages often have a proscenium arch and a curtain on top of the basic screen, and until more modern times, marionette (string puppet) performances also appeared on a stage framed in this manner. This reflects the dominant form of staging in Europe from the 17th to the 20th century which was based on perspective and framed by a proscenium arch which concealed the mechanisms. In the case of the puppet theatre it also concealed the performer(s) so that audiences could focus on the puppets. In many cases the proscenium came to be a reduced version of that of a big theatre. By scaling down the stage opening, it also drew the eye in and helped the illusion that the puppets were living creatures.
Puppet scenery tends to be simpler than that for live performers. Too many pieces of scenery are a nuisance with puppets. On the traditional marionette stage there is a preference for changeable backcloths and wings (the latter frequently remain unchanged throughout the show). Where a number of cloths were required, it was quite common to hang one over the other and simply remove one after another. A common method in Italy was the roller which allowed for a drop to be rapidly raised or lowered. Known as a “Polichinelle” in France, this involved a simple mechanism whereby a roller was attached to the bottom of a painted cloth and a rope was rolled around one end and then running over a pulley crossed to the other side of the stage where it descended to the other end of the roller. Pulling the rope in one direction raised the drop, whilst pulling it in the other lowered it. By the early 20th century some marionette companies (e.g. Pitou in France, Lupi in Italy), following the big theatres, had also introduced a system for flying scenery rather than simply rolling it up or removing it by hand.
Sometimes, instead of wings a second cloth which was cut out formed a frame further downstage. This served the function of both wings and a border across the top of the stage if necessary and allowed the audience to see the backdrop beyond.
The idea of a unified stage picture governed by the laws of perspective developed in the 16th century, replacing the medieval idea of “mansions” or multiple scenic locations on the stage, and became the norm in most European theatres until the 20th century. At first the actors performed in front of the scenery on the “proscenium”, but gradually the proscenium shrank and the actors moved back into the scene itself and as a result animated the stage picture. For a long time there was a notion of stock scenes. This originated with such people as Sebastiano Serlio in the 16th century who established an idea of three types of scenes: tragic, comic and pastoral. Gradually the number of possible scenes increased but even in the late 19th century many theatres still had a basic supply of all-purpose scenery. With the Romantic movement of the 19th century an idea of local colour and the representation of more specific locations developed, and by the end of the century naturalism had become a basic criterion. Scenery with painted light and shadow still survived into the early 20th century, but the spread of electric lighting after the 1880s made it possible to illuminate any area of the stage and reduced the need for this. Gradually the idea of lighting actors or objects on the stage became a primary consideration, and lighting itself now passed from being a mere means of illumination to being a major form of scenic expression.
All these developments can be observed on the puppet stage, and all have continued or existed virtually simultaneously. The idea of “mansions” is part of the staging of Greek karaghiosis where Karaghiosis’s house is at one side of the stage/screen and the pasha’s house at the other. A more abstract notion of staging is used in the Indonesian wayang kulit where the kayon (gunungan) or tree of life not only marks the end of a scene but can represent a mountain, a palace, a forest or any other appropriate location.
The European marionette stage followed the actors’ theatre closely in terms of scenery and sometimes turned to major scene painters for their miniature sets. This helped develop the idea of the puppet as miniature actor. In some cases the backcloth remained little more than a sketchy indication of place, but the idea of stock scenery became very important, especially when marionette theatres of the later 18th century began to have extensive repertoires, which allowed a touring company to remain in one place for several weeks, changing programme nightly. In some cases a stock forest, camp or palace might reappear with monotonous regularity, but by the 19th century some companies prided themselves on their scenic possibilities. By the 1880s the English showman John Holden boasted shows with 60 changes of scene. A scenic device adopted from the live theatre was the moving panorama mounted on two poles or spools which unwound slowly across the back of the stage – the Pitou company in France for their production of Michel Strogoff (from Jules Verne) had a panorama over 20 metres long.
Glove puppet theatres, once we move beyond the street Guignol, Pulcinella, Kasperl or Punch, also began to be more scenically ambitions and to follow the marionette theatres. Already by the 1780s the Turinese showman Francesco Rossi was offering shows with his “fantocci”, glove or possibly rod puppets with full scenic effects. In most cases glove puppet companies were less affluent and therefore less ambitious than marionette ones and used a small collection of stock sets, which in some cases they continued to do right through the 20th century.
The 19th century was the century that saw an enormous emphasis on the idea of visual illustration, ranging from the illustrated newspaper to, eventually, the cinema. Optical shows, panoramas, dioramas and suchlike proliferated and were rapidly taken up by marionette showmen. The magic lantern was a great aid which, in fact, introduced the idea of projected scenery. The 19th-century theatre sometimes employed the magic lantern for trick effects, especially apparitions. This may have been done on the marionette stage sometimes. Many marionette showmen combined a drama with a selection of optical views such as Swiss lakes, exotic oriental scenes, picturesque landscapes and ruins. This was generally a separate section of the programme and consisted in fact of magic lantern slides, sometimes helped by the use of two projectors and a dissolve. Given the interest in this sort of technology, it is not surprising that the first films were often projected as a part of the programme of a travelling marionette show. A more serious integration of projection into the performance came with the shadow theatre of the Le Chat Noir cabaret in Paris where the figures appeared in front of scenery projected by the magic lantern. This technique has been much more fully developed in the later 20th century by the Italian Teatro Gioco Vita shadow theatre.
In the latter part of the 20th century projected scenery was often taken up by puppet companies, sometimes as a way of avoiding the need for large quantities of scenery. By its intangible nature as a “scenography of light” it also provided greater flexibility to the performance area. Another related development, found first in actors’ theatre, has been the introduction of video, whether pre-filmed or filmed during the performance itself. In more recent years the TAM company of Verona have also introduced the idea of freely drawn designs created during the performance on a computer and projected directly onto actors or objects and interrelating with them.
A speciality of the English theatre of the 19th century was a final “grand transformation” scene. This was immensely spectacular, and often a completely separate item of the programme. By the late 19th century many companies seized on it as a splendid way to end a performance, and often advertised it specially. The transformation scene usually consisted of six to ten changes, one following the other, and the final one, the most splendiferous of all, often involved a fountain of real water which would be illuminated by electric light (which was still primarily a source of special effects rather than a main means of illumination).
The European idea of staging spread well beyond Europe, especially once companies began to tour to every corner of the world. However, certain forms of staging remained relatively fixed. A notable example is the Japanese Bunraku which functions on a very large stage with visible operators, and magnificent landscapes behind the puppets. These are painted in a style which aims less at realism than at a higher degree of stylization and thus can be related more to the “emblematic” notion of staging.
Size and Scale
Since a great deal of European puppet theatre is based on the idea of puppets as substitutes for live actors an attempt has often been made to provide a scenic environment that is a miniaturized version of that used with live actors. In such cases it was quite common for the scenery to be scaled down to give the impression that the puppets were larger than they actually were – and many 19th-century showmen advertised their shows as having “life-sized” figures, even when the actual height was generally under one metre.
The word “scenography”, often used today with the sense of stage design, has a primary meaning of representing objects according to the rules of perspective. In the 16th century Sebastiano Serlio created perspective stage settings as a background for actors, but to maintain the sense of perspective and avoid dwarfing the architecture of the scene he peopled them with small artificial figures. The same principle would be used in the various panoramas popular in the 19th century, when, on the live stage, children and sometimes pasteboard figures were sometimes used for upstage action to give a sense of depth. The idea of peopling a whole scene with figures made to scale was explored by the stage designer Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg in his Eidophusikon (“image of nature”, created in 1781, a six foot by eight foot miniature mechanical theatre described as displaying “Various Imitation of Natural Phenomena, represented by Moving Pictures”), and similar ideas were transferred to the marionette stage with the Patagonian Theatre in Dublin, Ireland. This was all part of a notion of the total stage picture conveying an illusion of reality that would become fundamental to the 19th-century theatre. Marionette theatres where the idea of the total scenic picture was uppermost were designed for a more middle-class audience and often had proportionately rather smaller puppets. Such was the case of the Teatro Fiano in Rome or Josef Leonhard Schmid’s Münchner Marionetten-Theater (Munich Marionette Theatre). The Lupi production of the opera Aïda in Turin in 1874 involved marionettes of three different sizes according to whether they appeared upstage, midstage or downstage, and to day the same device can be seen in the deliberately miniaturized productions of operas such as Il Trovatore, performed by the Carlo Colla e Figli company (see Colla (family)).
In the more popular puppet theatres ideas of scale and scenic harmony were less important. A striking example is the opera dei pupi where the backcloths, sometimes beautifully painted, retain their more emblematic value but seem dwarfed by the puppets whose heads reach virtually to the top of the proscenium opening.
In much popular puppet theatre the notion of harmony of stature between individual figures is replaced by one of size related to importance. This is especially obvious with the Tchantchès theatres of Liège, Belgium where, basically, size relates to social status.
With the new movements of the 20th century and the full acceptance of the puppet as puppet, the size of puppets became more closely related to the dramatic requirements. This was well illustrated in Michael Meschke’s production of King Ubu (1964) in which the size of the puppets related to the importance of the character at a particular moment of the show (see Ubu).
The Swiss theatre reformer Adolphe Appia was greatly concerned by the contrast between the artificiality of painted trompe-l’oeil scenery and the three-dimensional living body of the actor. This problem has never existed to the same extent with the puppet, since the puppet itself is constructed out of fairly similar materials to the scenery. Appia also recommended the use of solid volumes (steps, platforms, etc.) painted in a simple flat wash and carefully lit. Whilst much classical European puppetry still retains painted scenery, there has been a parallel move towards the three-dimensional in 20th-century puppet staging.
A significant change occurred in the early 20th century with such people as Paul Brann in Munich when the puppet (and more especially the marionette) ceased to be perceived as a substitute actor and was thought of as a puppet in its own right. This provoked a considerable change in the relationship between the puppet and its scenic environment. There was also a highly significant shift as the puppet theatre became less concerned with performing the repertoire of the actors’ theatre and puppets were now designed for a single production and had to relate to the overall design of scenery and other visual elements.
In some cases a highly refined sense of stage design came into play, notably with Richard Teschner who even modified the proscenium arch into a circular aperture through which his special world could be perceived.
Realism ceased to be a specially important criteria as puppetry became influenced by developments in the plastic arts leading to such things as the experiments of Oskar Schlemmer at the Bauhaus or the puppets of Sophie Taeuber-Arp where geometric forms and bold use of colour created the figures for Carlo Gozzi’s The King Stag and where the background itself was highly stylized.
The Japanese Bunraku theatre combines puppets, with scenery, singer(s) and samisen player(s) and occupies the whole of a large platform stage with manipulators (some clad in black) visible from the waist upwards behind the figures. Its discovery and popularization in Europe and America in the 1980s led to major changes in the staging of puppetry. Out of this came a simplified form which developed into what is known as tabletop puppetry. Here there is a table-like platform in front of the performer(s), which can often extend right across the stage. The visible performer can remain notionally invisible but is a real presence behind the figure. In some cases various rods and controls are used, but in other cases the performer holds the figure more directly, and another development has been the use of the performer’s own hand or hands to create a small figure, as with the Spanish company Zootrop. Tabletop puppetry seldom has scenery in the traditional sense, but often employs free-standing scenic elements.
By the mid-20th century a black curtain as background had become almost a cliché in the staging of puppet theatre. One of the functions of a black background is to make sure that the audience focuses on the puppet itself and not the environment.
Performers tended increasingly to wear black also if they were on the stage with the puppets, and if they wished to reduce their visibility still further might cover their heads and faces with black hoods with gauze over the face. A further extension of this was the black theatre where objects and figures might move freely in space without any apparent operators.
The use of puppets as cabaret entertainment was probably not a conscious idea of scenic innovation, but it put a special emphasis on the relationship between the puppet and the now visible performer and this style is excellently illustrated in the work of Albrecht Roser.
In the second half of the century mainstream puppet theatre often decided to do away with the constrictions of the proscenium arch of the small theatre and to make full use of stages designed for live actors. This allowed for the development of what soon came to be called the “puppet actor” rather than the “manipulator” (known as the “figure-worker” in the 19th century) to range freely over the whole scenic area with the puppet. This created a totally different dynamic, and in many cases the “puppet actor” began to perform in his or her own right as well as handling the puppet, and might even be costumed.
Bertolt Brecht had a huge influence on the theatre of the 1950s and subsequently. He disposed of the idea of the need for a proscenium arch or frame to hide the workings of theatre and with designers such as Karl von Appen also abandoned any idea of the actor performing within a complete scene. Instead, the actor now appeared on what was unashamedly a stage and was accompanied by whatever scenic elements were relevant to the action. Exactly the same thing happened with puppetry, but this had added significance because of the living presence of the puppet actor.
Objects and scenic elements were placed on the stage and most became distinctly functional allowing for interplay with both the actor, and the puppet, but also making extra demands on the active imagination of the audience. Examples of this can be found in the work of Tadeusz Kantor, a theatre maker who has also had an enormous influence on the development of late 20th century puppetry and, like Julian Crouch of Improbable Theatre (notably with Shock-headed Peter, 1998), created a perfect blend of scenic elements, puppets and human actors, which is an increasing trend in contemporary theatre.
Another significant development has been the creation of what is not so much scenery as such but a complete arrangement of space which may be placed on an existing stage, is self sufficient in itself and presents a complete and often kinetic architecture in relation to the performance. This type of staging was developed particularly by the Czech Divadlo DRAK (DRAK Theatre) company and their designer Petr Matásek. In such cases the scenery is purely functional and the borderline between what may be regarded as a puppet and scenic elements is often blurred.