The question of the scenic space is central to any consideration of performance. It determines the relationship between the actor and the audience, the relationship between the actors themselves and also their relationship with the scenery and the scenic objects. The arrangement of the scenic space concerns in the first instance the body of the actor and the links it creates with its environment. But an “artificial actor” has a different relationship with the space of performance from that of an actor in flesh and blood. Both the theatrical concept and the way in which the audience receives the show are transformed by this. The question of the scenic space and place can thus be approached at different levels: that of the place where the piece is being played (with the effects on the relationship between the stage, the non-theatrical space and the audience); that of the scenic space properly speaking (which includes the scenic elements); that of the relationship of both of these levels of performance and the puppet “actor”.

The Puppeteer’s Space

The actors’ theatre, since the 20th century, has been able to do without a dedicated performance space, but the puppet theatre has always known this freedom. Mobility (and consequently economy of technical means) has always been the first requirement of puppeteers and travelling companies. Showmen can in fact use only their own bodies, using for example their cloaks as a background and profiting from the fact that not being magicians they have no need to conceal any trick or device. An open space is typical for religious performances (processions, parades) and folkloric ones: such is the case of the gigantones (giant figures) of Portugal, the fallas of Valencia (Spain), the medieval dragons of Norwich (England), of Mons (Belgium) or even of the masks and mamutones of Sardinia or of Chinese dragons. This opening up of the scenic space can also be found today in street theatre, often with a political significance, such as the happenings of troupes like the Bread and Puppet Theater. In the wide-open space of the street today companies such as Royal de Luxe, La Fura dels Baus or Générik Vapeur, by extending the principles of the mechanical body into vast structures, recall the impressive structures of baroque performance.

Spaces devoted to puppet theatre are extremely varied but in general the one thing in common is that they are different from the traditional actors’ stage. In India, in the kundhei nach glove puppet theatre of Orissa, whose repertoire is the sakhi kundhei, the puppeteers and the musicians sit on the ground; in the kathputli ka khel of Rajasthan the musicians and singers are positioned in sight of the audience at the side of the stage which has a fixed structure. In Kerala, on the other hand, the permanent stage built in the courtyards of temples to the Goddess, called koothu madam, has various functions and can even be used for purposes other than performances of the tolpava koothu, the shadow theatre based on the Ramayana. In China, the case of puppeteers carrying a little stage on their heads is known from illustrations, whilst in Japan a stage might be hung round the neck of the performer. In Vietnam, there is the strange case of the water puppets where the action takes place in a pond surrounded on three sides by the audience, whilst the performers, musicians and technicians are hidden behind bamboo curtains. In the Japanese Bunraku the manipulators are visible and the space is organized into different levels, the highest of which generally represents an interior, whilst another stage at the side accommodates the narrator and musicians. In the wayang kulit of Central Java, Indonesia, the dalang and the gamelan (bronze gong chime) orchestra are placed behind the screen whilst the audience can sit on one side or the other. Those who watch the dalang are generally the invited guests and those of higher status, while those who watch the shadows are the observers from the area who while not invited are welcome to join and view the proceedings. In Java today the stage is generally set up so that all can observe the dalang side and not the shadows. In some areas in Bali and Malaysia most watch from the shadow side, but this distinction is often moot in contemporary performances which allow the viewer to watch from either the dalang or the shadow side of the screen and many audience members may move from place to place during a performance.

The Stage

Generally speaking one can say that puppet theatre has many conventions and is heavily codified and therefore anti-naturalistic, as is evidenced in the first instance by the “actor” who is a character with an artificial body. As a consequence the other elements are also extremely stylized. A single basic object must be able to evoke a framing for the performance, especially in the case of the glove puppet. A green line is enough to suggest a meadow, a cube a house …The dimensions of the little theatre and the proportionate sizes of objects and figures also make an enormous contribution.

In the West, in the case of glove puppets and rod puppets the stage is generally situated at a certain height in relation to the puppeteers and consists of a booth covered in paper or fabric with a simple backcloth, rudimentary wings and a small proscenium opening from which the puppets emerge, operated from below by a concealed performer. But the show does not always need this booth for, in some cases, a simple strip of fabric is sufficient. For example in Russia or China the puppeteer produced his dolls from behind a cloth held above his head on a rigid structure of wood or iron attached to his waist. The scenic space is thus made one with the body of the showman and could be set up in any situation at all. Indeed, puppets had to be able to travel easily. Since the 17th century, the main cities of Europe have had squares such as the Maschio Angioino in Naples, the Piazza Navona in Rome or the fairs of Saint-Germain and Saint-Laurent in Paris which have been venues favoured by puppets.

A basic idea of scenic art emerged by the 18th century, but generally it was a matter of a simple structure with just a few discreet elements of scenery. In the course of the 19th century, some puppeteers developed more complex theatres. But in the 20th century many showmen, including in particular in the 1930s Sergei Obraztsov, in the name of the specific nature of their art and of popular traditions revolted against this tendency to imitate the actors’ theatre too closely.

Theatre in Miniature

With string puppets (marionettes) audiences often attended what was really a miniaturized version of actors’ theatre. In certain cases stages were specially constructed for marionettes and some theatres, although short lived, had a more permanent building that was open at certain fixed periods. It would seem that the first permanent marionette theatre was opened in Vienna by Pietro Resoniero in 1667, whilst in Paris the Théâtre des Pygmées (which subsequently became the Théâtre des Bamboches) with its Italian marionettes opened in 1676. In 1684, Filippo Acciaiuoli (1637-1700) set up a little theatre for prince Ferdinando (III) de’ Medici in which he presented small artificial figures. There were twenty-four changes of scene and one hundred and twenty four figures operated from below by a system of channels in the floor and counterweights. This sounds like a precursor of the theatrum mundi that developed in the 18th century. Accciaiuoli’s system is usually credited to Bartolomeo Neri, but Acciaiuoli himself was much associated with the Tor di Nona theatre in Rome, for which he designed scenery and devised machines. He would therefore have been thoroughly cognizant with the work of Giacomo Torelli and earlier stage designers.

In 1679 on the piazza Navona in Rome a stanza, that is a room or reserved cabinet, was set up for fantocci shows in the same way as those used by the commedia dell’arte. And its use depended on the granting of a licence which itself seems to point to the existence at the period of a right acquired or recognized by custom even if it is hard to establish whether such stanze benefitted from any exclusive privileges or not, for they did not have the same architectonic elements as theatres and lacking any fixed stage could be used for other purposes. In numerous Italian towns these stanze, like the palaces, offered a home for the most elegant marionettes.

In the 18th century many of the nobility had small theatres in which operatic works were re-created in miniature. In 1708 Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni commissioned Filippo Juvarra (1676-1736) to create the little theatre for marionette shows complete with technical equipment and wings for changeable scenery in the Cancellaria Palace in Rome. Juvarra’s first designs for an opera in this theatre are from 1710. Here could be found the illusionism of baroque staging with its habitual effect of amplifying a physical small space. During the baroque period inventions in stage design were equally applied to marionette shows and famous architects and scene painters devoted their activity to miniature theatres.

There are indications that the famous architect Ferdinando Bibiena put up a building in Bologna especially for marionette performances. In France Giovanni Servandoni (1695-1766), the artificer of the salle des machines of the Palais des Tuileries, for spectacular operatic productions built a little theatre on the Boulevard du Temple for the marionette showman Fourré in 1756.

As puppet theatres developed in the 18th century the elements of the stage, the relationship between the spectators and the arrangement of the space as a whole echoed on a reduced scale the architectonic models and machinery of the actors’ theatre which, in this case was the stage “box” of the proscenium-arch theatre.

In the first instance the “natural” proportions between the marionette and the scenery were maintained. The element of illusion aimed at in the staging was reiterated in the imitation of the movements of the actor, the costumes and the lighting. This desire for imitation became even clearer in the second half of the 19th century: the stages became deeper whilst backstage the performers worked the marionettes from one or two bridges or behind a backcloth. Gustave Flaubert in his Notes de Voyage evokes a production at the Gerolamo theatre of Milan and emphasizes the contrast between the surprise created by the illusion and the simplicity of the performance itself. Far from this sort of mimesis on the other hand, in the shows of the Sicilian pupi the proportions between the large figures that invade the stage and the non-naturalist painted scenery are not necessarily respected.

As examples of theatres built in the 19th century one might mention the Kreppchen (little pancake) theatre of Cologne founded in 1802 which later became the Hänneschen-Theater; the little baroque-inspired theatre of the Casa Borromeo on the Isola Bella (Lago Maggiore); the Teatro Fiano in Rome, the Gerolamo theatre in Milan which opened in 1868, the Munich Marionette Theatre (Münchner Marionetten-Theater) founded by Josef Leonhard Schmid (“Papa Schmid”) in 1858 (which was provided with a permanent home by the city of Munich in 1900), or the little San Martiniano theatre of Turin, which opened around 1830 and after 1865  became the home of the character of Gianduja, a popular character created by Bellone and Sales at the turn of the 19th century. An example of a miniature theatre in a fantastic style is the Goldene Schrein (Golden casket) created by Richard Teschner in Vienna in 1912 and set up in his studio. The stage was like a little chest with golden doors instead of a curtain. Teschner also created the puppet “Mirror” which consisted of a concave lens in a gold frame surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac in which, as in a magic mirror, exotic creatures materialized. This little theatre had neither wings nor borders, but merely an under stage, and the scenery was projected.

Contemporary Shadow Theatre

Today, when there is a tendency to break down the barriers between different genres, puppet shows in the broadest sense of the term are frequently presented in the classical actors’ theatre. The virtual space of the shadow theatre, which asserted itself in Paris at the end of the 18th century under the influence of orientalism and thanks to Séraphin (1747-1800) is something quite distinct. In this case the only element visible to the spectator is the screen on which the shadows are thrown. The contemporary theatre has taken this up with different effects of lighting and illumination. Among contemporary examples we might mention notably Light (2002) by Nicole Mossoux in which shadow becomes the character and the costume of the dancer, the productions of the Teatro Gioco Vita company (Orlando Furioso, Orpheus and Eurydice), or again, in the field of dance, the projections of Wim Vandekybus and Anne-Thérèse de Keersmaeker, or the projected environments of the Studio Azurro. The Societas Raffaele Sanzio dematerializes the presence of the actor, reducing it to a voice and a projected image in Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night), whilst Giorgio Marberio Corsetti since the 1980s has brought together on the stage the physical presence of the actor and the virtual one of his image filmed in real time by the camera. Finally one might mention the projections of virtual dancers in the last productions of Merce Cunningham (for example Biped, 1999), which simultaneously creates the space and reveals the hidden internal structure of the dancer. The space thus becomes a double of the dance itself and reveals the internal skeleton.

We must also remember the importance of shadow (or the modified use of light) in miniature installations. The effect of shadow, which can be difficult to obtain in small dimensions, when the artist manages to produce it, seems to remind us miraculously of things that familiarity with our natural environment makes us forget.

The Fusion of the Figure and the Stage

As far as stage design is concerned, in addition to the examples already cited, some of the most interesting cases in the 20th century are those which attempt to fuse together the figure and the scenic elements. It is a matter of abolishing the separation of the actor and the scenic environment, including the shapes of the costume which can modify the natural posture of the human body. The figure itself becomes a part of the scenic space. In these contemporary explorations the puppet can in itself become a way of conceiving the show, a sort of figure in space, the focal point of all the elements of the scenic presentation. Thus, in the apprehension of space with an artist such as Josef Svoboda – heir to the ideas of Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig on the relationship between space, light and movement – in which space is taken over by a new “body” (scenography) which effects a magical transformation. Equally, in some of the creations of Emmanuele Luzzati articulated structures themselves become puppets, setting space itself in movement as a living entity. What had already been initiated in the costumes of Schlemmer and in Futurist pieces (for example the Balleti plastici (Plastic Ballets, 1918) of Fortunato Depero in which puppets and scenery adhered to this principle) has been restated in different ways in productions of the late 20th century, as, for example, in the Midsummer Night’s Dream (1991) of the Teatro del Carretto in which magnificent costumes invade the stage like outspread wings. Costume begins the transformation of the body which becomes the scenery in Solo mit Sofa (Solo with a Sofa, 1977) of Reinhild Hoffmann, in which, thanks to a stretchable fabric, the figure becomes one with the stage object, the divan.

If one wants to find a model in the past, this contemporary tendency finds roots at different periods and cultures in which the puppet figure itself becomes the scenic space, as for example in Mali, where figures more than two metres high become the support for smaller figures. One can see therefore how, from street theatre to the proscenium-arch theatre, every type of space has been able to be taken over. But the small scale stage, easy to install and to transport, often has the advantage.

A Disproportionate Space

The case of extreme simplification is that of the manipulator who totally renounces any scenery or architectonic space by making his own body the place of performance without hiding anything from the audience. This aspect of tradition has been taken up in a new perspective today once the puppet is able to offer an infinite variety of ways of communicating even when techniques are used that conceal the manipulators, as in black (light) theatre. Even if it obeys the spirit of revolt against the classical space of the proscenium-arch theatre, the combined presence of actors and puppets on the stage or the presentation of the puppeteer to the eyes of the audience is already an offence against the idea of illusion. Already in the 19th century some of the more illustrious observers of the art of the puppet such as Stendhal and Nerval emphasized the terrifying effect produced by a hand operating the marionettes. This effect is deliberately sought after by certain contemporary artists such as Guido Ceronetti who in his micro-theatre of  “ideophoric” puppets exploits the contrast between natural and artistic dimensions. One might also mention Massimo Schuster with his little paper creatures (in Charta) or the François Lazaro company which uses a variety of different figures, but always manipulated in sight of the audience. A particular example of the breaking of the notion of scale can be found in Georg Trakl’s Puppenspiel, Bluebeard staged by Cesare Lievi. Intended for a public limited to not more than eighty people, the show reduces the space to a stage opening which, thanks to mobile panels, can change its dimensions and where live actors, proportionally much bigger than the space limited by the panels, are visible “in fragments”.

The marionette theatres of past centuries, and those that perpetuate the tradition such as the Münchner Marionetten-Theater (see Josef Leonhard Schmid) or the Salzburger Marionettentheater, are distinct from the contemporary theatre in that they keep natural proportions intact on a reduced scale, whilst the latter plays with disproportion juxtaposing the natural dimensions of the human body with the artificial ones of puppets and animated objects.


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