Officially the Swiss Federation (German: Eidgenossenschaft; French: Confédération Suisse; Italian: Confederazione Svizzera; Romansh: Confederaziun svizra; Latin: Confoederatio Helvetica or CH), Switzerland (respectively, Schweiz, Suisse, Svizzera, Svizra) consists of 26 cantons and comprises four main linguistic and cultural regions: German, French, Italian and Romansh. Situated in Western and Central Europe, Switzerland is bordered by Italy to the south, France to the west, Germany to the north, and Austria and Liechtenstein to the east.
Only at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries did Switzerland see the birth of an integrated or discrete puppet theatre. Before, itinerant troupes from the border countries, mainly Germany and France, could be seen in the great fairs of Basel, Berne, Zurich, Geneva, Solothurn or Baden, but none of these was Swiss (see also Travelling Puppeteers). For a long period the puppet and shadow plays were as much appreciated as those of the actors’ theatre, and between 1670 and 1700, then between 1720 and 1750, they were even predominant among the shows of the fairs. However with the French occupation in 1798 and the social and political changes it caused, there were fewer travelling puppeteers, and the public showed preference for the opera and the actors’ theatre. In the urban fairgrounds more spectacular optical and mechanical demonstrations eclipsed the puppet shows, which could still be seen in the countryside. Only a few glove puppet showmen survived, in their little Italian booths, continuing the tradition of the commedia dell’arte in children’s shows. It was thanks to the efforts of fine artists and amateurs that the puppet theatre was reintroduced to the country at the end of the 19th century.

The Beginnings

In 1895 a group of young painters, musicians and writers from Geneva had the idea of creating an equivalent of the Paris Le Chat Noir. They were led by the caricaturist Godefroy (Auguste Viollier) and the painter/engraver Henri van Muyden, both great enthusiasts of the famous Montmartre cabaret. They adopted its technique and created in their theatre, which they named Le Sapajou, some original programmes, manipulating hundreds of shadow figures, expertly crafted. With the composer Émile Jaques-Dalcroze at the piano and H. Bertillot in the role of Master of Ceremonies (or commentator) Le Sapajou enjoyed immense success with shows produced over a period of six months at the time of the Swiss National Exhibition, mounted in Geneva in 1896.
However it was probably the initiative of Herman Scherrer (1853-1948) which had the greatest influence on the Swiss puppetry arts, since it lasted over thirty years. He was a businessman in textiles from Saint-Gall (St. Gallen) who started with a small family marionette (string puppet) theatre in 1903, copying the style, technique and repertoire of the famous Münchner Marionetten-Theater (Munich Marionette Theatre) of Josef Leonhard Schmid (known as Papa Schmid), which he had seen during his business travels. Scherrer’s enterprise was purely private at first, but soon gave birth to a veritable institution, the St. Galler Marionettentheater, whose productions for children became famous. The company’s repertoire was, first and foremost, the plays of Count Franz von Pocci, featuring the popular character Kasperl. Some time later, typically Swiss characters were added, such as Heidi, a show that closed the 1937 season. Convinced of the educational value of this genre of entertainment, Scherrer can be said to have introduced to Switzerland the pedagogic tradition of Helvetic puppetry.
The aims and ambitions of the puppet theatre founded in 1918 in Zurich by Alfred Altherr (1975-1945) were very different. This architect was persuaded that the reform of human theatre, now considered urgent, should take as its ideal model the puppet theatre. His main reference was the theory developed by Edward Gordon Craig who advocated an anti-realist scenic space, highly stylized, drawing on architectural elements and a new approach to lighting. With his student-teachers from the Art and Artisan department of his school of commerce created some six years earlier, Altherr also realized productions using visual artists, actors, writers and musicians which were presented in 1918 at the exhibition organized by the Swiss Union of artisans, artists and architects (Schweizerischer Werkbund, or SWB). Nine shows were staged in the Swiss marionette theatre (see Schweizerisches Marionettentheater), specially erected for the occasion, among them Pocci’s The Magic Violin, also three pieces expressly written by René Morax and Daniel Baud-Bovy, two French-speaking Swiss. Only two of these shows fully revealed any ambition for an artistic revival: the adaptation of Carlo Gozzi’s The King Stag which employed wooden marionettes designed by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and the composer Claude Debussy’s La Boîte à joujoux (The Toy Box, 1913) for which the painter Otto Morach had designed more than forty figures that reflected the expressionist tendencies of the time. The technical refinements of the two marionette ensembles were the work of Carl Fischer (1888-1987), who taught woodwork at the school of Alfred Altherr.
Spurred on by these exemplary productions, widely publicized in Europe by the publications of the Werkbund, other artists, actors, playwrights, and musicians followed the same abstract pathway in their own shows and theatre designs, a choice encouraged by the experiences of Pablo Picasso and Francis Picabia in Paris, and the Bauhaus in Weimar. Alfred Altherr directed his company until its forced closure in 1935. Through nine seasons his troupe presented some thirty productions, the greatest successes being Doctor Faust and Master Peter’s Puppet Show. In the repertoire there were also a number of shows with a more classical aesthetic, nearer to the drama, the opera and the circus, as in the Zürcher Marionetten, a company founded in 1942. The style was also to be seen in certain touring companies, such as that of the famous Teatro dei Piccoli of Vittorio Podrecca, the artistic marionette company of Paul Brann and the Weiffenbach Riesenbühnenschau (Great Theatre Stage Show of Weiffenbach) which always played to full houses in Switzerland.
By the middle of the 20th century more than a dozen companies had been created, notably in Lausanne (1918), Zug (1928), Interlaken (Jakob Streit), Meiringen (Arnold Brügger), Bischofszell (Armin Rüeger), Saint-Gall/St. Gallen (Clara Fehrlin, Paul Theo Müller), Romanshorn (Fritz Popp), Altdorf (Heinrich Danioth), Basel (H.O. Proskauer). Some of the companies lasted a long time and attained professional standards, as in the case of the puppet theatre of Ascona (1937-1961) directed by Jakob Flach, the Festi-Ligerz company of Elsi and Fernand Giauque, Elsi Hausin’s Berner Marionetten and the Marionettentheater Kloten of Werner Flück. Lastly two companies, still in existence, succeeded in establishing themselves in permanent theatres: the Théâtre des Marionnettes de Genève (Puppet Theatre of Geneva) founded by Marcelle Moynier in 1929, and the Basler Marionettentheater of Richard Koelner, founded in 1943. Another contributor to the Swiss art of the puppet was Erich Weiss (1912-1984), Professor of literature and philosophy in Winterthur between 1932 and 1963. With his students he made six productions of which he was the author using tall string marionettes finely sculpted, two of them in political vein, Judas Ischarioth (Judas Iscariot, 1936) and Das kleine Europatheater (The Little European Theatre, 1960), and others more poetic such as Die Gänsemagd (The Goose Girl, 1957).

The Post-World War II Revival

In spite of all these local initiatives, it was not until after World War II and well into the second half of the 20th century that the string puppet (marionette) theatre gained respect, largely thanks to Peter W. Loosli and his wife Trudi, who founded the first completely professional touring company. With a repertoire which included such works as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) and Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz’ and Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), the Looslis Puppentheater became the touchstone for the genre.
As for the glove puppet, it too enjoyed a similar revival. New plays, mainly for children, replaced the traditional Italianate comedies starring Pulcinella, Kasperl and even Guignol, though these never entirely disappeared, especially in the fairgrounds and the non-German-speaking regions of the Confederation, for example Gioppino or Giuppin, a popular character in Tessin (Canton Ticino). Encouragement for the popular glove puppets came from Germany where glove puppet shows had gained in artistic quality and were from this period onwards presented in schools, children’s centres and theatres. In 1947, with the aim of promoting the glove puppet, Heinrich Maria Denneborg (1909-1987), a German puppeteer and author of children’s books, with his wife Silvia Gut, initiated a “work circle” which through workshops and lectures functioned until 1959, the year of the foundation of the Association des marionnettistes suisses (Association of Swiss Puppeteers) which was able to inherit this network.
Two remarkable personalities of the time were Adalbert Klinger (1896-1974) and Therese Keller (1923-1972) who each performed right across the Confederation, giving children’s shows whose principal characters were Kasperli or Hansjoggel. The latter was a little Swiss boy who, apart from his vitality, had little to do with any original character of tradition. Klinger (his shows played in the Zurich dialect) was sponsored by the Migros chain of department stores, and for a time was the only professional solo puppeteer. But from 1947, the Zurich based Puppencabaret of Fred Schneckenburger also made a great impression with performances for adults, many of them inspired by the figures of the 1920s which recalled those that Paul Klee made for his son Felix.

Developments of the 1960s and 1970s

In 1961 the Association suisse des théâtres de marionnettes (Swiss Association of Puppet Theatres) launched a magazine, Puppenspiel und Puppenspieler / Marionnettes et Marionnettistes (Puppetplay and Puppet Players). The publication became a showcase for a number of companies which appeared at the end of the 1960s. Individual artists like Käthy Wüthrich (1931-2007), Maya Gärtner and Margrit Gysin performed with glove puppets, more or less continuing the work of Therese Keller, while others, such as Trudy and Peter Bienz of Winterthur, remained faithful to the string puppet. However the majority of these new artists did not employ any genre exclusively, their experimental productions including rod puppets, projections, giant figures, masks, flat figures, shadow theatre and black (light) theatre. These young puppeteers (often couples or partners) performed the traditional repertoire but more often produced original work, playing also for an adult public. A number of touring companies were thus to be seen all over the country: Figurentheater St. Gallen (est. 1956), La Rose des Vents (Rose of the Winds, Lausanne, est. 1965), the Puppentheater Rolf Meyer/Martin Friedli (Berne, est. 1970), the Puppen und Schattenbühne Monika Demenga (the Monika Demenga Puppet and Shadow Theatre, Berne, est. 1969), Eric Mérinat and his marionettes (Lausanne, est. 1969), Teatro Antonin Artaud of Michel and Michèle Poletti (Lugano, est. 1969), Puppentheater Bleisch (Winterthur, est. 1970), Théâtre de la Poudrière (Neuchâtel, est. 1970), Pannalal’s Puppets (Geneva, est. 1973), and Figurentheater Hansueli Trüb (Abtwil, est. 1973).
Most of these professionals were self-taught either through their fine art or theatre studies or from practising in companies. In Lausanne, a workshop led by the Frenchman Yves Vedrenne taught manipulation “in view”, while Michel and Tina Perret-Gentil, of the Pannalal’s Puppets, began with Indian dance shows, which they had studied in Udaipur, Rajasthan. In 1978 three married couples made their debut: Christian and Maya Schuppli after having worked in the Basler Marionettentheater for several years christened their company Vagabu; Christoph and Silvia Bosshard had worked as scenic designers when they founded the Tokkel-Bühni company (Puppet Theatre in a Tent), while the Kurt Fröhlich company, Fährbetrieb, based its work on their experience in modern dance and mime. In 1979 Nicole Chevalier, a student of the Jacques-Dalcroze Institute in Geneva, became the director of the Théâtre des Marionnettes de Genève (TMG), where she introduced the rod puppet, a technique learned in the Ţăndărică Theatre of Bucharest, Romania. Some of these puppeteers, such as Monika Demenga, Kurt Fröhlich, Peter Bienz and, more recently, Michael Huber and Hanspeter Bleisch, created pieces for shadow puppets, a genre explored with some originality by Rudolf Stössel, amateur puppeteer and physician, in the St. Gallen theatre and whose discoveries were to be found in the work of Hansueli Trüb.
Elsewhere in 1971 a group of immigrants from Czechoslovakia, led by Jiří Procházka, founded the Schwarzes Theater Zürich (Zurich Black Theatre), which besides shadow and other pieces for children like Peter und der Wolf, Pinocchio, Schneewittchen (Snow White) and Rumpelstilzchen (Rumpelstiltskin), made puppet films for television. In the same year two young mimes, Andres Bossard and Bernie Schürch, founded a clown company called Verlor und Vorher (Lost and Before), supplemented in the following year by Floriana Frassetto. After a successful appearance in the Avignon festival, the celebrated Mummenschanz adventure began. Touring all over the world, the company, in later days made up of Bernie Schürch, Floriana Frassetto, Raffaella Matioli and Jakob Bentsen, perhaps should be classed as a “theatre of forms” or “visual theatre”.

The Contemporary Scene from the 1980s

As the number of troupes gradually grew and their creative horizons widened, puppetry became better and better recognized as a true theatre art, and the puppeteers were able to call themselves full members of a profession. Traditional companies played alongside others more modern in style. For example, in the town of Fribourg, at the beginning of the 1980s two companies were born: the Bindschedler couple’s “classical” Théâtre des Marionnettes de Fribourg, and “Guignol à Roulettes” (Guignol on Wheels) led by Pierre-Alain Rolle and Marie-Dominique San Jose-Benz, which despite its name, applied all kinds of manipulation techniques, as best suited the production. After 150 performances, L’Énorme Crocodile from a Roald Dahl story was an exemplary success.
In 1983, after the death of Marcelle Moynier, the Théâtre des Marionnettes de Genève became a subsidized municipal theatre, as were other permanent theatres in cantons such as Berne, Zurich, Ascona, Lucerne, Biel/Bienne, Lausanne and Neuchâtel. Today Switzerland can be said to have proportionately the greatest number of municipal puppet theatres in Europe. The example of Théâtre de la Poudrière (Gunpowder Theatre) in Neuchâtel is emblematic: the troupe began as amateurs and evolved through the 1980s and 90s until it was firmly professional in status, with a permanent venue and subsidized.
These theatres frequently welcomed other Swiss or foreign companies, and even made co-productions with touring companies, but the language frontiers were ever an obstacle, and the need to avoid isolation was particularly felt in the Italian-speaking region of the Confederation. Numbers of their public being too limited, the Tessin (Canton Tecino) companies had very often to tour abroad. The Teatro Antonin Artaud of Michel and Michèle Poletti often played in Italy and in most of the international festivals, but rarely in French or German-speaking Switzerland. By contrast the Teatro dei Fauni (Theatre of Fauns), created in Locarno in 1986 under the direction of Santuzza Oberholzer, played regularly in German Switzerland, and was habitually able to perform in any of four languages.
All these developments incited the puppeteers to improve the quality of their shows and to widen their repertoire, while more and more mainstream theatres began to engage these professionals to contribute writings, direction, scenic design or music. All the same, the productions remained for the most part in their own cantons, addressed to a family and child audience; the existing performances and the economic restraints dictating the scale of the performances and the age of their public. The theatres on average seated 120 people on small stages, as in the tent of Tokkel-Bühni des Bosshard. But the Double Jeu theatre association of Lausanne created by the Rose des Vents company in 1987 and the Théâtre Globule, played to some 300 people in the hall of the Collège des Bergières. To overcome the problem of scale, several experiments were made, such as the one inspired by Yves Vedrenne of the Brunners who were the first in Switzerland to produce shows on a big stage with rod puppets and tabletop puppetry figures a metre high, manipulated by a team of three to five puppeteers more or less visible to the audience. In the 1970s Peter W. Loosli had already discarded the framed stage in order to manipulate in view the puppets of his production of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, framing it in masks, which represented the inhabitants of the stars. Staging with large puppets, masks and a mobile stage was popularized above all by the work of Hanspeter Bleisch.
In the course of time certain puppeteers of this generation ceased or curtailed their activities, but the seven most important permanent site theatres of the country, Geneva, Neuchatel, Berne, Basel, Zurich, Winterthur and Saint-Gall (St. Gallen), continued to stage regular productions. To these well-established companies are regularly added other touring groups, often consisting of a single puppeteer. It must be said, however, that in spite of the growing interest in puppetry, an attempt to set up a four-year specialized training in the art form at the Theatre Academy of Zurich had to be abandoned for lack of a sufficient number of students. The young puppeteers trained in Germany (Stuttgart and Berlin) and in Charleville-Mézières, France, are however fairly numerous and some of them have initiated collective enterprises with astonishing success.
In the matter of training, the case of the Felicia theatre company must be mentioned; it was founded in the world centre of anthroposophy (and the Rudolf Steiner schools), the “Goetheanum” in Domach, near Basel, whose existence goes back to 1934. The Felicia theatre company, originally intended for the presentation of fairy tales by a storyteller and musician, became a fertile locus of exchange between students of the Steiner schools but also the Swiss puppeteers. Besides the classical puppets or the translucent flat figures employed in the large-scale shows, the Felicia employs other types of puppets (notably tabletop) and contributes to the growth of performances sensitively based on stories. Other young puppeteers are more inclined towards a genre of total visual theatre which includes dance, object theatre, projections and video art, altogether contributing to the development of the vibrant modern scene.
The success of Swiss puppetry is also affirmed through many festivals: some international ones have been organized in Zurich and Geneva, but the initiative of Michel and Michèle Poletti in 1979 was the only one to last any length of time: this was the Festival Internazionale delle Marionette (International Puppet Festival) of Lugano. In 1986 it was transferred to Ascona but it was terminated after twelve years. If the Poletti festival was mainly for a public on holiday in the south of Switzerland, another project, this time in 1985 by Yves Baudin and Corinne Grandjean of the Théâtre de la Poudrière, to make a biennale of puppetry in Neuchâtel had greater success in the theatre world: the “Semaine Internationale de la Marionnette” (International Week of the Puppet) became established as an important European festival which is now, in 2012, in its 13th edition. Its success encouraged the Association suisse pour le Théâtre de Marionnettes (Swiss Association of Puppet Theatres), at the instigation of Arlette Richner, to create its equivalent in Baden, in the German-speaking region. This same town has since 1994 hosted another biennale, the Figura Theaterfestival. Both Swiss and foreign companies proposing new approaches to puppetry are invited, and young troupes can compete for the “Grünschnabel” (Greenhorn) prize. In addition, two more recent annual festivals were launched in Tessin (Canton Tecino), one of them in 1994 in Stabio by Marco Rossi (the Maribur festival), and the other in 1999 in Locarno by Santuzza Oberholzer, called Il Castello Incantato (The Enchanted Castle). In 2003 Christian Schuppli has run a biennial international festival in Basel. Puppets from companies past and present are exhibited in various museums such as the Museum Bellerive of Zurich, the Schweizerische Theatersammlung in Berne, and the Schloosmuseum in Munsingen, but the only one dedicated to the puppet is at the moment the Musée Suisse de la Marionnette (Swiss Puppet Museum) in Fribourg.
Today the Swiss puppeteers are united under the banner of l’Unima-Suisse/Vereinigung Figuren und Puppentheater der Schweiz, the Swiss Association of Puppet Theatres. Their quarterly review, renamed Figura in 1992, is concerned with news of world puppetry and also addresses theoretical matters. The organization represents about a hundred companies – professionals, amateurs and therapists – plus about three hundred individuals interested in the utilization of the puppet as an art form and as a means of education.


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