“Equiplane” or Same Level Puppet Manipulation (Historical Precedents)
The following two essays are a discussion of various [manipulation] techniques of [string puppets], [rod puppets], and other puppet types where the performing space is at the level of a table, and where a puppet is operated from behind (French: “equiplane”), usually but not always by a visible operator.
Europe’s Middle Ages
Some wood engravings from the Middle Ages show puppets manipulated on a table. A Czech engraving shows a scene where a farmer receives communion from the hand of a priest who, at the same time, is manipulating a puppet on a table with the other hand. The Musée du Moyen Âge de Cluny (Cluny Middle Ages Museum) in Paris has in its collection a sculpture of a crucified thief that comes from the Auvergne and dates back to the 16th century; the figure is about 50 centimetres high and is furnished with an interior mechanism that enables the figure to roll its eyes. The priest would place this “puppet” in front of him and punctuate his predication with this piece of “magic” that was made possible by strings relaying the eyes to a small lever placed in the puppet’s back.
The oldest known representation of a tabletop puppet is from a manuscript by [Herrad von Landsberg] (French: Herrade de Landsberg, c.1170), entitled Hortus deliciarum. Two manipulators, standing on either side of a rectangular table, pull on two horizontal strings that intersect between two puppets (two armoured soldiers) which are thus animated. This manipulation technique is not dissimilar to that found in a [jigging puppet] or “jigdoll” or “marionnette à la planchette” (puppet on a plank), the difference being that the latter is usually operated on the ground. In the 16th century, Gerolamo Cardano (French: Jérôme Cardan), a Milanese doctor, mathematician and man of culture, wrote in his encyclopedia, “I have seen many other wooden figures set in motion by several strings alternately tensed and relaxed, which is nothing wonderful. I must however say that it was a truly enjoyable sight to see how the gestures and steps of these dolls were synchronized with the music.” (Jérôme Cardan, De varietate rerum, XIII 63, 1550).
An Asian Tradition
In the 1847 edition of the review Le Magasin pittoresque, under the title Les Marionnettes chinoises (Chinese Puppets), an engraving shows a “mechanical Chinese theatre”. There is a puppeteer placed behind a table on which there are three boxes, with each probably containing a pre-prepared playlet or sketch. On the biggest box, two puppets are fighting, one armed with an axe and the other with a lance. They confront each other, manipulated by three strings that come out the side of the box. It is by pulling these strings that the puppeteer makes the combatants move, sometimes through (the medium of) mechanisms hidden inside the box (see [Mechanical Theatres]).
In the 19th century in the south of China, [shadow theatre] fell into disuse. The puppeteers of the Guangdong Province, in the Chaozhou region, replaced it with tabletop shows featuring three-dimensional puppets manipulated, like the shadows, using rear rods. Today, this manipulation technique is diffused through Hong Kong and the Fujian region. In this style of puppetry, the Chaozhou thiezhi muou (iron rod puppets) uses puppets that measure from 45 to 55 centimetres in height. The puppet theatre consists of a bamboo frame attached to a table. On three sides there are embroidered curtains serving as scenic walls that define the staging space. Behind this, a backdrop limits the depth of the stage. The puppeteer takes in one hand the main rod that is attached to the back of the puppet, which allows him to make it perform. In the other hand, he holds two other rods, each attached to a ring on the puppet’s wrist. The virtuosity of this puppet resides in the fact that these two rods must be manipulated separately but held in the same hand. One is animated by the thumb and index finger, while the other is held between the palm, the middle finger, the ring finger, and the little finger. It can happen, by the demands of the show, that the puppeteer has to manipulate up to three puppets at a time.
Although best known for the [Bunraku] style of performance, Japan features a history of other puppetry traditions. An old engraving depicts a puppeteer performing with two [glove puppets] in a portable puppet theatre stage in the shape of a tray that he carries around his neck. An opening in the back allows the manipulation of one or two characters. This manipulation technique is similar to tabletop puppets, except that the stage device is portable. This kind of show, which, today, might be called “micro-theatre”, is well suited to street performance.
Tabletop Puppetry (Contemporary)
Tabletop (or table-top) is a relatively recent term and is part of an attempt to find terminology for ways of using puppets that either did not exist in the past or had no specific label. In Europe the two immediately familiar labels were marionette or string puppet (worked from above) and glove puppet (worked from below). The use of the term “tabletop” followed the discovery and adaptation of the Japanese Bunraku, or strictly speaking [ningyō jōruri], in other countries, and notably in Europe and America. Bunraku presents a type of puppetry in which the operators are visible and the puppet is generally held in front of them at roughly waist height. Another important feature of the Bunraku theatre is the close contact between the operator and the puppet. The tabletop puppet evolved as a simplified version of the Bunraku, and also of some Chinese techniques where puppets are controlled directly with iron rods by a player standing behind. The term “tabletop” is used because the “stage” or playing space is generally about the height of a table, and the performer(s) stand behind it.
Unlike the Bunraku, the contemporary European/Western tabletop puppet is generally rather small – seldom more than 30 centimetres. The controls usually consist of a small rod to the back of the head and short rods to each arm. Sometimes the head rod also has a small trigger mechanism that allows the head to tilt. Quite often puppeteers prefer not to have arm rods, but to work the arms directly by holding them with their own hands. The directness of contact between the performer and the puppet has many of the advantages of the glove puppet.
The tabletop puppet may be fully articulated, but many players also use more rigid figures, more like an action-man doll, that, according to the needs of a narrative, can be arranged and rearranged in different postures and positions on the stage but not actually animated.
In most cases the puppet appears on a bare platform with just the necessary props, but some puppeteers still retain the proscenium arch and curtain. In this situation it is not uncommon to see tabletop figures combined with the techniques of [black theatre]. In a less illusionistic situation, the performer is not necessarily hidden but focused lighting may make the audience concentrate entirely on the puppet. Tabletop puppetry lends itself exceptionally well to the story-telling mode, and in that situation the visible puppeteer frequently engages with the puppet as part of the show. This is particularly true of solo performers and is often seen in children’s shows. However, quite elaborate productions have also been embarked on by such companies as the French Vélo Théâtre with their Enveloppes et Déballages (Wrapping and Unwrapping), in which there is no table as such. In this production a postman arrives on his bicycle with some very large cardboard boxes which then open out to create a complete landscape, including a volcano, into which are introduced a variety of tabletop puppets combined with an extensive and imaginative use of props and various objects. Vélo Théâtre describe themselves as performing “[object theatre]”, not “tabletop theatre”. Both definitions are appropriate in this case. The question is merely how far the tabletop puppet should be defined by the physical position of the performer in relation to the figures or objects being used, or how far it should be seen as a small and simplified version of a Bunraku figure.
Hungarian performer Andras Lenart in his show Mikropodium has perfected the art of the tabletop puppet and created a classic with his minute but exquisitely crafted figures operated from behind by a very precise system of rod controls. One of his most popular acts is an extremely delicate ballerina.
Other examples of tabletop or “equiplane” puppetry
In his film, The Gold Rush (1925), Charlie Chaplin suggests the performance of a ballerina on a table by putting two bread rolls on the end of two forks, representing her legs, which dance a polka. Here, the magic of puppetry is wonderfully displayed. Each movement and gesture is so precise that our imagination effaces the forks, the two bread rolls, and Charlie Chaplin’s head and substitutes a whole dancer.
The “tabletop” style of performance can be said to be the most employed by contemporary puppeteers, usually with the performer(s) in view behind or at the side of the action, which may not include a table as such, and with the figures controlled by rods, hands, strings or newly invented mechanisms.
Many contemporary puppeteers are drawn to the tabletop stage device. Théâtre de l’Arc-en-Terre of [Massimo Schuster], with the extraordinary puppets built by [Enrico Baj] from pieces of Meccano (metal building shapes for miniature building projects), staged a tabletop production of Ubu roi (King [Ubu]) in this manner. [Théâtre Manarf] stages shows with all kinds of objects, pieces of cloth, string and cardboard. Also in France there is [Jean-Pierre Lescot]’s Monsieur Clément ou la Bonne Humeur des Coquillages (Mr Clement, or the Cheerfulness of the Shellfish). The [Houdart-Heuclin] company’s version of Dom Juan, in which chess pieces made of metal and transparent resin made by Yann Liébard to represent Molière’s characters, glide on a luminous chessboard by means of horizontal rods. There is the theatre Le Manteau of [Bjorn Fühler] with Le Cirque (The Circus). There are also Charlot Lemoine’s Vélo-Théâtre and [Hubert Japelle] …Roger Wallet had adapted a text written by Françoise Xenakis recounting a suicide. The stage shows a round bistro table, brightly lit, onto which a packet of tobacco, cigarette papers, and a rolling machine are placed. Hidden in the dark, the puppeteer recites, slowly turning a crank. The cigarette is rolled, “born”, on the table and becomes the character …Inspired by William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, [Little Angel Theatre], in association with The Royal Shakespeare Company, presented The Magicians’ Daughter; while this company’s Alice in Wonderland is a tabletop puppetry musical. Among other British tabletop puppetry productions [Polka Children’s Theatre], in collaboration with Little Angel Theatre, produced Moominsummer Madness …In the United States [Basil Twist] created his tabletop production of Petrushka. Inkfish Theatre, founded in New York City in 2004 by Michael Kelly, Alissa Mello and Brian Snapp, adapted Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose (2005) into their adult production that employs tabletop puppetry …
- Fettig, Hansjürgen. Rod Puppets and Table-Top Puppets: A Handbook of Design and Techniques. Trans. Rene Baker. Bicester, UK: DaSilva Puppet Books, 1997.
- Fong, Kuang-Yu, and Stephen Kaplin. Theatre on a Tabletop: Puppetry for Small Spaces. Charlottesville, New Plays, Inc. 2003. Bibliography: pp. 346-348.
- Foulquié, Philippe, ed, and Centre national des marionnettes. Les Théâtres de marionnettes en France. Les compagnies membres du Centre national des marionnettes [Puppet Theatre in France. Member Companies of the National Centre for Puppets]. Lyon: Editions La Manufacture, 1985.