Toy theatre, also known as paper theatre, model theatre and juvenile drama, is a technique that involves the manipulation of paper characters. The genre was probably born in England in the beginning of the 19th century. It used to be a toy until 1940 but since the end of the 20th century the technique has been used by an increasing number of puppeteers and other artists. Each country has a specific toy theatre tradition, but they all originate in the passion for theatre which spread all over Europe in the 19th century. Scripts of popular theatre plays were available in print everywhere, as well as thousands of portraits of famous actors and actresses which people would hang on their walls. However, there is no documentation on the beginnings of the toy theatre. It is likely that someone once decided not to put only the portrait of a single actor on a sheet, as was the custom, but the figures of all the actors of a play – thus creating a different type of memorabilia. It is also likely that a theatre enthusiast decided to cut the figures out, as one would have with dress-up paper dolls, and gave life to the characters in the process.
A 19th Century Trend
The only document available to date the beginnings of this theatre is the edition of a “build-your-own” theatre proscenium published in 1812 by I.K. Green of London. It is fair to consider that the toy theatre was born at the time. It had several elements which were necessary to perform a play: a proscenium arch, which was often designed after that of existing theatres, set pieces, a backstage area, characters, and a play text. The characters were printed in their most dramatic attitudes and a variety of postures, which allowed the performer to make them evolve during the representation. The text was a condensed and often bowdlerized version of the original play. Later on, colour was added by the printers who, depending on the country of production, used different techniques, such as hand painting, stencilling, or lithography. Alternatively, the elements of the theatre would be coloured-in by the buyers themselves. At home, the owners of the theatres would glue the sheets onto cardboard, cut them out, put them together, and could then perform their own show for their families or friends. The size of the little theatre rarely exceeded 50 or 60 centimetres. The pictures were often extremely accurate representations of the costumes and scenery of popular melodramas and of pantomimes. In England, toy theatre performances remained, for a long time, miniature copies of the successful London shows, as George Speaight explained in his reference text on the subject (Juvenile Drama, 1946).
The English editors were numerous and included most notably Green (between 1811 and 1860), Jameson (1811-1827), William West (1811-1854), Park (1818-1880), Hodgson (1822-1830), Skelt (1835-1872), Webb (1847-1890), Redington (1850-1876), and Benjamin Pollock (1876-1937). The number of sheets for a play could be high: around twenty for the sets and the backstage area, and as many for the characters. The price was very low (one penny for a black and white sheet, and two pence for a hand-coloured sheet) and a vast quantity of sheets was printed. Speaight recorded as many as three hundred plays published during that period.
In 1884, Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, wrote an essay entitled “A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured”, a nostalgic tribute to the genre. It attracted the attention of museums and researchers to this technique. As a result, there now are precise records of the English editions. George Speaight was, for the whole of the 20th century, the living memory of this art: he performed, wrote, spoke at conferences and gave many artists the desire to know more about the micro-theatres. In Threads of Time, Peter Brook wrote: “One afternoon, I was taken to Bumpus, a bookshop in Oxford Street, to see a performance for children on a nineteenth-century toy theatre. This was my first theatrical experience, and to this day, it remains not only the most vivid but also the most real.”
In Austria, there were toy/paper theatres from the late 1820s, including large ones published by the first editor of the genre in the country, Trentsensky, who published fifty-two plays.
In Germany, the first paper theatres were published by Jos Scholz in Mainz from 1830, and later by other editors throughout Germany. The main ones were Winckelmann & Söhne in Berlin (from 1830), Gustav Kühn in Neuruppin (from 1835), Schulz in Stuttgart (from 1840), J.F. Schreiber in Esslingen (from 1877), and Robrahn in Magdeburg (from 1880). Their publications included all the elements required to build a theatre, but each play had only one sheet with characters depicted in only one position. The sets were probably used for several plays, and the theatres were not necessarily accompanied by playtexts. The collector Walter Röhler traced back those small German theatres during the 20th century.
In France, oddly, many texts were published but they were not linked to the theatre: the owners had to come up with their own plays. There were few sheets with characters, no playtexts, and research in the field started late. However, the paper theatres were produced in remarkable quantities, especially by picture publishers from the east of the country: Wentzel in Wissembourg (from 1833), Didion in Metz and his successors in Nancy (from 1840), Pellerin (from 1840) and Pinot (from 1866) in Épinal, Hathengual in Pont-à-Mousson (from 1870), Glémarec (from 1845), Boucquin (from 1862), and Méricand (with the journal Mon théâtre, 1904-1905).
In Denmark, the popularity of the toy theatres came later, thanks to two editors in particular: Alfred Jacobsen from 1880 to 1924, and Carl Aller from 1914. The theatres were published in insets in Illustreret Familie Journal (the Family’s Illustrated Journal), and they were particularly popular.
Other countries started to produce their own theatres after importing foreign ones for a long time. In Italy, Marca Stella (from 1883) and Abbiati (from 1922) in Milan, and G.A.I. (from 1914) in Bologna, are the most representative of the genre. Spain had its own theatre from 1870, and the research of architect Mariano Bayon offered the possibility of a comprehensive, and totally renewed idea of this production. In Barcelona, the editors were Paluzie (from 1870 to 1939), Seix y Barral, the inventor of semi-transparent sets (1915-1942), and Sirven (from 1940). In Madrid, La Tijera (from 1917) published magnificent theatres and was the most prolific company as regards the production of Spanish toy-theatre plays. In the former Czechoslovakia, the toy/paper theatre took another form. As a reaction to foreign imports, the Czech editors decided to commission famous artists to create the plays, but for very large theatres. Those were made out of paper but featured small wire puppets instead of paper characters.
To conclude, although there were some toy theatres in the United States, the history of the toy/paper theatre is essentially that of a European editorial production, which targeted theatre amateurs. This theatre was never destined for professionals, and only had an indirect relation to puppetry.
20th Century Renewal
The toy theatre reappeared at the beginning of the 1980s. It was not endorsed by publishers any longer, but by artists who made it come back to life, either by using old toy/paper theatres, or by using the form to create contemporary performances. At the beginning of the 21st century, there are over 200 troupes worldwide that use toy theatre, although few companies use this technique only. This new interest is also encouraged through some events dedicated specifically to the genre. These include the Preetzer Papiertheatertreffen in Preetz, Germany (every year), the Rencontres Internationales de Théâtres de Papier in Mourmelon-le-Grand, France (every two years), and Great Small Works’ International Toy Theater Festivals in New York City (no fixed periodicity). Some publishers in Germany and Denmark have been reprinting old theatres. In Germany, Papiertheater, a beautiful magazine covering the tradition and the contemporary creation, is published.
(See also Great Small Works, Hanauer Papiertheatermuseum, Papierthéâtre.)
Toy Theatre in the United States
The United States has witnessed a strong revival of toy theatre since the 1990s by puppeteers exploring traditional popular theatre techniques. Janie Geiser was in the vanguard of this rediscovery. Gigi Sandberg, an ardent Mississippi-based collector, practitioner and promoter of toy theatre, created a website with her husband Glen Sandberg which documented a great body of toy theatre practice through 2006. Bob Burns was an early devotee of toy theatre in the Pacific Northwest and started a Toy Theater Guild as part of the Puppeteers of America. Fritz Kannik continues to maintain his Kannik’s Korner website, email group, and sales of historic toy theatres and prints. Great Small Works, in its quest for accessible and direct forms for telling contemporary stories, discovered toy theatre for a series of news-based shows responding to the U.S. war in Iraq. That discovery blossomed into the creation of many original toy theatre works, as well as Great Small Works’ International Toy Theater Festival and Temporary Toy Theater Museum, which has seen ten incarnations between 1993 and 2013. Many contemporary U.S. puppeteers have embraced the form – Paul Zaloom, Michael and Valerie Nelson, Michael Sommers, Gretchen Van Lente, Liz Joyce, Judith O’Hare, Torry Bend, Yulya Dukhovny, Animal Cracker Conspiracy, Clare Dolan, to name a few – and have shared toy theatre in workshops with students of all ages and backgrounds.
Toy theatre has proven to be a valuable storytelling technique – easily taught in school and community settings, and providing immediacy to new voices which need to be heard. It also offers possibilities for intricate and elaborate stage design, over-the-top acting, detailed narrative, and theatrical effects without the need for a million-dollar budget! Grand tales with simple means.
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- Bell, John. A Short Entertaining History of Toy Theater. Cambridge: Great Small Works, 2008.
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- Stevenson, Robert Louis. “A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured.” The Magazine of Art. Vol. 7. London: Cassell, 1884, pp. 227-232.
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- Wilson, Albert Edward, and Charles B. Cochran. Penny Plain, Twopence Coloured. A History of the Juvenile Drama. London: G. Harrap & Co., 1932.