Training in the arts of puppetry is nowadays provided mainly by institutions of higher education. This is a relatively recent phenomenon, which has not yet affected, or has affected in a very different way, the purely traditional forms. For several centuries (to speak only of the known and reported history of puppets), knowledge relating to the staging, the manipulation and the making of puppets was transmitted by troupes, often reduced to a single-family cell. With the gradual disappearance of popular and folk puppetry, set in motion at the end of the 19th century in Europe, and the movement towards theatre-based productions, the notion of puppetry as a specific career option began to arise, as did, consequently, the professionalization of the puppeteer. This resulted in a period of reflection concerning the training and methods of transmission of knowledge. It was in Central and Eastern Europe that the first schools were dedicated to this art form, specifically in 1952 with the opening of the puppet department of the Faculty of Theatre in the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (DAMU – Divadelní fakulta Akademie múzických umění, formerly AMU). This can be explained by several factors, not purely aesthetic but also economic and social. In fact, benefiting from being held in genuinely high esteem under socialist regimes, the arts of puppetry were largely encouraged by the creation of permanent theatres and education centres. Over sixty years have passed, and today there are numerous training institutions (schools, or specialized university courses) in Europe that ensure the initial higher education of future puppeteers.
Higher Education Training
The establishments that teach puppetry all attempt, in their own way, to respond to the same question: what type of puppeteer do we wish to create? In this, no training structure can isolate itself from its professional and artistic context. Generally speaking, the European schools, whilst having different approaches regarding their respective curricula, tend these days to recruit based on the performance skills of the applicants. Thus, it is nowadays said that it is the training of an actor-puppeteer, of which the fundamental lessons (stage presence, body, voice, manipulation, construction) are, once acquired, indispensable tools to freedom of expression on the stage. In parallel to this, the evolution of contemporary art forms, which has opened up new perspectives concerning theatre, often solicits the use of puppetry arts. The opportunities are more numerous for the “alternative” actor, whose training permits him a more global understanding of the stage space, and who can prolong the audience’s attention using an animated object, material or even the scenography. Acquiring both the technical and professional skills is essential, but the learning process is not reduced to a collection of lectures. Encountering unique artistic universes, the approach to creating, seen from within, under the direction of an artist, allows the students to acquire a method and to find a personal process. This way of teaching, either apprentice-based or under the supervision of a director, is a widely shared practice in Europe and elsewhere. To attempt a valid definition of today’s training in puppetry, one could say that its main objective is to prepare future professionals for live performance, specialized in the interpretation and the production of forms specific to puppetry, acquiring an inventive capacity that enables them to master new writing for the stage.
The notion of a school in the domain of the arts is based on a certain conception of teaching: the professional training of the students takes place in an establishment that is a place for living, working and for new encounters all at the same time, a place where the constant questioning of the meaning of the training is essential. This questioning the teachers should respond to by rationalizing the learning process in relation to the final objective. It is high time for the point to be made regarding their pedagogic methods. In the art of puppetry, few teachers have taken the time to bear witness to their reflections and practices. This modesty however should not hide the generally successful outcome of a training that is actually innovative. But it is nevertheless necessary to continue interrogating its capacity for evolution and adaptation for new generations of students, to keep pace with contemporary theatre creation which is itself in movement.
Preparing to Leave School
Finding professional work after leaving school is not always simple. The period of training, when experiment, research and error have been permitted, represents a kind of protective cocoon, not always easy to escape. The students must be prepared. The first contact with this world is given to them by lessons in administration, communication and introductions to various networks. These are constantly supplemented by the students’ contact with different visiting lecturers and artists, often already engaged in professional life. Nowadays the training institutions are trying more and more to encourage the practice of experience gained within professional companies, during their programme of training or just after its completion. The importance of this kind of apprenticeship is indispensible for students still sheltered from the reality of their chosen profession. Exchanges between higher schools of puppetry and other artistic domains, such as cinema, dance, art and theatre are frequent and are expected to be developed. They allow students to experience other mediums and have proved essential.
The Institut International de la Marionnette (IIM, International Institute of Puppetry) was, on the initiative of Margareta Niculescu, a founding member of the Convention Internationale des Écoles de Marionnettes (CIEM; International Convention of Puppetry Schools), signed in June 1990 at Charleville-Mézières (France) by ten international schools, on the occasion of the first international meeting of these schools. By 2005, six other schools from various countries have since joined this group. The convention’s objectives are to provoke some grounds for reflection on teaching methods, to promote cooperation between schools via teacher and student exchanges, to mobilize and integrate young puppeteers, to encourage cooperation with other schools through exchanges between students and tutors, and to evaluate the enrichment of learning by organizing festivals, debates, seminars and encounters on a national and international scale. Here, the increasing importance of the European dimension must be highlighted, as it already allows, due to an equivalence of standards, a more effective sharing for the students. This mobility will undoubtedly, and increasingly, necessitate a vigilant collaboration between different courses, as well as a sharing of thoughts and practices between the institutions.
With the aim of intensifying exchanges between puppetry and other art forms, and of improving artistic quality and professional rigour, it is important to offer young artists opportunities to research and create. The leading schools offer professional mentoring programmes that allow young graduates to develop their research in line with their teaching programme, thus giving them a coherent progression to follow their initial education. In this respect, the increasing number of festivals that offer opportunities to the projects of young professionals is extremely valuable.
Vocational Training or Continuous Professional Development
Many puppeteers do not follow a specific training. They acquire experience by engaging directly in the creation process, starting their own company or taking part in a production. The lack of practice and systematic work on the fundamental disciplines essential to the puppeteer’s mastering of performance, manipulation or physicality can thus sometimes be perceived. By working alone, they also run the risk of not taking sufficient advantage (both intellectual and material) of contact with other artists. Training in the form of courses, which allow encounters with other artists and acquiring new practices and techniques, is vitally important for the entire profession, for its renewal and development. In addition these courses must be conceived, throughout the process, as laboratories of research, and as spaces for the transmission of learning, which is less and less the case today due to economic factors. These courses are privileged territory not only for meetings with great practitioners, but also between artists. They also encourage fruitful exchanges between the arts of puppetry and other artistic mediums.
It is essential from now on to plan long cycles of training concentrating on the problems and challenges that exist today in puppet theatre. They include the production and the dramaturgy, often underestimated, but other matters, notably the contact with other artistic languages (the fine arts, dance) and other expertise are also essential to the development of the profession. More than ever, training and research should be at the heart of our preoccupations. In an extremely fluid theatrical landscape, puppet theatre must prove its rigour and clarity to guard its specificity and to continue to sow the seeds of contemporary creation. Achieving a forever higher level of knowledge and technique in the service of meaning, facilitating and encouraging research and enabling artistic encounters must constitute the principal bases for the future development of puppeteer training.