Organization created in Prague in 1929, initially under the name of Union Internationale des Marionnettistes (International Union of Puppeteers), with the goal of promoting puppetry arts; it adopted its current name in 1969. The Union Internationale de la Marionnette is a non-governmental organization (NGO) operating in relation to UNESCO since 1960. In 2005, it counted sixty-eight national centres throughout the world with its headquarters centred in Charleville-Mézières (France). By 2012, there were 80 national centres, plus five countries with a representative. This international organization has a long history and, in the beginning of the 20th century was preceded by several organizations for puppeteers, both amateur and professional, especially in Czechoslovakia.

The Founding of UNIMA

The idea of creating an international organization, the first such organization to come out of the theatre world, moved along very quickly and was supported by the most prestigious puppeteers of the period. The Union Internationale des Marionnettistes held its founding congress on the 25th of May 1929, in Prague, in the small performance space of the Říše loutek theatre (Puppet Kingdom, see Umělecké Loutková Scéna Říše Loutek), following the proposal of French journalist and author Paul Jeanne, in the presence of participants from eleven countries. Justin Godart, former Senator, was named Honorary President, Jindřich Veselý, President, and Karel Slanski, General Secretary. The headquarters was established in Prague; the Masaryk Institute furnished the premises and logistical support, and the languages of operation were Czech, German and French. Three further congresses followed, along with a last appearance of puppetry at the Exposition universelle de Paris (Paris World Exposition) in 1937 before the outbreak of World War II. One of UNIMA’s founding principles was defined from the start: rejecting the guild model, the organization should be open not only to puppeteers, but to all those actively interested in puppetry. From the beginning, half the founders came from professions outside of puppetry.

Rebirth after World War II

After the war, it was within a radically new political context that puppetry artists resumed their activities. In Eastern Europe, within the reorganization of the cultural sector by socialist regimes (the creation of permanent theatres and companies provided with adequate technical and financial means), puppet theatre received a privileged place, while in Western democracies private and individual initiatives made new strides. UNIMA considered necessary to re-launch international initiatives and renew contacts between East and West. In March 1957 at Braunschweig, with the help of the city and on the initiative of Harro Siegel, the first Week of the European Puppetry took place. Jan Malík, General Secretary of UNIMA since the last congress before the war (Ljubljana, 1933), participated and convened the 5th Congress. Supported by Czech puppeteers, among them Eric Kolár, this call brought forth a strong response, not just among old founding members, but also from puppeteers around the entire world, as participants included artists from seventeen countries, among which were from the United States, India, Indonesia, Mongolia, North Korea, and Vietnam. The 5th Congress opened subsequently in Prague, in December 1957. The first “présidium de travail” (Work Presidium), elected by a show of hands, was comprised of Meher Rustom Contractor (India), Ch. Genthe (GDR), Joszef Molnar (Hungary), Jan Malík (General Secretary, Czecholsovakia), Margareta Niculescu (Romania), Milka Natcheva (Bulgaria), Hans Richard Purschke (FRG), Jože Pengov (Yugoslavia), Henryk Ryl (Poland), Lenora Shpet (USSR), Jean-Loup Temporal (France). Max Jacob (FRG) was elected President (a position he would serve in until 1968), Jan Malík was re-elected General Secretary (until 1972, when he was named Honorary President), while Sergei Obraztsov and Vittorio Podrecca took the two vice-presidencies. Young artists, elected to positions of responsibility, brought with them a unique dynamism, new ideas and working methods, and the organization reached a turning point.

Following Margareta Niculescu’s proposal, the 6th Congress took place five months later, in May 1958, in Bucharest, within the framework of the first Festival International des Théâtres de Marionnettes (1st International Festival of Puppet Theatres), organized by the Ministry of Culture and UNIMA-Romania. In a new development, in order to respect the political balance and to dissipate a certain amount of distrust within the context of the Cold War, three lists were submitted for elections (Eastern-bloc countries, Western-bloc countries, and neutral countries). A new Presidium was elected, with the headquarters remaining in Prague. Over the course of two weeks, twenty-nine solo artists and professional companies presented their shows in professionally equipped theatres. Coming from thirty-one countries from Europe, North and South America, and Asia, nearly eight hundred puppeteers, journalists, poets, musicians, artists of every genre, participated in the presentations. The practice of linking the congress to a festival, exhibits and lectures, became the custom; training workshops were added later.

The subsequent congresses – Bochum-Braunschweig (1960), Warsaw (following the initiative of Henryk Jurkowski, 1962), Munich (proposed by Ludwig Kraft, 1966) – brought their contribution to the edifice, with each new experience engendering a future evolution. Marionnettes du monde entier (The Puppet Theatre of the Modern World), published in 1965 by Henschel Verlag of Leipzig under the editorial direction of Margareta Niculescu, was the first step of UNIMA’s editorial activity.

Developments in the 1970s and 1980s

The 11th Congress, organized in 1972 in Charleville-Mézières, France, was followed by a decentralization of activities that would, from then on, rely on ideas and initiatives coming from the national centres, major components in a general policy of diversification. After that meeting the congresses would be held every four years, and the Executive Committee would be made up of eighteen members. Henryk Jurkowski succeeded Jan Malík as the General Secretary, and the headquarters of UNIMA was moved to Warsaw. With the goal of improving communication, Unima-informations (UNIMA news), an annual publication in French and English, was launched, and the complete version of the new statutes was printed with Michael Meschke‘s help. First President of the Research Commission, Henryk Jurkovski assembled and published, with the help of the Polish scholar and teacher Marek Waszkiel, the international directory of scholars in puppetry arts. A Publication Commission was also created under the presidency of Deszö Szilágyi, who was the first to express the idea of a World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts. From the 12th Congress, held in Moscow in 1976, diversification continued. With the new development of puppet theatre being practised by an increasing number of artists, the expansion of repertoires, and the appearance of new aesthetic trends, the issue of professional training and education was conferred to a commission (headed by Margareta Niculescu from 1976 to 2000) working in close collaboration with the Institut International de la Marionnette (International Institute of Puppetry), founded in 1980 in Charleville-Mézières (see also Training). A Third-World Commission (“commission du tiers monde”) was also established (headed by Michael Meschke).

With the 13th Congress, held in Washington, DC in 1980, UNIMA left Europe for the first time. This meeting, hosted by UNIMA-USA and headed by Jim Henson, was marked by the participation of nearly one thousand five hundred puppeteers, coming from forty-eight countries – with a marked presence of Latin America. The festival organized on this occasion, directed by Nancy Lohman Staub, revealed artistic worlds that had been until then little known. Thirty-four companies from twenty countries in Europe, Asia, North and South America, Africa and Australia presented their performances, and numerous exhibits were organized as well as training workshops and lectures. Sergei Obraztsov was re-elected President, and Jacques Félix became the General Secretary (until 2000). Finally, the headquarters of the organization was moved to Charleville-Mézières. UNIMA renewed its relationship with UNESCO, obtaining NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) status, and adhering to the principles of international solidarity and cultural diversity.

Developments Since the 1980s to Today

Between the 14th Congress in Dresden in 1984 and the 18th Congress in Magdeburg, Germany, in 2000, where Margareta Niculescu was elected President and Miguel Arreche, General Secretary, many reforms were undertaken: the Council, (composed of delegates of the national centres and ten supplementary councillors) became the only organ with voting rights; connections with growing support were established with the national centres; communication was diversified with the publication of Courrier de l’Unima (UNIMA News; four editions a year in French, English, and Spanish) and of

E pur si muove (2002), the first annual magazine, in French, English and Spanish; the World Puppetry Day was fixed annually as March 21st; new thematic and regional commissions were created. Finally, UNIMA was charged by UNESCO with expertise in relation to the classification of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in regards to puppetry. The following heritage classifications were made: pupi siciliani (Italy, 2001), wayang (Indonesia, 2003) as well as ningyō jōruri- Bunraku (Japan, 2003), followed in 2005, by the Khmer shadow theatre sbek thom as well as the giant pageant dragons of Belgium and France.

The 19th Congress, held in Opatia-Rijeka (Croatia) in 2004, elected Massimo Schuster as President and reconfirmed Miguel Arreche in the post of General Secretary. In the course of these last two terms the Encyclopedia had been given project priority. At the 20th Congress held in Perth, Australia in April 2008, the Assembly elected for the first time in the history of UNIMA two non-Europeans to direct the destiny of the organization: Dadi Pudumjee (India), President, and Jacques Trudeau (Canada), General Secretary. They carried on with the work of the Encyclopedia to its publication in September 2009; the Encylopédie mondiale des arts de la marionnette was published in its French edition by l’Entretemps. In September 2009, the Executive Committee approved a proposal made by the General Secretary to allocate an amount of money to each working commission. This new policy proved fruitful. Over the following three years alone, new grants were created and directories were updated, including directories of UNIMA festivals, scholarly research, and puppetry schools.

In June 2010, the UNIMA Council meeting was held in Dordrecht (the Netherlands). Beginning in 2010, major UNIMA projects included the English and Spanish editions of the Encyclopedia as a web (online) publication (due in 2016 in UNIMA’s three official languages). A new UNIMA website was created in 2014 to provide a dynamic, constantly updated site for the organization.

The 21st Congress was held in Chengdu, China, in May/June 2012, hosted by UNIMA-China. Dadi Pudumjee and Jacques Trudeau were reelected as President and General Secretary, respectively.

In April 2014, the UNIMA Council meeting was held in Varadero (Cuba). The 22nd Congress will be held in Tolosa/San Sebastián (Spain) from 30 May to 3 June 2016. A new executive committee will be elected at that time.

UNIMA is currently present in 99 countries on 5 continents. Its 16 working committees are: Cultural Exchange; Education, Development and Therapy; Heritage Preservation; International Cooperation; International Festivals; Professional Training; Publication and Communication; Research; Statutes; Strategic Development; Women; and five regional commissions: Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America, North America.