Puppeteer: Craftsman, Actor or Creator?

Przedruk z: Marek Waszkiel, Puppeteer: Craftsman, Actor or Creator? in: PUPPETRY IN THE 21ST CENTURY: REFLECTIONS AND CHALLENGES. Edited by Marzenna Wiśniewska and Karol Suszczyński, The Aleksander Zelwerowicz National Academy of Dramatic Art in Warsaw, Branch Campus In Bialystok, Puppet Theatre Art Department, Białystok 2019, pp. 13-16.


Reflection in every academic discipline is, from a certain moment, limited by its terminology. [1] The vocabulary that was used so far turns out to be insufficient. Generally speaking it does not correspond to the phenomena which we find in practice. The old terminology hinders communication concerning contemporary phenomena. And this is also a problem for modern puppetry which has been evolving rapidly over recent decades. The old terminology is not adequate. It is difficult to use terms such as ‘hand puppet’, ‘stick puppet’ or ‘rod puppet’ because such techniques are rarely found nowadays outside puppetry schools and sparse traditional performances. The term ‘puppet’ has become less precise. Words such as ‘object’, ‘thing’ or ‘form’ are not precise enough due to their ambiguity and broad meaning. Perhaps we will use the term ‘animant’, the increasingly popular in Poland, a word logically derived from the root-word of puppetry, i.e. inanimate animation. Since we have the word animation in the sense of ‘bringing to life’ and animator, the person who brings to life, then it may be that we should also have ‘animant’, designating the object of animation in the theatrical language and practice.[2]

            It is true that – especially in Central Europe – the word ‘puppeteer’ is used more and more often with reference to the past. And from a certain perspective it may describe a historical phenomenon that vanished at the turn of 21st century. This phenomenon was called puppet theatre, with the puppet as its essence. Nevertheless, these words are and will long continue to be used because, on the one hand, the process of parting with such language is slow, hindered by social consciousness[3], and on the other we still have problems with new terminology. This process is quite natural. But terms such as ‘puppet’ and ‘puppet theatre’ are undoubtedly insufficient to describe the contemporary theatre. We live in the sui generis presence of ‘animants’ which go far beyond the meaning of the word ‘puppet’. The puppet and puppet theatre in the traditional meaning are at best placed in the niche of contemporary world of theatrical performances.

            This problem becomes obvious in education. When we teach  young students we need to know not only what but also whom we are teaching. Nowadays in Poland the term ‘theatre of form’ is overused, which leads to a total blurring of boundaries not only in puppet theatre but in art overall. The ‘form’ has becomes a key word used everywhere and opening all doors, so it can no longer be used as the organizing term. What is more we have historically equated the puppet theatre with theatre for children, an equation which has become a fundamental problem. At the moment we are fiercely trying to disrupt this equation. Unfortunately puppeteers, who are not dynamic and creative enough, lose in the process. Polish ‘puppetry’ is dominated by young audiences’ theatre without puppets, which as a genre was previously replaced by the puppet theatre. Now this style or genre is coming back with almost revolutionary force and it seems strange that some theatres still have the word ‘puppet’ as part of their name.

            I would like to look at the basic meanings of the term ‘puppeteer’, especially its older and contemporary contexts, without attempting to organize the entire lexicon of the puppet theatre.

            In the distant and more recent past, encompassing the whole tradition of travelling and often family theatre, the puppeteer was chiefly a craftsman. He did his job in order to earn his living. He always needed partners to keep his enterprise going, but at the same time he was a jack of all trades. He sometimes even made his own puppets, he definitely fixed and maintained them, he wrote of the scripts for his own performances, invented new plays, animated and interpreted the characters, took care of the music and scenography and when needed sold tickets, as he brought his theatre to a different place each time. He lived in the theatre and made a living there. In some sense the great contemporary puppeteers continue this tradition. Because we may say without fear of contradiction that such people as Neville Tranter, Frank Soehnle or Roman Paska are puppeteers. Some puppeteers were or still are just craftsmen, while others happened to be artists, even great artists, as it happens in all art forms. But you cannot be a puppeteer without being a craftsman.

            The rise of the puppet theatre for children at the end of 19th century and its popularisation in the 20th brought many amateurs into this business. They sometimes had a very good position in society but in fact brought about divisions in specializations, not in the sense of techniques (using marionettes or hand puppets) but rather theatrical skills. Especially when at the turn of 19th and 20th centuries, some artistic circles to some extent influenced by the Great Reform of the Theatre, became more interested in puppetry. The puppet theatre became a model of the pure theatre, where the roles were also divided – there was a director, stage designer, choreographer, animator or puppeteer, and actor who delivered text. These developing specializations became full-blown in post-war Eastern Europe. The model for this was set by the Obraztsov theatre, derived from dramatic theatre, with visibly separate puppetry tasks, especially those of director, stage designer (sometimes technolog) and puppet actor. Yes: puppet actor. The term was first used when they decided to get rid of the screen behind which puppeteers were hiding. When actors became visible, they automatically took over some acting functions, so the term puppet actor seemed appropiate. The new term became popular with the development of puppetry education. Despite its prestigious connotations, it referred simply to the common, ordinary puppetry situation. In fact, all puppetry schools, starting from the 1950s and continuing for the next 25 years were attached to dramatic schools so some level of interactions was inevitable. And the prestige of dramatic acting was unquestionable, because the actor is the essence of the theatre, including puppet theatre! Today this connection is officially confirmed by the diploma awarded in Poland to students of puppeteer studies, who then they liaise with actors’ agencies and look for work. Also in puppet theatres.

            As a result we lack comprehensive education for puppeteers, even those with very specialized skills. We haven’t had proper puppeteers-craftsmen for many decades because their natural development was stopped by the nationalisation of theatres shortly after World War II. We have actors with diplomas who are ready for all (or very nearly all) challenges. They can be hired as journeymen, the way we hire a plumber or painter. They can and in fact do work in puppet theatres or at least in the theatres which are given that designation. But are they able to  c r e a t e  a contemporary puppet theatre, when we have practically no vocabulary for such a thing?

            In our part of Europe we are still in a transitional period. We still have the network of the socialist puppet theatres with all their virtues, and we are slowly developing independent theatres, similar to those in all Western European countries. But this individual and independent phenomenon  has to be regenerated after fifty years of forced collectivism. We are torn. And so is our education. We focus on craftsmanship and specializations but we try to teach students how to be a creator, an artist engaged first and foremost in fulfilling his or her ambitions. As a result, theatres accept mainly those students who believe that they have mastered their job. Private institutions are created by those who do not want to follow a manager’s or director’s orders and are ready to create and look for inspiration on their own. Institutional actors don’t enjoy such freedom. They don’t have any influence on the repertoire, visiting artists, their instruments or even the selection of their closest partners.

            Both parties are mostly interested in displaying their acting skills. They use puppets because they have to and sometimes because of a real need. But this need is not grounded in the consciousness of being a puppeteer, the consciousness of the puppet. Puppets are simply useful in certain situations. That is why we have so few puppets in puppet theatres and even fewer puppeteers. And that is why in puppet acting schools so little time is devoted to puppets and, especially, to their modern forms, and even less to animants (despite the fact that traditional puppet techniques are the part of the school syllabus). We live in a time of changes and we can see them on an everyday basis. The aim is quite clear but the road ahead is long and winding. The ideal puppeteer should combine the skills of craftsman, actor and creator. In certain situations those skills can be partially or entirely the same but they should coexist as complementary most of the time. Let’s hope that we can achieve this ideal.

[1] The first publication of the text was in:  (2016) Teatr Lalek, 3-4 (125-126).

[2] The term was introduced by Halina Waszkiel and then fully discussed in: (2013) Dramaturgia polskiego teatru lalek, Warszawa: Akademia Teatralna im. Zelwerowicza, p. 10.

[3] Let me remind you that in Poland we still have the tradition of  referring to puppet theatre as a ‘stick puppet theatre’ evoking a form mainly aimed for children which vanished at least fifty years ago.

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