The Old Puppet vs Lalka Nova

First edition (without footnotes and without illustrations): Lalka stara – lalka nova/The Old Puppet vs Lalka Nova, in: IMPULSY. MAPOWANIE NOWEGO TEATRU LALEK/IMPULSES. MAPPING THE NEW PUPPET THEATRE, edited by Mirosław Kocur, Akademia Sztuk Teatralnych im. Stanisłąwa Wyspiańskiego w Krakowie, Filia we Wrocławiu, Wydział Lalkarski, Wrocław 2022, pp.52-73.

            My lecture delivered in Wrocław at the „Lalka Nova” conference had no paper version. I limited myself to delivering a couple of reflections which the title of this international symposium evoked in me, a mere look at the contemporary theatre puppets (animants), and to showing and commenting upon some short fragments of puppet theatre performances from the last two decades. Performances which were in my opinion exceptional, prepared by artists whom I value and admire and whose work I have been trying to observe and describe for years. The list was of course too short, due to the limited time of my lecture (even though I had as much as an hour to use!), and because there is no film material from many premieres. Perhaps, for order’s sake, it is worth at the beginning at least listing the names of the artists and the titles of the performances which I took into account in my 40-minutes film (the dates of their premieres are given in brackets):

  1. Neville Tranter (Netherlands) – Schicklgruber alias Adolf Hitler (2003)
  2. Ilka Schönbein (Germany) – The Old Lady and the Beast (2009)
  3. Blind Summit Theatre/Mark Down (Great Britain) – The Table (2011)
  4. National Theatre London/Handspring Puppet Company (RPA) – War Horse (2007)
  5. Hoichi Okamoto (Japan) – Vein (2009)
  6. Frank Soehnle (Germany) – salto lamento (2006)
  7. Duda Paiva (Netherlands) – Bestiaires (2013)
  8. Blick Theatre/Loic Arpad, Johanna Ehlert (France) – Hullu! (2014)
  9. Puppet’s Lab /Veselka Kuncheva/Marieta Golomehova/Stoyan Boychev (Bulgaria) – I, Sizyphus (2013)
  10. Plexus Polaire / Yngvild Aspeli (France/Norway) – Ashes (2014)
  11. Latvian Puppet Theatre, Ryga/Duda Paiva (Latvia/Netherlands) – Golden Horse (2017)
  12. Zero en Conducta / José Antonio Puchades (Putxa) (Spain) – Eh man hé. La mecánika del alma (2018).

However, since the conference materials are going to be published, I shall undertake an attempt at formulating certain theses somewhat more extensively. They are indeed worth some reconsideration. It would be ideal to make a kind of a catalogue of puppets of the 21st century, defining their types, naming the forms which are now present on the puppet stage, and which determine the quality of today’s theatre of animated matter/theatre of animated forms/animation theatre, for this genre, not having precise definition, is something much broader than traditionally understood puppet theatre. The puppet, traditionally defined, dominated for many years. It was modified by the 20th century, but really changed in the last couple of decades. Not that they eliminated them from puppet shows. The puppet is still there and probably will be with us forever.



Exactly: traditional puppet. If today we ask about the new puppet, in a natural way we contrast it with the old form: that is, the old puppet, for centuries filling the stages of puppet theatres in the whole world. Using the term “puppet” for all forms of puppet theatre of the past does not really raise any doubts. The puppet was always present in puppet theatre, it was its only actor. Puppets could mean different techniques: marionettes, glove puppets, rod puppets, stick puppets, shadows; also masks were included into puppetry, and, broadening this circle and broadening the area of our culture, also: handle puppets, animated sculptures, water puppets, bunraku or puppets on carts, mechanical puppets or those animated from a distance, puppets à la planchette, butter puppets and many more, whose names did not become common and perhaps even not all puppeteers know what they are (múa rối nước, karakuri-ningyō, pupi siciliani, wayang golek or wayang kulit, kheimeh shab bazi, kebe kebe, etc.). Each of those puppetry techniques has different varieties, often dozens of them, connected with their construction, the kind of material used, the way they are animated.

Let us have a look at the marionette, the classical puppet on strings or wires. Is not a stage marionette different from a trick marionette, Sicilian marionette, Belgian, Czech or Rajasthani one?… They have only one thing in common: they are all animated from above. But it is as if we called each car a Mercedes. And some of them have threads (from one to almost a hundred), some other – gimp (angler’s thread), strings or wires, one or more, the threads can be short or long, which basically makes those puppets different from one another. Not to mention the crutches, „the marionette’s soul”, whose constructions are endlessly varied. And there are puppets which have no crutches whatsoever. There are also original, sometimes very unique, puppets of particular artists, as for example the “standing marionettes” of Gustaw Dubelowski-Gellhorn, an Austrian artist of the second half of the twentieth century, small and complicated, unlike any other ones.

The same is true about hand puppets, rod puppets, even the simplest stick puppets. The way they are constructed is always connected with a specific culture, country, region, sometimes even with one particular theatre or and independent puppeteer. The same obtains to masks, shadow puppets and actually all kinds of puppets, which are sometimes reduced to the one commonplace, primitive, simplifying denomination: puppets! Out of ignorance, laziness, or common disregard of our discipline, which fills all our professional life.[1]

The oldest Polish name for theatre puppet is łątka. It was first mentioned at the end of the 15th century. We know it was a jester’s puppet, simple, easy to animate, it was meant to entertain. Mikołaj Rej wrote: „to sobie imi kugluje jako łątkami” [„he plays with them as with puppets {łątkas}”], and Jan Kochanowski: „wemkną nas w mieszek, jako czynią łątkom” [“They’ll put us in a sack, as they do with puppets {łątkas}”]. It is hard to say with all certainty what kind of puppet the łątka was. According to the most popular view (after the skomorokh tradition), it was a hand puppet. It seems, however, that it was a puppet on a short stick set into a stand, which the puppeteer held in his hand. This you may conclude from the oldest Polish iconographic testimony – the oil painting by Jan Piotr Norblin Les marionettes polonaises and a drawing by the same author Mar[chan]d de łóncki [łóntki?] ou lalky, where you can very distinctly see the construction of the puppets, the Polish puppets – which Norblin emphasizes in the picture’s title.[2]

Some artists liked to use that name and even today there are some that do. They have been attracted by its Slavonic-like sound, its Polishness, its delicacy, its poetics of a kind – all that although they used completely different techniques. It is enough to mention Marian Dienstl-Dąbrowa, who named his second marionette theatre – the one he founded in Lvov before the Great War – the Warsaw Łątki Theatre[3], or the contemporary artist, Tadeusz Wierzbicki – the inventor of reflected light theatre, who was tempted by łątka exactly as the name for his original puppets.

History of Polish puppetry abounds in periods when someone tried to name all the genre of puppetry with some particular term. Quite often, the terms marionette and theatre of marionettes were used[4], but this could also be jasełka (jasełek) or jasełka theatre[5], or – the most popular term referring to puppetry in 20th century – kukła, kukiełka and kukiełkowy theatre, which have been the bane of puppeteers’ life and a cause of much stress even up to now. It was especially strongly promoted by the pre-war Baj theatre in Warsaw, with Jan Wesołowski as its head. His opponent was Jan Izydor Sztaudynger, a supporter of marionette and marionette theatre as the general term. Finally, the winner was the term lalka, proposed by Jędrzej Cierniak, the head of the pre-war Institute of Folk Theatre, and the editor-in-chief of Teatr Ludowy [“Folk Theatre”] which opened its columns to the puppeteers. Cierniak proposed the term lalka and teatr lalek as the generic name and this name has stayed till our times. Łątka, so promoted by Cierniak and Sztaudynger to mean the marionette, or all kinds of puppets on strings or wires, animated from above, did not really catch.[6] Thus, since the nineteen thirties we have been using the same names, although a whole century has passed since those decisions and puppet theatre has undergone an incredible metamorphosis. 

In the context of lalka nova, which is proposed today, the so-called classic puppeteering techniques are amazingly well. Especially marionettes, hand puppets or shadow puppets. We can encounter them literally everywhere. From the Polish perspective you cannot see it so clearly perhaps. Marionettes, chased away from puppet theatre in the times of social realism, are rare here. They appear in theatre only sporadically, although everyone remembers the brilliant two-times appearance of Marionette Stage of the Warsaw Chamber Orchestra[7], several days of marionette theatre on, specifically built for that purpose, stage in Arlekin Theatre in Łódź, under the artistic management of Waldemar Wolański, or sporadic, yet present, Polish marionette soloists, like for example Krzysztof Falkowski in Lanckrona near Cracow.[8]

Hand puppets had a much livelier career in Poland after the war. There were times when they almost prevailed in Polish puppet theatres. Today you don’t meet them so often, but they have not gone out of use, as opposed to rod puppets, the technique popularized in Central and Eastern Europe by Siergiey Obrazcov, which brought many successes also to Polish puppeteers, and today is almost only a school subject for students in theatre academies. A similar thing has happened to simple stick puppets. You can see a little more life nowadays in the Polish shadow puppets theatre, which has never been a Polish specialty, and also today the results are far from the effects achieved by shadow puppet theatre artists in the world. So, with a little bit of generalization, we can say that classic puppeteering techniques in Poland are indeed in great crisis.

However, when we change the perspective from Polish to international, when we look east (especially Far East), west (nearer and farther), south and north, we will discover that classic puppetry techniques are not only common but also very popular, bringing a lot of satisfaction to the artists and first of all, to the audience. Marionettes, hand puppets and shadows prove the undying attractiveness of puppetry, both in its popular and artistic version. And, who knows if for the majority of spectators, they are not the essence of puppeteer’s work still. In their classic form they are still present on hundreds of puppet stages all around the world, in spaces that are definitely commercial but also in the circle of artists focused on the artistic shape of their performances.

For still it is really hard to take one’s eyes away from the Japanese ningyō-jōruri, the Vietnamese water puppets, Indonesians wayang, Chinese hand puppets, rod puppets or marionettes, the Turkish Karagöz, kebe kebe of Kongo, Sogo Bo of Mali, the Brazilian mamulengo, Sicilian puppets, opera marionettes from Salzburg or Lindau, the Toon Theatre of Brussels.[9] It seems almost incredible that traditional forms, sometimes many centuries old, still exist, still delighting their audience. Moreover, even though they undergo great changes due to the change of the cultural context in which they are present, the change of audience, of artistic taste – still they retain the charm of the old times, of many centuries of tradition.

The other face of world puppetry are all those more commercial, or strongly commercial, varieties of marionette or hand puppet shows. How very often we can see them as accompanying events at great festivals, on streets and yards, or during thousands of local fairs, addressing the ordinary spectator, who seldom visits theatre, but in an open space often focuses his or her attention on puppeteers and their art.  Sometimes they are very high-level! 

The old puppet is then very strongly present in the contemporary theatre world.[10] You can see that even in the central and eastern European repertoire theatre. However, you find it in theatre for young audiences rather than in puppet theatre, because in this part of Europe dramaturgic interests quite strongly move the emphasis of “puppet” plays away from the visual form and the construction of the puppets onto the actor, the word, literary text, the construction of events and the subjects risen in the performance. For over a century, the puppet milieu has been suffering from a shortage of repertoire, although in the last decades (at least in Poland) this has finally been overcome. It is hard to disregard, however, that together with the development of puppet theatre dramaturgy, especially in the last decades, the space of the puppet – as a work of an artist: a craftsman or a scenographer – has been limited. Today, puppet theatre artists almost cannot cope with the many characters filling the new puppet theatre dramaturgy: not personal or animal ones, but first of all with objects, or ones derived from various concepts-characters. How are you supposed to show: scissors, a needle, a comb or a sheet of paper (avoiding literality or a rather silly – even if visually attractive – actor’s costume), not to mention a puddle, a hole in a stocking, Noniek [Noer] (a character who keeps saying “no nie” “No?”), Kaszalot (play of words again, kaszalot meaning a sperm whale, but here a character which sprung up from groats, kasza), bird’s poo, a tram stop etc., not to rub shoulders with banality, infantilism or naivety?



The problem of repertoire appeared among the puppeteers long ago. The artists of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, coming to puppetry from completely different environments: literary, visual arts, theatre, or pedagogy, having previously nothing to do with puppet theatre which mimics or even copies reality, were trying, by the use of puppets on stage, to change theatre art in general. Puppets were often for them a new medium, a creative and entirely artistic one, thanks to which the art of theatre could eventually become a fully theatric theatre, fully created by the artist, just like the space on stage, the decorations, or a new kind of drama.

Alfred Jarry, Maurice Maeterlinck, Pierre Albert-Birot and others write plays for the new theatre, often giving them the comment “for puppet theatre,” more for an imaginary puppet theatre than for a real one, and there were indeed many attempts at staging new drama, also symbolic one. Puppets, masks, and various non-personal forms appearing instead of actors (or side by side with actors) came into new artistic practice in many puppet theatres as well as experimental ones. They were now designed, and also made, not by artisans as of yore, but by visual artists seeking a new language that could express their ideas – why not in theatre? Visual artists, such as Sophie Täuber-Arp, Otto Morach, Fernand Léger, Fortunato Depero, Enrico Prampolini, Pablo Picasso, Alexandra Exter, Kurts Schmidt, the artists from Laboratoire Art et Action, Oscar Schlemmer, Geza Blattner… – this list could be really very long – experimented with puppets in the spirit of new directions in art: symbolism, cubism, formism. Theorical discussions concerning the puppet – a potential actor, or, for some – the ideal actor, discussions unlike any that were ever to follow – were run by Edward Gordon Craig, Vsyevolod Meyerhold, Aleksander Tairov, Vladimir Sokolov, to mention just a few legendary artists.

In a certain sense, the experiences of avant-garde artists of the beginning of 20th century also focus on lalka nova. Anyway, they focus on the new puppet different from the old puppet mentioned above. If I allow myself, in spite of that, to reserve the term lalka nova (in accordance with the idea of the conference in Wrocław) to the experiences which are contemporary to us, thus to the turn of 20th and 21st centuries, it is because I can see the difference in character between the puppeteering practices from the beginning of 20th century and of 21st century.

I have taken the liberty of using the term „old new puppet” in order to emphasise two very distinct aspects of its presence on stage in the 20th century. In the visual shape, it was new, past any doubt: actually, it did not imitate man, which was a distinguishing feature of the old puppet. Even if it was to impersonate a human figure, it was built out of geometric shapes, it was a kind of a composition of various surfaces or forms, as discs, cylinders, cones, making it totally unreal. It was an artistic creation, not a copy of a live person. The other aspect of the presence of the puppet on stage (or of “marionettized” actor) in 20th century theatre is the matter of its partnership on stage. In the first decades, the actor/animator was invisible. And even if the actor appeared on stage, he or she performed in the role of a puppet, not its animator. Their costume made them similar to the created world of objects on stage. In that sense, we stayed in the circle of old puppeteer’s ethics. The puppets themselves were new, they were different, they were like nothing before, but still they were marionettes, hand puppets, flat forms, building a homogenous theatre image, full of poetry, metaphor and absurd.

After WWII, puppeteers used the experiences of modernism much more fully, and developed them. The old new puppet, in a strong and broad stream, entered the most interesting European theatres. It was almost always different, almost always original, it was a revelation, and yet we remained in the world of the so-called classic puppeteering techniques. The open-wirework puppets of Alfred Köhler from Die Klappe – are still marionettes; the puppets of Jan Wilkowski/Adam Kilian – are rod puppets or hand puppets, even their chess figures in Dekameron 8’5 fit into the traditional puppeteer’s arsenal, just like the innovative puppet forms of Margareta Niculescu in the Romanian Tandarica, the flat puppets of Franciszka Themerson in Marionetteatern of Michael Meschke in Stockholm, the puppets of Andrzej Dziedziul, the paper forms of Claude and Colette Monestier, the wooden constructions of František Vitek or Petr Matásek, the long-time partners of Josef Krofta in the Czech theatre Drak, the incredible creations of Jadwiga Mydlarska-Kowal, of Henk Boerwinkel from the Dutch theatre Triangel, the meccano brick constructions of Enrico Baj from Théâtre de l’Arc en Terre of Massimo Schuster, the puppets of Roman Paska from Theatre for the Birds or even the enormous puppets of Peter Schumann from Bread & Puppet Theatre. Such old new puppets still appear in puppet shows. It is enough to mention a couple of Polish examples from the last decade, like Złoty klucz [The Golden Key] by Ośnica from Theatre Banialuka, directed by Janusz Ryl-Krystianowski with puppets by Julia Skuratova/Rafał Budnik, Joanna Gerigk’s Kichot with Czech partners in the Wrocław Puppet Theatre, or Paralele, the theatre-and-film production of Marek Zimakiewicz, created in the time of the pandemic.



The time of lalka nova as understood by the Wrocław conference, begins – in my opinion – in the nineteen nineties. Of course, there were some signs of its coming much earlier, even in the fifties, but only in the last decade of the previous century it become so widely spread, dominating the practice of artists and theatres associated with the most interesting contemporary works in the art of animated form theatre/animation theatre, most generally – in puppet theatre. Lalka nova more and more often assumes the name of animant, invented to describe “an absolutely random object, material or non-material (e.g., a shadow) – animated by an artist-animator.” An animant can be any puppeteering technique, “any object, a piece of cloth, even a streak of light, but treated as a character on stage, a partner in dialogue, a vehicle of idea, an esthetic object building a metaphor – something that the actor brings onto stage and shows the audience as the third element of the show. The essence of theatre is the meeting between the actor and the spectator. The essence of puppet theatre is the meeting of three partners: the actor, the spectator and the puppet.”[11]          

It seems that the most important feature of today’s puppetry, filled with various animants, concern the puppet itself and the entirely new relations built between the puppet and its animator. Relations which we did not know or practice before, at least not on such a scale. In the 20th century, the actor-puppeteer usually wasn’t a character on equal footing with the puppet, its partner. He was an animator, a creator of the created world, the world of invented characters created by visual artists, scenographers, or puppeteers. Sometimes he or she remained invisible, sometimes he existed on stage parallel with the puppet. His or her visible presence was basically not the most important thing. What was the most important was the puppet. And if it moved back to the second plan (which often happened), immediately there appeared the voices of outraged spectators, worried critics or militant orthodox puppeteers announcing the imminent end of the epoch of puppet theatre.          

New theatre of animated matter changes those relations completely. The actor appears side by side with the puppets. He can perform different functions. Always, of course, he is responsible for the animation of inanimate forms and he or she does it in an overt way, however sometimes invisible to the audience, because the animation technique can also be hidden. Yet, the actor is, first of all, the puppet’s partner. He plays a character on stage just like the puppet does. And those characters are on equal footing. The human actor does not dominate the theatre space. He or she shows a world in which the human being (himself or herself) and the inanimate object function on the same rights.

It was perfectly shown in the performances of Hoichi Okamoto, a Japanese artist, whose Kiyohime Mandara (1987) opens a new puppet theatre reality.[12] The characters created by the actor’s movement resembling dance, using masks covering his own face and the face of the puppet, performing surprising transformations (sometimes the puppet is Anchin the monk, sometimes – a woman, the artist himself is the mask animator – or, when he shows his face painted white, one of the characters), all that made it difficult to tell the puppeteer from the puppet and from the story without words. The precise, intimate, slowed-down, virtuoso animation, uniting Anchin and Kiyohime, joining their bodies together, permeating each other, evoked a hypnotic effect. Elaborate costumes-textiles which the actor and the puppet were wearing, unexpectedly changed into different ones. The sand-coloured coat of the monk, whose head was covered with a flat straw Buddhist hat, by pulling a couple of hidden strings transformed into the red kimono of Kyohime, whose thick black hair surrounded the head of the puppet. In the performance, Okamoto had several times sported such surprising metamorphoses, realized before the spectator’s very eyes, demonstrating at the same time the power of erotic elation of the intertwined bodies of the lovers. At times it was hard to guess if the actor’s bare legs belonged to the girl, the monk and perhaps both the characters, who were lost in the act of love.

Almost at the same time in Amsterdam, Neville Tranter, the founder of the Stuffed Puppet Theatre, was developing his own theatre language.[13] Tranter decided to use completely different puppets, to a certain extent derived from Jim Henson puppets, but enlarged, legless, with only the body and very mimic faces with enormous mouths and eyes, as well as giant hands, next to which the respectable figure of Tranter-actor himself becomes small. Tranter’s puppets look like caricature, they are grotesque, have expressive colours, sharp make-up and aggressive costumes. All these elements make them stand out on stage; it takes their inanimate shapes out to the first plan.

Neville Tranter is also a master of animation and interpretation. He speaks for all the characters, modulating his voice, changing its timbre and puts himself in such positions in relation to the puppet, that often we cannot see not only the movement of his lips, but also his face. Whereas we can see the face of the puppet and its excellent articulation perfectly. Tranter is a dramatic actor and – just as Hoichi Okamoto has brought into puppet performances his awareness of the body and the technique of butoh dance – Tranter has brought into play his actor’s workshop. His Schicklgruber alias Adolf Hitler, regardless of puppeteer’s virtuosity, is a masterful actors’ creation of more than ten characters. Tranter creates the roles played by the puppets (among others, Hitler, Ewa Braun, Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring), but also their animator, as an actor he is sometimes the servant of the puppet characters or a live butler to Hitler, playing for example the character of Heinz Linge. This multiplicity of roles played by a single artist has since that time become one of the distinctive features of contemporary puppetry, but not many have achieved such mastery in this area.

One cannot but mention here Tadeusz Kantor and his Umarła klasa [Dead Class], which inspired many modern puppeteers. Although Kantor used puppets much earlier, from Śmierć Tintagilesa [The Death of Tintagiles], a performance he created as a student in Cracow before the Second World War, however that performance was still in the old puppet formula.

In the Dead Class he no doubt set a direction which the contemporary puppet theatre was later to follow. He brought the actor and the mannequin, which he called bio-object, to meet each other. Kantor was of course no puppeteer (however he later worked mainly with puppeteers – e.g., during international workshops). His bio-objects were not animated, at the most, they were given some limited kinetic possibilities. Puppeteers went much further, but their starting point were the achievements of Tadeusz Kantor. Hoichi Okamoto or Neville Tranter developed them, possibly not inspired by Kantor at all. Into puppet theatre, they brought new disciplines: dance and actor’s skills. And ever since, many of the most outstanding puppeteers have equipped their animation skills with their perfect knowledge of the workshop of some other artistic disciplines, other arts.           

Nicole Mossoux, also a dancer and a choreographer, in the middle of the nineteen-nineties brought into puppet art a new element: doubleness of character. In Twin houses, the actress used her double, a puppet animant “grown together” with the actress’ body. This new technique, a puppet-double, in which we lose the awareness of which is the live character and which – the inanimate form, immediately spread in the puppeteering environment and it proved a very capacious artistic form. How easy it became, to present the complex human psyche, the complexity of character, the multiplicity of personalities, as well as all the extreme, extra-human situations and fantasies! It is where the brilliant, contemporary German puppeteers’ magazine – “Double” – took its name from. An actor, a puppeteer, a dancer, a circus artist, a visual artist and – a puppet. A clash of two constellation of performing arts. Two, completely different, artistic natures, a man-performer and an animant, will from now on create the new image of the contemporary puppet theatre.

This new theatre, creating lalka nova, has of course extended the resources of the material it uses. It is enough to mention Frank Soehnle[14], Michael Vogel or Duda Paiva[15] and their successors. Various plastic masses used by Soehnle or Vogel, the brilliant sponge made popular by Paiva are just a few examples. Not always the new puppet has to be a new form with respect of technology or construction. Novelties of this type happen rarely.

Among the few, one could name the so-called wrist puppets of Vladimir Zakharov, the tragically deceased Russian artist (he died a couple of years ago), who had indeed invented a new puppeteering technique. Zakharov’s puppet is fastened to your right hand. The index finger and the middle finger animate the puppet’s legs, the thumb – thanks to various handles and pulling rods – controls the movement of the eyeballs, eyelids, lips, even ears, depending on the needs. A wire construction located on the hand and coming out of a wooden shoulder belt carries the puppet’s weight. The movement of the puppet is controlled with the wrist, raising and lowering of which, or tilting it to the left or right, can steer the head and the body. A separate rod, equipped with additional strings allows one to move the puppet’s hand (or both hands, depending on the construction). One can have an impression that a Zakharov’s puppet is steered by a computer. And it is just a combination of wires, strings, threads, or sleeves set on the puppeteer’s hand. A both simple and intricate combination of ordinary materials brings an artistic effect of perfection.

Today’s innovations spring often from new technologies, which are not invented by puppeteers nor made for their needs, although they prove useful also in this area of art. Just like everything that is connected with new media. Just to mention animatronics which – although it has not really found much use in straightforward puppet theatre – has made a career in TV and film. It is also worth mentioning multimedia projections on the actor-puppeteer’s body, which gave fascinating effects, e.g., in the art of the Austrian artists, Klaus Obermaier and Chris Haring or in the first performances by Iris Meinhards, before – together with Michael Krauss – she became absorbed in digital puppetry. And, of course, there are all the varieties of digital puppets, which have not dominated world’s puppet theatre and probably they never will – yet they offer fascinating, new, unlimited possibilities of animation, technology, and interpretation.


Yet, lalka nova is neither a term to describe a new technology, nor new materials, but the way in which the puppet exists on stage. Its partner-like presence in relation to the actor. We can see how boundless artistic imagination can be, how countless the variants of human-object presence on stage, in the shows of Ilka Schönbein[16], for example in her last creation, Voyage chimère[17]. Quite a different variant of this person-and-object mélange is demonstrated by Stoyan Doychev in the Bulgarian performance I, Sisyphus of Veselka Kuncheva and Marieta Golomehova from Puppet’s Lab: an actor’s hand with a cast of human head placed above its elbow, stockings as countless combinations of human bodies, various elements of the performer’s body (knees, feet, hands) transformed into independent characters on stage, with different size masks or heads. Such an arsenal of puppeteer’s means seems to have no end.

And yet, into the category of new puppets, one should also count the animants of Yngvild Aspeli, the creator of Plexus Polaire, making a big career nowadays.[18] One could think that she uses puppet constructions which are well known, humanoid or animal-like, but playing with their sizes, the rich range of ways to animate them, totally external to the actor, or combining their body with the animant, and first of all, endowing it with the function of characters on stage, the actors’ partners, she sets for the new puppet her own artistic way. The two-metre-tall Ahab from Moby Dick evokes on a large stage an effect which is on a much smaller scale made by Neville Tranter: the puppet prevails over the animator. This domination can manifest in many different ways, like for example in Eh Man he. The Mechanics of the Soul of the Spanish group Zero en Conducta, where we have one man-like puppet and five actors-dancers.[19] But it is the puppet that becomes the genius instrument endowed with life which not only isn’t inferior to real life, but it surpasses it by far. Here we encounter the fulfillment of the view so frequently emphasized by puppeteers: that the puppet can do more.

Finally, it is worth mentioning yet another form: giant puppets. Again, it is an old tradition, still living in many countries of the world, where parades of giants accompany many secular festivities. It has found its place also in puppet theatre, just to mention Peter Schumann’s Bread & Puppet Theatre. Yet, in the epoch of lalka nova also the giant puppet has gained a new form, more often in an open space than in a closed window of the stage, however we can meet it also on stage, e.g., the many-metres tall King Kong from the Broadway production of several years ago, animated by animators and complicated computer programs. Some fascinating giant puppets we can encounter today in the performances of a large number of theatre groups or in single projects. Almost always they are manipulated by live animators, assisted by modern digital technology: it is enough to recall the famous French group Royal de Luxe, however it is only one of the groups using this convention.

Speaking about new puppets, more and more often we use the term: hybrid puppets. And although they do not fill up the rich repertoire of the means of the contemporary puppet theatre, they point to its maybe the most important feature. Hybrid puppets have no existence of their own, basically you cannot show them on a theatre puppet exhibition. They create the character together with the actor. This is the way with most of Hoichi Okamoto’s puppets, as well as those of Ilka Schönbein, Duda Paiva, Belova-Iacobelli company as well as many contemporary artists-puppeteers. But lalka nova can also exist by itself, as it is with Yngvild Aspeli or Natalia Sakowicz in Romance. And it does not affect our opinion that we are speaking about an entirely new theatre of the last decades.


Photos by: Krzysztof Jarczewski, Bernhard Fuchs, Marinette Delanné, Christophe Raynaud de Lage and Marek Waszkiel’s archive.



[1] The only text on Polish puppetry terminology, which does not explain many issues, was published by Henryk Jurkowski, Łątki, osóbki, jasełka. Z dziejów nazewnictwa polskiej lalki teatralnej, „Pamiętnik Teatralny” No. 1-2, 1987. [2] See Marek Waszkiel, Teatr lalek w dawnej Polsce, Fundacja Akademii Teatralnej im. A. Zelwerowicza, Akademia Teatralna im. A. Zelwerowicza, Warszawa 2018, pp. 23-27, 44-46. [3] Ibidem, pp. 209-210. [4] See the first Polish book on international puppetry: Jan I. Sztaudynger Marionetki, Książnica Atlas, Lwów-Warszawa 1938. [5] Under this title, in the mid-nineteenth century, a huge article was published in Polish translation about the history of English puppets, including Punch, from the fourteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, cf. Jasełka w Anglii (Nativity play in England), „Dzwon Literacki”. Collective letter. Section II, volume II, 1853, pp. 285-326. [6] For more on the interwar discussion on puppetry terminology, see Henryk Jurkowski, Teatr “Baj” i jego epoka („Baj” Theater and its epoch), in: W kręgu warszawskiego “Baja” (In the circle of Warsaw’s „Baj”). Elaborated and collected by H. Jurkowski, PIW, Warsaw 1978, pp. 55-56. [7] It was managed twice by Lesław Piecka, an actor-puppeteer, director, long-term teacher of the Department of Puppetry Art in Białystok, first in 1979-1991, then in 2014-2016. see[8] See[9] It may be worth recalling here and referring those interested to: Encyclopédie mondiale des arts de la marionnette. Rédacteurs en chef: Henryk Jurkowski, puis Thieri Foulc, UNIMA, éditions l’Entretemps, Montpellier 2009, for several years having a trilingual (French, English, Spanish), corrected and supplemented online version at:[10] See Henryk Jurkowski, Aktor i jego nieożywiony sobowtór (Actor and his inanimate lookalike. Puppets in the world of actors), „Didaskalia” 2001, No. 43/44, pp. 65-74. [11] Halina Waszkiel, Dramaturgia polskiego teatru lalek (Dramaturgy of the Polish Puppet Theatre). Akademia Teatralna im. Aleksandra Zelwerowicza, Warszawa 2013, p. 10. [12] More on the work of Hoichi Okamoto see: Marek Waszkiel, Lalkarze świata/Puppeteers of the World: Hoichi Okamoto, „Teatr Lalek” 2021, No. 2-3 (144-145), pp. 46-51 (Polish version), pp. 52-57 (English version); online English version see:[13] More on the work of Neville Tranter see: Marek Waszkiel, Lalkarze świata/Puppeteers of the World: Neville Tranter, „Teatr Lalek” 2023, No. 1, pp. 46-51 (Polish version), pp. 52-57 (English version); online English version see:[14] For more on his work, see: Marek Waszkiel, Lalkarze świata/Puppeteers of the World: Frank Soehnle, „Teatr Lalek” 2020, no. 4 (142), pp. 21-26 (Polish version), pp. 27-32 (English version); online English version see:[15] More on Paiva’s work see: Marek Waszkiel, Lalkarze świata/Puppeteers of the World: Duda Paiva, „Teatr Lalek” 2021, No. 1 (143), pp. 2-6 (Polish version), pp. 7-12 (English version); online English version see:[16] See [17] See[18] More on Aspeli’s work see[19] See

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