What Turns Us On?

Reprinted from: TEATR LALEK 2024, No. 1, pp. 28-31.


Tradition, including puppet tradition, can be analyzed in different ways. Two perspectives seem to be dominant. On one hand – the archaeological one, on the other – the one we would call historical. The former refers to phenomena, techniques, conventions that have passed and although we still remember them, sometimes recall them, but in reality they no longer exist, or at least they are not part of the arsenal of means used in contemporary puppetry today. The historical perspective allows to observe tradition in its continuous development, constant transformation, modification and ongoing changes, without affecting phenomenon’s essence.

The viability of puppet tradition varies in different European countries. It is relatively easy to determine whether forms created one hundred, two hundred or even five hundred years earlier have survived and are still used.

If we consider, for example, that traditional Polish puppet form is szopka, we must admit with regret that this genre is basically dead. Those interested must go to ethnographic museums or puppet museums to admire old creators’ masterpieces. Some of them luckily survived. Szopka itself, however, has basically been non-existent for several decades. Single ensembles that cultivate family or local traditions have survived to this day. Yet, traditional szopka, extremely popular for centuries, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries even initiated a new puppet genre – satirical szopka represented by dozens of political performances that achieved incredible success in the past and shaped biographies of many Polish puppeteers. There are no satirical szopkas anymore, although it might seem that modern times favor this artistic form in various versions – in theatre or television (to mention famous Polskie Zoo [Polish Zoo] from the 1990s). Szopka and its variants as theatrical performances is a thing of the past. (Only ethnographic and exhibition form of this genre is developing, thanks to szopka contest organized in Krakow, which has been organized continuously for almost ninety years, and this form, called krakowskie szopkarstwo [Krakow szopkas], was added to the UNESCO world list of intangible heritage of humanity a few years ago).

The same applies to one of the classic puppet techniques – stick puppet, which is mounted on a stick or a stand, manipulated from below, from under a screen, with puppet’s arms and legs hanging limply. In Poland, it was known as łątka from the 15th century, but it was also known in other countries, in Germany, France, not to mention the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Many of us still remember dozens of wonderful stick puppet performances. Stick puppet, mainly thanks to Baj Theatre in Warsaw, which will soon celebrate its centenary, has shaped whole style of Polish children’s theatre. This is the past. This style has not been around for at least half a century. There is no stick puppet either. Stick puppet disappeared. Only students of puppet schools learn about it as part of learning course concerning various classic puppet techniques.

And rod puppet, a puppet placed on manipulator’s hand with two wires/rods for manipulating puppet’s hands held in puppeteer’s other hand? In Europe, it seems to have shared stick puppet’s fate. We do not see this technique today, and if we do, it happens only sporadically. Its origins go back to Indonesian wayang golek (where it is still alive). It was brought to Europe a hundred years ago by Richard Teschner and Sergei Obraztsov ensured its great career.

Both of these classic techniques, stick and rod puppet, are associated with the so-called downward manipulation technique. Perhaps final rejection of the screen by puppeteers in the 1980s made both of these techniques disappear.

Therefore, like Polish szopka, also some so-called classic puppet techniques can now only be seen in puppet museums and a certain European puppet tradition has ceased to exist. We can only analyze it from an archaeological and museum perspective.

On the other hand, when thinking about European puppet tradition, one can adopt a historical perspective and observe various puppet forms in their constant development. This applies primarily to three other classic European puppet techniques: shadow puppets, hand puppets and marionettes. Of course, it must be clearly noted that the fact that they belong to classic European puppet techniques does not mean that they have a European origin. Let us dwell a moment longer on marionette, a puppet suspended on wires or threads, which is undoubtedly the queen of classic puppetry and a symbol of puppet tradition.

We still encounter marionettes almost everywhere. Almost, because in Poland, for example, it is not obvious. In popular language, puppet theatre is called teatr kukiełkowy [stick puppet theatre], after stick puppet, a simple puppet on a stick, popularized by szopka and Warsaw’s Baj, which was most popular in the decades of the 20th century, when puppet theatre first broke into broad social awareness. Marionettes were, of course, known, but that was rather due to influence of Czech and Western European culture. In addition, the communist system prohibited use of marionettes as a form of ridicule or caricature of socialist people. Marionette theatres were closed in 1950s and this technique never regained its rightful importance in Poland, despite many and sometimes very successful attempts, including two revivals of Puppet Stage of Warsaw Chamber Opera under the direction of Lesław Piecka, or many successful seasons of marionette stage in Arlekin Theatre in Łódź under the direction of Waldemar Wolański.

Meanwhile, for the average European, marionette is synonymous with puppet theatre. This is the most perfect and most popular type of puppet. Certain types of marionettes have been preserved almost in their original forms throughout Europe. Suffice it to recall marionettes of Brussels Toons, Sicilian puppies, Belgian puppets from Liége, the Picardy ones from Amiens, the Italian ones from Luppi and Colla, and yet Czech Speibl and Hurvinek have over a hundred years of tradition, just like Austrian Salzburger Marionettentheater and many, many others. One could say it is a living tradition!

Of course, even these traditional theatres do not perform with old puppets. I do not think we have a chance to see puppets that are one or two hundred years old on European stages today. Puppets of Anton Aicher, creator of Salzburger Marionettentheater in 1913, are fundamentally different from puppets that this theatre – still operating – uses today. But… they are still marionettes. Other creators, such as Bernhard Leismüller in German Lindauer Marionettenoper have been running an opera puppet scene for several decades according to best 18th-century models of Joseph Pauersbach and Joseph Haydn. When we go out to the streets of Charleville-Mézières during puppet festival, we meet dozens of sometimes excellent solo puppeteers from various European countries. So, puppet tradition lives on! Both on the streets as centuries ago and in elite theatre halls across the continent.

But the point is that these traditional puppet techniques do not define modern puppetry. Fortunately, they still exist. Therefore, also in Europe, not only in Japan, China, Indonesia, India, and African countries, we can encounter a living tradition, especially marionette and hand puppet tradition. But contemporary puppet theatre develops differently. I think it has been around the turn of 80s and 90s of the 20th century that puppetry took a different path and it is now a way of partnership between a living actor/dancer/visual artist/circus performer and… a puppet.

It seems that most important features of contemporary puppetry, filled with various animants, concern the puppet itself and completely new relationships built between the puppet and its manipulator. Relationships that we did not know or practice before, at least on this scale. In the 20th century, an actor-puppeteer was not an equal figure or a partner to the puppet. He/she was a manipulator, a master of a created world, a world of imaginary characters created by visual artists, set designers and puppeteers. Sometimes manipulator remained invisible, sometimes he/she existed on stage alongside puppet. It is enough to recall performances of great artists of the second half of the 20th century, including Henk Boerwinkel, Erick Bass, Roman Paska, Massimo Schuster, to name just a few of the galaxy of puppet masters. Their visible or invisible presence was not really the most important thing. The most important thing was the puppet. And if it faded into the background (which often happened, especially in performances by institutional theatres), the voices of offended  spectators, concerned critics or militant orthodox puppeteers announced the approaching end of era of puppet theatre.

The new theatre of living matter completely changes these relationships. The actor appears next to puppet. It can perform various functions. Of course, actor is always responsible for manipulating inanimate forms and does it in an open way, which sometimes  can be invisible to the audience, because the manipulation technique itself may be hidden. But the actor is, above all, puppet’s partner, animant’s partner. He/she plays a stage character just like a puppet. And they are equivalent characters. A human actor does not dominate theatre space. He/she presents a world in which a human being – that is him/herself –  and an inanimate object function under the same laws.

Contemporary artists, the most outstanding ones (e.g. Neville Tranter, Hoichi Okamoto, Frank Soehnle, Nicole Mossoux, Ilka Schönbein, Duda Paiva, Michael Vogel, Yngvild Aspeli, Elise Vigneron) often look for their own, original means of expression. Also new animants, the ones completely different than traditional forms. But even those who draw on historical puppet techniques look for and find modern transformations for them. Let us take the example of Frank Soehnle, a student of Albrecht Roser. Soehnle’s puppets are fundamentally different from those of his master. So is Soehnle a traditional puppeteer? No, he is not, although – one can say that it was traditional puppetry that shaped him. Or perhaps rather inspired him!

I think that contemporary artists (of course I have in mind the most outstanding creators, contemporary masters, and we have many of them) draw from  European puppet tradition in two ways:

  1. Some continue tradition, let us say directly, aiming at virtuosity of the art of manipulation, such as Jordi Bertran, Bruno Leone, Gaspare Nasuto, Bernhard Leismüller, Janos Palyi, Bence Sarkadi, puppeteers from Salzburg or Spejbl and Hurvinek Divadlo and many, many others. They introduce dozens of changes to the construction of puppets, use new materials, build dramaturgy of performances differently, and yet they fit into puppet conventions and styles developed over the centuries. And they delight with their puppet mastery.
  2. Others are inspired by tradition and draw from it, but they look for their own individual means of expression. In recent decades, they have been exploring borderlands of arts, combining puppetry with other disciplines, such as dance, circus, visual arts and new media. And this puppet theatre fascinates us most. A new puppet theatre, completely different from the traditional one, for which we still cannot find a name. This is the theatre of Duda Paiva, Ilka Schönbein and Yngvild Aspeli, although the list of contemporary masters can be extended.

After all, European puppet traditions are the basis of every puppet activity. Without ancient mechanisms of Heron of Alexandria, Philo of Byzantium, or the automata of Jacques Vaucanson and Jacquet-Droz, there would be no today’s numerical puppets; without puppets depicted in the 14th-century Flemish engravings by Jehan de Grise, there would be no contemporary puppet virtuosos; without hundreds of puppeteers from the past, there would be no Josef Skupa, John Wright, Albrecht Roser and dozens of their heirs. A distinguishing feature of European artists is the pursuit of originality. But it is always based on knowledge of tradition. It is not always necessary to learn it, it is simply in us, it is an element of our culture.

So – what turns us on? Masters and tradition? Or perhaps a kind of opposition to masters, a kind of artistic rebellion and the dream of uniqueness, originality and otherness, which sometimes lead us to avant-garde ideas and solutions that are difficult to accept, and other times gain almost immediate recognition and admiration? When starting to create a theatrical work, we usually look for various inspirations: literary, artistic, sound. We test new materials and technologies, we are inspired by the world of spectacles widely available today, with which we sometimes enter into dialogue. But we are never guaranteed success. That is why the art of theatre is so fascinating. It is a constant field of experiment and, at the same time, an undying hope that on the other side of the theatre ramp we will find a sensitive audience who wants to meet us.

Contemporary puppetry is incredibly diverse. We cannot define it clearly. We move between terms: theatre of animation, theatre of live matter, theatre of animated forms; many use the misleading phrase theatre of form and as a result we return to the old puppet theatre, although it no longer exists in its classic form (screen). However, the name “puppet theatre” possesses a constitutional element to it: it is a puppet. Without its subjective presence, we are not dealing with a separate genre of theatre art. Hence, in recent decades, new terms for  theatre puppet itself have appeared: animant, hybrid, double, avatar. Once again, we take inspiration from arts that have richer roots, e.g. visual arts, hence collage forms, assemblages, varieties of bio-objects, animated sculptures, recovered objects… I recently proposed term animance to refer to the alliance of a dancer with a puppet, a genre that has been developing interestingly in recent years, but I am aware that this is only a tedious search to precisely define subject of our interests, research, studies and broad practice.

Because modern puppetry exists! This may not be very clearly visible in the perspective of institutional practices of puppet theatres (which are rather theatres of young audiences), and many independent groups that sometimes refer to all kinds of animants, but it is not the art of puppetry that is their primary goal, not the contemporary partnership of actor/performer and puppets attract their attention. This does not mean that such theatre does not exist. Just visit one of the European puppet festivals to experience richness of this genre. We have to look for puppeteers a bit. And this is also an element of European tradition. In the past we had plebeian, hieratic, aristocratic, artistic puppetry, but it was perhaps never universal as it happened in the socialist era. And let us hope it never happens again, although  longing for millions of spectators is still in the minds of many directors of post-Soviet theatres.


The article is an extended version of the text delivered in November 2023 in Prague (Czech Republic) during “European Puppetry” international conference.

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    Marek Waszkiel

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