Puppets: Art and Amusement

by Suzanne Pemsler and the PUPPET DIVAS

Puppetry is one of the oldest art forms in existence, and is practiced all over the world. The following article is an introduction to the vast and varied world of puppetry. For more information about puppetry, visit our links page.
Richard III, by Paul Vincent Davis

“A puppet must always be more than his live counterpart—simpler, sadder, more wicked, more supple …an essence and an emphasis,” said Bil Baird, master puppeteer.

Puppets, universally appealing, poke fun, chase one another in hilarious synchrony, argue with authority and communicate clearly with and without words. They confront human fears and conflicts, improvise, problem solve and move audiences to new worlds. Puppets accomplish feats no humans dare try; soaring through the air, swimming the ocean, metamorphosing before our eyes. They seem to listen to one another, feel emotion and think.

Yet, puppets of every variety are inanimate objects until brought to life by the skill of the performer. Then, the puppet becomes an actor and creates the illusion of life through gesture, movement, sound and color. A puppet show is a complete theatrical experience. Audiences of all ages delight in sharing this imagined world.

The size and type of puppet is determined by the concept of the show. Are the characters human or abstract? Is the show designed for adults or children, a large or small stage? Is the script farce, fantasy, folktale? Is the content classical, historical, avant-garde?

Professional puppeteers may animate only their bare hands or found objects, but most often manipulate carefully crafted puppets. Puppet materials include fabric, papier mache, celastic, styrofoam, Pariscraft, wood and metal. Puppeteers continually experiment with new designs and wares.

Here are a few of the more popular styles of puppets:

  • Marionettes are jointed, often carved of wood, moved by strings and the weight of gravity from a bar structure. Puppeteers manipulate the stringed figures from a bridge above the stage. Marionettes appear in large theater pieces and opera as well as cabaret and children’s stories.
  • Hand Puppets, designed to cover the hand and forearm, are among the most popular and versatile. Some are simple, crafted from scrap and everyday items. Many are elaborate, boasting meticulously sculpted faces and exquisite costumes. All appear on puppet stages of various sizes and shapes, with backdrops and stage sets, lighting and music. A few puppeteers carry their stages on their backs in informal walk-around shows. Hand puppets are vital tools in education and therapy for children.
  • Rod Puppets, more easily seen from a distance, are bigger than hand puppets. They are held by a center rod through the puppet. Puppeteers manipulate auxiliary rods attached to long, jointed limbs, which allow for expansive gesture. A popular variation is the combination hand and rod puppet.
  • Shadow Puppets, originally from the East, are flat, opaque or colored transparent figures, some intricate, guided by slender rods from behind a carefully backlighted screen. Audiences see the magical effects of fluid movement and distorted silhouettes, which heighten the drama. Shadow shows range from intimate children’s folk tales to mammoth screened accompaniments for symphony orchestras.

Puppeteers do not stint in the preparation necessary to create illusion. Puppet sizes and styles may vary within the same show as long as the performance is “of one piece.” To satisfy perspective, shows often feature the same puppet character in a range of sizes, from tiny to life-sized. To make stage business more effective, puppeteers may also create puppets of the same character in different styles even if the character appears for only a few seconds in its new guise. Each of the additional puppets has the same face and costume as the original. Careful attention to detail helps create the magic.

Whether puppets are articulated by hand, rod, string or wire, audiences are enthralled. Puppets, in the hands of master puppeteers, communicate to us, reach to our souls and transport us to their world.


Clown by Paul Vincent Davis

Peering deep below into the puppet stage, a glove puppet feigned shock and scorn during a Puppetry Festival performance. “Uh-oh,” he yelped, “There’s a HAND inside me! And it’s moving me where I MAY NOT CHOOSE TO GO!” The audience roared with laughter. At last a puppet acknowledged the deserving, hard-working puppeteer!

A professional puppeteer is a Renaissance person; multi-talented, creative, caring …whose livelihood depends on more than the amazing skill of puppet manipulation. Puppeteers combine huge dollops of inspiration, imagination, experimentation and perspiration in the preparation and performance of their shows. Many bring to their work a vast knowledge of literature, history, acting, music, voice, stage and lighting design, and television techniques. Unlike movies and television, no long lists of credits roll at the end of their shows. Puppeteers often work alone, the “Jack” of many, if not all aspects of the trade and, often, masters of all.

Puppeteers research and write scripts, create puppets and costumes, choose music and sounds, design and paint sets and props, choreograph the staging, and much, much more. Scripts must say exactly what is intended … or are rewritten. Each puppet must inform the meaning of the moment or is remade. Puppeteers must be open to new techniques, new materials, new explorations into the world of suspending the audience’s disbelief.

Puppeteers frequently perform for a peer critique after which they tighten and rework shows. Countless unpaid hours go into each new production before it is seen by any audience.

Publicity and booking done, puppeteers must then transport heavy stages, puppets, props, sound and lighting …setting up before and striking down after each show. In preparation for the show– a longshoreman and juggler, in performance– a creative artist and magician. That is the work-life of a puppeteer.

Puppeteers have spunk, generosity of spirit, an infectious joie de vivre and deep commitment to their art. These characteristics enable them to withstand the rigors of their occupation while retaining their sense of childlike wonder.

Puppeteers come from different backgrounds …painting, music, graphics, dance, drama, mime. They have unique visions and personal perceptions of the world of the theater and create their own distinctive styles. Whatever the wellspring of their puppetry, they are in touch with the spirit of their puppet characters and sensitive to their audiences for whom they weave spells and create magic.


George Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare, by Paul Vincent Davis

The oldest? Perhaps …for this beguiling form of storytelling began long before the start of recorded history.

Primitive people animated rocks, branches, bones and roots as three-dimensional representations of animals and humans. Ancient Greek and Egyptian puppeteers manipulated puppets with “Automata” mechanisms. Quicksilver, water, sand and steam changed the centers of gravity of early Chinese figures. India boasted of the “sutradhara,” or “pullers of strings.” Medieval Church services featured the movement of divine images. The Madonna shed tears.

The art of puppetry has a colorful, international past, both sacred and secular. We do not know who was first in a long line of great puppeteers nor puppetry’s exact place of origin. Countries vie for the honor.

Puppets blossomed in many varieties, then cross-pollinated from one part of the globe to another. Shadow puppets moved from East to West. Hand puppets appeared in Spain and France, rod puppets in Germany. Wandering German puppeteers brought puppets to Russia. Puppet knights-in-armor emerged in Sicily. Shakespeare mentioned puppets two dozen times in his plays.

Popular puppet characters spawned heirs who then spoke other languages. Each country placed its own stamp on the indelible characters. Pulcinella, from Commedia del arte, appeared in France as Polichinelle and in Elizabethan England as Punch. Italian Pinocchio followed in the line of succession.

Stock characters, born in the seventeenth century, live to this day in performance in Europe and the United States. Rough and raucous, sometimes violent Punch and Judy shows feature the Doctor, Hangman, Scaramouche, Constable, Officer, Devil, Crocodile, and Baby. The popular Parisian puppet, Guignol shows concern for daily life and brandishes a stick when someone’s rights are threatened. Naples has its own masked, strutting “Little Chicken.”

The eighteenth century found marionettes and puppets housed in permanent theaters in many great European cities. Parodies of opera and drama plus clever comments on current events were featured. Puppeteers, no strangers to adversity, carried their theaters on their backs when the grand performance halls closed. Puppets were and are the most mobile and transportable of all actors.

Throughout history, vivid yet inexpensive puppet performances brought pleasure to young and old in every strata of society. Goethe and George Sand, among many great artists, wrote puppet plays for performance in their salons. In contrast, puppeteers, “passing their hats” in the world of the streets, performed for the joy of it and for courageous religious and political causes. They and their puppets were both praised and persecuted by the authorities, adored by the masses.

Some of the American twentieth-century puppeteers whose genius lighted up the stages were Bill Baird who earned the title of Master Puppeteer, Burr Tillstrom, who created the improvisational television masterpiece: Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Tony Sarg who mounted marionette productions during the depression and created the first Macy’s Day Parade balloons, Ralph Chesse, who was both a famous puppeteer and movie set designer, Remo Bufano, who was a great showman and used giant puppets, Jim Henson who electrified audiences with the Muppets and other remarkable creations, Frank Oz whose contribution to the Muppets and Star Wars is inestimable and who is also a movie director, and Shari Lewis, a phenomenal puppeteer, ventriloquist and author of children’s books. More can be said of the contributions of each of them, as well as their numerous unnamed colleagues.

Puppetry is a living art. Puppet Theaters abound in the New England area. Puppeteers, then as now, devote their prodigious talents to the art. Puppetry is alive and well.

Many tomes have been written on the complexity of puppetry’s past. More will be written on the excellence and challenge of twenty-first century puppetry. The diversity of modern-day performances is staggering. Old traditional tales told from a “conventional” puppet stage are as new as today. At the same time, puppetry has met and conquered the electronic age and invaded every dramatic arena–including theater, movies, opera and television.

Is puppetry the newest profession, as well? Perhaps…. ever changing, creatively reinvented, the art of puppetry continues to evolve. Today’s performances are fresh, modern, avant-garde! On with the show!


Arnott, Peter D: Plays Without People: Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana
University Press, 1964

Baird, Bil: The Art of the Puppet: New York : Bonanza Books, 1973

Hanford, Robert Ten Eyck: The Complete Book of Puppets and Puppeteering:
New York-London: Drake Publishers Inc., 1976

Simmen, Rene: The World of Puppets: London: Elsevier-Phaidon Publishing
Co., 1975

Latshaw, George: The Theatre Student -Puppetry, the Ultimate Disguise:
New York: Richards Rosen Press, Inc., 1978

Suzanne Pemsler
6 Castle Road
Lexington, MA 02420
Telephone: 781-861-1274
FAX: 781-861-0054
e-mail: puppetdivas@verizon.net