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It's Time For Muppet Theater!

From Puppet to Muppet Theater Header

Remember Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy's love affair? How about Fozzie Bear and his joke-telling? There is a resurgence of the Muppets lately (as of December 2011 ) thanks to the recent release of a new Muppet movie aptly titled, “The Muppets.” Kermit, Miss Piggy and all the other Muppet characters are an example of puppetry. Puppetry is the act of giving inanimate objects life-like characteristics. Puppetry can be useful in many ways. It is a great way to help students learn in the classroom. The focus is not on the student so they can relax and utilize their creativity in a dramatic activity. Puppetry allows theaters to bring objects to life on-stage that could not otherwise be used. For example, in the award-winning Broadway play “Warhorse,” the story is told from the perspective of an English farm horse who is actually an amazing puppet.

History of Puppets

1950's Vintage Ventriloquist Dummy Head

Though no one can be 100 percent certain of the actual beginning of puppetry, there are some theories. Puppetry utilizes puppets, which are the objects manipulated by a person or puppeteer. Approximately one thousand years B.C. India was said to be its birthplace. Indian epics such as Maha-Bharata were acted out using stick puppets. The texts were very entertaining with the puppets, and the performances were very lively. Indonesians used wayang puppets in their performances which began with a speech from a holy person. The performances had some seriousness to them. Wayang puppets can be round or flat. The wayang kulit is the flat type of puppet and is created from buffalo leather. Wayang puppets are used behind white screens that have black lights so they appear as shadows to the audience members. Centuries later, bunraku puppets (Japanese puppets that were big and very expensive) were used to replace actors on-stage. Bunraku itself is actually a Japanese puppet theater where the performance is a combination of puppeteers, musicians and narrators. The puppets of this era were very sophisticated and perfect for dramas concerning history and love stories. As many as three men could be assigned to each puppet while being hooded and clothed in all black. They were visible to the audience yet not acknowledged. Puppetry was also popular in Europe where they could be utilized to act out plays focusing on morality issues that would not be appropriate to be acted out by people. In Italy puppetry became very popular in the 18th century particularly for serious plays.

Big Bird star on Hollywood Walk of Fame

Big changes happened to puppets during the 19th century. Pietro Radillo (a Venetian puppeteer) directed an upgrade which involved going from a mere two strings to as many as eight per puppet. This adaptation gave puppeteers more control with the puppets which led to a greater range of movement. This change made puppets more believable. In this century puppets began to separate from actor theaters and became similar to jugglers roaming the streets. Puppeteers were soon competing with music hall theater and vaudeville. Puppetry became very versatile and adaptable, and found its way to places such as seaside resorts. Fast-forward to 2011, and puppetry has become very popular once again. Incredible puppetry is part of the musical “The Lion King” as well as “Warhorse.” Sesame Street characters (which are puppets) such as Elmo and Big Bird are still popular today and beloved by children throughout the world. As stated earlier, the Muppets are back!

Different Forms or Types of Puppetry

There are four popular forms of puppetry which use: hand (glove) puppets; marionettes; shadow puppets; or ventriloquist dummies. Glove puppets (better known as hand puppets) are specialized gloves that fit over a person's hand. Typically glove puppets have three fingers with the middle finger becoming the puppet's neck and head. The other two fingers become the puppet's arms. Marionettes bring to mind the puppet “Pinocchio.” Marionettes are puppets controlled by strings. The strings for them are attached to either a horizontal or upright wooden control. Often these puppets have a minimum of six strings. Shadow puppets, such as the previously mentioned wayang puppets, are generally flat silhouettes created from strong animal hide, plastic or cardboard. Rods are attached to various parts of figures that will be manipulated. The joints for these puppets are typically made of wire or string. Removable or rotating rods are sometimes used with shadow puppets. Finally ventriloquist dummies (also known as vents or ventriloquist dolls) tend to have entire bodies. They have a basic hinged mouth as well as rods in their hands and feet for control. They can also have other mechanisms such as moving ears and blinking eyes.

Puppetry is loved around the world. Karagozis is the term for traditional Greek shadow puppetry. Kargozis puppets are created with tanned and painted animal hide. The hides are tanned to translucency. You use these types of puppets behind a screen that is 12 to 15 feet in length and four feet in height. On either side of the screen you put scenery for the protagonist and antagonist houses. Shadow puppets are typically about three feet high, but karagozis are only about one and one-half feet tall. Through the years the puppets have become reversible with the attachment of the rod to a hinge located on the edge of the puppet. Puppeteers are accompanied by an orchestra. A very unique and fascinating form of puppetry is termed “water puppetry” and is native to the Vietnamese. The puppeteers are actually in a pool of chest-high water utilizing the surface of the water as the stage The puppets are figures made of wood which sometimes have jointed limbs, hands and heads. The puppet figures are attached to floating pontoons just below the water's surface. This makes it seem as though the puppets are floating across the water. Long poles are attached to the pontoons for the puppeteers to use to push and pull the puppets. The puppet figures are hollow with rope inside of them attached to their parts that need movement. The ropes run along the poles the puppets are attached to and into the puppeteer's hands. At least three puppeteers can be required to control each puppet. A bamboo blind is used as a screen to hide the puppeteers from the audience. The puppeteers are able to see through the blind while the audience cannot. A small percussion orchestra and a narrator accompany the puppetry.




A third form of puppetry found around the world is referred to as “wayang golek” and utilizes Indonesian rod puppets. This type of puppetry is also known as Javanese puppetry. The paintwork, carvings and costumes are very elaborate with these puppets. The puppets tend to have long, thin arms and legs and very angular shoulders. The puppetry is often regarding mythological stories and historical events. The puppeteer uses rods from below the puppets to control them. Puppets for this type of puppetry are created from wood with the puppet's body resting on a long rod manipulated from below. Rods are attached to the tips of each jointed hand. There are three rods in total that the puppeteer operates the puppet with including: one for each arm and one for the body. The rod for the body runs all the way to the puppet's head so the puppeteer can also control the head. A mostly percussion orchestra plays along with the puppetry which is performed at night with large lanterns.

Modern Puppetry

Jim Henson creator of the Muppets

As stated previously, when people think of modern puppetry many often think of the Muppets or Sesame Street. Modern puppetry can also be found on Broadway such as in “The Lion King.” Unlike the puppetry of the Muppets, with the puppetry utilized in this production the audience can see the puppeteers. The puppets are life-size and attached to the puppeteers. The puppeteer can manipulate the entire body of the puppet including its face. This helps to show emotion for the puppet. Because the puppeteers are visible to the audience, they too can lend facial expressions to the performance. For example, in this play the character of Timon is a puppet. The puppeteer is dressed in all green including green hair and facepaint. The audience is therefore drawn to the puppet and not the puppeteer. The use of puppetry in plays really brings the characters to life.

Puppetry can also be used in conjunction with special effects for movies. For example, in the current film “The Muppet Movie”special effects are utilized in addition to the traditional Muppet puppetry. Nvidia Quadro GPU's helped alter various film frames and add realistic animation to the movie. The Muppets themselves remain puppets though. The puppets can do more incredible things thanks to the addition of special effects.

Puppetry Theater Education

Does puppetry intrigue you and seem like something you would enjoy learning? There are universities that offer degrees in puppetry as well as colleges that offer a few classes in the subject area. You can also find internships as well as workshops that are offered in puppetry. Puppetry scholarships and awards are also available if you are interested in something like that to help with your education.

The following links will all provide you with much more information on puppetry educational options. Now is the time to discover the world of puppetry; a true historical art form.



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