A Return to Childhood

Puppet theatre is often associated with children’s theatre but can the dark honesty offered by inanimate objects connect with an adult audience?

There is something undeniably childlike about puppetry: the transformation of an inanimate object into a character is exactly what children are doing when they play with toys. With this in mind, it is easy to see why one might assume that puppet theatre is only for children. However, to cast puppet theatre solely into the realm of children’s theatre is a mistake. The diversity of story, movement and situation allowed by the use of puppets means that puppet theatre is a rich, bold and often darkly funny strain of theatre.

It is often presumed that the puppet companies making adult work are creating titillating pieces, but this is not always the case. Though it is certainly easier to attract an adult audience with work which falls firmly within the remit of “adult”, many companies are opting for a less obvious approach, dealing with subjects as diverse as mental health and loneliness. It is important, then, that audiences do not approach puppetry with the assumption that it is for children; for it is likely that in subsequently defining productions as “adult”, a wide swathe of theatre-goers are dissuaded from experiencing work that is emotional, intelligent and complex, expecting it instead to be lewd.

One strong proponent of puppet theatre is Simon Hart, the Artistic Director of Puppet Animation Scotland, an organisation that nurtures and promotes the form. Each year the company presents the Manipulate Visual Theatre Festival (manipulate) to showcase the work of innovative practitioners from around the world. Hart suggests that one of the strengths of puppet theatre is that it allows adults to return to imagination; to the world of endless possibility that is so easy to create as a child: “It does, at its best, unlock a visual language that as adults we tend to forget about.”

It is arguably this idea of a “visual language” that has inhibited the form in the UK. Hart points out that the UK has a rich heritage in the spoken word: “Here practitioners are somewhat burdened by Shakespeare.” There is so much weight given to spoken language that those practitioners aiming to create work through visual means often find themselves in the shadows. Interestingly, Hart states that in mainland Europe there is far less of a demarcation between puppet shows for adults and children; puppetry and visual theatre is generally more accepted as part of mainstream theatre. Language, in combination with geography, is perhaps again the reason for this: many theatre companies in Europe will be making shows that are likely to be performed across country boundaries and in countries that, though close, may not speak the same languages. As such, spoken or written language cannot be relied upon to communicate ideas effectively and visual language becomes the common touchstone for understanding.

Visual theatre operates on a different basis than other forms of theatre, so it is unusual that this year’s manipulate featured an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. French company, Compagnie Sans Soucis, chose to work from Heiner Müller’s condensed version, Hamletmachine, to produce a visually arresting performance. This is only the second production in five years that has developed a piece from an existing text, and Hart talks about the reason behind this: “As soon as you start relating everything to words you have to work very hard to maintain that visual awareness and add something that is more symbolic; very quickly it can just become a visual rendering of the text.”

The beauty of puppet theatre lies in the ability of puppets to transcend boundaries, both physical and emotional. Very simply, puppets can do things that people can’t, and thus anything can happen. This true unbounded possibility combined with the puppet’s power to subvert expectations results in theatre that is exciting, tense and often very funny. Comedy relies upon subversion and puppets are well-placed to utilise this, as they can subvert through both their actions and their appearance: “Their ability to be physical; to look like humans and then do something that humans can’t do is incredibly funny. It’s easier to create a physical caricature of Gordon Brown or David Cameron that is immediately recognisable and humorous because parts of their personality or physicality can be emphasised more than it would be possible to achieve with actors.”

The physical capabilities of puppets over actors is perhaps an obvious benefit of puppet theatre, but another interesting side-effect of using inert objects instead of actors is the level of belief that can be reached. It seems paradoxical that an audience would believe in the reality of a puppet over a human being but Hart suggests that with a puppet you can bypass a second suspension of belief and thus create a stronger emotional connection between audience and character. He explains the concept: “You make the first suspension of belief when you enter the theatre but then, when an actor is killed on stage, it requires a second leap of faith to believe that they have died when we know they are just holding their breath.”

The “second leap of faith” is removed with puppet theatre because once the audience has accepted that the inanimate object has life and is a character, then anything that happens subsequently is really happening and requires no suspension of belief. For instance, if an actor is punched in a play it will simply be the illusion of a punch, but when a puppet is hit, it actually happens. As Hart says: “It’s a lot easier to kill puppets on stage than it is to kill people.” The unexpected result of this is that there is a raw truth to the action on stage; if the only thing that makes a puppet alive is its movement and physicality, and then you remove these, it is unequivocally dead; and if the audience has invested belief in the life of the puppet, then they will naturally be devastated by its death. This emotional investment means that puppet theatre can often be macabre, melancholy and disturbing; all very adult adjectives.

Puppet theatre is growing increasingly divergent, though, and Puppet Animation Scotland’s festival explores a variety of visual theatre, even including animation in their programme: “Puppetry has always been on that cusp of involving different types of technology; shadow theatre is so close to animation, particularly once you start incorporating colour in shadow theatre.” The work shown at manipulate is diverse and does include performances that use humans, in shows such as Polaris by the Czech company, Wariot Ideal, and Luvos by the Editta Braun Dance Company. The performers in Polaris combine physical theatre, mime and film to produce a work that explores alternative means of artistic expression, whilst the dancers in Luvos conduct a visual meditation on what manipulation means.

These explorations are making their way into mainstream theatre too: the multi-award winning play, War Horse (which first premiered in 2007, adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s novel of the same name) utilises full-size horse puppets from the Handspring Puppet Company and incorporates both actors and puppets in the performance. Hart points out that there is a regular re-discovery of puppetry within the mainstream and this has certainly been the case over the last decade, with films such as Team America: World Police and musicals such as Avenue Q attracting massive audiences. With theatre tastes moving towards increasingly collaborative work and audiences eager for alternative ways of storytelling, it seems that puppet and visual theatre may finally be heading towards the mainstream recognition they have long deserved.

The Manipulate Festival ran at Norwich Puppet Theatre from 1 – 4 February, www.manipulatefestival.org.

Avenue Q was shown at the Edinburgh Playhouse from 7 – 11 February 2012 before touring throughout the UK. Visit www.edinburghplayhouse.org.uk.

Bryony Byrne