What Is a Puppet?

This article was originally published on the Puppets Up! website (14 August 2006). It no longer appears to be accessible via that site. I have corrected a few minor errors. The photographs were not taken at the festival; they have been added for this version of the article.

What exactly is a puppet? This, no doubt, may initially seem to be a rather ridiculous question. As soon as you hear the word, an image or a collage of images probably springs to mind. Perhaps murky recollections of televised puppet performances from years ago, such as Uncle Chichimus, The Friendly Giant, or Noreen Young’s own Under the Umbrella Tree are sparked by someone furtively whispering the word puppet. Or possibly you remember seeing your first live puppet performance at children’s festival.  Or maybe you even think back to just a few years ago, when you saw Ronnie Burkett stage one of his original plays for puppets.

But what is a puppet more generally? Dictionary definitions are little help. The first definition provided in the Oxford English Dictionary certainly has nothing to do with the festival here in Almonte this weekend: “A contemptuous term for a person.” But even the most relevant definition that the OED offers hardly does our friend the puppet justice: “A small figure, human or animal, with jointed limbs, moved by means of strings or wires; [. . .] a marionette; [. . .] also applied to a similar figure moved by rods, or to one in the form of a glove.”

As the artists performing at Puppets Up! this year will admirably demonstrate, a puppet can of course be small and human (or animal) and be controlled via strings, wires, rods, or a human hand placed inside of it. As the Puppetmongers production The Brick Bros. Circus, which is being performing at Puppets Up! this year, proves, however, a puppet does not need to be any of these things. In the introduction to his and Tim Gosley’s puppetry workshop for adults  that was held in the Mill Street Gallery on Thursday, Matt Ficner declared, “A puppet can be anything.” This statement is difficult to dispute, but clearly not everything is a puppet: when a piece of scenery is moved onstage, I don’t think it’s a puppet, but somehow, I know that the circus bricks in the Puppetmongers show are. Why is that?

Brix - cannon square
A very brave brick “volunteer,” not to mention “the first Canadian brickonaut,” from The Brick Bros. Circus. Photograph courtesy of Puppetmongers Theatre.

The definitions offered by the early puppetry theorists are, unfortunately, only slightly more helpful than the definitions that one can find in a common dictionary. Paul McPharlin, the most famous historian of the early American puppet theatre, declared in the introduction to A Repertory of Marionette Plays that “[m]arionettes and puppets [. . .] are theatrical figures animated under human control” (1), while Bil Baird, one the most famous puppeteers in American history and the author of the best-known book on puppetry ever published in English, The Art of the Puppet, similarly writes that that “[a] puppet is an inanimate figure that is made to move by human effort before an audience” (13).

But, as Tim Gosley and Matt Ficner also demonstrated in their workshop, a puppet need not be inanimate: a human hand can be turned into a very effective puppet. On the other hand, not everything that “is made to move by human effort” onstage is a puppet. When a performer moves a table to the centre of the stage, for example, surely nobody thinks that the table is a puppet. And to make things even more complicated, an object can be moved onstage without substantial effort on the part of a puppeteer and still be a puppet. As David Powell of Puppetmongers told me, gravity becomes a puppeteer in The Brick Bros. Circus!

So how are we to tell what is a puppet and what is not? An American semiotician of the puppet theatre, Steve Tillis, offers a lengthy but very useful definition: “[T]he puppet is a theatrical figure, perceived by an audience to be an object, that is given design, movement, and frequently, speech, so that it fulfills the audience’s desire to imagine it as having life” (Toward an Aesthetics of the Puppet: Puppetry as a Theatrical Art 65). Thus, the puppet is only perceived to be an object, and if enough attention is focused on a performer’s hand, it can appear to be “separated” from this rest of his or her body. But most importantly, the audience must imagine that the puppet is alive. Tillis’s calls this paradox “double-vision.”

Thankfully, however, “double-vision does not require that the audience be aware of it.” Indeed, although the puppet does make a few “special demands upon its audience,” these “demands are nothing more than that the audience be receptive to the abstracted signs of life that constitute the puppet, and be desirous of seeing the world through the prism of human consciousness,” demands that “can easily be met by any audience of kindergarten children” (66). The beautiful laughter of children that greets the bricks’ brave attempts at “acts of derring-do” (as they are described in the festival programme for this year) in The Brick Bros. Circus is ample proof of this.

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