There has been a tectonic shift going on in the UK recently with many changes and proposed changes going on. The popular and long-running production ‘War Horse’ has encouraged many theatre artists and e producers to consider using puppets, and many more actors are putting puppetry on their CVs or would like to.
A recent article by Rachel McNally Has The Popularity Of War Horse Killed Off Innovation in UK Puppetry? argues that the influence of War Horse on how puppetry is perceived among the broader UK performing arts community hasn’t all been good and in some ways has had an adverse impact, reducing perception of the use of puppets in theatre to specialist tools, mainly for portraying children and animals, where puppetry is capable of portraying so much more than that.
The UK puppetry community is a mixed bag of enthusiasts and professionals and the variety of disciplines – design, craft, performance, visual arts, physical theatre – come together in various ways to create puppet theatre. One thing I’m convinced about is that puppet theatre has strengths that include working in scales other than the fixed human scale of actors theatre, and the ability of both set and performers to transform shape and size, emphasising and illustrating metaphorical power and allegorical potential. In actors theatre the internal journey of the character is at the fore and the play is about revealing the psychological journeys and emotional crises of characters. In puppet theatre the visual and physical journey of both the characters and the staging become vital. The psychological, emotional and spiritual impact of puppet theatre is often carried by the way music and action come together in the minds of the audience, which is much more open to interpretation than theatre of scripts, spoken word and characters.
In the world of puppet theatre we can see a plastic bag wrap itself around an abstract shape and imagine a life and death struggle taking place. We then can impose a narrative on the action if we like or we can enjoy and appreciate the visual beauty of the scene presented in front of us. This is the freedom that puppet theatre can present to us. Much like animation in film and video there is an enormous variety of options in presentation from abstract form to character driven storytelling.
The work that goes on in making puppet theatre is similar to the work that goes on in making any form of live performance, but there are key differences and a beautifully designed, articulated and manipulated puppet in a presentation doesn’t of itself indicate that the work is puppet theatre. The form is very flexible and as Max Humphries tweeted in response to Rachel McNally’s article “Labels stifle creativity and are shackles on any art form”. Yet without recognition as an art form, an artistic discipline likepuppetry may not get the same support as other ‘recognised’ artforms. There are schools, national organisations, centres for development, publications and representative bodies for the visual arts, music, dance and theatre but in puppetry all of these things exist on the fringes, marginalised and without recognition or support. Puppets are popular and recognised in theatre, opera and dance as powerful tools, yet in the UK puppet theatre itself is struggling to survive.
It’s time to make sure that the tools, networks and resources to support puppetry in the UK are supported and developed. Puppeteers and puppet theatre makers need to articulate their concerns and make the wider arts industry understand that well supported centres for training, an industry representative body, centres of excellence and regional support for small touring work as well as recognised artists and groups of national importance are important to the art form, to preserve the rich history and continuing influence of puppetry on the UK’s performing arts scene. Puppet theatre deserves the chance to develop in ambition, production values, influence and followers.