The International Language of Puppets
Puppetry as Cultural Connection
Humans have always craved stories. Long before film, TV and DVDs, histories of entire civilizations were carried forward by oral tradition. For centuries, the magical medium of Puppetry has illustrated folklore, mythology, and provided witty commentary on current events.
Puppets, as representatives of our inner and outer selves, can reflect our lives and cultures in humorous, thought-provoking, mystical or whimsical ways. String toys and articulated dolls have been found dating from as far back as 4500 years ago in Northern Africa and India.
Puppetry Traditions Around the World
A quick trip to The Puppetry Home Page at http://www.puppetry.info will provide a good base for background information on international puppetry traditions including shadow puppets, rod puppets, marionettes, hand puppets, and Bunraku-style puppetry.
Learn more about shadow puppets with Making Shadow Puppets by Jill Bryant.
Many thousands of years ago, Shadow play - by the light of a campfire on a cave wall - initiated humankind's first puppet expressions. Beautiful, detailed shadow puppets in Southeast Asia evolved to illustrate these cultures' sacred texts and mythic tales. Today, shadow puppets retain their traditional construction of translucent punched-and-painted leather, or elaborately decorated wood, and are worked with rods. The pieces are jointed together so that arms and hands, and sometimes - even mouths can move. The puppet characters are lit from behind; their shadows project onto a silk screen between the puppeteer and the audience, produce mysterious and beautiful effects.
Rod puppets developed out of this tradition, can be worked from below or above. Those worked from below usually have arms and heads that move, with legs inoperable or hidden from the audience. Puppets worked from above, with metal spokes connecting to the head and arms, are capable of emphatic movements, and are often used in the Italian Pupi Sicilani tradition. Rod marionettes, combined with string movement, were a strong element in preserving Czech traditions. Traveling puppeteers are said to have saved Czech language and culture from extinction, during times of military occupation.
The more lyrical string marionettes originated with European animated religious displays, built to illustrate Biblical stories for the local people.
The origins of hand puppet tradition point to China, but like many other forms of puppetry, may have sprung up in many places concurrently. Clowning characters in South Indian and Indonesian puppetry, used to explain and joke about the traditional sacred stories, influenced the development of Punchinello-type characters of the West. England's Punch & Judy characters come out of the hand puppet tradition. Punch was able to wield his bat with both hands, single-handedly fight off his personal responsibilities, authority figures, death and even the devil. Punch's attitude of "victory for the common man" appealed to many cultures, and similar characters can be found in the French Guignol, Czech Kasparek, the Greek Karaghiozis, to name a few.
Learn more about international puppets with Aaron Shephard's
A World of Puppets Bookshelf: Good Books for Getting Into Puppet History and Puppets of Many Lands
Bunraku puppetry comes from Japan, an outgrowth of competing Kabuki Theatres in the 1600's. This unusual technique features 1/3 life-sized puppets that, with the help of human assistants, walk freely through the set rather than staying within confining walls of the puppet stage. Puppeteers dress in black, but otherwise remain fully visible to the audience. Audiences are so fascinated watching the moving puppet figures onstage that the puppeteers become effectively invisible.
Bunraku style puppetry has strongly influenced modern Western puppet theatre. Julie Taymor's The Lion King utilizes large puppets with visible puppeteers, as does the most recent Broadway runaway hit, Avenue Q. Here, the visible puppeteers become characters vital to the performance. The highly skilled technicians are anything but invisible or anonymous.
Reprinted with the permission of the Parents' Choice Foundation. © Copyright 2012 Parents' Choice Foundation. All rights reserved.
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