Power of puppets

Presence of puppetry in popular culture can be traced back thousands of years

Professional puppeteer Annie Milne performs with marionettes, puppets controlled from above by strings, at the Upper Canada Academy of Performing Arts in Kingston.
Professional puppeteer Annie Milne performs with marionettes, puppets controlled from above by strings, at the Upper Canada Academy of Performing Arts in Kingston.

Contrary to what you might think, Kermit the Frog descends from an ancient artistic tradition.

Queen’s drama professor Natalie Rewa says puppetry brings inanimate objects to life as a means of storytelling.

In Canada, there’s a strong tradition of puppetry in rituals and theatrical performances.

“The First Nations had different kinds of puppets and performing objects,” Rewa said. “The idea of animating something that might look like a human or animal has been around forever.”

The use of puppets as a storytelling technique can be traced back to ancient societies. Marionette puppets, controlled from above using wires or strings, were even found in Egyptian tombs, and both Plato and Aristotle’s work reference the use of puppets.

In the modern world, the Muppets are perhaps the most famous example of puppets, with the ubiquitous Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy appearing in film and television programs.

This week saw a Hollywood revival of Kermit and friends with the release of the film The Muppets, starring Jason Segel and Amy Adams.

However, according to Rewa, the Muppets have garnered debate among puppeteers.

“Many puppeteers think the Muppets are the demise of real puppetry,” Rewa said. “They simplify everything. Part of puppetry was the artist making the puppet and the tricks that the puppeteer could do with the puppet.”

The Muppets were created by American puppeteer Jim Henson in 1954. The name for his unique characters is thought to come from a combination of the words “marionette” and “puppet.” “With the Muppets it became fuzzy, small and not too complicated in manipulation,” Rewa said.

The Muppets are a variation of conventional rod puppets, controlled with wooden or wire rods.

While the Muppets are presented as independent of the puppeteer, this isn’t the case with all puppetry. Whether or not the puppeteer chooses to remain hidden is a personal choice among performers.

Despite controversy in the puppetry community, Rewa said the Muppets brought the public’s attention to the art of puppetry.

“What Jim Henson did was bring it back into the limelight. People realized you could have puppets that engendered emotion,” she said. “We began to love them.” The Muppets included prominent puppets such as Bert and Ernie from the children’s television program, Sesame Street. They have characteristics typical of Henson’s puppets, including protruding eyes and wide mouths.

One beneficial outcome of the Muppet’s for prospective puppeteers was economic support, Rewa said.

“Puppeteers were employed. There wasn’t much of a call for puppeteers on a large scale before this … [The Muppets] were an important phenomenon economically.”

However, puppets don’t just cater to an audience of children.

Ronnie Burkett is a Canadian puppeteer whose work appeals to an adult audience. Of all working puppeteers, Rewa cites Burkett as her favourite.

She said Burkett’s known for politically-charged puppet shows, with shows including Tinka’s New Dress which chronicles the struggles of artists in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.

Like many puppeteers, Burkett’s talents are multifaceted, Rewa said. He writes, designs and performs his puppet shows — which can take years to build.

“[It] depends on the show … there is the development of the script, and creation of the figures who will be used to perform, also there is work with a composer to develop music for the production,” Rewa said.

Burkett uses marionettes which present additional physical challenges to the puppeteer, Rewa said.

“You’re dealing with gravity — you have to go against gravity with the puppet that you’re pulling up. You have to have a strong back,” she said.

Marionettes are a common form of puppetry in Western societies, but styles of puppetry vary depending on the cultural context.

For example, Bunraku, or Japanese puppet theatre, requires three puppeteers for the operation of one puppet while Vietnamese water puppetry features puppeteers who are semi-submerged in a waist-deep pool.

Shadow puppetry, found places like Indonesia, India and China, requires that a puppet is manipulated from behind a screen to create a silhouette.

While some people consider a ventriloquist to be a type of puppeteer, Rewa said, ventriloquism is a distinct art in itself.

Ventriloquism involves a unique kind of voice manipulation.

“Ventroloquist dummies are a form of puppetry but we have not explored it in class … one year there was a student who worked on this form and found it to be very complex,” she said.

Ultimately, Rewa said any type of puppetry has effects on both the audience and puppeteer.

“The puppeteer builds emotional bond with puppet, and the audience bonds with the puppet in emotional way.”

Educating student puppeteers

Queen’s drama professor Natalie Rewa incorporates the creation and dramatization of puppets into her classes.

Rewa said her students often find certain elements of the class, Storytelling and Puppetry, difficult.

“It was hard to build a story and build objects to tell that story,” she said. “It was a lot of reusing materials and salvaging.” An element of Rewa’s class involves students dramatizing news stories with puppets. She said one example explores the conflicts regarding land of the First Nations and of farmers near Sharbot Lake, a community north of Kingston.

“Students used puppets to explore the uranium mining issue in Sharbot Lake,” she said. “Students had to do research on the issue and see how it could be dramatized.”

In 2008, Frontenac Ventures was granted legal permission to mine uranium in Aboriginal land.

Transcripts of meetings and newspaper clippings were the basis of scripts for puppet shows, Rewa said.

“Students learned a whole speech from Four Directions [Aboriginal Student Centre] and had to translate it … they learned of the response from the First Nations and reenacted it with puppets,” she said, adding that students used materials including a rake and broken machinery to build the puppets.

Rewa said her students don’t impose limits on what they could use to build puppets.

“They made marionettes out of pop cans. They began to see world around them as material for puppetry,” she said.

The students’ self-made puppet shows were ultimately believable, Rewa said.

“They reduced each motion … to express what they felt was necessary. When they did that with conviction, it was believable,” she said. “It created a new kind of energy.”

After designing and performing with puppets, Rewa said some of her students express interest in pursuing puppetry as a career.

“One student who graduated will become a puppeteer,” she said. “He’s quick between developing the relationship between language and movement.”

Not all students who have taken her puppetry classes are in drama, though. Rewa said she had students in her puppetry classes from the Cultural Studies and German departments.

A puppeteer’s indifference results in a poor puppet, Rewa said.

“When a puppeteer said, ‘I don’t really care about puppets’ or ‘This is a stupid exercise’ then it created a bad puppet,” she said. “Some students didn’t take it seriously. You get that in every course.

However, students often didn’t require her assistance when creating puppets, she said.

“Students could tell each other ‘That’s boring’ or ‘That needs work,’” she said. “It was active learning … the idea of making something that you’ve imagined is difficult. They were hard on themselves and could tell if they didn’t create a good puppet.”

Rewa has used puppetry as an educational tool for students of a wide variety of ages.

In the early '80s, Rewa used paper-bag glove puppets to help Grade 2 students learn to read in Toronto.

According to Rewa, puppets were instrumental in the children’s learning.

“If a student holds a puppet in their hands they can dissociate it from something that is similar to them,” she said. “Students would use the puppet and then correct the puppet when they read.”

Rewa’s class, DRAM 439, Storytelling and Puppetry, will run in the winter term.


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