Podcast: Learn with me today — Welcome to the world of puppetry

By MAINA DURFOUR | UConn Jour­nal­ism
Decem­ber 5, 2023

When you think of pup­petry, I’m pret­ty sure the first image that comes to your mind is the Mup­pet show. The sec­ond option is that noth­ing comes to your mind, and you don’t know much about it.

Well, today, we’re div­ing into the world of pup­petry, through its his­to­ry to present today’s pup­peteers. And you will see, pup­petry is way more com­plex than we think. So join me on my jour­ney, and learn with me about the amaz­ing world of puppetry.


Maï­na: Wednes­day Novem­ber 8th. I’m head­ing to my first meet­ing with Bart Roc­cober­ton. He’s the head of the pup­pet arts pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut. We are meet­ing in the program’s build­ing, where class­es hap­pen. It’s a small build­ing off cam­pus, where there used to be a men­tal health hos­pi­tal. The place is kind of creepy, with its brick build­ing and bro­ken win­dows. I park on the side of the road, along some oth­er cars and walk toward the pup­petry build­ing. Small, sim­ple, and plain.Bart comes up and opens the door. He has a friend­ly face and a gen­tle voice. I look on the ceil­ing and see three big hang­ing pup­pets. From that moment, I was drawn into the world of pup­petry and was curi­ous to know more about it. This is Maï­na Durafour. Learn with me today about pup­petry and what it means for humans.

Maï­na: Pup­petry is an art that can be found in many cul­tures. It’s also expressed dif­fer­ent­ly through­out the world. The Cam­bridge dic­tio­nary defines pup­petry as “the skill or activ­i­ty of mak­ing pup­pets or enter­tain­ingpeo­ple with pup­pets.” This def­i­n­i­tion spec­i­fies that pup­pets are “toys in the shape of peo­ple or ani­mals, moved with strings or by some­one’s hand inside.” But let me tell you, giv­ing you a def­i­n­i­tion of what is pup­petry is hard­er than telling you what’s not pup­petry. Here’s Bart’s def­i­n­i­tion of puppetry.

Bart: Well there is a sim­ple def­i­n­i­tion that was actu­al­ly print­ed in a book called the art of the pup­pet by a man called Bill Baird. Bill defined pup­petry as an inan­i­mate object, some­thing that has no life, that’s made ani­mate to appear that it has life through direct human con­trol for an audi­ence. The audi­ence is very impor­tant. If we don’t have the audi­ence that we are per­form­ing for, it’s doll play­ing, it is not puppetry.

Maï­na: Pup­pets are not only a fun thing for chil­dren and adults. Ini­tial­ly, they are a tool to tell sto­ries. Some of them are real­ly pret­ty. Some oth­ers are ugly and scary. Some of them are real­is­tic and oth­ers unre­al­is­tic. But pup­pets are linked by their abil­i­ty to tell, gath­er peo­ple togeth­er and devel­op imagination.In “Pup­petry, a world his­to­ry”, Eileen Blu­men­thal dates pup­petry some­times between 30,000 and 21,000 Before Com­mon Era. This has been estab­lished after arche­ol­o­gists found sculpt­ed fig­urines rep­re­sent­ing peo­ple.
Since then, pup­pets have evolved through­out humans’ soci­ety evo­lu­tion. Ear­ly on, pup­pets were giv­en life by people’s imag­i­na­tion and sto­ries. They spread to oth­er soci­eties by the exchange of goods and tra­di­tion. This has brought pup­pets from North­ern Europe to the Mid­dle East, from India to East Asia. Gen­er­al­ly, pup­pets have been found almost every time a civ­i­liza­tion has lived some­where. 
How­ev­er, for Bart, pup­pets have prob­a­bly always exist­ed. If you use your hands to tell a sto­ry, they become a pup­pet. How can pup­pet not have always exist­ed if that’s the case? 

Bart: It’s hard to put a date on it. I look at it in a dif­fer­ent way, I believe that pup­petry has been part of human kind’s exis­tence since the begin­nings of tribes. When peo­ple start­ed com­ing togeth­er to sup­port each oth­er. We weren’t work­ing by our­selves to do the hunt­ing and the gath­er­ing and the child­care. There were groups of peo­ple, the hunters, the gath­er­ers, the water bear­ers, the child­care. And so as we came togeth­er, we start­ed ques­tion­ing the world around us. Nature. Nature is an amaz­ing thing. Why are those dark clouds hov­er­ing over those trees? And why are those trees doing the move­ment that they are doing? And the ani­mals? They seem to be react­ing to the clouds and the trees. I’m a pup­peteer, you need to under­stand that I have a very good imag­i­na­tion. And I can imag­ine that ear­ly tribes decid­ed that the ani­mals were smarter than them. And decid­ed to try and dis­guise them­selves as one of the ani­mals that seemed to be able to talk to nature. They might carve a mask into the trunk of a liv­ing tree, hop­ing to catch the spir­it of the tree in the mask. They would put it on their face, and try to com­mu­ni­cate with nature. I’m will­ing to bet they still got wet, but they also noticed that peo­ple around them behaved dif­fer­ent­ly when they put that mask on. And so, masks and pup­pets in my imag­i­na­tion became the first log­givers, the things that the shaman used to teach. So, put a date on it? I can’t do that. But say it was with us from the very begin­ning of civ­i­liza­tion, I can say, yes I believe that.

Maï­na: When you think about pup­petry, the first thing that may come to your mind is the Mup­pet show. How­ev­er, pup­petry is much more diverse than that. There are dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories of pup­pets, like shad­ow pup­petry, masks made out of ani­mal car­cass or skin, and pup­pets that are placed on the body of the pup­peteer. It can also sim­ply be objects put on your fin­gers and cre­ate a sto­ry from that. There are so many ways to pro­duce a pup­pet show, and it is expressed dif­fer­ent­ly in the world. 
Pup­petry, despite the way it is expressed, is also a means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Look­ing back in his­to­ry, pup­pets have been used to trans­mit knowl­edge to peo­ple who could not read. It has also been a way to explain the inex­plic­a­ble and try to answer ques­tions about death, life and nature.
Bart: The pup­pet has a unique pow­er. We have exam­ples of pup­petry being part of funer­ary rit­u­als in Chi­na where the shad­ow pup­pet might be used to tell the sto­ry of what would hap­pen to a deceased per­son, as they leave this world. In Europe, we have the exam­ple in medieval times, when we, the peo­ple, could not read. The priest want­ed us to know the holy sto­ries and so pup­peteers were brought into the church to per­form the holy sto­ries, so that we, the peo­ple, would under­stand them. They per­formed the nativ­i­ties so fre­quent­ly that pup­pets became known as lit­tle maries, mar­i­onettes, ok? In Eng­land, there’s the exam­ple of Mr. Punch crit­i­ciz­ing the king. And when the pup­peteer was about to be arrest­ed, he said “no, no, it wasn’t me, it was the pup­pet,” and he got away. So pup­pets are able to express thoughts that we might not be able to express ourselves.

Maï­na: The UConn Pup­pet Arts pro­gram seeks to teach stu­dents dif­fer­ent pup­peteer tech­niques and devel­op their imag­i­na­tion con­tin­u­ous­ly. Indeed, pup­pets, as you may have under­stood by now, real­ly engage with people’s imag­i­na­tion. And that process starts when the pup­pet is being con­cep­tu­al­ized by its cre­ator.
The mate­r­i­al used to cre­ate a pup­pet can be any­thing. Fab­ric, wood, plas­tic, paint, rocks or met­al. There are an infi­nite num­ber of pos­si­bil­i­ties con­cern­ing the shapes, the mate­ri­als, the col­ors and the mech­a­nism. Pup­pets are often more com­plex than they appear to be. And build­ing them is a process that takes time and thoughts. 

Harley: So I made a mold of some eyes I’m gonna make for this pup­pet. So I made the mold, and then I cast­ed it. So ​what ​I ​came ​out ​with ​is ​this, ​which ​has ​had ​a ​bunch ​of ​rough ​edges. ​It’s, ​like, ​in ​the ​shape ​of, ​like, ​a ​teardrop. ​And ​now ​I’m ​sand­ing ​down ​all ​the ​edges ​is ​to ​make ​it ​smooth. ​I ​can ​paint ​it ​and ​have ​it ​look finished.

Maï­na: This was Harley. She is a stu­dent in the pup­pet arts pro­gram. She and oth­er stu­dents have their own ded­i­cat­ed space to work on their pro­duc­tion. While I was observ­ing the stu­dents’ work space, I met with anoth­er girl. Her name is Lili-rose, and she pre­sent­ed to me her friend, “The invis­i­ble man.”

Lili-Rose: This is the invis­i­ble man, he’s a glove pup­pet, so it’s just one hand and then your fin­gers are in here. And I made the sweater and the scarf. And the head is just sty­ro­foam cov­ered in lots of paper-mâché and then, with a lay­er, like cloth for bandages.

Maï­na: Beyond being a form of art, pup­petry is also help­ful for adults and chil­dren to express their thoughts and emo­tions. It is com­mon­ly used in ther­a­py and children’s hos­pi­tals to facil­i­tate com­mu­ni­ca­tion between adults and kids. And this has been true since the begin­ning of puppetry 

Bart: The mask and the pup­pet were used to teach, to help peo­ple under­stand how to behave with each oth­er. Today we use it in all dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions. Many of our alum­ni from the pup­pet arts pro­gram here at UConn go on to work in ther­a­py. And work with stu­dents who are, or indi­vid­u­als who might be autis­tic, who find a way of express­ing them­selves through the use of a pup­pet or to a pup­pet. It’s used in med­ical sit­u­a­tions, to help young chil­dren under­stand what they might be going through with an oper­a­tional pro­ce­dure, so yes, it is very much part of a learn­ing process for us.

Jaron: Pup­pets can say things, because you’re doing it next to you, that peo­ple can’t get away with. Pup­pets get to stand a lit­tle bit out­side of humans and observe, and we get to see their obser­va­tions in ourselves.

Maï­na: But pup­petry can also sim­ply be enter­tain­ment. Jaron Hol­lan­der, anoth­er stu­dent from the pup­pet arts depart­ment pre­sent­ed his first show on Decem­ber 1st. His show is a mix of the­ater, and dif­fer­ent kinds of pup­pets. 
Dur­ing the inter­views, both Bart and Jaron insist­ed on the live per­for­mance and how a pup­pet show can be more unusu­al than oth­er kinds of shows. 

Jaron: The pup­petry goes from the shad­ow pup­petry, the entire set is basi­cal­ly a pup­pet. There’s very like mup­pet like and pup­pets, there’s these aliens which I guess are broad and direct manip­u­la­tion pup­pets that take mul­ti­ple per­form­ers to animate.”

Maï­na: Pup­pets are not only a tool for com­mu­ni­ca­tion. They are also a tool to amuse peo­ple and offer a dif­fer­ent kind of per­for­mance than oth­er tra­di­tion­al arts. A pup­pet show does not have to be ful­ly writ­ten. The actors can impro­vise accord­ing to the pub­lic ener­gy or what comes to their mind. 

Jaron: It makes it fun, spon­ta­neous, it gives the per­former in gen­er­al the abil­i­ty to make it fresh and new every time. We can react to the audi­ence that’s there, it’s much more of a live expe­ri­ence. When you go to the the­ater, the fact that every­body gets their line exact­ly the same every time, each thing hap­pens exact­ly as it did last time, but when it doesn’t have to be, it makes it more of an event to go to. To me, it’s why you do, you go see a live show, as opposed to movies which do a lot of spe­cial effects and nat­u­ral­ism and all these things way bet­ter than you can on stage. For the live show, you got­ta do the things that are best about, you know, that medium.

Maï­na: Because pup­petry requires the use of your imag­i­na­tion more than any­thing else, it is a uni­ver­sal lan­guage. You don’t need to under­stand what oth­ers are say­ing, you just need to imag­ine what they are try­ing to tell you. You don’t need to under­stand the words that are said. The cor­po­ral lan­guage, the facial expres­sion, the screams or the whis­pers, they all make your imag­i­na­tion work and they tell you something.

Jaron: We define a lan­guage, that is, if you can see, you can under­stand it. And then to deal with peo­ple that don’t speak our lan­guage but are now speak­ing the lan­guage, this com­mon lan­guage, it’s amaz­ing how dif­fer­ent audi­ence is in dif­fer­ent coun­tries, react and appre­ci­ate, or not.

Maï­na: Not only pup­petry can be a uni­ver­sal lan­guage. But it is rare to not find a cul­ture that has pup­petry. Do you remem­ber how Bart defined a pup­pet? Well, some cul­tures them­selves some­times don’t real­ize that they use pup­pets. Bart told me about a trip he took in the Caribbean islands one day. One of the islands he vis­it­ed said they did not have pup­petry. But, as often with cul­tures, he was nice­ly surprised.

Bart: Years ago, I was prepar­ing to do some work in the Caribbean islands and there was one island where they said “we have no pup­petry here.” But then I looked at their car­ni­val cel­e­bra­tion and I said to the man “oh you do have pup­petry here, you express it in dif­fer­ent ways that I express my pup­pets but this is pup­petry. Your mask work and the cos­tumes, that’s a form of pup­petry. You’re express­ing some­thing beyond the human endeav­or every­day.“
So, I think it comes about that the pup­pets are used to explain ideas and to cel­e­brate human life.

Maï­na: So, what makes pup­pets dif­fer­ent than any oth­er form of art like lit­er­a­ture, or paint­ings? Because, they also teach us some­thing about life, about many things. So do you think it’s because, maybe, humans can project them­selves in pup­pets or is there some­thing else in the art of puppetry?

Bart: I would say that all arts require the engage­ment of the imag­i­na­tion. Puppetry’s expe­ri­ence of that engage­ment is imme­di­ate. You know, when I look at a paint­ing, I can imag­ine the sto­ry being told by the com­po­si­tion of the paint­ing, I can look at the tech­niques of the artist and the way they express them­selves, but when I expe­ri­ence a pup­pet pro­duc­tion, I am being asked as an audi­ence mem­ber to active­ly involve my imag­i­na­tion, now. Because all the pup­peteers can do is take an object that looks like some­thing, move it, and make a sound. And, of course the pup­peteer is try­ing to express an idea, they’re hope­ful­ly, get­ting the audi­ence to under­stand the same sit­u­a­tion. But the audi­ence works as hard as the pup­peteer to cre­ate the life of the pup­pet, ok? The pup­peteer is not cre­at­ing life, he’s doing all the things nec­es­sary for the imag­i­na­tion of the audi­ence to join. And so, we fre­quent­ly say that the audi­ence works as hard in a pup­pet pro­duc­tion as the per­former, they just don’t sweat as much as we do.

Maï­na: Pup­petry has so much to offer. At first, it seems like an art that is for­got­ten. But it’s present in our every­day life. It was there when you were a kid. And it’s been present in our adult life, with the unre­al­is­tic movies we watch. It’s there when you tell a sto­ry to some­one and you use your hands. 

Bart: There is so much about pup­petry, we have so many dif­fer­ent forms of pup­petry. When peo­ple ask me to tell you what a pup­pet is, it’s eas­i­er to tell you what it is not. Because we could take a bot­tle of ketchup and tell a sto­ry, and that’s a pup­pet. It’s hard to say, to express an idea that can­not be pre­sent­ed through pup­petry. Del­i­cate things are offered, there are sit­u­a­tions, inter­na­tion­al­ly, that are being expressed through pup­petry right now. When we see large images in protests on the street, these large icon­ic images of politi­cians or sit­u­a­tions, it’s intend­ed to stir some­thing with­in us. That is the pow­er of the pup­pet. It’s able to reach into us, and draw our imag­i­na­tion and our thoughts to a place where we cre­ate ideas together.

Maï­na: Beyond the sim­ple use of pup­petry, there are artists who ded­i­cate their life to offer peo­ple a way to use their imag­i­na­tion. Pup­petry is an art that has accom­pa­nied us, since the very begin­ning of our lives. All arts mat­ter. Not only because they are enjoy­able and enter­tain­ing. They are a way to express voic­es, pro­mote cul­ture, and fight nar­row-mind­ed­ness. Today, dur­ing my report­ing, I learned that pup­petry was an amaz­ing form of art, and that it could say so much. 

And you, what did you learn? 


Pup­petry, a world history

Def­i­n­i­tion of puppetry

Ori­gins of the Puppets

Why pup­pets?

Social Pro­mos: