In November, Cecilia had the opportunity to visit the Czech Republic and attend a puppet festival in Prague at the Minor Theater. This is the second of three puppet-related comics she drew while on the trip.
A roundup of articles, photos and events that we highlighted on Twitter this month.
1. A fantastic article about the importance of arts education is here. Obviously, we agree!
2. Puppetry is an ancient art, but its prevalence in some parts of the world is changing rapidly. Read about traditional Indian puppetry and how it is changing here.
3. A tribute to British marionette master Frank Mumford is here.
4.Double Edge Theater up in Massachusetts is performing Sharazad this summer. Find out more about this fantastic theater in this article.
Curious about puppets? Looking for some basic information about how to tell what kind of a puppet you might be looking at? You’ve come to the right place. Puppets are quickly gaining exposure in our popular culture, but they belong to a very old tradition, and are just as diverse as many other art forms. Here are some basics to know:
The definition of ‘puppet’ can be slightly different depending on who you talk to. Most people picture the fabric toy puppets they might have had as children, or the Muppet characters created by Jim Henson for Sesame Street. We often say that a puppet is any object brought to life by an operator, a definition which includes both realistic and abstract characters.
Hand puppets are puppets operated by the puppeteers hand inside the puppet’s body, usually making the head and hands move. Punch and Judy are good examples of traditional hand puppets. Sometimes a hand puppet is operated by two people, such as Telly Monster from Sesame Street.
Rod puppets are puppets with a rod holding up the body and usually two rods controlling the hands or arms. This allows the puppeteer to put some distance between themselves and the puppet. They are traditionally found in southeast Asia, primarily Indonesia.
Marionettes are puppets controlled by strings or wires. A good example of marionettes are the puppets in the movie The Sound of Music. Some marionettes can have up to a dozen strings controlling all the different parts of the body. Marionettes are usually human figures but can also be animals or abstract figures.
Over-life-size puppets is the term used by puppet historian John Bell to describe puppets that are larger than human size or enclose the puppeteer inside the puppet. Big Bird, from Sesame Street is an example of this kind of puppet.
Shadow puppets are flat cutout figures traditionally seen in silhouette, behind a screen. They can be made of paper, plastic, or leather and are sometimes opaque and sometimes translucent.
Object puppet is a term we sometimes use to describe characters that are created from found objects. All puppets can be classified as ‘object theater’ but these are characters made from a single object such as a hairbrush, fork or pair of binoculars.
Bunraku is a style of puppet originally from Japan. They are usually half or three quarters of human size and are operated by three puppeteers at once.
A roundup of articles and more that we highlighted on Twitter this month
1. A great article with even more awesome photos about our friend Mirek Trejtnar who runs the Puppets in Prague marionette-building workshops. Read it if you’ve ever been curious about how to make a marionette.
2. Some advice from Jim Henson, rendered in brilliant comic form by Gavin Aung Than. Read it for inspiration–we keep it handy in the studio for when motivation is needed!
3. Genna discovered this article about an artist performing with puppets in the New York subway. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone perform with a puppet in the DC metro–have you?
5. NPR has a weekly podcast called Pop Culture Happy Hour and recently one of the discussion topics was fairy tales. It’s not exactly the kind of stories we’re working with for Malevolent Creatures but still interesting and fun to listen to.
So yes, technically March was Women’s History Month and now it is April. Too bad, we’re still going to highlight three women puppeteers from around the world that you may not have heard of before. These women worked in very different forms of puppetry but each was a trailblazer in her own way.
You’ve probably heard of the painter Frida Kahlo, but a less familiar artist from the same era is Maria Dolores Velasquez Rivas (1897-1978), better known as Lola Cueto. She studied at the Academy of San Carlos along with the muralist David Alfaro Siquieros but her education was interrupted by the Mexican Revolution. She eventually became one of the few prominent women artists in Mexico at the time, taking her inspiration from Mexican folk art such as ‘papel picado’ and wooden children’s toys. Cueto lived in Paris from 1927-1932 where she first began creating hand puppets. After returning to Mexico, she founded several different puppet companies that performed educational shows for children. Cueto’s work can be seen in the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City, the Brooklyn Museum and various puppetry collections.
This may surprise fans of Snow White, but Walt Disney was not the first person to create a full-length animated film. So far as we know, that was Lotte Reiniger, a German silhouette artist and puppeteer who created The Adventures of Prince Achmed in 1926. Born in Berlin in 1899, Reiniger combined her love of Chinese shadow puppetry and film into groundbreaking animated shorts and eventually feature length films that showcase her detailed shadow cutouts. She began by creating silhouettes for title cards and short sequences in live-action films and then gradually progressed to creating her own full-length work. Reiniger and her husband continued to create films even as they moved around Europe during World War II, eventually settling in England, where she died in 1981. You can see footage of Reiniger’s work, as well as an interview with her and a sequence she inspired in one of the Harry Potter films here. Below is her absolutely delightful short about Papageno, from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute.
Cueto created hand puppets and Reiniger silhouettes; now we turn to marionettes and Gretl Aicher, the artistic director of the Salzburg Marionette Theater from 1977 until her death in 2012. Aicher inherited the theater from her father Hermann, who in turn had taken over from his father Anton. Trained as a sculptor, Anton Aicher founded the theater in 1913, so Salzburg has been enjoying these marvelous performances for a century. Today the Salzburg Marionette Theater employs a staff of 12 puppeteers and over 500 puppets, and performs operas, ballets and children’s plays both in Salzburg and all over the world. Under the leadership of Aicher, they have collaborated with the Salzburg Festival, as well as various international festivals. When asked in a 2004 book about the theater why ‘a life with marionettes,’ Aicher replied “For me, it is the process of empathizing with mind and soul, of feeling at one with the music and movement that bring these much-loved creatures to life.” Cueto and Reiniger would probably agree.
Since the film Muppets Most Wanted is opening this week, it seems like a good moment to talk about some favorite films that include puppets.
Genna remembers seeing Jim Henson’s Labyrinth for the first time in elementary school, at a friend’s house. What made the biggest impression on her at the time was the variety of the puppets and how they ranged in dimension. from the giant Ludo to the much smaller Sir Didymus and Hoggle. Genna also liked the way that the human actors (Jennifer Connolly and David Bowie) got to interact with the puppet characters. Today of course she is more interested in trying to understand how each puppet was made and manipulated, and given a choice, she would like to try performing either Ludo or one of the Fire Gang.
The other film series that Genna has been inspired by is Underworld, a trilogy of movies about vampires and werewolves. Like Labyrinth, many of the characters wear full body costumes with animatronic puppet heads that are manipulated with radio controls by multiple puppeteers. The mechanics of the legs, which have extensions inside the foam latex skin, and the details in the features and hair are all amazing. You can see some of the work it took to produce this in videos here and here.
Cecilia on the other hand, was first introduced to puppets on film with the ‘Lonely Goatherd’ marionettes in the classic musical The Sound of Music. The sequence was performed by Bil Baird and Cora Eisenberg, and the catchy tune, with puppets similar to a set from Mexico that she had, made a big impression on her as a kid. Labyrinth also became a favorite later in college, but the film that was an inspiration as she first started creating and performing puppets in high school was Fool’s Fire, an adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story Hoptoad which was created by Julie Taymor and shown on PBS in 1992. Cecilia came across it as part of a retrospective of Taymor’s work that was shown at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in 2000. The story of a jester who takes revenge on the cruel king and court that enslaves him, it uses full body puppets to establish the difference between Hoptoad and his captors.
Hopefully some kids will see Muppets Most Wanted this weekend and be inspired to pick up puppets! What other puppet films do YOU love?
1. Last week, Pat and I got to see a fantastic show by Blind Summit Theatre from England. It was called The Table and consisted of three puppeteers and one puppet telling the story of Moses, along with many clever asides. Really amazing work and the company website includes a set of tips for puppeteers which are also great.
2. A fascinating article about marionettes built by Ralph Kipniss, an artist I had never heard of before. While the Kickstarter campaign mentioned in the article did not reach its goal, there are still people working to raise the money to find a home for this amazing collection and preserve it for future generations. You can find out more and help out by donating here.
3. We made lots of puppets for Cabinets of Kismet out of various kinds of paper, but one kind we didn’t really use was tissues. Maybe if we had seen this video by Yuki Ariga, we would have:
4. Last but not least, yesterday was Thanksgiving, which of course means the puppets that had the biggest audience were the Macy’s Parade balloons. Did you know that Tony Sarg, who first came up with the idea for those books, was a puppeteer? Here is a VERY short clip of him with one of his graceful marionettes. The balloons aren’t nearly so graceful, but they are a lot bigger.
For a very long time, marionettes were the one form of puppetry I was a bit scared of. So many strings, so wobbly and hard to control. They felt like the most complicated kind of puppet out there and I wasn’t sure I could construct one adequately, let alone perform it. In spite of that, quite a few of our characters in the Paper World section of The Amazing and Marvelous Cabinets of Kismet are marionettes or variations of marionettes. Here are some photos of the different controls and how they work.
This is the control for Gecko. It moves his back legs and one of his front legs.
This is the control for the Loopy. It’s a variation on a 19th century control that I found a picture of in a book. The bottom piece unhooks to move the two “arms” of the puppet, while the top piece anchors the rest.
One marionette is complicated enough. Putting together four of them makes some things easier and some things harder. You sacrifice individual movement when you put multiple puppets on the same control, but it’s worth it to get the effect of the group moving together. Genna came up with the design for this control, of a whole school of Paperfish.