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.