A Brief History of Puppets and Social Justice

Oxford Dictionaries defines social justice as “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities and privileges within a society.” In honor of Dr. King, who fought for equal opportunities for so many, this week we have a short overview of how puppets have contributed and continue to contribute to the fight for social justice.

Giant puppet from the Million Puppet March in DC. November 2012.

Giant puppet from the Million Puppet March in DC. November 2012.

In his 1990 essay “The Radicality of the Puppet Theater,” Peter Schumann calls puppetry “…conceptual sculpture…uninvited by the powers-that-be.” Over the centuries, the low status of puppets in the art hierarchy has allowed them to be agitators for justice, the perfect mouthpiece for complaints about the government. Today puppets are used by  theaters and activist groups across the US as an essential visual component of protests as well as a way to empower communities for fight for necessary change. While this is far from a complete picture (read this essay for more information), here is a short overview of the history of puppetry and protest.

Puppetry has always been a transient art form. From medieval times through the nineteenth century, puppeteers moved from place to place, often performing outdoors rather than inside theaters. As Italian commedia characters such as Pulcinella travelled from country to country, these archetypal figures took on local characteristics and became distinct. However, whether they were named Kasperle (in Germany), Karagioz (in Turkey) or Punch (in England), all of these puppets entertained by breaking rules, upsetting authority and sometimes commenting on local issues and problems of the day. In early nineteenth century France, an out of work silk worker and dentist named Laurent Mourguet created the character Guignol, who became a voice for the working people of France disenfranchised by the combination of industrialization and economic depression. Later in the twentieth century, as protests multiplied in the 1960’s, puppets (especially giant ones) became a widespread part of the action.

The most famous puppet theater associated with protest is probably Bread and Puppet Theater, located in Glover, Vermont and formed in 1963 by Peter Schumann. Originally based on the Lower East Side of New York City, Schumann began by creating shows about local problems and eventually moved on to deploring unchecked capitalism, the Vietnam War and other national issues. Bread and Puppet still takes their puppet and circus shows (always with live music) on tour each year and creates massive community circuses each summer at their farm in Vermont.  Two other companies that provide puppet support to activists on a range of issues are the People’s Puppets of Occupy Wall Street, in New York City and Puppet Underground, in Washington DC. Run by volunteers, they hold workshops in puppet-making and create large and small scale puppets and artwork for protests.

Over the years, several groups that began by working on protests and activism have started to also provide educational resources and community arts support in various cities around the country. Wise Fool Puppet Intervention began as an arts group adding visual impact to activist events in California, and artists with the group later founded Wise Fool New Mexico, which seeks to empower people through puppetry and circus arts. In Philadelphia, Spiral Q Puppet Theater provides arts programming to schools, support for communities trying to express a vision of change, and leadership training for young people. Across the country, puppets are still speaking for those with no voices; still part of a movement toward change for the better.

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Puppets and Problem Solving

How do you turn a cardboard tube into a bird? Into a man?

How do you turn a cardboard tube into a bird? Into a man?

It was great to see the latest Education issue of The Washington Post Magazine devoted to arts education, with a lead article by Anne Midgette. I found it encouraging to read about the many efforts by various arts organizations to bring their work to students, either during the regular school day or through after-school programs, especially because education is such a big part of what I am trying to do with this company. Midgette brings up some great points in the article and a later addendum, among them the value of arts as a motivator for students who struggle academically, as a means of teaching focus and the struggle for some organizations to balance creating art with teaching. I had some further thoughts on the value of puppetry in arts education, and specifically the challenge of teaching problem solving.

Problem solving is a huge part of learning and it can be an incredibly frustrating skill to learn, especially for younger students. Authentic problem solving is the sort of skill that easily gets pushed to the side in favor of memorization and rote drill when the classroom culture is based around standardized tests, as I know from personal experience. However, this only makes things harder for kids when they are asked to make decisions on their own. When you are used to every task having a specific answer and every assignment needing to be done ‘right,’ facing an activity without a certain set of steps and no guarantees can be intimidating.  Students are used to the answer being in the back of the book or in their teacher’s head. But what if your teacher doesn’t know the answer? What if no one does?

Puppets require lots of problem solving and there is no ‘right’ answer to be found–only what works for you and what looks right to your eyes as the artist. How can you make your puppet walk? Which yarn is the best hair? Does your puppet have arms or legs? Puppetry is an ideal low-cost way to introduce students to the concept of making decisions and solving problems. After all, even if math problems and grammar rules have set answers, not everything in life is laid out in perfect patterns and students need to learn to make decisions that are best for them. Why not give them the opportunity to problem solve with a puppet, rather than waiting until they are so set on getting everything perfect that one challenging task reduces them to tears? Flexibility and creativity are skills that are important and I hope that as Wit’s End Puppets continues to grow as a company, we will have the opportunity to encourage them in many more students.