There is a hand gesture that people outside of puppetry use when I tell them I am a puppeteer. When they ask, as they inevitably will, “You mean like this?” they make a gesture with their hands, spreading their fingers into claws and moving the hands up and down in front of them. The motion is clearly intended to convey the operation of a marionette, though it often resembles the machinations of a mad musician playing an oversized organ. Regardless of how it is done, I marvel at the continued initial perception of puppets as marionettes. With the wide exposure of contemporary audiences to television and the style of puppet and manipulation that accompanies most television performance, I would expect a different gesture, one that demonstrates the opening and closing of a mouth. Yet, the perception of the marionette as the puppet is persistent.



The origin of the idea is no real mystery. In the U.S., puppetry in the early part of the 20th century was almost exclusively in the form of marionettes. The early geniuses of American puppetry, such as Tony Sarg, utilized string puppets and shared their techniques through books, magazines, and pamphlets. Issued to encourage the creation of puppets by hobbyists, many of them contained instructions for crafting marionettes. In the early days of television, marionettes were friendly faces on the screen. However, that complexion changed with the televised puppet performances of Burr Tillstrom, Shari Lewis, Paul Winchell, and, obviously, Jim Henson. 

This brings me back to my initial wonderment at the persistence of the image of puppetry as a stringed affair. Evidently, these gesticulators have seen marionette performances on television, film, and in the live theatre. I am so glad. I have been lucky to witness world-class marionette performance. Marionettes have an appeal that draws artists and audiences alike. There is something in the “stringed instrument” that resonates with human beings. It is not my intent to think about why that is; there has been a significant amount of philosophical and critical work addressing the marionetteʼs appeal. Instead, I choose to briefly examine the different ways in which the marionette is used in contemporary performance. I have created three categories by which performers and performances may be defined. I realize that the creation of taxonomy invites disagreement, but have begun to see the divisions as useful though not absolute. 

The first category I have created is the “classicists.” A classicist uses the marionette to perform the show, in the traditional sense. The marionette is the vehicle for the performance and, while the performance will often highlight the virtuosity of the performer, the puppet remains the focus. It is a character in the work, and the storytelling revolves around its actions. The classicist represents a large portion of the marionette performance seen in North America, the sublime and the sub-par alike. The latter is best left to the imagination, but the former has practitioners who make use of the marionette to delight the audience and enliven the form. The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes utilizes the puppets as the characters in complex, full-length, and compelling scripted drama.



Burkettʼs carefully crafted figures and expert characterizations are matched by his dexterity as a manipulator. There are other artists, Phillip Huber and Joe Cashore jump to mind, who can do the same with vignettes, songs, and short subjects, all convincing the spectator that the small figure before them lives and breathes as they do. The expertise and attention to detail these performers place into creating their performances of marionettes as beings mark them as classicists.

The second category is the “extremists.” If a classicist uses the marionette to be a character, an extremist utilizes the marionette to highlight the puppet qualities of the marionette, inherent to the string puppet; to say, “Look at this marionette and what itʼs doing!” The 2004 movie Team America: World Police is a prominent and widely seen example of the extremist at work. Though the puppets are the characters and the story is told through them, the filmmakers highlight the inherent “puppetness” of their stars throughout the movie. A scene that exemplifies this quality is the love scene between lead characters, Gary and Lisa. After the two make passionate, and graphic, love, they exchange heartfelt dialogue. Gary tells Lisa that she is amazing and she shushes him with a finger. As she is a puppet, she fails to make contact with his lips as she desires. Her pointed finger pokes him in the eye, drawing attention to the string connected to her hand and the complex manipulation required to perform her desired maneuver. Another example of the extremist is the performance of gigantic marionettes, one instance of which, called “The Little Girl Giant,” (Theatre Royale de Luxe) has 2,673,287 views on YouTube. The reason for the popularity of this clip is not the quality of the performance or construction of the figure, both very lovely, but its scale. The enormous puppet dominates the landscape, drawing the viewerʼs attention to its indisputable puppetness.



The final category I have identified is the “adapters.” An adapter takes knowledge of the marionette form and uses it to create work that draws upon traditional techniques of construction and manipulation, but also utilizes it in a way that points to something outside of the figure itself. An example that rushes to my mind is Flamingo Bar by Figuren Theater Tübingen. The performer, Frank Soehnle, engages with the puppet in a way that reinforces it as a character in the work, but also allows it to exist on a different, oftentimes symbolic, plane. Throughout the show, the puppeteer is compelled to get a complicated string puppet to react and to interact.

The marionette, a tangled mass more thanuseable figure, remains disengaged, despite the puppeteerʼs and other marionettesʼ efforts to entertain, to attract, and to torture the lifeless body. The feeling I had during the show was empathy for the puppet character but, unlike in Tinkaʼs New Dress, I did not identify it as any specific character. It was a more abstracted vision of the marionette in performance—unable to move on its own, but unable to be budged by others—trapped in between life and death. Other artists whose marionette work has fallen into the adapter milieu are Basil Twist and Roman Paska (with Mas- simo Schuster in Dieu! God Mother Radio), to name just a few. 

As I said previously, the categories are not absolute. Ronnie Burkettʼs interactions with the puppets, assuming a character role in Tinkaʼs New Dress or in Street of Blood, can be seen as either extremism or adaptation, depending on oneʼs view. In 2005, I had the great pleasure of seeing Don Giovanni in Prague at the National Marionette Theatre. The show utilized the puppets in ways that would define the company in each category, depending entirely on the episode and instance in performance. In the classicist spirit, Don Giovanni and his paramours were present, acting the Mozart opera to an orchestral recording, being the characters for the benefit of the audience and the storytelling. The extremists take charge when, during the finale of the play, one puppeteer loses patience with the duration of the concluding song and jumps down from the bridge onto the stage, a giant next to the puppet figures in performance. He grabs each character in turn from its puppeteer and places it hanging in the background. The adapter steps in during the intervening scenes, where audience attention span for prerecorded opera for marionettes might wane, by using the setting to explore the objectification of women in contemporary media and sexy photographs accompany the antics of the marionette Don Giovanni. For the puppeteers, he is an object to be utilized in the same way that he utilizes women. With each scene, a new tactic is employed to engage the puppet and audience in the opera. It is a captivating production, due in no small part to the companyʼs acute awareness of the capabilities of the marionette. 

If, as I argue, these categories exist, how can puppeteers utilize these distinctions to keep people coming to see their performance? Is there a way to use the persistent awareness of marionettes to further the medium? I think that there is a way to use the taxonomy I have created and it begins with the extremists. The exposure of extremist puppetry is particularly broad due to its dynamic nature that attracts people from a wide range of backgrounds in large numbers. If puppeteers can utilize the appeal of the extreme to present the public with additional opportunities to witness marionettes of the other two performance categories, the audience for marionette performance could well grow. A person impressed by the gigantically orchestrated movements of an enormous marionette might also be impressed by the incredible precision of Phillip Huber or the thematic matter of a show such as Flamingo Bar. The existence of such work should be made known to these potential audience members and, through social media and internet video technology, the extremists might just provide the platform for broader communication about all marionette work.

In addition to reaching a potential public audience, it would be well for learning and experienced puppeteers to reconnect to the spirit of the classicist. So many of us, myself included, wish to operate in an adapter vein. Without the strong foundation in traditional methods of construction and manipulation that is the classicistʼs milieu, it is impossible to make the leap to adaptation. Before one can improvise on a theme, the theme must be studied and understood from within. An adaptation comes from knowledge of the source. We need to continue to offer a quality foundation in technique and history of marionette performance, through workshops and classes, as well as publication. Like the early puppeteers sharing their craft, contemporary artists continuing to present materials will result in a wider understanding and pursuit of the form, and, just possibly, a more refined version of the hand gesture that began this essay and that demonstrates the marionetteʼs persistence. 

Team America: World Police, dir. Trey Parker, Paramount Pictures, 2004. 
“The Little Girl Giant.” YouTube. 14 Jan 2010 
Frank Soehnle, perf., Flamnigo Bar, by Figurentheatre Tubingen, La Mama ETC, New York, 9 Sep 1998. 
Don Giovanni, by National Marionette Theatre, Prague, Czech Republic, 15 Dec 2005.

Jennifer Stoessner has a PhD in theatre history, literature, and criticism from the Ohio State University, with a dissertation entitled “Building American Puppetry on the Jim Henson Foundation.” She currently works at La Jolla Playhouse as the education programs associate. 

ADDITIONAL SELECTION: Bibliography- Robotic Pygmalion: Choreography for an Automated Marionette Play