Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

From Animism to Digital Animation: Puppetry in New Zealand/ Aotearoa

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

From Animism to Digital Animation: Puppetry in New Zealand/ Aotearoa

Article excerpt

New Zealand can boast a puppetry heritage extending over several hundred years, beginning with an Indigenous puppetry form and then evolving over time with more recent influences from European and later Asian migrants. The country is in an interesting period of cultural development as it seeks to embrace its Polynesian and European traditions while articulating a new national identity in this era of immigration, globalisation and high technology. Film-makers like Peter Jackson have eagerly embraced and developed new technologies to create animated fantasies such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and contemporary theatre-makers such as Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis - Indian Ink Theatre Company - utilise more traditional puppet and mask forms in their exploration of the migrant experience. Like their contemporaries everywhere, the puppeteers of New Zealand have been - and will continue to be - possessed by the desire to bring life to the inanimate object.

Early history

Nga Karetao is a rare puppetry form that has its origin with the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. Some tribal groups practised this genre of puppetry known variously as Karetao (by the Ngati Tuhoe), Karari (by the Ngati Porou) and Toko Raurape (by some of the Far North tribes). These wooden figures represented ancestors and were intricately carved, often with moko - a facial tattoo - indicating the high status of the ancestor. The operator held the figure by a handle carved below its legs and pulled flax strings from behind to animate the loosely jointed arms. Special songs were composed for them, known as oriori karetao.1

Following European settlement in the early nineteenth century, the traditions surrounding the use of these puppets were suppressed by the imposition of Christianity and the general effects of colonisation. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that they were used to instruct youth in tribal history and genealogy and, in some cases, women used figures known as Pakoko in a satirical way to resolve personal disputes. The noted Maori academic and composer, the late Hirini Melbourne, who researched Taonga Puoro (sacred musical instruments),2 stated that the Taonga Puoro and Karetao were used for the same purpose, 'for the healing of the land and the people'.3 Very few such figures are now known to exist but some fine examples are in museum collections in New Zealand, Britain and the USA.

The first recorded European puppeteer to perform in New Zealand was 'Professor' Barney Whiterats, aka Robert Winter. In 1849 Barney Whiterats worked his passage to New Zealand from London where he had allegedly been a 'Punch and Judy Professor'. On arrival at Port Chalmers, Dunedin, he jumped ship and immediately began a career that was to last some sixty years as an itinerant Punch Professor, shadow puppeteer, showman and trainer of rats. He performed wherever he could, from music halls to shearing sheds. However, conditions were not easy and life on the swag, even for an entertainer, consisted of walking many miles for a meagre return. Often his shows would only have earned him some food and/or a place to sleep. Without doubt Barney Whiterats was a colourful character, carrying 'a box almost as big as himself. This box contained his screen, the puppets and the performing white mice'5 and he was much beloved by South Island school children. He continued to perform up until three months before his death in 1911, aged ninety.

First modern troupes

In the latter half of the nineteenth century various marionette troupes - including the Webb's Royal Marionettes - made tours to New Zealand. However, it was not until 1939 that Arnold Goodwin established the first significant modem troupe in New Zealand: The Goodwin Marionette Theatre. This professional puppet theatre had its origins in 1937 when Arnold Goodwin - then a tutor at the Elam School of Fine Art in Auckland - added theatre design to the curriculum. A miniature stage was made and the students added marionettes to bring their theatre to life. …

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