Puppetry: A Reader in Theatre Practice

By Milne, Geoffrey | Australasian Drama Studies, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Puppetry: A Reader in Theatre Practice


Milne, Geoffrey, Australasian Drama Studies


PENNY FRANCIS, PUPPETRY: A READER IN THEATRE PRACTICE (BASINGSTOKE: PAIERAVE MACMILLAN, 2012), AND DORITA HANNAH AND 01AV HARSLOF (EDS), PERFURMAHCE BESIEH (COPENHAGEN: MUSEUM TUSCUIANUM PRESS, 2008)

Penny Francis, MBE, has been deeply involved in the world of puppetry since 1961 as a writer, lecturer and editor. She was thus an ideal candidate for Palgrave Macmillan to commission for the somewhat under-documented form of puppetry for its series of Readers in Theatre Practice. The series 'aims to gather together both key historical texts and contemporary ways of thinking about the material crafts and practices of the theatre' and, further, wants to 'position the doing in relation to the thinking about doing or the thinking about the materials being used' (xiii).

Francis's concise but comprehensive book does all that was asked of it, and more. Its main focus is on puppetry's evolution from the 1990s to the present - mainly from a modern European perspective, but with useful reference to ancient Asian traditions such as the Japanese Bunraku-za and the Indonesian wayang as well as to the Italian commedia dell'arte, forerunner to such enduring puppet characters as Punch and Pulcinello. For Francis's purposes, puppetry 'denotes the act of bringing to imagined life inert figures and forms (representational or abstract) for a ritual or theatrical purpose - for a performance' (5; her emphasis). She adds that it springs from two taproots: 'one nourishes its magic and illusion, its dramaturgy of ritual and religion ... [and] the other nourishes the broad branches of its comedy, parody and satire' (6). Both threads are thoroughly pursued here, along with other hybrid applications in which boundaries are blurred.

The book is arranged in seven chapters; the first, titled 'Approach', covers basics like puppetry: the art and the act; puppet theatre and a theatre with puppets; the puppet: animated figure and object; the animated object; and the puppeteer. Chapter Two insightfully examines the related arts of mask, automata - including the brilliant, mechanically operated theatrum mundi of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries - and ventriloquism. The third chapter is devoted to Operational Techniques', covering a broad spectrum of styles from marionettes, glove- and hand-puppets, rods of various kinds, shadows and silhouettes, black light and black theatre, the toy and model theatres and, finally, bunraku. There is even room for brief mention of the extraordinary Vietnamese water-puppets. Here, as elsewhere throughout the book, each sub-section is very well illustrated with vivid descriptions of actual performances as well as by a beautiful selection of aptly chosen monochrome photos.

In Chapter Four, titled 'In Performance', the focus shifts to the artists, practitioners and artisans of the puppeteer's professions, beginning with the recent trend for groups of collaborators to devise their shows. Francis then considers the shifting roles of the writer; the director; and the designer and maker (together with lighting and sound designers) - including, crucially, the increasing contemporary need in mixed puppet-and-human shows for puppeteers to be excellent performers, even actors, as well as manipulators. This is followed by a finely nuanced chapter on 'Dramaturgy', as distinct from the more orthodox notion of 'writing'; it is illustrated with a lengthy and telling extract from the Canadian marionettist Ronnie Burkett's Billy Twinkle (2009) and it is probably one the most illuminating chapters in the book. Less so is Chapter Six's reproduction of five articles on aesthetics in puppetry, including Heinrich von Kleist's famous 1810 treatise 'On The Marionette Theatre', Henryk Jurkowski's sobering 'Puppetry Aesthetics at the Start of the Twenty-first Century' (2000) and Roland Barthes' rather confusing 'On Bunraku' of 1971. Given that key ideas like 'aesthetic' and aesthetics' are canvassed so widely elsewhere in the book, I wondered why we needed these. …

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