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The International Language of Puppets

By Raven Kaliana
Contributions From Elaine Kollias

Puppetry as Cultural Connection

Humans have always craved stories. Long before film, TV and DVDs, histories of entire civilizations were carried forward by oral tradition. For centuries, the magical medium of Puppetry has illustrated folklore, mythology, and provided witty commentary on current events.

Puppets, as representatives of our inner and outer selves, can reflect our lives and cultures in humorous, thought-provoking, mystical or whimsical ways. String toys and articulated dolls have been found dating from as far back as 4500 years ago in Northern Africa and India.

Puppetry Traditions Around the World

A quick trip to The Puppetry Home Page at will provide a good base for background information on international puppetry traditions including shadow puppets, rod puppets, marionettes, hand puppets, and Bunraku-style puppetry.

Making Shadow Puppets
Learn more about shadow puppets with Making Shadow Puppets by Jill Bryant.

Many thousands of years ago, Shadow play - by the light of a campfire on a cave wall - initiated humankind's first puppet expressions. Beautiful, detailed shadow puppets in Southeast Asia evolved to illustrate these cultures' sacred texts and mythic tales. Today, shadow puppets retain their traditional construction of translucent punched-and-painted leather, or elaborately decorated wood, and are worked with rods. The pieces are jointed together so that arms and hands, and sometimes - even mouths can move. The puppet characters are lit from behind; their shadows project onto a silk screen between the puppeteer and the audience, produce mysterious and beautiful effects.

Rod puppets developed out of this tradition, can be worked from below or above. Those worked from below usually have arms and heads that move, with legs inoperable or hidden from the audience. Puppets worked from above, with metal spokes connecting to the head and arms, are capable of emphatic movements, and are often used in the Italian Pupi Sicilani tradition. Rod marionettes, combined with string movement, were a strong element in preserving Czech traditions. Traveling puppeteers are said to have saved Czech language and culture from extinction, during times of military occupation.

The more lyrical string marionettes originated with European animated religious displays, built to illustrate Biblical stories for the local people.

The origins of hand puppet tradition point to China, but like many other forms of puppetry, may have sprung up in many places concurrently. Clowning characters in South Indian and Indonesian puppetry, used to explain and joke about the traditional sacred stories, influenced the development of Punchinello-type characters of the West. England's Punch & Judy characters come out of the hand puppet tradition. Punch was able to wield his bat with both hands, single-handedly fight off his personal responsibilities, authority figures, death and even the devil. Punch's attitude of "victory for the common man" appealed to many cultures, and similar characters can be found in the French Guignol, Czech Kasparek, the Greek Karaghiozis, to name a few.

Bunraku puppetry comes from Japan, an outgrowth of competing Kabuki Theatres in the 1600's. This unusual technique features 1/3 life-sized puppets that, with the help of human assistants, walk freely through the set rather than staying within confining walls of the puppet stage. Puppeteers dress in black, but otherwise remain fully visible to the audience. Audiences are so fascinated watching the moving puppet figures onstage that the puppeteers become effectively invisible.

Bunraku style puppetry has strongly influenced modern Western puppet theatre. Julie Taymor's The Lion King utilizes large puppets with visible puppeteers, as does the most recent Broadway runaway hit, Avenue Q. Here, the visible puppeteers become characters vital to the performance. The highly skilled technicians are anything but invisible or anonymous.

Introducing Kids to Puppetry

Helping kids explore the magical medium of puppetry will give them an outlet to act out favorite stories, and to cultivate a lifelong love of reading. To establish a solid takeoff point for puppetry, start with a trip to your local library.

Yellow-Beaked Crow PuppetLibraries provide endless fodder for performance material - fantasy, history, biographies, myths, poetry, old and new stories from around the world. From the simple single child doll-play, to role-play adventures among several children, to more elaborate enactments of scripts and stories from behind a stag, puppet play is imaginative and open-ended. Look for sturdy, well-built puppets made of durable washable materials that will stand up to enthusiastic play. For the greatest play value, the puppet should be capable of a wide variety of expressions, and easily manipulated by a child’s hands.

Puppets Connect Past and Present

Puppetry creates unique points of view - kids can imagine themselves as other characters with lives very different from their own, which can help them develop empathy, and learn to better work together with others. A magical medium, puppetry connects kids to a sense of history and culture.

Enrich family connections by creating a group puppet project. Enacting stories from the lives of extended family and earlier generations can give kids a stronger sense of family history. Inviting other members of the family to these performances creates an atmosphere of warmth and whimsy, opening doors for understanding and appreciation.

For those of us not familiar with the traditions of our own "Old World" cultures, or even the stories of our own families, puppetry can provide a platform for connection with older generations, and with cultural traditions that have been lost along the way.

In many languages around the world, the words puppet, doll, and nurture are closely related. These simple toys encourage children to laugh, grow and learn, bringing much happiness and creating a loving connection between caretaker and child.

Raven Kaliana has frolicked her days away at Folkmanis Puppets ( since 1997. Currently working on designs for a shadow puppet show, Raven also sculpts marionettes and learned to carve classic Czech marionettes from master woodcarvers in Prague.

Elaine Kollias, contributing to this article, has been enraptured in the puppet world of Folkmanis Puppets since 1986, where she designs and markets puppets. As a mother of a five year old, Elaine is taking her daughter's puppeteering advice and ideas very seriously.

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All the Backyard's A Stage
Though all the world's a stage, the perfect place for kids to debut their dramatic talents may be in your own backyard. With a favorite book in hand, a couple of bed sheets and some clothespins, and a lot of imagination, Broadway is just a step or two off the porch.

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