A wise frog once said that it’s not easy being green, but for a puppet, the world has never been more inviting.
Puppets are popping up everywhere. There are sock puppets on Broadway, Kermit and his motley crew have a new show premiering on ABC and two puppet shows are making their way to Charleston for the Spoleto Festival this year.
The Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater and Carlo Colla and Sons Marionette Company’s performances of “Sleeping Beauty” bring two vastly different types of puppetry to Spoleto: the first a display of wooden puppets moved on rods through the water by hidden puppeteers and the second an assembly of hand-carved marionettes performing a twist on the classic fairy tale.
Piccolo Spoleto, too, will feature puppets in Miniature Curiousa’s “Moon City.” Each act continues the centuries-old tradition of puppet theater and joins the growing ranks of contemporary puppetry in the arts.
From the lantern-lit shadow puppets of ancient China to the furry, feathered and felt-faced residents of Sesame Street, puppet theater has entertained, enlightened and informed audiences since as early as 3000 B.C.
“The cultural significance of puppetry goes back to the very beginnings of civilization,” said Bart P. Roccoberton Jr., director of the puppet arts program at the University of Connecticut. “For me, the cultural significance of puppetry is that it’s part and parcel with human existence.”
Puppets and masks from American Indians were used in fertility rites and to tell history through stories. And though ancient puppets have long since disintegrated, the history of Chinese shadow puppet theater lives on in words.
Roccoberton largely credits European puppetry such as the Punch and Judy shows with inspiring the modern puppet craze in the U.S. What began as a funerary and religious art form was dubbed too entertaining and cast out of the church and into traveling vaudeville and burlesque shows, he said. From there, television propelled puppets into hearts and homes, primarily as children’s programming.
“That is actually the curse of television,” he said. “Thankfully, Jim Henson’s work has always attracted adult audiences.”
Henson’s iconic Muppets are receiving an adult revival on ABC. The new show is said to be a mocumentary-style comedy, similar to “The Office.” A “Fraggle Rock” movie directed by and starring Joseph Gordon Levitt is in the works. Television audiences even get a glimpse behind the scenes as puppet-crafting hopefuls compete for a contract with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop on the SyFy reality show “Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge.”
The Muppets’ very own pugnacious porcine princess, Miss Piggy, has even been given the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center First Award for being a leader in her field.
But it’s not just Muppets bringing puppetry to the forefront of the arts. Musicals like the “Lion King” and “Avenue Q” rely on puppets to tell stories where human actors would fall short. Director J.J. Abrams has said that he made a conscious decision to move away from computer-generated imagery in the upcoming “Star Wars Episode VII” and return to the franchise roots, incorporating practical effects and old-school puppetry.
Even nerd-rock legends They Might Be Giants have incorporated the Avatars of They, two cheeky sock puppets adapted from their children’s music performances, into their adult rock shows.
Puppets have long been a part of the political landscape as well. The Bread and Puppet Theater has been, for more than 50 years, a force of social change. The recognizable facades of their larger-than-life puppets have been a part of political rallies since the Vietnam War.
The Spoleto Festival has a long history of including puppetry into its programming, from “Peter and Wendy,” a musical adapted from the J.M. Barrie novel, in 1996’s festival, to last year’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“The idea of animating an inanimate object, of making an inanimate object come alive, is something that is, I think, instinctively human,” General Director Nigel Redden said. “People are using one of the possibilities of theater by using a puppet. They’re not just puppet shows.”
While the public’s perception of puppets may be heightened among the buzz of high-profile projects such as those presented during the Spoleto Festival, puppets have always been waiting in the wings, Roccoberton said.
“Puppetry has been consistent,” he said. “It’s the public’s awareness that keeps changing.”
Kate Drozynski is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.