Puppetry and Multimedia

Edited by Ida Hledikova and Cariad Astles
Slovakia: The Bratislava Academy of Performing Arts

Reviewed by Margareta Sörenson*

The expansion of Artifical Intelligence — AI — is as fearful as it is tempting in many fields. To any artist it raises a number of questions: will it become an alternative to living actors, illustrators, writers? Will it replace professional artists in film, theatre or other of the performing arts?

The intensity of the discussion, the reaction not least from trade unions and artists’ associations made me go back to this modest book published in 2020. Put into the shadow during the years of the Covid pandemic – so much about puppetry gets lost anyway —  this book actually offers some provoking ideas related to the subject of AI. Because puppetry is so often seen as simply an amusement for children – the experimental side of the art is often overlooked by theorists– Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Philippe Genty’s puppet-dance performances, the work of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company – is too quickly passed over, too quickly forgotten.

Puppetry and Multimedia is useful then as it tries both to remember and to speculate on the future. An anthology based on contributions from a conference held in 2017 which gathered scholars and artists from acrosss Europe, Canada and Australia, it usefully reflects upon the experience and observations of artists, theorists and practitioners in the field. Edited by Ida Hledikova, former president of the marionette association UNIMA’s Research Commission, and Cariad Astles, current head of the same commission, the volume was published and sponsored by the Department of Puppetry at the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. No surprise here as  Eastern Europe has — thanks to decades of a rigid and politicized art culture, –long maintained a more serious and ambitious attitude towards pupptry than most of the West. Indeed, Eastern Europé is now a kind of archive of the art form over the last 300 years.

In the opening essay, Fables of Big and Small, or Puppetry in the Age of Intermediality by the French scholar Didier Plassard, we get a helpful introduction to contemporary puppetry’s use of electronic imagery since the 1980s. The use of electronics has been seen for decades as ”incongruous, or even as a betrayal” of the art form and its professional handicraft aspect of puppet  making, But Plassard, a professor of Drama and Performance Studies at Paul Valéry University in Montpellier, sets out a valuable relationship between these forms.

Indeed, his thoughts about notions such as big and small become keys for opening the magic box of puppetry. For him, there are clearly many possibilities in playing with scale from miniatures to giant shadows, all essential to creating a platform for imagination without limits.

Some artists , of course, are attracted to contemporary puppetry precisely because of  these experimental possibilities. As Plassard puts it, ”interest in the expressive potential of video imagery is … found amongst artists working at the crossroads of several disciplines (puppetry, live theatre, dance, visual arts), or among those who use the effects of consumer society to develop object theatre”.

Speaking personally, at the latest international festival for puppetry in Charleville-Mézières, France in September of 2023, I quite enjoyed a puppet version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier in which Plassard’s thesis was immediately confirmed. The Italian company Teatrodelleapparazione created a myriad of toys on stage – including tin soldiers and a small porcelain ballerina – through small hand cameras worked by puppeteers which projected onto a large screen at the back of the stage. There was the poor little soldier searching for his love, but now in large scale. The not-quite Andersen ending was done to the strains of ”Volare”, a popular Italian song from the 1950’s. Out a window flew both the ballerina and the soldier with the audience singing, happily.

Enlarging images through digital tools also gives opportunities to stage various emotions from fear to nightmare images. Plassard suggests such tools can be used by everyone. Scale, he says, has the net effect of making puppetry animation stand out whether it is small, ephemeral or quasi-object. Even simple toys like Legos or even Starwar-figurines can”move” with the help of  cameras to create movie-like feelings particularly in young audiences and can simplify time-consuming handicraft work.

While some writers in this anthology deal with theory, others focus on their own national experiences. Katerina Leskova Dolenska, an art journalist and educator from the Czech Republic, notes in her essay that filmmakers pioneered the creation of visual spectacles. And many used puppets in panoramas, dioramas, theatre mundi, camera obscura and laterna magica. She looks at Lotte Reiniger, a shadow theatre artist, and specifically her silhouette film, Prince Achmed from 1926, as being the first animated feature film. Dolenska suggests that today’s digital forms are nothing new, but are rather a continuation of puppetry’s ongoing curiosity with new technical possibilities. Also noted by Dolenska are the challenges that were early on connected to the need to fold all performance materials flat and pack them into cases, a real challenge for itinerant puppet theatre professionals. 

She points out as well that the use of projections as scenography is now being replaced more and more  with actively staged figures/puppets/shadows juxtaposed against a moving/projected backdrop. In this she quotes Julie Taymor, who staged the musical The Lion King with huge puppets, ”humanettes”, masks and many other movable three dimensional images. ”Of course we could have had a perfect screening of a real African sun,” said Taymor. ”But ….we used bamboo poles and pieces of hand-painted silk folded into a circle….so the opening scene isn’t anything too expensive or complicated , just the magic of pure theatre. I think that regardless of whether your budget is huge or small, technology has to be used for a very specific purpose. And if you don’t need it, don’t use it.” The development of robotics and other high-tech facilities on theatrical stages is also rapidly developing, some using actual Artificial Intelligence.

I would also point out here that dance has been a close companion to puppetry over the centuries and that dance is also much inclined to use new technical tools. In the article ”Choreographic Manipulation: the Beauty of Intermedial Gesture in Sans Objets,”  an essay by the French scholar Oriane Maubert, there is a discussion of the classic text on puppetry by Kleist – ”On the Marionette Theatre” from 1810 and to its conclusion that the string puppet is a ”figure of zero gravity and grace,” the same goals a classical dancer seeks. Maubert takes as her starting point Sans Objets, a dance production by Aurélien Bory and discusses how Bory created a meeting between a dancer and a robot. Maubert splits her analysis in two: a) Robot and Dancer – receiving the Other and b) A step towards beauty.

She suggests that the robot and the dancer both acknowledged their own bodies – one a body of flesh and the other a body of steel, thus giving birth to a genuine science fiction, but soon enough the fragility of the robot made the audience refer to it as a being as it becomes ”puppetised” triggering questions of control and encounter. Equally, the dancer gradually develops a relationship with the object (like choreographic partners searching for physical solutions together). Maubert refers to Rudolf Laban and his theory of the kinesphere and how this unusual piece ”seems to develop the kinesphere theory, where the robot begins as an extension of the dancer’s body. The area of the kinesphere and its possibilities open up, offering choreographic exploration.”

Maubert goes on to discuss the role and place of the technician who needs to be present, a role that is also ambiguous, present but not seen. The article ends with Kleist again and the idea of beauty in terms of light.

Other writers such as Cristina Gazioli from Italy reflect on the evolving perspectives of puppetry through new technologies which are creating a metamorphosis for the art form. Lucy Childs, an artist-scholar, asks herself “How” to move from the physical to the virtual without losing the love of puppetry? In this question, I think, lies the challenge: how to make the inaminate animate? This is surely at the root of the cultural heritage of puppetry, an idea that is both Romantic and post-Romantic. Will it ever be just about pushing buttons? Will AI eat up these forms? Hopefully not.

I do recommend this modest anthology as an updated mapping of contemporary puppetry, a book for any kind of theatre school or university training professionals for the stage. 

*Margareta Sörenson is a theatre and dance critic based in Stockholm, Sweden. A former president of the International Association of Theate Critics, her orientation is toward multidisciplinary stage arts such as contemporary dance, circus, animation theatre, and the influence of classical Asian performing arts in European culture. She has published books on theatre, puppetry, children’s culture, and dance, including her 2011 book on Mats Ek. She has been a lecturer on the traditions of puppetry in Finland and Sweden, holds an MA in dance studies, and lectures on dance history and aesthetics.

Copyright © 2023 Margareta Sörenson
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