Where Puppets Are More Than Playthings
Words by Susan Neidert, as told to and edited by Rebecca Gross
Susan Neidert is the director of the Fine Arts Center in Brigham City, Utah. Part of the center's offerings is the World of Puppetry Museum, open since 2000. Below, Neidert talks about the museum, and how puppets can illuminate both other cultures and ourselves.
A Museum’s Beginnings
We started a puppetry program in a local school, and then we found our own facility. So we have a fine arts center that's basically formed around the puppetry interest. I [was] teaching my kids and the neighbor kids, and the kids in the local school district's summer school puppetry workshops, and just enjoying the way that puppetry helps you to be creative. So it’s evolved from doing little annual puppetry workshops, to year-round puppetry workshops, to having a place where we also had puppets on display.
I've just been collecting [puppets] for a long time. People are starting to donate puppets that they have, or bringing in unusual puppets for us, and that's been a 12-, 15-year process. We now have puppets from over 15 countries, and we probably have 400 or 500 puppets. Our museum has about 150 [on display], and they represent different eras of puppetry. What we have now is a museum full of really beautiful, eye-catching puppets, just a fun variety. There are also ones that show the unique ingenuity of the different people and different cultures.
A puppet from Mexico. Marionettes became a popular form of entertainment after Mexico claimed its independence in 1821. Street vendors at festivals found the puppets financially successful. The puppets or marionettes reflect the common folk- farmers, musicians, etc. and an occasional bandit! Photo courtesy of the Fine Arts Center
The Culture of Puppets
In Indonesia, the leaders of the country actually hired puppeteers to tell their stories. Hindu myths had like over 200 characters, and they reflect a lot of their stories. Some of them are creation stories, some of them are interaction stories---how people got along, who outsmarted who, and who helped who. So puppeteering, or puppetry, is still really big in that culture because it's part of their tradition. You've got shadow puppets [there]---they’re leather, and it's a tradition that's passed on. You learn how to make puppets from the masters that made puppets, they have these 200 characters and they're all made a certain way.
A good puppeteer will do all-night stories from the storybook. One of the things that's interesting is that they have a tree of life or a flame that they'll shine up on the stage as a chapter-marker, because they go on and on and on. You go to Burma, which is now Myanmar, and they also had leaders that hired puppeteers to tell their stories. You go to France and the Catholic Church and they hired puppeteers to tell a lot of their stories. And, if you look at the development of puppetry, they were using rod puppets, and then puppets that were controlled from on top with big rods, a lot like Sicilian marionettes. You didn't have movies, you didn't have TV. So the best way to entertain or to reach people was to do live acting or bring in puppets. The most popular story would have been Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus, and people, especially the kids, would all want to come and see little Mary, because she was a beautifully made puppet. The words “little Mary” in French sounds like "marionette.” So suddenly we've coined a phrase.
In our country, we're the most puppet-poor. We had our Puritan image where dolls were not necessarily respected or considered a good thing. So we didn't build the strong attachment to puppets that you would see in Europe to help tell stories. In Europe, they'll have theater for adults in puppets. It's beautiful artwork, it's still storytelling. I don't know why we think we can't tell stories [for adults using puppets].
Real Life in Miniature
What I'm stressing now in our museum is learning to respect the ingenuity of these people, they way they learned to move a couple strings to really show the character of the puppet. The way they developed the character, to either make people laugh, or tell a story, or show how a character was sad, or the crazy ideas that they had that you can act out but you couldn't do in person. Puppets can exaggerate feelings, they can exaggerate motions, they can express things in a safer way than people can. Puppets are also safer for children to interact with than adults sometimes. They'll use them in therapy. There are such a variety of things that we learn about ourselves as humans, just trying to re-enact things in theater, or trying to re-enact things with puppets.
[Another appeal] for me is the idea of seeing real life in miniature. Seeing life from a different perspective. Watching a little figure come to life and breathe and have feeling. As people, we all have personalities and feelings, and seeing somebody be able to make that happen in an object, it helps you understand feelings and interactions better. So I think it's fascinating. I'm always fascinated watching a puppet that has really good character display and is moving, and is showing personality and feeling.
Mr. Pulcinella’s Corner. The original translation for the Italian word "pulcinella" is “little rooster," but it more commonly refers to Punch, as in Punch and Judy. The big puppet was made with help from the Utah Puppetry Guild as a parade version of Mr. Punch. He participates in the Brigham City Peach Days Parade every year. Photo courtesy of the Fine Arts Center
Teaching Creativity Through Puppets
I have so many favorite [puppets]. I have a little mountain climber, and I can really make him look like he's climbing. People are just amazed. You have to think through the steps of how you step, how you climb, and then how to make it look like he's thinking through and really climbing this little hill. Yesterday, I did a George Latshaw demonstration with a bunch of kids. You start with a paper plate head, and then you add a pillowcase body, and then you give another hand and another hand. You need one puppeteer to hold the head and the hand, and then a second puppeteer to be the other hand. I put sandals at the bottom of the pillowcase, and suddenly, from both pieces, I have a whole, live figure that can breathe and wave and walk and move. It suddenly comes alive. And you go, "Whoa, wow! Look at that!" So even though they watch us build the puppet all together, it's magic.
I don't like cookie-cutter things. [When doing a workshop with students,] I bring in boxes of craft projects and things like that. Part of the process is letting them invent, letting them discover the way to make the puppet work. I give them the basic tools and I show them the things that work, but I really like it when kids can figure out how they're going to portray hair, or how they're going to do this. So it's their puppet and it's their ideas. Sometimes janitors and teachers, if they value a clean room over design [and] creativity, then we have a little clash. I think most of the time, teachers are overwhelmed by the ability of kids to create. So, to me, that's my payback. That's just a fascinating part of it. Watching kids doing puppet shows, and they're giggling or they're laughing, or jumping when the puppets are suddenly trapped or something happens. It's just awesome when you get that feedback. A successful puppet show brings you to a whole other level; you forget that you're looking at objects. You start feeling what the puppets are feeling. You start understanding the story. Those are the kinds of things that make puppetry really fun. Kind of like magic.