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Puppet Genres

Puppets can be classified in many ways: by the country of their origin; whether they are worked from above, below, or from the side; or whether they are flat or solid. They can also be categorised into 7 main groups. Marionettes, glove puppets, model theatre, rod or hand and rod, shadow puppets, finger puppets and ventriloquist dummies.

Marionettes

A marionette is a puppet controlled from above using wires or strings depending on regional variations. A marionette's puppeteer is called a 'marionettist'. Marionettes are operated with the puppeteer hidden or revealed to an audience by using a vertical or horizontal control bar in different forms of theatres or entertainment venues. They have also been used in films and on television. The attachment of the strings varies according to its character or purpose. Puppetry is an ancient form of performance. Some historians claim that they predate actors in theatre. There is evidence that they were used in Egypt as early as 2000 BC when string-operated figures of wood were manipulated to act kneading bread and other string-controlled objects.

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Wire-controlled, articulated puppets made of clay and ivory have been found in Egyptian tombs. Marionette puppetry was used to display rituals and ceremonies using these string-operated figurines back in ancient times and is still used today. Puppetry was practiced in Ancient Greece and the oldest written records of puppetry can be found in the works of Herodotus and Xenophon, dating from the 5th century BC.  Archimedes is known to have worked with marionettes. Plato's work also contains references to puppetry. The Iliad and the Odyssey were presented using puppetry. The roots of European puppetry probably extend back to the Greek plays with puppets played to the "common people" in the 5th century BC.

By the 3rd century BC these plays would appear in the Theatre of Dionysus at the Acropolis. In Britain, the renaissance of Marionettes during the late 19th and early 20th century was driven by Harry Whanslaw and Waldo Lanchester, two of the co-founders of the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild. In 1936 Lanchester and his wife Muriel opened the Lanchester Marionette Theatre in Malvern, Worcestershire, the only theatre in the country exclusively to be used for marionettes at the time. The only purpose-built UK marionette theatre is The Harlequin Puppet Theatre (built 1958) in Rhos on Sea, North Wales, Founded by Eric Bramall FRSA and continued by Chris Somerville. Since the death of Chris Somerville in January 2023 the Harlequin has been given a Grade 2 listed building status.

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Glove puppets

Glove puppets are worked from below and follow the movement of the hand and fingers of the operator. Usually, the index finger fits into the head of the puppet and the thumb and middle finger fit inside its arms. This method of operation is not symmetrical in appearance, but the thumb and index finger are most useful in gripping and holding movements. No other disposition of the fingers does this so effectively. Apart from gripping, holding and head nodding, the individual movements of glove puppets are very limited, although the whole puppet can move about within the performance area as quickly as the operator can move his arm, as they are so closely linked.

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This directness of control makes the glove puppet particularly suitable for strong characterisation for, in spite of its limited power of physical expression, there is no mechanical barrier between operator and puppet. Punch & Judy has to be recognised as the most popular representation of glove puppets. Punch’s origins are from 16th century Italy, where he was known as ‘Pulcinella’. The first recorded appearance in Britain was on May 9th, 1662. It was witnessed by Samuel Pepys who described the event in his diary as "an Italian puppet play, that is within the rails there, which is very pretty."

Glove puppets are the most popular of all the genres and are very suitable for beginners. Another popular type of glove puppet is where the puppeteer uses one hand to operate the characters mouth, and the other becomes the characters entire arm and hand. A good example of this would be the popular characters Zippy and Bungle from the Children's TV series Rainbow, which ran from 1972 until 1992. The 2023 Children in Need programme featured several of these characters. Ronnie Le Drew has been the puppeteer behind Zippy since 1974 when he took over from Violet Philpott, and in later years Ronnie also became the voice of Zippy.

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Model Theatre

Model Theatre or Toy Theatre as it is known today uses flat figures and originated in the nineteenth century. These theatres used prints of characters and scenery from the popular dramas of that period. They were sold as ‘Penny Plain or Twopence Coloured’. The prints were cut out, moulded onto card, and each actor being moved on and off stage by means of a wire from the side of the toy theatre itself.

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The theatre in its simplest form was made from a series of rectangular cardboard pierced screens, the front screen being the stage opening. The cut-out screens behind formed the wings leading to the back screen which would be solid. The characters are moved in from the side of the stage between the wings. Scenery can be hung from the top of each screen and held in place with paper clips. We have a page dedicated to Model Theatre which you can visit by clicking here.

Rod or Hand & Rod puppets

Rod puppets, like glove and shadow puppets, are worked from below. The manipulator holds the main supporting rod to the body in one hand, and with the other moves the rod attachments to the arms, and in some cases to the legs. The puppets themselves range from a simple development of the glove puppet to a fully jointed figure comparable to the marionette. This type of puppet has seldom been seen in Europe, and its best belongs to the Far East. The Javanese rod puppets in the Victoria & Albert Museum are of as high a standard as the shadow puppets from the same country. In recent years, rod puppets have been widely and successfully used in America, with experiment in added range of movement and interest.

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Today, the more traditional type of rod puppet has been replaced with the very popular Arm (or Hand) & Rod puppet. This is a style of puppet that is usually built using foam as the under-structure and then covered with materials such as fur fabric, fleece, etc. It is occasionally referred to as a ‘Muppet-style puppet’ or even a ‘hand-in-mouth’ puppet. The first hand-rod-puppet was built by Jim Henson, a lizard-like character who would later be named Kermit. He built the body out of cardboard and covered it with pieces of his mother’s green coat. The puppeteer's dominant hand goes into the head of the puppet, operating the mouth, and at times, facial features. The puppeteer's less dominant hand controls the "arm rods", thin rods connected to the puppet's hand or arms.

Arm rods tend to be painted black, and have wooden dowels connected at the bottom for easier grip. Popular examples of this type of puppet in Britain were Gordon the Gopher in the mid 80’s, to present day puppets such as Hacker T Dog and Dodge T Dog. Hacker was originally operated by Andy Heath up until 2009 when Phil Fletcher took over and is still Hackers right hand man so to speak today. Dodge is operated by another Guild member Warrick Brownlow Pike.  Hand-rod puppets tend to have smaller arms and hands than live-hand puppets, in order to be proportionate to their body.

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Shadow puppets

Shadow puppets belong to the Far East rather than to Europe, but they have been seen intermittently in this country. In the late eighteenth century shadow shows known as 'ombres chinoises' were very popular in London and Paris, and more recently there have been the shadow puppet films of Lotte Reineger who brings the art to a very high standard indeed. Shadow puppets are shown in a darkened room, held from below, against a flat semi-transparent screen, with a light behind. The jointed flat figures are cut in outline to make a black moving silhouette. This silhouette can be pierced to add to pattern or detail, and colour can be added by covering pierced work with cellophane or celluloid tinted with thin oil paint.

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In scenery, which is either pinned to a permanent screen, or painted or pasted on changeable screens, degrees of darkness from black to grey can be made by using various thicknesses of paper. There are 2 main types of shadow puppet. The first is the Chinese style of shadow figure which has a main control rod attached to the base of the neck at the front, and the weight of the body partly hangs from this point. The feet rest on a ledge at the foot of the screen and the screen itself is tilted forward at the top so that the puppets may rest in position without being held. Two further rods are attached to the hands, and a second ledge below the screen supports the rods when not in use.

The second type is of shadow puppet is supported on a stick held from below and pinned or glued to the lower part of the puppet’s body. Limbs are moved by a system of leverage. Thin wire runs from the inner edge of each movable joint down beside the stick and is then twisted round the stick to make a sliding sleeve. The movements of this type of puppet are vigorous and decisive rather than subtle. They are shown against an upright screen without a ledge and depend entirely on the support of the manipulator’s hand to stay in position. However, a ledge can be placed below the screen and drilled with holes to house the rods of puppets which are to remain still for any length of time. A combination of these two types of shadow puppet can be made where the figure is supported on a stick with some movements worked by leverage, and others by extra rods.

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Finger puppets

A finger puppet is a type of puppet that is controlled by one or more fingers that occupy the interior of the puppet. Finger puppets are generally very simple, consisting of a sheath that the person wearing the puppet (the puppeteer) inserts either one or two fingers into. While the movement of the puppets are limited, multiple finger puppets can be used on each hand, allowing the puppeteer to control many puppets at one time. Due to their simplicity, the creation of finger puppets is a common craft project for parents and small children and its origin as an art form is unknown. In addition to their popularity as arts and craft creations, premade finger puppets are sold in a variety of venues and are often included as companions to children’s books.

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In at least one known instance, a finger puppet has been sold as a cleaning utensil. Finger puppets often come in sets. A set is usually just a group or collection of physically separate finger puppets, often intended to be used together in a performance. However, sometimes finger puppets are constructed to be an individual unit of multiple physically connected finger puppets. Occasionally these units consist of two or three puppets (intended for adjacent fingers), but they are most commonly created as sets of five, designed to fit the entire hand of the performer like a glove, intended so all five puppets can be used simultaneously on one hand.

Ventriloquist's Dummy

Ventriloquism or ventriloquy, is a performance act of stagecraft in which a person (a ventriloquist) creates the illusion that their voice is coming from elsewhere, usually through a puppet known as a "dummy". The act of ventriloquism is ventriloquizing, and the ability to do so is commonly called in English the ability to "throw" one's voice. Originally, ventriloquism was a religious practice.] The name comes from the Latin for 'to speak from the stomach: venter (belly) and loqui (speak). The Greeks called this gastromancy (Greek: εγγαστριμυθία). The noises produced by the stomach were thought to be the voices of the unliving, who took up residence in the stomach of the ventriloquist. The ventriloquist would then interpret the sounds, as they were thought to be able to speak to the dead, as well as foretell the future.

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One of the earliest recorded group of prophets to use this technique was the Pythia, the priestess at the temple of Apollo in Delphi, who acted as the conduit for the Delphic Oracle. The shift from ventriloquism as manifestation of spiritual forces toward ventriloquism as entertainment happened in the eighteenth century at travelling funfairs and market towns. An early depiction of a ventriloquist dates to 1754 in England, where Sir John Parnell is depicted in the painting 'An Election Entertainment' by William Hogarth as speaking via his hand. By the late 18th century, ventriloquist performances were an established form of entertainment in England.

Most performers "throw their voice" to make it appear that it emanates from far away (known as distant ventriloquism), rather than the modern method of using a puppet (near ventriloquism). The entertainment came of age during the era of the music hall in the United Kingdom and vaudeville in the United States. Great names in the history of dummy making include Jeff Dunham, Frank Marshall and Len Insull. Insull was Britain's leading ventriloquial figure maker of the twentieth century. His noted figures include Lord Charles for Ray Alan and Archie Andrews for Peter Brough. The Guild has its own modern-day ventriloquist in the guise of Max Fulham.

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