5 performers hold a giant puppet bird in a dark forest

Puppetry

Puppetry is at the heart of every Theatre-Rites production. We specifically promote understanding and enjoyment of ‘object-led’ theatre and celebrate the power of visuals, puppetry and animation by working in genuine collaboration with designers, visual artists, film-makers, puppeteers, musicians, composers, actors and dancers.

Within this area of the website you will find a gallery of puppets created for Theatre-Rites shows. These have been designed by a range of talented puppet makers in collaboration with Sue Buckmaster. If you’d like to see the puppets specifically designed by Sue Buckmaster for other companies, you can find them here.

In this section, you can also find out about any workshops we are offering, learn about The Puppet Whisperer and read about Sue Buckmaster

Below is some information about puppetry and the impact of this art form in terms of the areas of theatre and film it permeates. We've also shared some information on the importance of puppets in Sue's process and a few useful resources.

What is puppetry?

Puppetry is the act of bringing an inanimate object to life. This can be an object, a material or something sculpted in a more figurative way. The puppeteer can be visible or invisible. The show can be pure puppetry or puppetry integrated into dance or theatre performances.

Puppetry has existed for hundreds of years. Many early religious rituals used objects in symbolic ways. There are many types of different puppets including finger, glove, rod, string, table-top, giant, shadow and object. They range from traditional British Punch and Judy or trick marionettes, to the cultural puppets of Japanese Bunraku, Javanese rod puppets, Turkish shadow puppets, Vietnamese water puppets, American muppets and British war horses, to name just a few. You see puppets nearly every day in adverts, television shows and film using a fast developing process of animatronics.

Sandra Bullock floating through space in the film Gravity was manipulated by puppeteers. The robots in Interstellar had puppeteers inside them. Many adverts use puppeteers and then ‘green-screen’ them out of the image, such as the Argos aliens.

On the West End stage we have seen the delights of Handspring’s puppets in War Horse and a whole array of animals in Julie Taymor’s The Lion King as well as muppet-type figures in Avenue Q. Puppetry regularly crops up in Christmas productions ranging from lions in Narnia, crocodiles in Peter Pan and giants in pantomime.

However, there are also types of puppet that celebrate their transformative nature; they are made out of materials that have an inherent ability to change or transform in some way. There have been puppet shows made with clay, paper, metal or foam. The joy of these shows is not so much the character that is created but the way a puppeteer brings the materials to life and transforms them in front of your eyes. At Theatre-Rites we recently created a show called Rubbish using only waste materials to create a whole array of characters.

Puppets can be very political. Spitting Image was one of the most successful satires on British television. We see huge effigies of political figures being promenaded down the street and sometimes even burnt to make political comment. Puppets can often express what a person cannot and therefore can be very anarchic. By their very nature, they illuminate the power struggle that lies behind so many of our relationships with each other or the Governments who rule us.

Puppetry can be beautiful, transformative, educational, therapeutic, entertaining, political and playful.

We asked Sue to answer a couple of questions about her process: 

Where do you start when creating a new puppet?

I like to explore what its materiality is. What does it need to present, what actions do I want it to make and how does it need to transform. For me, puppets that don’t transform in some way are just poor imitations of actors and you might as well use actors. However, if you want to explore how they can be taken apart and reconstructed to symbolise our human robustness, then an actor can’t do that.

I'm currently in rehearsal for The Broke 'N Beat Collective. In this production each puppet character represents a young person whose tale we want to tell. I looked at the content of each story and chose what object would best symbolically represent that story: for example, a puppet made up of a boombox helps us make sense of the various music, sounds and voices that go on in our heads

Why use puppets? Can’t actors tell the story better?

Actors can tell stories very directly, puppets can present them in a more metaphorical way. Using The Broke 'N' Beat Collective as an example again, in this show sometimes the stories are quite hard hitting so it has been great to use puppets. The transformation that occurs in the story can be shown by a literal transformation in the object that the puppet is made of: for example, if a girl tends to cut herself, we explored what would happen if the girl was actually made of paper? In one way it creates magical realism and protects us from the gruelling reality of the subject. On the other hand, the cutting literally destroys the paper-girl, so the impact is very direct. 

Resources

Puppet Centre: The national development agency for puppetry 

The Puppetry Development Consortium: A think-tank and networking resource for professionals working in puppetry in England. Sue became a key member in 2015.

PuppeteersUk: A networking organisation for puppetry in the UK.

"Director and leader of Theatre-Rites, Sue Buckmaster, has spoken of the piece’s “object driven” dramaturgy, and this runs through Rubbish with an absolute clarity. It’s there, of course, in the puppetry, which is brilliant – every beat is clear, precise and playful, alive – and it works outwards through the gentle clownish presence and sharp interaction of the excavators, and through to the almost preposterous heap of rubbish that forms the set, inviting climbing, delving, and exploration."
- Total Theatre on Rubbish
The puppet Beasty Baby, is standing, looking out to the audience, with a wooden spoon in his hand.