The current state of puppet activity is wildly various, as evidenced by
a range of examples that extend from the forefront of experimental and
street theater to Disney’s Broadway smash The Lion King; from
cult figures like Greg the Bunny (a branding vehicle for the Independent
Film Channel), to Larry Harvey’s commercially savvy Burning Man; from
the successful ad campaign of Pets.com, to late night talk show host Conan
O’Brien’s "Triumph the Insult Comic Dog."
These days, the pervasive presence of puppets in art, politics, and
everyday life is everywhere on display, as seen in festivals such as the
International Puppetry Festival in New York, performances by Bread &
Puppet Theater (and its legions of alumni), and the street pageantry of
activist puppetistas and puppet-making troupes found at every major
Whatever the reason for the thriving popularity of all-things-puppets—the
shift to a dominance of images over language, sensory lives that demand
more sophisticated visual stimulation, and the ineffable appeal of the
simulacra—puppets have an uncanny ability to speak directly to the way
people live now.
Contemporary puppet theater is a culturally-rich, multi-media, and
highly-collaborative art form mixed and re-mixed with sources as
multifarious as the Muppets, Bread & Puppet giant puppets, Japanese
Bunraku theater, and Indonesian shadow and rod puppets, to name a few. The
medium is explicitly contiguous in its interwoven circus of sculpture,
painting, design, trash, writing, acting, video, lighting, singing,
parades, toy theater, taped sounds, and music.
While too soon to know, a connection may very well be made between the
great low-tech, on-the-cheap spectacular puppet uprisings of the mid-’90s
and the simultaneous rise of the digital and hi-tech revolutions.
One area aflutter with puppet activity is political activism. From
ongoing campaigns to save community gardens in New York City to the
Republican National Convention (RNC), International Money Fund and World
Bank protests, and beyond, the use of puppets is at the forefront of
current political activity and dissent.
Political Puppetry: 2000 Republican National Convention
The story of contemporary political protest and puppets can be told
through the story of the Philadelphia RNC. Until books are written,
documentaries made, and class action suits won, the mass incarceration of
over 420 protesters should stand as an example of the sophisticated yet
brute-force tactics, infiltration, and other actions taken against
protesters and puppeteers at the RNC.
On August 1, 2000, demonstrators geared up to protest at the RNC. As
helicopters circled above, the Philadelphia police force descended en
masse upon a west Philly warehouse at 41st and Haverford Streets where
activists were working, building, and storing puppets and other political
props. All 75 people in the warehouse were arrested, and hundreds of
puppets were destroyed by city officials who claimed that the puppets were
"trash," although the police claimed they were
Later that week, most of those arrested were still waiting to be
arraigned or formally charged. (A brief four months later, in December
2000, the charges against the puppeteers would eventually be dropped for
lack of evidence.) With helicopters overhead and swarms of bicycle cops
and several hundred officers on the streets below, a parade of nearly 200
people gathered at police headquarters to march in protest of the arrests.
At the rear of the marching protesters was one of the surviving puppets—a
14-foot money-green effigy of Uncle Sam. The puppet was wheeled by several
protesters, and behind them was a clown wearing a rainbow afro.
Every now and again the clown spoke into his bullhorn. He had a
commanding voice and embodied what is most winning and effective about
current political theater—its atmosphere of spectacle and humor. The
clown intoned the double entendre, "Police officers. Citizens. The puppets
are in charge! I am a clown!" With the police outnumbering protesters
at least five to one, the scene was all the more poignant, absurd, and
brilliant when he called out: "Attention! Philadelphia police
officers. This is a giant puppet. Surrender!"
Like songs, puppets are highly charged because they have the power to
convey simple yet profoundly symbolic messages. Political songs may be to
the late ’60s what political puppetry is to the late ’90s and early
21st century. The RNC, for example, set a stage where the passion and
conviction of the puppetistas gave every deed the double significance of
private gesture and public action. The harsh police crackdown on the
puppetistas is an acknowledgment of the inherent threat and ability of
puppets to convey these various messages.
My own involvement with puppets has been working with and organizing
performances for the Lost Art of Puppet Theater, a group that utilizes
giant shadow puppets in their performances, and for the puppet collective
the Animated Neck & Stars. The rogue shows started off in kitchens and
living rooms in West Philadelphia and moved to venues such as Vox Populi
gallery in Philadelphia’s Old City and The Hut in North Philadelphia,
among others. After relocating to Brooklyn in 1996, the Animated Neck
& Stars began staging puppet extravaganzas, which continue to be
attended by upwards of several hundred people at a warehouse space in
Bushwick. The festive performances are low-to-no-tech variety shows,
including an MC, bands, and a half-dozen puppet performances.
One of the groups involved is Dramaton Theater. Member Ken Berman is
the wry and virtuoso punk rock puppeteer and designer behind the scenes of
Dramaton. Jim Henson once claimed that the idea for the Muppets came from
a mixing of puppets with marionettes; similarly, Berman says the name
"Dramaton" was an "invented mutation" to combine drama
and automation. The name is apt. Dramaton’s strongest suit is its deft
and fluid technique—Berman himself is an impeccable technician. His
puppets move with a clear logic combined with the intuitive awareness he
has of the puppets in space. There is a drama in their movement and their
ability to embody shifting tensions, which serve to animate the highly-
charged and atmospherically allegorical tales.
Berman has dubbed puppetry the "crossroads of all mediums."
Indeed, the most exciting puppet work today is at the crossroads of
culture, media, and collaboration. When it comes to current puppet
activity, Dramaton Theater, along with the various groups involved with
the RNC, represent merely a tip of the tip of a massive puppet iceberg.
Tom Devaney is Program Director of the Kelly Writers House and
producer of the radio show LIVE on 88.5 WXPN, Philadelphia. His
articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including The
Philadelphia Inquirer and Poets & Writers Magazine.