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Family Day Brought Out the Curious

Photo of boy with his shadow puppet

Saturday March 2, 2013 was Family Day at WCMA. This year’s theme was Get Curious! One young girl had a couple questions for puppet artist David Lane who offered a shadow puppet tutorial. We’d like to share these questions and David’s answers.

Where do puppets come from?

What a great question! There are examples of puppets and puppet arts in almost every culture in the world today, so it seems like it might be an important way that humans express themselves. The Japanese art of Bunraku dates back to harvest festival plays over 600 years old. Shadow puppetry has existed in China in one form or another for over 2,000 years! Other forms of Shadow puppets have been around for hundreds of years in India, Indonesia, Thailand, Turkey and Greece. It’s fun to imagine that perhaps our prehistoric ancestors used sticks and rocks to retell stories of the hunt, or even with cast shadows on a cave wall. The animal characters would have been able to be shown close to real size by changing the distance between the puppet, the wall and the flame. Werner Herzog’s documentary film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams about the Chauvet Cave in Southern France, suggests that some of the 30,000 year old cave paintings there may have actually been the first animated films—that multiple images, close together, and of similar shapes, seen by a flickering light, might have appeared to move, making use of the same persistence of vision phenomena that cell-by-cell animation does today.

Where do puppeteers find jobs?

A lot of puppeteers are storytellers by nature, so they often work for theatre companies that specialize in puppet-based drama. Handspring Puppet Company is the South African company that designed the puppets for Warhorse, a big broadway play which featured life-sized puppet horses. Many puppeteers work for small touring companies that perform all over the US and Europe—there are Czech marionette companies, shadow puppet companies, and even toy theatre companies such as Great Small Works that retell stories from the news in the fashion of a Victorian-era paper theatre. Some puppeteers run away to the country to be political and social activists and others find work with Disney or in Hollywood films. The China Doll in the recent Oz film is based on the movements of a real marionette and then digitized for the film. If you are thinking about becoming a puppeteer, there are professional training programs like the one at the University of Connecticut, and lots of weeklong or daylong workshops run by professionals in the field. Or, you can just make your own puppets and start a company of your own, right now!


Above photo by Rachel Nguyen ’14

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