Tossed on the seas of Visual Theatre: challenges to Puppetry’s survival as an independent discipline. Part II

27 01 2022

(D)arkhh in Estonian Theatre for Young Audiences. Photo: Siim Vahur

Note: Read the first part of this article here

Author: Leino Rei

Who is the contemporary puppeteer?

Based on the above, it appears that everyone has a fairly clear idea of the qualities that make up a contemporary puppeteer. However, it is not at all certain whether these characteristics can be formulated as an unambiguous definition for everyone. Certainly, the view depends on the cultural space and the depth of the experience with the topic, and even then the definition may change over time. Therefore, let us consider the following opinions from different people who know their field, and which help to broaden the general understandings that have developed.

Taavi Tõnisson: “A modern puppeteer must be able to seamlessly combine different skills. Quite often I have noticed that Eastern European puppeteers can have an excellent classical and traditional education and training, but a less modern view and approach to the material. Many puppeteers with Eastern European traditions do not consider themselves artists in the broadest sense of the word; rather they are puppet manipulators. Many Western European puppeteers and directors have very interesting and modern ideas, but sometimes they clearly lack basic training in puppet manipulation techniques. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a training that combined the best features of classical puppeteering with modern techniques?” (Tõnisson, 2021)

Ģirts Šolis: “For me as a director/puppeteer, the most important things are imagination, theatrical language, idea, intelligence and uniqueness. The more an artist knows, the richer the theatrical language they use. However, it is difficult to remain 'interesting' for decades, regardless of the art form.” (Šolis, 2021)

Helena Nilsson: “Puppet theatre is a multidisciplinary art form that has a lot in common with other theatre types such as dance, facial expressions, circus, painting, sculpture ...But it also has specific conditions. It is a great advantage if people in puppetry also have excellent knowledge of other performing arts. For example, we don't want puppeteers who are phenomenal in manipulating a puppet perfectly, but can't play a dramatic actor on stage at all. But we also don't want a great actor who has no understanding or knowledge of what it means to bring a puppet, an object or a material to life.”(Nilsson, 2021)

Merja Pöyhönen: “For me, the essence of puppetry is to give life to something inanimate by animating it. A puppeteer (including contemporary ones) is one who is able to create the illusion of an object-puppet-material-nothing, so that the audience believes that it is alive and can also play this role = can technically bring out the required emotions. About the same is true of directors, they must have an understanding of the laws of puppet manipulation and an understanding of puppet dramaturgy.

For me, the 'contemporary' part is not about using new tools or other art forms. It should be more related to the modern way of understanding, analysing and questioning one's artistic choice. This challenges us with questions such as: why is this production being performed with puppets; what can we do only with puppets; what does it add; what is the effect, how to bring to the forefront the idea of animating inanimate objects. This means that it must not be taken for granted, but that the basic laws of puppet dramaturgy must be found and specified each time. And only then bring in skills (borrowed from the ‘traditional’ puppet theatre) to create a wow effect and to think that you invent it all yourself every time!” (Pöyhönen, 2021)

Anne Helgesen: “As a theatre historian and as a doctoral fellow at the Academy of Puppetry during the great conflict there, I have thought a lot about what defines the art form and yet can include both history and the new things that are happening. A definition must not be restrictive or preservative. It must be essential. My definition is that puppetry is an art form that uses ANIMATION as the main element and / or concept. This is interesting also because it includes new trends in the visual arts.” (Helgesen, 2021)

Vilmantas Juškėnas: “Anyone who is a modern puppeteer depends on the theatre they create or participate in. I believe that there is no general definition of a ‘contemporary puppeteer’ because artistic people are different, they are oriented towards different artistic expressions, and they are talented in different artistic expressions. I like what Vitalijus Mazuras said when he was asked what puppetry is. The Lithuanian puppet theatre master answered: ’It's the same theatre. Only the instruments are different’.” (Juškėnas, 2021)

Changes in the puppet theatre world –tragedy or evolution?

The question is, of course, intentionally provocative. For a person who is involved in the process, it is likely to be seen as an organic development – not something one is judgmental about but which is just experienced, lived through. At the same time, for a person who has withdrawn from active puppetry, but has opinions and attitudes shaped decades ago, the current trends may seem like a tragedy. However, whenever major changes in a field occur not only due to the activities of one particular organization, but which concern theatres around the world, then it is probably a mistake to look for one sole culprit.

The Latvian director Ģirts Šolis' s comment serves as a good introduction to this topic: “What changes? I only see opportunities. Something that does not change for years isn’t interesting to anyone, for either people seeking entertainment or for the entertainers.” (Šolis, 2021)

Certainly, such a healthy attitude helps us to tolerate changes in every area of life and prevents blind fears, which can have a devastating effect on the development of the field as well as on human relations between people who share a common interest in puppet theatre. Helena Nilsson: “Building walls around oneself and one’s own world is an expression of fear and can only lead to one's decay and paralysis. Puppet theatre has no limitations, it can be blended through experiments and discussions, layers can be added to it and doubled in countless ways in its quest to touch and tell. This is only good, there is no tragedy.” (Nilsson, 2021)

It is possible, of course, that excessively rapid changes will threaten to displace existing values.

Taavi Tõnisson: “So which is better? A traditional puppet theatre that seems a little dusty and museum-like and has very little connection to the modern world, or an ultra-modern performative puppet theatre act that has very little to do with tradition? It’s a question of balance. I think we need both. It is best to look ahead, but always remember the past as well.” (Tõnisson, 2021)

Being open to everything new does not mean that problem areas should not be highlighted or that the whole process should not be critically analysed. As long as criticism is constructive and helps to draw attention to circumstances that should not be overlooked during rapid change, it will benefit both the industry and the relationships between those who care about it, even if their opinions differ.

Anne Helgesen: “If one looks down on the craft and the professional toolbox and the historical diversity that the art of animation is made of, and still calls oneself a puppet theatre artist, it can easily lead to tragedy. But for the most part, this development has led to great diversity for Norwegian puppet theatre.” (Helgesen, 2021)

At the moment, it is difficult to predict whether the current changes in puppetry education are just growing pains related to the beginning of the next stage of development. But there tends to be hoped that they will not be the fatal changes described by Merja Pöyhönen:

“If these changes mean the shrinking of education and the dissolution of puppetry into other art forms, I would say that would be a tragedy. At least in Finland, it is quite sad to be involved in the boom of the modern form of this art form and then see a future where it will fall again, because there is not enough new blood.

It is also quite obvious to me that this 'flowering' would not have happened without the active involvement of artists of my own generation. We have influenced, empowered and been challenged by each other, and that is why this marginal art form has managed to stay fresh in this northern periphery as well. This seems especially important for an art form where processes are so deeply group-dependent.”(Pöyhönen, 2021)

Hopefully, the current visual theatre boom has only shaken up some established perceptions for a moment, and in the long run it the effect will tend to be positive. While it can now be observed that people who prefer to discover everything themselves, including puppet theatre, have made an energetic entrance into the field of visual theatre, there are likely to be more and more examples similar to the Swedish experience, where puppet theatre professionals are asked for advice. So far, it is up to the puppet theatre makers to analyse what is their positive agenda for keeping this type of theatre alive and also make the case for the need for puppet theatre education to return to the curricula of theatre schools. As Vilmantas Juškėnas says, history has a habit of repeating itself:

“Tragedy is war, sudden death, disease and human stupidity. Changes in the field of puppet theatre, on the other hand, reflect the organic development of theatre. I think this situation just repeats itself historically. Let’s just recall the first decades of the 20th century and all these Dada, Constructivism, Futurism and other art movements, Bauhaus experiments... elements of puppet theatre were used very often. Later, puppet theatre began to fade, being pushed into a box as an art form intended only for children. And later, from the 1960s on, it began to flourish again, looking for new means of expression, when the actor was brought out from behind the screen and became visible when the relationship between the actor and the puppet began to be openly explored… this happens all the time, in cycles.” (Juškėnas, 2021)

Puppet theatre 20 years from now

Regardless of form, theatre must always be a little ahead of its time. Inevitably, this will lead to a change in old practices, which can sometimes be too sudden and frustrating.

Developments in the sphere of puppet theatre pose a challenge to the current practitioners – how to grow without cutting through the roots? Probably it comes down to an article of strong faith whether the roots of puppet theatre are strong enough to be able to maintain identity regardless of change. What is certain is that there is no other way than to look forward. As the last group of topics, let's allow our imagination roam and ask how we envision puppet theatre in the future.

Helena Nilsson: “Puppet theatre will always continue to attract children's audience and its creators, and if it is allowed to be as cross-border and multifaceted as it truly is, it has an indisputable role in the modern performing arts landscape, which avoids defining its means of expression and likes to mix physical and visual forms.” (Nilsson, 2021)

Ģirts Šolis: “I see puppet theatre as having the potential to be used as something digital, something technologically advanced like robotic puppet theatre, and at the same time I see some space for something traditional, too. We live in a very eclectic century. So I see puppet theatre in general as a fantastic platform for various theatrical research, collaborative experiments, etc., as long as one is interested in animating objects, playing with toys and creating.” (Šolis, 2021)

Vilmantas Juškėnas: “I think 20 years from now, or even earlier, we will see some interesting artistic research in puppetry related to artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, other media and technologies (in fact, it has already begun). At the same time, puppet theatre retains the best traditions as it has done for millennia. As for the position of puppet theatre in the general theatre field, I believe that it will remain the same – as something parallel, alternative, not so ‘important’. Maybe even the opposite – exclusive, but suited only for the connoisseur)” (Juškėnas, 2021)

Merja Pöyhönen: “I think this continued interest will lead us to a situation where puppet theatre is even more used as an interesting side tool for other art forms. But if there aren’t enough (new) artists, we may lose the position where puppet theatre is the leading art form – the one that uses the tools of others for its own purposes. And this means a great risk to the development of the art form itself. So… My guess is that in Finland today’s puppetry wave will pass by when this generation retires, but hopefully by that time... well-acknowledged. And then someday in the distant future somebody inside the need and the education wheel starts to be invented again .. maybe at that time as a part of the Theatre Academy.” (Pöyhönen, 2021)

Anne Helgesen: “I'm not a fortune teller. But my experience is that puppetry and animation are such a fundamental and natural part of humanity's creative imagination that it will always re-emerge in new fantastic forms, whether or not puppetry has to endure condescending attitudes, oppression and predatory economics.” (Helgesen, 2021)

Taavi Tõnisson: “The idealist in me believes that puppet theatre as an art form will not disappear. It is changing and evolving. In art, everything comes in waves, maybe there is a more traditional puppet theatre behind the next wave? That is why it is our duty to keep traditions alive. And when I say ‘alive’, I don't think we should always use traditional puppetry. Above all, we need to keep alive a specific way of thinking and seeing the world. Today it is very popular to experiment and think outside the box. Maybe in ten years from now, everyone will want to think inside the box again?” (Tõnisson, 2021)


Time will tell how deep an impression the visual theatre leaves on our theatrical sphere, how long it will remain there and what it will develop into. Theatre does not tolerate stagnation and change is always a part of whatever we do. More importantly, whether we call it performance, multi-genre or visual theatre, we always remember why we pursue this field.

The borders are open and information is moving fast, so let's use it! The opportunity for puppet theatre to preserve traditions, ensure the continuity of this type of theatre, and speak to today's audience is in our own hands. Although it currently seems that puppet theatre is turning into a marginal niche on the periphery of the theatre field, it is also a great time for practitioners to join forces and establish a joint university-level Nordic-Baltic puppet theatre academy. Are we ready for this challenge?


Materials used:

Helgesen, A. (2021).Interview conducted in written form. Tallinn, 13 April. Juškėnas, V. (2021).Interview conducted in written form. Tallinn, 5 May. Nilsson, H. (2021).Interview conducted in written form. Tallinn, 6 April.

Pöyhönen, M. (2021).Interview conducted in written form. Tallinn, 13 April.

Šolis, Ģ. (2021).Interview conducted in written form. Tallinn, 13 April.

Tõnisson, T. (2021).Interview conducted in written form. Tallinn, 23 April.

This article was initially published by Móin-Móin Magazine volume 2, number 25, in the year 2021 and can be accessed on:

Translated from Estonian into English by Kristopher Rikken.