The power of puppets

They Can speak any language, tell any story - even fly! they captivate audiences around the world.

Isn't it wonderful how puppets seem to come to life? Finger puppets, hand puppets, puppets on rods, puppets on strings. We know they're not real, and yet there they are, dancing, singing, even flying before our eyes. We watch them and also watch for the artists - the puppeteers - who give them life. Puppets can be as tall as a giraffe, or as small as a thimble. And they come in all colors and many forms, depending on where they were made. Every country has its own puppets.

A terrific museum in Atlanta, Ga., is the Center for Puppetry Arts. (Well, the museum is just part of what the center does.) It has a huge collection of puppets from around the world.

You can see bunraku puppets from Japan, shadow puppets from Indonesia, marionettes from Europe, hand puppets like those on "Sesame Street" from the United States, and African puppets that are used in religious services. The center has many ancient puppets, too. Puppets are one of the oldest forms of theater.

The center's education director, Alan Louis, invites children and adults to "learn about the traditions of other cultures by visiting our museum." Visitors can attend workshops and make their own puppets modeled after those from Africa, Indonesia, Japan, and many other countries.

Puppets from other countries can teach us a little about those countries and the customs and beliefs of other people. Puppets are used to teach lessons in some societies - how we should treat one another, how we should live. Puppets sometimes represent characters from myths (like gods and dragons) or fairy tales. Puppets can also represent universal characters, called "types." A princess puppet may stand for all princesses, for example, or a farmer puppet for all farmers, and so on.

"Throughout history," Mr. Louis says, "puppetry has served as both cheap entertainment for peasants and a theatrical delicacy reserved only for kings.

"Puppets appear in so many cultures," Louis continues, "because they are such good tools for communicating. They tell stories, reveal emotions, and illustrate ideas in a very direct way." They're also "fascinating to watch, fun to make, and challenging to perform."

One of the most important reasons the center exists is to offer performances for children and adults. It's also a place where puppeteers can learn more about their trade.

"Most puppeteers in the United States work out of their basements," Louis says. "They load their stages into vans and travel around to public schools, libraries, churches, and shopping malls." Most perform entire shows by themselves, or with a partner. "Most of them never have an opportunity to perform alongside four or five other puppeteers in a professional puppet theater in a large stage production.... Here, they can do that."

At the center, teams put puppet shows together. One person writes the script. Someone else directs. The scene shop builds the scenery. Sculptors and artists make the puppets. Puppeteers make the puppets move.

"We train performers here," Louis says. "Many people who started here as interns have gone on to perform puppets on television and in movies."

Puppets can make us laugh with delight or feel sad or maybe even angry. When puppets are skillfully activated by talented puppeteers, they are like actors on a stage. But unlike actors, the puppets are not pretending to be something they are not.

"Puppets are more interesting to watch than people," in Louis's opinion. "On the puppet stage, puppets are the actors. They are not toys. In human theater, an actor in a costume is a person pretending to be someone or something else, but a puppet is exactly what it is.... Puppets can fly, change forms, disappear - they can do anything! Puppets aren't human, so they don't have to obey earthly laws. That's why they make excellent storytellers."

So the next time you want to tell a story, try telling it with puppets. You can make them out of old socks. You can make them out of paper bags. You can buy them at the store. But every puppet can tell stories when you make them move. "Puppets can speak any language - without words," Louis explains.

"They teach us about ourselves," Louis continues. He obviously loves puppets. "They remind us of how similar we are. We may have different skin and different eyes and live on different sides of the world, but humans are really all the same. Isn't it funny how little dolls on sticks can have so much power?"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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