Working with things: An exploration of materiality in the puppet theatre 🎓

Lynne Kent

11 September 2018

Marionette made from old fence posts by Danny Miller, photo by Lynne Kent

The ground we walk, the ever-changing skies, mountains and rivers, rocks and trees, the houses we inhabit and the tools we use, not to mention the innumerable companions, both nonhuman animals and fellow humans, with which and with whom we share our lives…. are constantly inspiring us, challenging us, telling us things. (Ingold, 2011, pp. xii)

The role of the puppeteer is to listen to and work with the materiality of things. Objects inform us, which involves more than merely hearing the imaginary voices of things. Listening to a thing involves holding it and turning it this way and that—an exploration of its unique materiality. In working with found objects, puppets and raw material, such as wood, leather, foam and cardboard, the puppeteer is particularly experienced at being alert to what the peculiar properties of each material is “saying”. Being alert, for Roland Barthes, is the first stage of the listening process (Barthes, 1991, p. 245). For historian Kenneth Gross, the skill of a puppeteer is “to be alert to the demands for life that may come from the most ordinary of objects, and to know how to treat them, opening up a space in which they can speak” (Gross, 2011, pp. 33- 34). The size, shape, texture, weight, age and density of matter can dictate the direction and flow of movement that gives each character life on stage. Listening to an object involves asking questions of the object, as Chris Gosden (2005) argues in his essay, What do objects want? The kinds of questions the puppeteer might ask of material might include: “What does it want?” “Which way does it want to go?” “What story does it want to tell?”

In Thingmaking, a series of audio interview podcasts for, by and about people who make things, I interviewed ten leading Australian puppeteers on their unique processes of working with the materiality of things. Crucial to my thinking, puppetry’s materialism in relation to new materialism has been the way puppeteers are alert to the conditions conducive to allowing objects to speak. I have asked why is it that some things are more eloquent than others. What is it about the properties of one object/thing that can be more compelling to touch, play and perform with than another? Jhess Knight (2016), a puppeteer who works with reclaimed rubbish, for example, talked to me about sitting with material and playing with it. The material, she says, “might be capable of four or five things before you decide which of those things you want to explore” Knight’s way of sitting with material, I would argue, is a way of listening to it. In her introduction to the collection of essays on talkative things, historian Lorraine Daston (2004) describes things as paradoxical. Daston takes Heidegger’s self-sufficient thing and explores the space found between matter and meaning to find the thingness of the thing (Daston, 2004, pp. 20-23). It is the paradoxical nature of things, Daston argues, that make them talkative. The puppet theatre is a small site where nonhuman elements come into play. Jane Bennett (2010) argues that in order to counterbalance the narcissism of humans, everyday encounters with the vitality of matter must be cultivated (Bennett, 2010). Bennett’s call is answered in the performing of puppets and objects of the puppet theatre. In this kind of performance, everyday objects are transformed when put to work on stage or film. Under the spotlight on stage, objects that may have previously been perceived as passive, redundant and useless are transformed into characters and challenge notions of what is seen as active in the world.

Objects and things

The distinction between the terms “object” and “thing” become important here, both within theoretical frameworks and the practice of puppetry. Consecutive collections on puppetry have engaged with theories on objects to shift from using the term “performing objects” (Bell, John, ed. 2001) to “theatrical things” (Schweitzer and Zerdy, 2014). Schweitzer and Zerdy acknowledge the contribution theories on new materialism have made to discussions on puppetry that allow for slippages between “object” and “thing” that, as they state, “unsettle our humanistic tendencies” (Schweitzer and Zerdy, 2014, p. 3). The vitality of matter in the puppet theatre has been influenced further by new materialisms and defined as “material performance” (Posner,, 2014). Observations on the liveliness of objects as well as the relationship between object and puppeteer and the process of creating a puppet theatre performance can challenge traditional subject/object binaries and teach us something of the complexity of human and nonhuman relations. Why is it that one doll with a tattoo drawn by a child’s hand offers more possibilities for life on stage than another? If I listen closely she is saying “pick me, pick me” and so I do. Lorraine Daston describes “talkative things” as “composites of different species” (Daston, 2004, p. 21). What makes a talkative thing, she argues, is the fusion created by the blurring of the outlines between subject/object or between art and nature (Daston, 2004, p. 20). In the puppet theatre, for example, objects can become loquacious on stage because of the blurred boundaries between these subject/object and art/nature binaries.

I recognize the complexity of the intertwining use of the terms “objects” and “things” and “puppets” in the puppet theatre and the distinctions scholars and philosophers such as Bill Brown (2001), Martin Heidegger (1977) and Timothy Ingold (2010) make between object and thing. Heidegger established that there is an awareness of the thingness of a thing when it no longer functions as an object. When a thing such as a hammer is broken Heidegger argues, attention can be given to the hammer as a “thing” (Heidegger, 1977). By that, I take Heidegger to mean that when the function of an object is no longer the focus because it is broken, our attention can be drawn to the form of the “thing”, much like in the puppet theatre, when an object is used in a different manner to its original function, it becomes a “thing”. For Brown, using the term “thing” instead of “object” is helpful in redefining the blurred binary between subject/object. Brown states, “The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation” (Brown, 2001, p.4). Brown’s “Thing Theory” accurately describes the collaborative relationship between thing and human of the puppet theatre. For Timothy Ingold, the term “thing” is preferable over “object”, as “things” are part of the meshwork of life, and through the meshwork, things gather agency. Ingold states, “the inhabited world consists not of objects, considered as bounded, self-contained entities, but of things, each a particular gathering of the threads of life” (Ingold, 2010, p.1). In many ways, a transformation or elevation from object to thing, as in Ingold’s kite and Heidegger’s hammer, is experienced in the puppet theatre. Through the interaction of puppeteer and the experience of the audience, everyday objects are elevated from object to “thing” when they are animated on stage. Puppeteer and scholar Dennis Silk makes this point when he presents his manifesto for a “Thing Theatre”; as a theatre where “things are granted higher status than in the theatre of the personal actor” (Silk, 1988, p.36).

In the puppet theatre and in animated films, talkative things are given a platform and audience, sometimes even a metaphorical megaphone with which to “speak”. It is the job of the puppeteer to work in the uncanny realm of things and to listen to the thingness of each thing. In ThingMaking I interviewed leading Australian puppeteers about their process of making puppet theatre and their use of materials, and how new technologies have changed the process and the product of their work. Some of the practitioners I interviewed (Joe Blanck, Tim Denton, Jhess Knight and Dan Goronszy, are designers, makers and operators of puppets and performing things. From these positions, they assume no separation of the form and function of matter. I asked them to what degree they either listened to or imposed their own design/will on the material they work with.  For Joe Blanck, for example, there was room for improvisation and experimentation with the material he works with. He said he enjoyed working with materials to see “how far you can push things” (Blanck, 2016). He said he had worked with materials that he “had tried to dry fast and ended up melting… and then been able to use it as a texture or a membrane or something” (Blanck, 2016). 

The challenge for designer and maker Felipe Reynolds, in his work with inflatables, was in making the material behave in a manner that goes against the intrinsic qualities it possesses. Reynolds designs huge creatures that need convex shapes that at times act in contrast to the balloon-like nature of inflatables. When a creature has armpits, knees and elbows, for example, he says “everything will want to blow out” and “you have to work out how to work with the material when the inflatable doesn’t want to do that” (Reynolds, 2016). Reynolds is a good example of the kind of practitioner who uses his or her knowledge of material, in this case, fabric and air, to both follow its natural course while, at the same time, manipulating it to his or her purpose. In other words, the approach to material that many of the puppeteers I interviewed was both to listen to the material and gently guide it to their will. As designer, puppeteer and one of the founding members of Handspan Puppet Theatre Ken Evans said, “You actually become one with the object, and the object can lead you, you will discover that it can do something and from that, it continues” (Evans, 2016).

An example of how objects become things and are used to make us think is provided in a production of The Crossing, a play by Australian writer and actor Jim Lawson of Vessel Production. In 2016, I was involved in assisting in the development of this production at La Mama Theatre, Melbourne. In this play, Lawson interweaved true stories of survival, and in particular the story of the 2010 tsunami that occurred in the Mentawai Islands, near Sumatra in the Indian Ocean. Lawson made use of the beach debris that he found washed up on an island near the area of the tsunami. He manipulated things, such as plastic bottles, bits of polystyrene and beer cans, as characters in his play. A thong, as fish, flapped around gasping for air, its movement erratic and energetic until the thong/fish took its final breath. In one poignant scene Lawson explained, objects such as the “Rejoice” shampoo bottle he found, are the only things left to remind us of the humans that once lived in the area. The “Rejoice” shampoo bottle, found in the wake of a destructive tsunami, portrays more than mere irony on stage. Here, what was essentially rubbish takes on a heightened reality, as objects are transformed to theatrical things containing memories and significance beyond their everyday function.

Mesh Theatre

In the ten interviews conducted for ThingMaking, I asked puppeteers about the relationship they have with material such as foam, leather, gold, paper, electronic cables and wood, in order to explore too, why the materiality of some things is more difficult to work with than others. I asked each interviewee to nominate their favourite material to work with and why. Some puppeteers enjoyed the flexibility that materials such as silicon had to offer, for example, while others worked with found objects, making the most out of materials that had been pre-used and transforming the material into a puppet character. Other puppeteers talked not only about the ways they worked with material, but the complexities of relationships between objects, puppets in performance on stage.

When asked about the particular qualities that puppeteers bring to mainstream theatre, Ken Evans, for instance, said that puppeteers “see bigger pictures”. Evans’s thinking demonstrates what I term a “mesh theatre” at work as he describes how puppeteers can “understand the whole complexity of other things that are going on around them” (Evans, 2016). I argue that this “mesh” (Morton, 2011, 2013), or “meshwork” of relationships (Ingold, 2011), suggests that “mesh theatre” may be a more useful term for the kind of performance that links the elaborate play between all things human and nonhuman.

I need to be clear that I am not using the term “mesh theatre” to refer to a theatre that uses puppets and objects as separate from the narrative and/or the action on stage. Rather, I consider “mesh theatre” useful in so far as it brings our attention to the kind of theatre that makes the connections between and across puppets, objects and performers. Evans says that “to create one small image, there is all this other stuff going on-unseen” that he calls “engineering” (Evans, 2016). The engineering of unseen elements on stage and off stage, suggests that Evans works with the mesh of materiality of space, projection technology and human interaction that work together to make the images in his productions. In “mesh theatre”, as in Silk’s “Thing Theatre”, things can act as protagonists and take higher status than the human player and, at times, can lie inert while the action focusses on the human player or on the image on screen (Silk, 1988). Dassia Posner’s analyses of “material performance’, as involving “multiple modes of experience that crossover, diverge, and harmonise in the mind of a viewer” (Posner, 2014, pp. 226), is helpful in locating the way puppet and thing and human relationships intersect and collaborate in performance. But, in “mesh theatre”, what is distinct is that none of the elements are fixed—they can all shift in relation to each other. What takes focus in what I call “mesh theatre” is the liveliness of all things human and nonhuman and their interdependence on each other.


This series of audio podcasts in ThingMaking is by no means definitive given the breadth of talent and knowledge of puppetry in Australia. Puppeteers were selected for interview based on their expertise in puppetry and their availability. The interviews were not heavily edited but rather followed an organic course of the conversation between colleagues. ThingMaking gave these puppeteers an opportunity to articulate the sophistication and depth of experience they bring to their practice. In his interview, Australian arts leader and puppeteer Peter Wilson talked about the relationship he has with the puppet as connecting to “a spiritual other” that, as puppeteer, he says, “it’s not about you, you are the giver of life, you are the energy that transforms the animation of that object” (Wilson, 2016). He talked too, about the changes that have taken place in puppet theatre in Australia over the past decade. Wilson comments that when he was working with Handspan Puppet Theatre “we were doing productions with six and eight people in them and everything is a one or two hander now… so we have diminished the artform in that regard” (Wilson, 2016). (The work of Handspan Puppet Theatre has recently been archived and available to view.)

Hybrid Forms

In their complex understandings of their craft, one of the most notable things that emerged was how many practitioners were willing to work with hybridity. For instance, there are those such as Reynolds and Blanck whose hybrid puppets combine inflatable and hydraulic systems with hands-on puppetry techniques. This has meant that large-scale puppets for spectacles, events and theatre are ever more present. Performances using hybrid puppetry forms demonstrate a willingness to experiment as well as an assuredness of the essence of what makes the puppet theatre unique. King Kong, the hybrid puppet in King Kong the Musical, for example, uses a range of new materials and technologies. Yet when asked about directing the creature, Puppet Theatre Director Peter Wilson asserted that “all the principles of bringing him alive are no different than operating the simplest glove puppet” (Wilson, 2016). Wilson says that “you still have to work with the puppet’s emotional intelligence, whether it is a sock or animatronic creature that is performing” (Wilson, 2016).

Investigating what changes and what remains the same in working with hybrid puppet forms, I found it striking how the puppeteers, designers, makers and directors I interviewed are clearly using research and experimentation within their practice. Joe Blanck, for example, brings to his practice prior knowledge and experience as a paint chemist and a scenic painter. Blanck talked about how he “pushes a material just to see what will happen” (Blanck, 2016). He gave the example of extending the possibilities of latex to accidentally create what he describes as “an amazing skin effect”. Scott Wright talked about working with Tyvec (a synthetic material) in the early days of creating puppets with his company Erth. Scott said that they “pushed it to its limits by treating it, heating it, stretching it, distorting it, trying to make a textural skin”. Tim Denton gave the example of a “happy accident” when working on a television series in New Zealand that required puppet figures made from latex. Denton described the limitations of working with clay as it dries out quite quickly. After one of the team went to a dinner party, they discovered that margarine was an ideal material to sculpt and mould with, and Denton ended up using margarine to carve the figures for the television series (Denton, 2016). Denton said, “You could do all sorts of stuff with it” and that margarine “didn’t dry out, you could cut something off and often put something back on and it would stick automatically”. (Denton, 2016).

Interesting understandings about the relationship of human hands to things emerged in the interviews. Sam Routledge talked about how important it is, for his work, to show the human hand. Even when he is using the latest drawing app for a portable device and projection, for example, Routledge wants the aesthetic to be handmade and/or the human hand to be seen to be creating the image, because he says it gives the performance “authenticity” (Routledge, 2016). Wright too, said that they “pride themselves on people power,” that what is most important is “the person in the space, not to let the technology take centre stage” (Wright, 2016). Danny Miller also talked about how important it was for him to explore “weight and breath without being disconnected” from the tangible properties of a thing or material. (Miller, 2016).

The puppeteers of ThingMaking displayed an awareness that they are working with a mimetic kind of magic. In 2015, Dan Goronszy created a performance in a caravan (The Grand Caravan) about the issue of housing insecurity. Goronszy performed with puppet heads that she constructed out of rejected housing rental applications. When asked about how important it was for the material of the puppet to match the content of the performance, she said that embedding meaning in the material and the making of her work was part of her “making ritual” (Goronszy, 2016). Goronszy added that when she makes human puppets she likes to incorporate the pages an old medical textbook, using diagrams of the body as material in the papier mache construction of her characters. She says it that it makes them more “humanizing” (Goronszy, 2016). Through new materialism, I respond to this as a stunning example of where the vitality is inherent in the material and is given the opportunity to speak out from its memory of its earlier form as medical textbook. Goronszy is clearly “listening” to the material she works with and accessing the “textility” of form and flow of the material to bring to her performance.


Dan Goronszy in her studio, photo by kind permission of artist.

The practice of puppetry exemplifies creative collaborations between human and nonhuman elements. The ways in which puppeteers are alert to the properties of material can open up a myriad of possibilities for creating a performing creature on stage. Listening to margarine, polystyrene or an abandoned shampoo bottle for example, can bring forth qualities in an object or a material that can be harnessed by a puppeteer in new and exciting ways. An exploration of a particular material can lead to useful discoveries about how humans and nonhumans exist in the mesh of life. In a small, localized way, the puppet theatre is a complex intertwining of things seen and unseen. This theatre creates a mesh of material that refuses to be experienced as passive. Old teapots, piano rolls and typewriters, bits of wood and cardboard, can materially activate our imagination and challenge us to rethink the human as dominant subject in the world.


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Dr Lynne Kent is an artist/researcher and educator. Internationally recognized for her work creating innovative projects involving imagery and audience interaction, she has collaborated with Circus Oz, Terrapin Puppet Theatre, The Royal Society of Victoria, Cultural Infusion and The Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet, ArtPlay and the City of Melbourne, and The Arts Centre Melbourne. her research interests include; intermedial performance, new materialisms and the life of images and objects on stage.



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