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Are Puppets Alive?

By Robert Smythe, Artistic Director
Mum Puppettheatre

There has always been a difference of opinion about the secret workings of the puppeteer, a battle of ideas fought by those who want to preserve the magic and those who wish to share their art. I would like to weigh in heavily on the side of those who believe that it is essential to reveal to one's audiences that puppets are, indeed, inanimate objects.

The magic of puppetry is not intrinsic to the puppet itself, but to the performer. Without the skill and talent of the puppeteer the puppet is a lifeless shell. While the highest compliment paid to a puppeteer can be the observation that the "puppet looked so alive, I forgot you were there," the puppeteer should remind the audience that she or he is very much there.

I am sure that I am not the only one who was dismayed to read reports of Jim Henson's death only to find out that he was merely "the voice of Kermit the Frog." The underlying supposition was that Jim Henson's unique contribution to the Muppets was his voice; his considerable skill as a puppeteer could be duplicated by anyone who, in his words, could "wiggle the dollies."

But anyone who saw Kermit performed "live" witnessed an amazing transformation: a piece of green cloth took on a life of its own even while connected to Jim's arm. For a time we all forgot the puppeteer was there, but when he was finished the puppet was stashed in a gym bag in full view of the audience and the puppeteer reappeared. This was a spellbinding feat of legerdemain more incredible than anything Houdini or Hollywood has to offer.

If anyone wonders what children think of seeing how puppets work following a performance, I can tell them this: after every show we perform we offer the audience a chance to see the puppets up close. As both children and adults talk to me I find out a few things about the world today. Some children do not believe that live people manipulate the puppets. In a world of Disneyland animatronics, who can blame them? Some want to know where the puppets were bought and are surprised to find that we built them. Who suspects that people can actually make such things from scratch? I enjoy hearing later from parents who tell me that the first thing their child did when they got home was to make a puppet.

When we watch a performer, say a musician or a dancer, we know how much hard work went into that performance. We know of the long hours of practice, the sweat and the triumphs as the artist perfects her work. And because we know all that, is not the performance all that more remarkable? When we talk about how little puppetry is valued by the population at large let us also realize how little they know about us.

Puppeteers must remember that is _they_, not the puppets, who provide the magic for the audience. If a magician reveals his tricks to us, his adversaries, our delight turns to dismay as we realize we have been deceived. When a puppeteers reveals her backstage world, she shares her illusion with willing accomplices. Amazement turns to true wonder as we find that there really are no secrets in puppetry: the true magic lies within those who create so much from so little, and in those who are willing to believe us when we do.

Robert Smythe, Artistic Director

Mum Puppettheatre
126 Leverington Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19127-2022
(215) 482-6478 Fax (215) 482-9056


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