The Diverse World of Puppetry

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The Ballard Institute of Museum and Puppetry hosted “Things That Act Shakespeare” on Facebook Live led by Jungmin Song and John Bell. Photo provided by author

The Ballard Institute of Museum and Puppetry hosted the latest in their fall forum series with “Things That Act Shakespeare” from 7 to 8 p.m. last night on Facebook Live, led by Jungmin Song and John Bell, director of the Ballard. The event had about 25 attendees, with conversations ranging from how everyday objects can be used to portray characters, to the history of Shakespeare puppetry and even to Asian puppetry. 

Song is a writer, teacher and artist with a doctorate degree from practice-based research in animating everyday objects in performance. Song got involved with puppetry and Shakespeare and mentioned that while studying design as an undergrad in the United Kingdom, she found “Little Angel,” a puppetry theatre group that piqued her interest in the art. She talked about how she learned a lot more about Asian puppetry through her experience with traditional Japanese puppetry called bunraku, which emphasizes music, narration, visual elements and overall structure.  

Song talked about how puppetry can change how a story is presented. For example, in a rendition of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” directors reimagined the queen in the story as a puppet maker that created all of the characters.  

Bell compared different puppetry styles that can range from using puppets to represent people to tabletop theater — where puppetry is performed on a table — to the use of objects to portray characters.  

Different puppetry styles were discussed during the “Things That Act Shakespeare” event ranging from tabletop theatre to the use of objects to portray characters. Photo provided by author

“I got the inspiration to use tissues because I was thinking about Hamlet and ghosts and what could represent Hamlet and I thought of tissues and what could melt in contact with water,” Song said. She added that she showed scenes of death in Hamlet through the portrayal of tissue paper because it dissolves in water. 

Bell discussed working for a company in New York called “Great Small Works,” which started doing puppet theater with toys in the early ‘90s. He mentioned that some audiences thought the portrayal of Shakespeare through toys might not work because people often associate puppets with toys, but it actually ended up working.  

“‘Great Small Works’ bridges the world between actors and the world of puppetry,” Song said. “I found it interesting and intellectually stimulating for me.” 

Song mentioned that there are five different puppet portrayals of Macbeth at the Ballard. Some include tiny ninja figurines, Mr. Smile figures, a wrestling version of Macbeth and even one portrayed with birds.  

“I really like this exhibition that you can see this contrast between the gumball machine figure [Mr. Smile], that’s made in rough do-it-yourself theater and it works beautifully,” Song said. “And there’s on the other end where there are designers and makers that craft the size of the beak, chin, hand mechanism and shape of legs, and all these detailed elements of puppeteer[ing] and created with really great skill. Because Shakespeare is well-loved, we can have these really different kind things in one space. I found it really brilliant.” 

The above puppets were displayed during the “Things That Act Shakespeare” event on Thursday. The portrayal of Shakespearian literature through puppetry is not something new and has been done so in medieval times through biblical characters. Photo provided by author

Bell said portraying Shakespearian literature by way of puppetry is not something new, but has often been portrayed in medieval times through biblical characters, showing its importance as an aspect of English culture.  

“Forms of theatre that are highly prized puppet and masked theatre. It’s interesting to think of these American theatre artists connecting with Asian performance forms that are already noticing and valuing puppet and mask theatre,” Bell said.  

Song also mentioned there are a few exhibitions that were inspired by Indonesian culture and their portrayal of Shakespearian culture. 

“There’s so much variety in what has happened in the past that this Shakespeare is done with objects and other elements that it brings different ideas to Shakespeare,” Bell said. “It’s difficult to say this is it. I want to say that puppets and objects expand what Shakespeare did. Shakespeare puppetry had happened, but it was rare for scholars to focus on this specific topic.” 

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