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From Marionettes to the Muppets in Theatre and Film

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Jenelle Bartelt Explores the World of Puppets

Jenelle Bartelt
Jenelle Bartelt with her puppets
Jennelle with her puppets
When people think of the word "puppet" most people think of Sesame Street, Muppets, or a children’s puppetry performance. However, puppets have a very long history and today they are used in many movies and theatrical productions.

In “The World of Puppetry,” senior Jenelle Bartelt researched the different uses of puppetry and how it benefits theatre and film productions for the current generation for her Undergraduate Research Opportunity Project (UROP). Bartelt said, “I’m hoping that my UROP helps others by introducing them to puppetry or offering them more information about this art form. Whether it inspires them to work with puppets in the future or not, I hope to inspire greater respect and understanding of its possibilities within performance.”

Bartelt, an acting major with a minor in dance, was encouraged to take on this UROP by her advisor, Ann Bergeron, professor of theater. Bergeron has directed and choreographed numerous plays and performances at UMD, and she was awarded a 2011 Imagine Grant to travel to Bali to study Balinese shadow puppets. Bergeron explained that Bartelt’s project is an “excellent UROP opportunity because the research reaches across the campus and combines a good hands-on experience with accurate historical research. Overall, this project was excellent in exploring areas in subjects offered through courses, but not accessible in a normal curriculum.”

Bartelt already had an interest in puppetry and acting when she started her UROP. Bartelt’s parents, mainly her father, had a huge interest in puppets in college during which time he and Bartelt’s mother began their Puppetry Ministry that lasted for about 15 years. The Puppet Ministry was performed in churches, schools, malls, and fairs all over the nation, as well as at a few places in Canada. After a decade, Bartelt was born, and her parents continued for five more years.

When Bartelt was in middle school and high school, her parents started working with puppets again. Bartelt’s family created a show called Peddler of Parables where they performed on a small stage that could be converted to support various types of puppetry. The Peddler of Parables was performed in two locations: Washington state and at the One Way Street, a National Puppet Festival in Illinois. After Bartelt graduated from high school, she helped out with a high school production of Little Shop of Horror. The puppets were built by Bartelt’s mother, father, and sister, while Bartelt operated the puppets.

In college, Bartelt wanted to learn more about how puppetry is used today and its use in a variety of cultures around the world. She wanted to find a way to share what she learned through her research. She displayed her information through a workshop and presentation because she thought both would represent her work the best.

“Any inanimate object can become a puppet and anything can be a stage,” Bartelt explained in her presentation. “Each style of puppet takes a lot of skill. It also depends a lot on how the puppeteer chooses to craft their show and create their characters. Simple glove puppets can be easy to operate and are often given to those starting out. However, performing professionally takes a lot of stamina and learning to express through the hand movements.” Puppets are formed by the representation of ideas and characters. Her presentation told the full history of the puppet from when it was first started to the present day.

Puppetry has touched many cultures through time in many different forms. One of the oldest types of puppetry is from Vietnam and has been around for a 1,000 years. “Puppeteers stand behind a screen in waist deep water,” Bartelt said. Rod puppets are commonly used in Asia, have no legs, and a rod that is used by the puppeteers for movement. Another Asian puppet style is one found in Japan: Bunruku, which is a full body puppet with rods that move the hands and legs. It usually takes at least two to three people to move a Bunruku puppet.

Most puppets are hand crafted by the puppeteers themselves, especially the marionettes. “Chashore, a Las Vegas performer, engineers marionettes using 36 strings each,” Bartelt said. Marionettes can do tricks like juggling and balancing on a ball, which became very popular during the Vaudeville era of puppetry between the 1880’s and the early 1930’s. Marionettes are Bartlet’s favorite puppet because, “at a festival in Seattle I saw a marionette show done by Phillip Huber which was amazing. The puppets were so skillfully operated, and the skits were very entertaining. After this performance, they quickly became my favorite.”

The use of masks, found especially in Africa and South America, but from all over the world as well, is a type of handcrafted puppet form. Native American masks even had moveable jaws, to make them more realistic.

Puppetry is used in many ways today in film and on television. In movies, puppetry is seen with Claymation and animatronics. The great white shark, from the movie Jaws, is animatronics. The childhood favorites of Sesame Street and the Muppets are Jim Henson’s mixture of hand puppets and rod puppets. However, Big Bird is actually a different form of puppetry called a “body puppet” that can be seen in parades and celebrations.

Jim Henson created the Henson Creature Shop where he made the Muppets and other puppets. Henson’s videographers would often move the cameras around to make the puppets seem more realistic. Frank Oz, director of numerous movies, worked with Henson when he created the Muppets and the Henson Creature shop. Oz was also the creator of Yoda from Star Wars, a half animatronic, except for most of the mouth movement, which was operated by Frank Oz’s hands. Both of these are examples of robotic puppets used in modern films. Puppetry doesn’t just stop at television and movies through. People are still innovating new ways to push the limits of puppetry.

Bartelt’s research was an in-depth study of the history and the uses of puppetry throughout the world. Her research, Bartelt explained, "was all very interesting and gave me a deeper understanding and respect for puppetry.” In Bartelt’s workshop, she allows people to use different forms of puppets to demonstrate the skill that the puppeteers have to express movement and sound. In the future, Bartelt’s hopes to create her own show and perform at birthday parties and other celebrations.

Viewing Puppetry Online:

Vietnam Water Rod Puppets

Asian Bunruku


The Great White Shark from Jaws

Written by Katarina Menze, November 2011.

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