Puppets, Masks, and Control

What do Puppets, Masks and Control have to do with each other? I’ll bet you a set of carving knives that the common thing you are thinking of is something creepy or scary. And you’d be right… but maybe not in the way you are thinking creepy/scary.


Puppets are scary. When something that is supposed to be inanimate becomes animated, it is pretty creepy… or joyful. It depends on how you look at it. There are several horror movies that play on the fear of “sweet and innocent childhood things” that are “not acting at all sweet and innocent.” Puppets, dolls, clowns and kids fall into this category – see Magic (1978), Child’s Play (1988), and Puppet Master (1989) for some great examples. However, I have always loved the magic of animation and secretly believed my toys came to life when I was out of the room, but in a sweet way… like in Rankin & Bass’ “Island of Misfit Toys” from Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964) or Buzz and Woody in Pixar’s Toy Story (1995).

For the record, historically puppets were pretty violent and anarchist. Some forms of puppetry may have originated as long ago as 3000 years BC.[1] In fact, puppets are older than actors. Ancient man worried acting things out to tell a story was dangerous, and invited bad luck or demon possession. Puppets were thought of as sacred objects and used in rituals. The French word Marionette came from the mid-16th century Medieval time period when a Mary effigy was used in Catholic ceremonies. Later the word’s use expanded to include more types of petite figures.

The French have a long history with puppetry. The Guignol (who hit the French puppet scene around the early 19th century) is a funny little Punch-and-Judy-esque fellow whose main pursuit is going around hitting people with his signature baton. In France, laws can be broken if a puppet is doing the offense. This is probably where they got the idea for the Great Muppet Caper (1981). And yet while French theaters remain shut because of the pandemic, live puppet shows for young audiences (kids in schools) are still allowed. Unlike theater, puppet shows are nimble. A cast with 20 characters doesn’t need 20 actors, and an entire show can fit into 2-4 boxes.


When you mention MASK today in the pandemic, people will think you mean a protective mask to keep you from becoming infected and infecting others with COVID-19. But as a puppeteer, when I think of “masks” I think of puppets. Historically, masks were a device allowing a human to embody an otherworldly spirit or character… just like puppets!

Face Masks As A (Wearable) Art Form. - Daily Candid News
French designer Anne Sophie Cochevelou has been designing extravagant face coverings to make people smile. Look at some of these stunning designs. And yes, she does have an online shop though most of her bespoke masks are sold out.


Giving up control to the puppet, to the mask; mask protects you from the spirit – masks protect us from the virus. In performance, when we wear a theatrical mask, we are giving up control to the character that is the mask and exist in a space between the real world and spiritual world. Wearing a mask in the real world also allows us to enter into a world that could be dangerous, but with some protection. Wearing a mask we give up control. Tying to control an environment you can’t control… so wear a mask.


Commedia dell’arte — or “comedy of the profession” — was an Italian form of comedy that was especially popular in the 16th to 18th centuries. Commedia troupes would travel from town to town (and eventually country to country), performing in the open air. It was an ensemble genre, and built its comedy around physical humor and the improvisational skills of its actors.

Tiny Puppets At Large

Some of my favorite puppets are the ones that are very small. A tiny puppet, by its very size, is diminutive. Watching tiny puppets, we identify with that feeling of being a small creature in a big world. A tiny puppet sets up a childlike experience. 
I loved Sesame Street's "Twiddlebugs" (1971) for two reasons. First, Twiddlebugs (living in Ernie's flower box) are a perfect reminder that there are hidden worlds all around us - even in our own backyards. Second, they experience similar adventures and experiences opening the door to teaching empathy with the natural world.

In Jim Henson's Fraggle Rock (1983), small, playful creatures - the Fraggles - live in an underworld system of natural caves under the workshop of a human (AKA "silly creatures") inventor named Doc. And in this small Fraggle Rock world, there is another culture of even SMALLER, pudgy, green, industrious creatures - the "Doozers." The smaller than small creatures help to offer a counterpoint to the Fraggle world and life, and give the Fraggles some perspective on their own world.
Down at Fraggle Rock: Doozers
Performing with tiny puppets, you get to create and interact with an environment that won't fit on a traditional stage. In Sea Song, Hobey Ford switches from different sized puppets to create the illusion of switching between different cinematic camera shots. Large puppets help us see detailed action, and small puppets help us see the bigger environment.
In the puppet play, Once There Were Six Seasons (2014), Caroline Reck (Producing Artist Director of Glass Half Full Theatre) uses small puppets to illustrate the effects of Global Warming on our culture and environment. The doll-house sized environment gives us a long-shot of the world in which her characters live. Watching the tiny characters interact with their environment changes how we feel about the action. 
Glass Half Full Theatre’s Once There Were Six Seasons
As the technology allows we "Silly Creatures" to make smaller and smaller joints, we can make smaller and smaller puppets!
Teeny Tiny puppet!!!
Living through the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we may more closely identify with tiny puppets. To tell the personal story of our own health, we have to step back and see the big picture. We can play our part to end the pandemic - get vaccinated, wear a mask, avoid large gatherings. But our ultimate health is not just in our hands alone. It is tied to our connection to our neighbors, our country's culture, and the world's cultures, and to the planet. To find an ending, the human race must pull together. 

Puppet On, dear reader!!

Wash Your Hands!

Wash-a, wash-a, wash-a! Wish some soap and wat-ah!

This is a quick note to our friends and friends of Puppets everywhere! We at the Puppet Improv Project care about you, our fans, and we care about your health and safety. Trust us! We know how important clean hands can be. When sharing puppets in an improvised show, you only want to share the fun, not the germs. Washing your hands with good ol’ fashioned soap and water for 20 seconds is the best way to kill the virus. And if you are stuck at home with your puppets and want to contribute to their longevity, keep them clean, too!