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Common Imagination: Music & Community in the Puppetry Arts

Now through February 28, 2021

Music/Media Library | Miller Nichols Library, Ground Floor


Puppetry: apart, together

You can sing in the shower, dance like nobody’s watching, or soliloquize in solitude. But puppetry requires an audience—and the magic of collective imagination—to come fully to life.

Puppetry arts has existed for thousands of years, in cultures all over the world. Marionettes, rod puppets, sock puppets, water puppets, effigies, shadow puppets, (and more) amuse, teach, and participate in ritual, sharing stories from classic folk tales to historical events.

Just like an instrument or a music score, a puppet is incomplete until animated by an artist. Puppetry allows us to let go of reality, as both artist and spectator, connecting through imagination, creating illusion.

Music is entwined with puppet theater, whether with live performers or a twinkly music box, adding both aural and visual sparkle. Often, musicians are seen while puppeteers are hidden; even many traditional paper theaters included an "orchestra strip" in their design.

Musical Puppets/Puppet Music

There are puppetry traditions all over the world with specific musical styles and instruments, including the shamisen with Japanese Bunraku, gamelan with wayang of Indonesia, and the traditional Vietnamese orchestra with water puppets.

Puppets have also inspired music, like Igor Stravinsky’s “Petrushka,” William Grant Still’s “Marionette,” Joan Tower's "Petroushskates," or Charles Gounod’s “Funeral March for a Marionette” (performed by Grammy Award-nominated organist Jan Kraybill). Puppetry fires the imagination in Bela Bartok’s “The Wooden Prince,” Bohuslav Martinu’s “Loutky,” Frederic Rzewski’s “Antigone-legend,” Lee Konitz' "Marionette," and Stephen Hartke’s “Meanwhile: incidental music to imaginary puppet plays.”

Puppetry is well suited to screen media. Popular television programs, such as “Sesame Street,” “The Muppet Show,” and “Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” used puppets and music to entertain and educate.

In 1929, Lotte Reiniger brought silhouette theater to the big screen, with "The Adventures of Prince Ahmed," with an original score by Wolfgang Zeller.

And who could forget the famous marionette, Pinocchio, who wished upon a star to be a real boy? Enjoy the Disney film version or check out Carlo Collodi’s original 1883 tale, available as an ebook.

Many composers wrote for puppet theaters, from incidental music to full operas. The first puppet opera was written in 1668. Puppet theater was enjoyed by common people and the elite: Joseph Haydn wrote operas for the enjoyment of the court at the Esterhazy Palace. Traditional operas are also presented in puppet theater. Sometimes puppets even came to the traditional opera theater, as with Julia Taymor’s production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” at the Metropolitan Opera. Puppets appear on Broadway for “The Lion King,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” and “Avenue Q.

Display with books, scores, CDs, DVDs, and a puppet theater with paper puppet of a kangaroo playing trombone.

Puppetry in the Community

Puppetry of all shapes and sizes remains popular in Kansas City, with a history dating back decades: Hazelle Rollins Puppets, Mesner Puppet Theater, StoneLion Puppet Theatre, Clement Mccrae Puppets, and more, plus artifacts on display at the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures (T/m), on the UMKC Volker campus.

In 1949, Hazelle Puppets (at one time the largest manufacturer of marionettes in the world) partnered with UMKC Conservatory to present Kansas City’s first puppet operas, creating productions of “Pagliacci,” “Hansel und Gretel,” and “La Serva Padrona.” In 2004, Mesner Puppets collaborated with Civic Opera of Kansas City for "The Mikado" at the Folly Theater.

Puppetry has also proven an invaluable theatrical art as typical performance opportunities are untenable due to health and safety regulations regarding social distancing, gathering restrictions and mask-wearing.

Many local arts organizations have turned to puppetry as a way to reach audiences, in person or virtually, and keep artists safe. StoneLion Puppet Theatre presented a drive-through puppet show at the National World War I Museum. Mesner Puppets visited the Kauffman Center for a series of videos on theater superstitions.

During December, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City presents “Amahl and the Night Visitors” with Mesner Puppets, the Coterie presents “The Snowy Day,” also with Mesner Puppets, Johnson County Community College presents “A Christmas Carol” told through shadow puppetry by Chicago-based Manual Cinema, and you can learn more about puppetry and toy theaters through T/m Museum exhibits. Additionally, organizations such as Mesner Puppets have created digital content to bring the magic of puppetry into our homes.

Make your own puppet!

The UMKC Music/Media Library welcomes you to use these cold, dark days to bring light to the lives of you and your housemates. Online video calling is also a great media for puppetry, sharing stories with family around the globe. Student Assistant Daniel Nace designed “Alfred the Roo” to add some musical puppetry to your home performance. Pick up a handout (and resource list) at the display or view/print a PDF at the button below.

We'll also post updates, recordings and related articles on Facebook (@UMKCMusicMediaLibrary), Twitter (@umkcmusicmedia) and Instagram (@umkclibraries).

Posted: December 07, 2020