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Glossary of Puppetry

Puppetry is an ever evolving artform the origins of which date back between ~30,000 and ~21,000 B.C.E. As such, it defies fixed definitions. Below are some frequently used definitions and descriptions to help anyone who is learning about puppetry to better understand and talk about what they are seeing. It is common to think of puppetry in 6 major categories or types (Bunraku, Marionette, Shadow, Rod, Hand, and Body), but especially in contemporary puppetry, many puppets fall into more than one, or even outside of these major groupings. Explore below to learn more.

Body Puppet

With Body Puppets a large portion or all of the performers’ own body is enclosed or hidden within the puppet. An example is Sesame Street’s Big Bird.

Image: Post Show Party (2024 Festival)
Photo: Richard Termine

Bunraku

Bunraku is a classic form of puppetry and was created at the Takemoto-za puppet theater in Osaka Japan in the 1680s. In traditional Bunraku, a single puppet is manipulated by multiple puppeteers with the most experienced puppeteer moving the head and supporting puppeteers moving the puppet’s arms and/or legs. All puppetry using this method outside of the originating theater in Japan, is referred to as Bunraku-style.

Image: Nick Lehane’s Chimpanzee (2022 Festival)
Photo: Nick Zoulek

Cantastoria

Cantastoria is a theatrical form that has long been a part of the puppetry tradition wherein a performer sings or speaks while gesturing to a series of images to illuminate a story.

Image: Bread and Puppet Theater’s The Persians (2022 Festival)
Photo: Nick Zoulek

Glove Puppet

Glove Puppets are a type of hand puppet where the separate use of fingers inside of the puppet articluate the puppet’s head and arms. Frequently Glove Puppets are without a moving mouth.

Image: Little Uprisings’ My Night in the Planetarium (2023 Festival)
Photo: Richard Termine

Crankie

A Crankie or Crankie Theater uses a long illustrated scroll (usually paper) wound around two spools which, when cranked, displays a progression of imagery. Sometimes this is inside of a box shaped like a proscenium.

Image: Myra Su’s “Inked” (2022 Festival)
Photo: Yvette Marie Dostatni

Hand Puppet

Hand Puppets are controlled by the puppeteer’s hand on the interior of the puppet. The puppeteer essentially wears the puppet on the hand to manipulate it.

Image: Krystal Puppeteers’ Tears by the River, (2024 Festival)
Photo:Richard Termine

Kuruma Ningyo

Kuruma Ningyo is a Japanese theatrical tradition derived from Bunraku. The term Kuruma comes from rokuro-kuruma (a small seat with wheels) and ningyo means “puppet,” thus “puppet on a cart.” It is operated by a puppeteer sitting on and steering the cart with their feet, which allows only one puppeteer to comandeer the puppet instead of the three as in traditional Bunraku.

Image: The Koryū Nishikawa Troupe and Tom Lee’s AKUTAGAWA (2023 Festival)
Photo: Yvette Marie Dostatni

Marionette

Marionettes are manipulated from above, usually by strings.

Image: Collective SUMM’s All is Blue and Yellow (2023 Lab)
Photo: Loren Toney

Muppet-style Puppet

The word “Muppet” is a specfiic reference to the unique tv/film puppets created by Jim Henson and seen in The Muppet Show and Sesame Street. Muppet-style Puppets are characterized by a fluffy or furry exterior on a hand, hand & rod, or rod puppet.

Image: Noah Ginex’s Jameson and Toronto in Nasty, Brutish & Short (2023 Festival)
Photo: Richard Termine

Rod Puppet

Rod Puppets are controlled, often from below via rods and/or a post.

Image: Theatre Y & Michael Montenegro’s Little Carl (2024 Festival)
Photo: Philamonjaro

Shadow Puppet

Shadow Puppets appear to audiences as images made by shadows or lights cast on a screen or object.

Image: Les Anges au Plafond’s R.A.G.E. (2023 Festival)
Photo: Richard Termine

Spectacle

Spectacle puppetry implements larger scale puppets frequently using pageantry or parading outdoors in order to draw the attention of the audiences in large venues, open spaces, or public forums.

Image: La Liga Teatro Elástico’s The Beast Dance (or The Secret Spell of the Wild) (2024 Festival)
Photo: Richard Termine

Tabletop Puppetry

Tabletop Puppetry is smaller-scale puppetry that can be performed on a tabletop. This can include any style, but is frequently bunraku-style, crankie, toy theater, or shadow.

Image: Marsian De Lellis’ Object of Her Affection (2022 Festival)
Photo: Yvette Marie Dostatni

Toy Theater

Toy Theater was originally a simple, commercially available way of staging popular dramatic spectacles in your own drawing room in 19th Century England. Contemporary Toy Theater is generally characterized by flat, miniature, paper images moved within a proscenium arch or other container.

Ready to Learn More?

Visit the Chicago Puppet Fest Archive!

In our Archive, you will find Festival programs, video and photos from performances, in-depth commentary, and links to further reading about Festival artists, partners, programs, and their work. Whether you are a puppeteer, a scholar, or a fan, you are welcome to immerse yourself in this free archive to gain inspiration, read deeply about puppetry performances, learn new skills, or appreciate a culture that may be different from your own. This archive is helping to redefine the mainstream understanding of puppetry and foster enduring cross-cultural understanding in a pluralistic world.