Tyger Tyger, Burning Bright

There was an interesting and rather lengthy article in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week about the puppetry program at West Virginia University. It is apparently one of the few degree programs in puppetry in the country. As you might imagine, it is in danger of being shutdown.

The article notes that while puppetry is held in high regard in many cultures, it is considered low culture and content for children in the U.S.

In Indonesia, wayang kulit, or shadow-puppet shows, would stretch from night until dawn, illuminated by oil lamps. In Japan’s Bunraku theater, which originated in the 17th century, apprentices toiled for 10 years to master manipulating just the feet of dignified puppets.

Yet is appears in more sophisticated content evoking delight from mass audiences:

That perception has staying power, even in the midst of a multidecade renaissance. The Lion King and its dazzling animal puppets became the highest-grossing Broadway musical of all time. The internet erupted when it first saw Baby Yoda, who is brought to life in the television series The Mandalorian, in part, by a puppet.


Puppetry abounds. And yet it remains peripheral. Puppet theater has “never fully established a fixed role for itself in contemporary American society,” writes John Bell, a prolific puppet scholar, in his 2000 book Strings, Hands, Shadows: A Modern Puppet History. It “has had to constantly reinvent itself in order to survive.”

Of course there is also the recent production of Life of Pi that also uses life sized puppetry rather effectively. I saw this video of a lecture using the tiger puppet from the production on Reddit a few months ago. In some respects it is a more effective illustration of the work that went into the show than some of the promotional videos the production put out. Even though people can clearly see the three people manipulating the puppet within arm’s reach, the coordination and motion study the team invested sends people scurrying back.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


Leave a Comment