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Creating a Feminist Punch and Judy Show

The iconic hand puppet show Punch and Judy originated in England in the 1600s. It evolved from the slapstick performance style of Italian commedia dell’arte (“Punch” is an Anglicized variation of name “Pulcinella”) and grew in popularity through regular performances at parks, fairgrounds, and other public venues.

The traditional Punch and Judy story centers on the antics of Mr. Punch, a scofflaw whose irreverent behavior shocks audiences while earning their admiration. Typically performed by a solo male puppeteer called a “Punch Professor,” the show consists of two-character scenes performed in a booth-style hand puppet stage. Puppeteers incite audience reactions through direct address, boisterous call-and-response, exuberant flinging of objects across the fourth wall, and other comedic behaviors. As is true for many street theatre traditions, the more provocative the performance, the more profitable for the puppeteer. 

While Punch and Judy has no definitive script, most performances feature similar characters, follow the same story structure, and feature scenes of stylized violence. In the traditional opening scene, Mr. Punch gets in a fight with his nagging wife Judy. He then “accidentally” throws their baby out the window. In most versions, he subsequently tangles with some combination of characters that include a policeman, an alligator, a banker, an executioner, and a supernatural character such as a ghost or devil. In traditional productions, Mr. Punch carries an enormous slapstick and smacks his oppressors into submission, earning cheers for “hanging the hangman.” In some iterations, men in boxing gloves pummel each other as a finale or entr’acte.

As modern sensibilities have evolved, Punch and Judy has drawn criticism from those who find Mr. Punch’s violent behavior too extreme, especially for young audiences. Even artists who know and value the tradition find scenes where Mr. Punch hits Judy particularly unpleasant to watch or perform. For many, the show has become synonymous with misogyny, and its popularity has declined accordingly.

two puppets

Judy and the Alligator in Sarah Nolen's Judy Saves the Day. Photo by Sarah Nolen.

Nevertheless, many contemporary American puppeteers have found ways to reimagine Mr. Punch’s antics while keeping the show’s traditional comedy and satire alive. Z Puppets Rosenschnoz of Minneapolis, Minnesota created a kid-friendly comedy where the audience speaks out against Mr. Punch’s naughty behavior and the baby saves the day. Puppeteer and political satirist Paul Zaloom created a gender-bending satire called Punch and Jimmy. Several modern Punch Professors have recently cast Mr. Punch as President Donald Trump, drawing strong associations with his erratic, narcissistic, and anti-feminist behavior.

But what about Judy? Isn’t she also a Punch and Judy title character? After four hundred years of getting smacked around, isn’t it finally time for us to hear what she has to say?

Judy Punches Back

Behind every powerful puppet protagonist is a skillful puppeteer. Enter Sarah Nolen, Puppet Showplace Theater’s resident artist, who arrived in Greater Boston in 2017 with a national reputation for creating hilarious, expertly crafted, and meticulously researched original work.

Nolen was deeply conversant with Punch and Judy when she proposed creating Judy Punches Back, a feminist adaptation of the traditional show. Her past work included feminist satire for adult audiences and children’s media with girl-powered themes. Now Nolen wanted a new challenge: save Judy from centuries of unfair abuse and repurpose her story as an empowering allegory for audiences of all ages. As Puppet Showplace’s artistic director, I was excited to support this work in our Incubator program and to serve as a dramaturg and “outside eye” rehearsal director. 

an actor with two hand puppets

Sarah Nolen with Mr. Punch and Judy. Photo by Lynn Osborn.

Nolen used a three-pronged approach. First, she developed Judy as a complex, multi-dimensional character and made her the star of the show. Second, she strived to make feminism funny by translating traditional Punch and Judy scenes into situations that gave voice to contemporary feminist social critiques such as asymmetric responsibility for household labor, systemic doubting of women’s legal testimony, and the oppressive ideology of a “perfect” woman. Finally, Nolen invited audiences to speak up during the performance in ways that would empower Judy. By carrying out these tactics, Nolen hoped to make audiences feel delighted as they learned about conditions that systematically oppressed women and raised their voices to demand action and change.

After designing and building all of the puppets, Nolen developed the show that we ultimately marketed to schools and families as Judy Saves the Day. Given the show’s dependence on audience interactivity, Nolen tried out material with test audiences over a yearlong period, then continued to make adjustments during a three-week opening run at Puppet Showplace Theater. During this time, she engaged with over two thousand people including kids, parents, teachers, and fellow puppeteers.

Nolen’s experiences revealed that adapting Punch and Judy was not as straightforward as she first expected, as Judy was beholden to certain cultural expectations and unspoken codes of conduct that did not apply to Mr. Punch. Nolen also realized that she had a broader responsibility as an activist that extended beyond the experience of the show. Finally, she realized that in order to be successful her work also had to speak to her, authentically sustaining her own self-confidence as a woman in puppetry creating bold new work.

Now Nolen wanted a new challenge: save Judy from centuries of unfair abuse and repurpose her story as an empowering allegory for audiences of all ages.

Valuing Judy’s Domestic Contributions

Nolen’s first challenge was to re-envision Punch and Judy’s fraught domestic scenes. While some feminist discourse downplays the value of domestic work and maternal identity, Nolen realized that one of the most powerful things she could do early on was invite young audiences to appreciate and value how much women and mothers do that allows others in society to thrive.

In Nolen’s adaptation, we first see Judy comically rushing back and forth across the puppet stage, muttering her to-do list to her self. She pauses to politely welcome the audience before dashing off to attend to her baby’s cries. Mr. Punch saunters in but can’t bring himself to do anything helpful, and, crying like the baby, begs Judy to make him a sandwich. Judy finally reaches her wit’s end and bops Mr. Punch with two giant pieces of bread and makes him into a sandwich—an absurd but memorable outcome for children who have likely made similar demands of their moms. For many kids, this was the first time they had ever witnessed a scene framed from a busy mother’s perspective. Nolen was pleased to discover that when presented this way, kids sided with Judy and yelled at Mr. Punch.

Nolen learned early on that doing simple substitutions and inversions of the traditional show would not work in every situation, particularly with Judy’s relationship to her baby. In one draft of the show, Nolen presented the baby as another of Judy’s nagging antagonists. When the baby’s cries persisted, Judy lost her composure, threw the baby in the basement, then fled her house.   

When Nolen ran this scene for an audience of fellow puppeteers, most of us objected to this interpretation and immediately disliked Judy because of it. But why? Mr. Punch throws the baby out the window and it’s hilarious. Why couldn’t Judy do the same thing? Nolen knew it was unfair to hold a fictional puppet to a higher standard of behavior than her male counterpart, but in order to achieve effective satire, she agreed that Judy could not simply become Mr. Punch: she deserved a more nuanced identity of her own.

two puppets

The "Judy Cheerleaders" in action. Photo by Honey Goodenough.

Nolen decided to change the scene to honor Judy’s commitment to care for her child. In the revised version, Judy gets the fussy baby to sleep after giving him a bottle, a toy, and an iPhone. When she goes to take her own nap, an alligator appears and snatches the baby from the stage. An epic battle ensues, where Judy heroically fights the beast off with a wooden spoon. She emerges wounded but victorious and rushes off to find the baby. An entr’acte follows, with two “Judy cheerleaders” celebrating the puppet’s bravery with exuberant tricks and dance moves. (In a nod to the ongoing need for intersectional feminism, Nolen designed them to portray women of different races working together). 

Rather than resisting and devaluing Judy’s maternal obligations, Nolen gave audiences an opportunity to empathize with Judy’s impossible challenge of juggling all of her family’s domestic tasks. Kids could laugh at Mr. Punch for being unhelpful and celebrate Judy for her competence and bravery. Nolen found that empowering Judy meant allowing space for her to be multidimensional: in contrast to her counterpart, she could be both kind and nurturing as well as strong and confrontational. Nolen maintained this nuanced approach to the character as she built the show’s ensuing scenes.

Policing Content

Nolen wanted her show to somehow engage with topics related to consent, bodily autonomy, sexual harassment, and the #MeToo movement, but in a way that was appropriate for young audiences. She found space to do so by adapting the traditional Punch and Judy scene involving a policeman into a complex allegory of blame and assault. Her intent was to have this scene play on two levels—a “kid” level that prompted young audiences to call out injustice and speak up for what’s right, and an “adult” level that drew attention to the insidious way people in authority can undermine women and cast doubt on their testimony.

After escaping with a wounded arm from the alligator who stole her baby, Judy runs off calling for help. She finds a police officer who asks her for a description of the suspect. Judy asks the audience to recount the details. Kids enthusiastically call out what they have seen: “He was green!” “He had sharp teeth!” “He tried to eat her!” Instead of sounding the alarm, the officer asks Judy, “Did you get a first and last name?” Kids scoff as they recognize how unhelpful and absurd this question is. Adults shuffle in their seats as they begin to see Judy in a familiar scene where the burden of proof shifts onto a victim to defend herself. The officer finally asks Judy, “Ma’am, is that what you were wearing at the time of the attack?” Judy, in a bright yellow dress, confirms that this is so. The officer replies, “Everybody knows that alligators are attracted to bright colors. This attack couldn’t have been HIS fault. Let’s just say it was an accident.” Judy, shaken by this suggestion, turns to the audience for help to defend her case. She asks the kids, “Was this an accident?!” The kids yell “NO!” Judy then entraps the officer in a giant donut, declaring “DONUT blame me for this!”

Nolen eventually realized that empowering grown-ups to engage kids in conversation about uncomfortable realities was part of Judy’s mission.

Almost every time Nolen performed this scene, adults in the audience audibly gasped. She had planned to be provocative, and many were impressed by her takedown of the cop. A few, however, were agitated: Was this actually a scene about sexual assault? Do my kids know what’s going on? What should I do?! Kids typically understood this interaction exactly as Nolen intended: the officer blames Judy unfairly and she stands up for herself. Yet some parents voiced strong resistance saying that the scene was “inappropriate.” One mother wrote:

I say with confidence that most early childhood professionals would agree that these heavy themes and humor are not appropriate for young children. While my daughter giggled, I was left feeling very uncomfortable and thinking about the questions and conversations that might follow this performance.

We spent a long time thinking about how to respond to this parent and others like her. Nolen felt the comment validated that the show was working exactly as intended. She also strongly disagreed with the claims about age-appropriateness (and had expert child development authorities to back her up). However, that did not seem to be the real issue at play. What we started to hear was a cry for help manifested as an accusation about respectability: I saw your show, and it reminded me of how unjust the world is for me, my daughter, and for all women. I don’t want the world to be that way. This reality makes me uncomfortable, and I would rather not see it because I feel I can’t change it.

Nolen eventually realized that empowering grown-ups to engage kids in conversation about uncomfortable realities was part of Judy’s mission and, accordingly, her responsibility. As an artist dedicated to women’s advocacy and empowerment, Nolen also had the responsibility to meet parents and caretakers where they were and to model how to engage in difficult conversations.

Nolen began to make herself available after the show to engage with audiences about these topics. She developed strategies for post-show conversations that let kids discuss what they had seen. She looked for ways to reassure grownups that their kids were okay so they could worry less about protecting their children’s innocence and focus instead on teaching them to stand up for someone who had been wronged. As Nolen continues to perform the show on tour, we are working with her to create a comprehensive parental guide for those who need additional support.

audience sitting outside

Sarah Nolen talks to an audience while touring the show in Boston. Photo by Roxanna Myhrum.

Perfection is the Enemy

Nolen began adapting Punch and Judy without knowing exactly how the story would end. In the original version, Mr. Punch doesn’t really grow or change over the course of the show, but simply asserts himself in increasingly crazy situations. Nolen felt like Judy’s story needed to go somewhere constructive and meaningful. At the same time, she didn’t want to be preachy or moralizing, and a simple happy ending felt disingenuous. In a show whose premise was to tell the truth, how could Nolen tell kids that there was an easy solution to a ridiculously unfair world?

Knowing that Judy’s struggles would continue, Nolen wanted to give the character an infusion of self-confidence that would sustain her beyond the final curtain. To do this, she decided to reimagine Mr. Punch’s traditional confrontation with the Devil as Judy’s confrontation with “Perfect Judy,” an impossible, oppressive, demonic identical twin copy of herself. Nolen drew on considerable personal experience when crafting this scene, as she had been nagged throughout the development process with a sense that her own Punch and Judy adaptation would never be good enough. Ultimately, she confronted her own self-doubt by crafting a puppet nemesis and defeating her on stage.

In Nolen’s staging, Judy looks into a mirror and sees a dolled-up version of herself in a sequined red dress. With feigned sweetness interspersed with maniacal laughter, Perfect Judy sashays on stage. After observing Judy’s many flaws, Perfect Judy offers to take over Judy’s life so that she can do everything perfectly. The audience immediately recognizes that Perfect Judy is a bully. As the real Judy crumples with self-doubt, kids speak out in her defense: “Come back, Judy!” “Nobody’s perfect!” “She’s mean!” When Judy exits in defeat, Perfect Judy turns on the children. “You’ll all be perfect too, right? You’ll never spill anything, or cry, or do anything to embarrass me? Because if you do, I’ll get rid of you and get new, perfect children!” The kids, now riled up, yell at Perfect Judy to go away. Real Judy returns and a pillow fight ensues. In a very puppet-y bit of stagecraft, Nolen transforms the scenery and the audience discovers that Perfect Judy was actually a terrible dream. Audiences consistently found this scene to be the most effective satire in the show and thanked Nolen for naming, giving shape to, and then destroying this familiar demon on stage.

As we continue to present the show in repertory and on tour, Nolen continues to revise Judy Saves the Day to keep the satire calibrated to audiences’ evolving expectations and ever-shifting cultural norms. From her explorations, it’s clear that the Punch and Judy tradition remains relevant and powerful for modern audiences, and that, with Nolen behind the curtain, Judy is finally in good hands.

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