Puppets in Protest

In the United States, the 1960s saw the blossoming of political street theatre to address social and political tensions of the time. The San Francisco Mime Troupe, for instance, challenged racial inequality and El Teatro Campesino performed pro-labor skits during the Delano Grape Strike. These and similar companies used meager material resources and public spaces to challenge a culture of oppression.

Although overlooked as a politically charged medium, puppetry was a significant part of the 1960s political theatre scene. Founded in 1963 in New York City, Bread and Puppet Theater used giant rod puppets to challenge the police, landlords, and the Vietnam War. The organization is part of puppetry’s rich history of challenging power, from Punch and Judy shows mocking royalty in the 1600s to Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch anchoring a “trashy” news show called “Pox News.” Bread and Puppet’s legacy in the United States continues today as puppeteer alumni forge their own socially active theatres like All the Saints Theater Company in Richmond, Virginia, and BoxCutter Collective and Great Small Works in Brooklyn, New York.

Puppets have the potential to reflect the urgency of the times. In the tradition of Bread and Puppet Theater, puppets are constructed with what’s at hand: trash, castoff cardboard, scraps of fabric. At the minimum, a group wanting to construct puppets for a protest needs an X-Acto knife and a Sharpie because puppets can be sourced from cardboard in recycling bins at any location. Therefore, puppets can respond to social upheaval in the moment itself. Cardboard cutouts can be laid flat and stacked, allowing for dozens to be transported easily. They allow for acts of violence to be met with acts of creation.

In the essay “The Radicality of the Puppet Theatre,” Bread and Puppet Theater founder Peter Schumann writes that puppets are not taken seriously, which makes them especially good lowbrow vehicles for political performance. The prevailing assumption is that puppets are for children. But now, more than ever, social movements and protest groups need the emergent qualities of puppetry—qualities understood through both watching and performing—to challenge the status quo and articulate our society’s demands. Beyond their ability to hide the crucial conversations of our time behind smiles and laughs, puppets aid socially engaged groups during protests in additional ways:

  • By amplifying tension in places of power
  • By creating a more accessible message
  • By evoking solidarity through performance

Amplifying Tension in Places of Power

In the summer of 2020, there were massive and immediate protests demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many other Black people killed by law enforcement officers in the United States. These responses occurred at the geographic sites of violence, like Milwaukee and Louisville. What happened in 2020, and what is a common during social unrest, is that subsequent planned marches sprouted in communities across the country. It is at these ally-driven subsequent planned marches where puppets might be spotted. I suspect this is because some puppets, like those made from foam or papier-mâché, take time to create and transport, meaning there’s often not enough time to create them for the initial protest. However, the potential exists to employ roughly fashioned cardboard puppets at earlier stages of civil unrest.

Planned marches are much different than spontaneous protests. They are permitted by local governments and their routes are strategically plotted from point A to point B. Police arrive early and block off streets. Into this street space, puppets amplify points of tension by creating chaotic energy in a controlled, permitted, confined space. Human protesters conventionally move at one speed, following the leader from the route’s beginning to its end. Puppets are not confined to the same plotting movement as people. They move up and down, side to side, very fast, and very slow. Two-dimensional cardboard cutouts, like fists, are especially good at building fast, chaotic energy. Each held aloft by an individual person, twenty or thirty of them can create waves, thrust outward to mimic an explosion, or gesture together toward another puppet representation. Alternatively, giant rod puppets seem to move much more slowly than human protesters, as if they come from the celestial realm or the pits of hell. These towering figures are excellent foils to the two-dimensional puppets, embodying either oppression or relief.

Although overlooked as a politically charged medium, puppetry was a significant part of the 1960s political theatre scene.

Puppets can create a buffer between protester and state power. The political vigilante art collective Guerrilla Girls, who hide their identity behind gorilla masks, have famously said, “If you’re in a situation where you’re a little afraid to speak up, put a mask on. You won’t believe what comes out of your mouth.” Similarly, puppets are vehicles to express risky ideas with less individual risk. Because puppetry is a collective act, it allows individuals to feel more comfortable speaking up and it makes them less visible to police and angry counter-protesters.

Puppetry may make participants feel safer, but it is important to note taking part in it is not completely without risk. During the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, for instance, police let a SWAT-like raid on a puppet-making warehouse and puppeteers were among the more than four hundred arrested.

Within protest marches themselves, short puppet skits create new, separate spaces. The street is transformed into a play space, and for just a moment puppets and puppeteers control the road as onlookers gather to observe. In this simple but powerful way, puppetry disrupts the constraints of a permitted march, creating tension between what is allowed (by police, by local governments, by convention) and what is outside expectations. In this way, puppets amplify what protests, at their core, are about: contestation between the conventional status quo and how protesters imagine the future should be.

Plummer assisting with large-scale puppetry for the Bread and Puppet Theatre.

The author, left, helps manipulate a large-scale rod puppet at Bread and Puppet Theater during rehearsals in 2004. From the author's personal archive.

More Accessible Messaging

After every protest, social media is flooded with galleries of the most original or hilarious protest signs. Grumpy cat, Friends references, and pop song lyrics all make an appearance. During the 2017 Women’s March, I recall seeing signs that said, “Not usually a sign guy but geez” and “If I wanted the government in my uterus, I’d screw a congressman.” Protest signs, in their effort to be funny and unique, are more and more about the individual protester. They represent individual perspectives rather than collective ones. But puppetry is a collective action. Many styles of puppets need two or more people to operate them. Even when the puppets are two-dimensional cutouts of fists or feet, each held by one person, their movements are coordinated. The puppets move together as a group and, visually, their impact on the observer is in this collective movement.

Trends in protest signs have larger issues of accessibility that I believe puppetry remedies. First of all, protest signs are word-laden. This creates a huge barrier for people whose first language may not be English or for those who cannot read text quickly as it moves past in a protest setting. My one caveat against eliminating text-heavy protest signs is when the writing itself performs a specific political function by making visible names that have been unreported or undervalued; for instance, lists of those killed by police violence.

In addition to simple language barriers, pop cultural references on protest signs create more exclusion among those attending the protest: those who get it and those who do not. Often these divisions can fall across lines of identity or age, intersections where comradery should be constructed. A sign during the 2016 West Virginia teachers’ strike had a picture of Johnny Cash and read, “Students, because you’re mine, I walk the line.” The benchmark to understand this sign, which was captured by national news outlets, is quite high. People must first be able to recognize the image of Johnny Cash and understand the sign as a reference to his music. They must then understand that “the line” is not Cash’s moral line, but a picket line. It excludes sympathetic onlookers who may be unfamiliar with the anatomy of a union strike.

Now, more than ever, social movements and protest groups need the emergent qualities of puppetry—qualities understood through both watching and performing—to challenge the status quo and articulate our society’s demands.

Imagine instead a group of two-dimensional puppets cut from cardboard. On one side of the street is a two-dimensional police officer puppet atop a tank cutout. On the other side there’s a series of large pointing fingers. Each held by one individual, they move across the street, as a group. The fingers begin pressing and pushing on the tank. They rear back and begin hammering more strongly against the tank until it is swept out from under the officer. Then the fingers point to the sky and move in celebration.

In a thirty-second skit, puppets can illustrate the idea of demilitarization of police without the complicated and contentious rhetoric surrounding the slogan “defund the police.” Moreover, the skit gives a clearer and more specific message than its companion slogan—all without creating barriers through language or cultural references. In this way, puppetry allows for more inclusiveness in protest. It communicates complex ideas in simple ways without language—and all the baggage and barriers associated with the words we choose—to allow ideas to reach more people. Puppetry therefore increases the chance to engage and convince more people.

Bread and Puppet Theater protestors with a large skeleton puppet and signs at People's Climate March in New York City.

Bread and Puppet Theater at “People’s Climate March,” New York City, 2014. Photo credit: Jay Mead.

Evoking Solidarity

There is an intimacy to puppetwork. Puppeteers get to know the puppet, how to make its immobile hand seem to change shape. Puppeteers coordinate their movements with each other, watching and waiting for bodily cues, often sacrificing their own comfort for the puppet’s appearance. The artform itself forces puppeteers to think outside of themselves, of each other. For example, the large fourteen-foot rod puppets that Bread and Puppet Theater and their alumni use in protests are manipulated by five or more people. Each puppet’s head is atop a centered pole, and its arms and legs, each connected to the center pole by fabric, are manipulated by separate puppeteers. If any limb is overextended, the fabric can pull tight, decentering the other puppeteers. Those who have worked with large-scale puppets know that for the puppet to move seamlessly, each puppeteer must be simultaneously aware of their own bodies, the bodies of other puppeteers, and the puppet body itself.

Volunteers are needed for puppetry at protests. Organizers may show up with extra puppets or a stack of cardboard to be fashioned and carried by volunteers. The volunteers themselves then get to experience the collective joy of working together in performance and protest. The act of putting together a puppet skit becomes what one hopes could happen at any protest: members of the public come, learn something new, and experience collectivism.

Amid a sea of individualized protest signs, puppetry is a collective act—all kinds of puppetry. Largescale puppets are easily the best depiction of collectivism, with five or more moving as one, but all puppetry expresses allyship. Even the solitary glove puppet or ventriloquist act represents a solidarity between human and nonhuman, the two working together with special consideration of the characteristics and qualities of each.

On Cardboard and Collectivism

At its heart, puppeteering is a type of solidarity between performers and puppets, and, by extension, solidarity with those watching the performance. Puppets then become a vehicle to experience collectivism and social change because puppetry isn’t simply an expression of ideas, it is an act of solidarity and collectivism.

Puppets are a mechanism through which people can work together toward a common goal. The common goal may be a puppet performance at a protest, but after the protest, puppetry leaves performers with the muscle memory of working together. For those watching puppets in protest from the sidewalk or the sofa, puppets moving in sync help onlookers imagine different ways of living. They suggest that a more equitable future can be imagined, even with cardboard.

All Saints Theater Company at an anti-pipeline protest in Richmond, Virginia.

All Saints Theater Company, Richmond, Virginia, marches with both a large rod-puppet and two-dimensional cardboard puppets at an anti-pipeline protest. Photo credit: David Parrish.

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Excellent essay. Another example to add to the list is Goodspring and Handspring's WALK WITH AMAL, which uses a 3.5 meter high puppet of a refugee (Amal) who will walk from Turkey to England over a 4 month period, engaging with artists all along the way and promotes hope and support of refugees.