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Spaces of Puppetry in Lübeck

In January 2021, the Figurentheater Lübeck and the Theaterfigurenmuseum in Lübeck, Germany joined forces to form a cultural institution unique in the country: KOLK 17 Figurentheater & Museum, which is dedicated to the art form of puppetry in all its manifestations. At the core of KOLK 17 is a creative team called the “Thinking Lab,” which we are a part of. Amongst other things, we are trying to redefine exhibiting puppetry.

We exchange views and discuss joint projects, such as our first large exhibition where we will focus on stage and scenic space, as a team: Stephan Schlafke, a puppeteer since 1979, has a creative yet practical approach to our questions, whereas Silke Technau, a puppeteer since 1975 and with a master’s in theatre studies, is involved with playing puppets and researching historical contexts. Sonja Riehn, a cultural anthropologist, specializes in developing alternative and diverse strategies for museum collections and exhibitions, and Antonia Napp, as an art historian and museum specialist, works on decolonizing the institution and bringing the museum and theatre fruitfully together.

When the museum and theatre closed for renovations in 2018, it became clear we wanted to reinvent the space. When it comes to puppetry here in Lübeck, the term “space” relates primarily to the concrete and analogue: seven small old town houses with five exhibition rooms, a theatre hall, a rehearsal stage, and a forum as a meeting space in the alley Kolk. There is little real, physical space for performances and exhibitions, even after the reconstruction. Stretching around our buildings is a densely built medieval city quarter with small alleys—here, too, it is cramped. Yet, in the Thinking Lab, we defined “space” further, to encompass the metaphorical thinking spaces, virtual spaces, and dream spaces.

As we think about linking puppetry theatre—developing, dramaturging, designing, and staging a new play—with exhibitions and collections, “space” has become a key term for us, because it is an important part of mapping out both a new play and a new exhibition.

Photograph of a brick building and an alley with puppet figures in the windows.

Photograph of the Theatre Figuren Museum in Germany. Photo Credit: Thomas Radbruch.

Performative Spaces

Working in the museum gives us access to historical gestures and rhythms, to puppet designs and performance techniques that have grown over centuries. Once carefully guarded, today multifaceted insights on puppet design and performance forms are possible—for example, we are able to adapt historical rod marionettes in various sizes and with improved guiding techniques. We can examine all of this in a reconstructive manner, explore historical qualities and possibilities for today’s theatre work, and develop it further.

During a puppetry performance, space is created by the respective puppetry style—hand puppet, marionette, rod puppet, tabletop puppet, life-size puppet, etc. In other words, the space of the performance is created by the physical location, the arrangement of the performers and audience, the set/stage, and the play technique. These resulting spaces can be quite different geographically, artistically, historically, and so on. Performative spaces emerge anew every day in the current works of puppet theatre. In a museum, on the other hand, the objects are remnants of such performative happenings: the objects’ former original context is always and forever lost.

The decision to use a certain type of puppet style within a production has long been flexible; since the 1960s at least it has no longer been a technical decision but a dramaturgical one. What temperament does a character want to be endowed with? What demeanour and what gestures should accompany its story? What images support its path through the future production? In traditional marionette puppet theatre, the puppet was used like a little actor, playing various roles. Nowadays, the puppets are unique: they are designed according to dramaturgical necessities and their roles are incorporated into the plays. The consequences are that puppet theatre companies no longer necessarily specialize in one type of puppet. Moreover, it is possible to use different types of puppets in one play.

The space of the performance is created by the physical location, the arrangement of the performers and audience, the set/stage, and the play technique.

The pragmatic—and historically most commonly used—stage frame, which hides the players in hand puppetry or in traditional puppet theatre, or which forms the stage itself in table theatre, has given way to entire stage landscapes in recent decades. Dramaturgical questions should also be able to investigate the scenery and stage framing of the show, as well as the interplay between the two.

For example, a few years ago KOLK 17 presented a puppetry adaptation of the The Rider on the White Horse by Theodor Storm, a novella from the nineteenth century. The theme of coastal protection was highly topical, and we decided that to tell the story we’d use the traditional form of stick puppets. We worked with contemporary puppet designers to develop a new control bar to guide the puppets and a new construction technique for the historical rod marionettes, whose vital traditional playing rhythm inspired us. In the show, the wonderful expanse of nature and its simultaneous existential threat was shown in lavish color projections, which escalated into a filmed sequence. By means of projected film stills, and the short film itself, nature played its part. The human struggle against the forces of nature were translated dramaturgically into the confrontation of the analogue puppets on stage with the digital films stills, which culminated in the analogue puppet scene being “flooded” by the moving image of the sea. The aesthetic question of how much moving projection and how much play is possible with a camera in contrast and crossover with puppet theatre led to our current research project puppet & microcamera.

We are also currently experimenting with new developments of small rod marionettes in the vein of small Czech home stages in contrast to the life-size sewn figures and open play, exploring the audience’s emotional reactions to it. In our project “Cherry-Picking Shakespeare,” the life-size sewn Queen Elizabeth I receives a cherry cake for her birthday, which contains a small Globe Theatre in which a past lover and a fool play scenes from Shakespeare’s plays with stick puppets the size of traditional Czech home stages. We constructed and weighted the figures in such a way that, in contrast to traditional gestures, they can be performed in a very differentiated manner. The small marionettes effortlessly contrast their precise delicacy with the large figure, and the small theatre world contrasts with Shakespeare’s force of language and subjects. This, along with precise guidance, carefully carved faces, and stage spaces created with cameras, offers the aesthetic means for a Shakespeare ensemble production. Above all, the audience is able to experience a wide variety of play and perception that do justice to both Shakespeare and the illusory spaces the different characters claim for themselves.

Image of two puppeteers on stage using puppets in front of a digital created forest backdrop.

Photo from production of The White Horse. Photo Credit: Martin Bauchin.

Knowledge Spaces

While working on stage productions, we have the possibility of using the museum’s collection of puppets, mobile stages, sets and props, text and directors’ books, scene photos and posters, programs, and playbills for insight into other or older puppetry play forms. Vice versa, our puppeteer’s gaze at the artifacts broadens our knowledge about the collection, which consists of approximately twenty thousand heterogeneous artifacts from Europe, Asia, and Africa. We understand the collection as a large knowledge space that is always in motion and that should be available to the general public. An important goal for the future is to make the collection, including the archive and the specialized library, available to research users worldwide, creating a digital research infrastructure that contributes to a transcultural, interdisciplinary exchange of puppetry knowledge.

The small marionettes effortlessly contrast their precise delicacy with the large figure, and the small theatre world contrasts with Shakespeare’s force of language and subjects.

Little to nothing is known about the puppets of non-European origin. In the form of the virtual exhibition “Colonialism and Puppetry – Untangling the Strings” last year, we tried to trace the path of non-European artifacts from the performative puppet to museum object. The exhibition was the beginning of a postcolonial perspective on our collection and offered us possibilities to deal creatively with the “empty spaces” around the collection objects. Instead of asserting from an institutional point of view ethnological or theatre historical contexts of the objects, we invite visitors to offer their knowledge and/or associations. To our current project, “Who’s Talking? Change of Perspective on Provenance,” we invited international and diverse expertise to approach questions of original performative contexts and of (post-)coloniality, racism, and appropriation through artistic research. We are developing working methods here, and although the results of the project are not yet finished, we are hoping to integrate them into our opening exhibition.

There is one loss that all our objects have suffered: that of the performative. The collection items are always only “traces” of scenic practice. How can these traces now be read, researched, and documented? How can cultural contexts be taken into account in addition to the performative ones so that the polyphonic and multilayered spaces of knowledge that surround the objects remain (or can be expanded)? These questions will continue to occupy our work in the future.

Exhibition Spaces

The spaces that are created in our exhibitions are another dimension of spaces of puppetry. They have different parameters: neither the performance nor the play determines them—the exhibition and its visitors do. The parameter of time also takes on a different role. While puppet theatre performances exist solely in the present, there are temporal dimensions in exhibition spaces, because even with historical (especially non-European) exhibits, past and present are considered at the same time.

We can make use of the fact that, at the Thinking Lab, there are both active puppeteers and exhibition practitioners: together, we can make puppetry theatre fruitful for exhibitions. We want to illuminate a wide variety of puppet theatre forms and the artifacts in our collection from different perspectives, and our collection of objects forces us to readjust these perspectives. Who is talking about the objects? Are we letting them talk? What stories are they telling?

As an interdisciplinary group, connecting to puppet theatre practice opens a whole new set of possibilities for taking on these perspectives: puppetry as a performative art that can effortlessly transcend boundaries and limitations of the human body, and that can vividly capture multiple perspectives and ambivalences in images by means of the puppet. This is an art form where many answers to questions of the day—racism, equality, decolonization of institutions—can be visualized and set rolling.

Everything influences how the performative space develops—even the audience and their reactions and backgrounds.

Our wish is that museums become more like theatres. Interpretations are subjective, fragile, mobile; exhibitions, like productions, should be understood as offers of interpretation and only excerpts from the multitude of possibilities. Puppetry in its European tradition left behind its fixed stage forms of the puppet booth and marionette stage with hidden puppeteers decades ago, aiming instead for the empty theatre space that is filled according to dramaturgical decisions: the story, the characters, and their demeanor, temperament, and gestures.

Everything influences how the performative space develops—even the audience and their reactions and backgrounds. An equivalent on the side of museum practice would mean to refrain from the fixed master narrative and, rather, to see exhibitions as interpretations, offers, and proposals to the audience, who are invited to participate. We must continuously explore and work on themes by a frequent and constant rotation of questions, to dispense with showcases as the only form of presentation and permanent exhibitions, to acknowledge the bodily dimension of the puppeteer as well as of the puppet in relation to the audience’s body. For our exhibition spaces, for example, we will consider different modes. What mode do we give a space: stormy, overwhelming, or even for once gentle?

Image of Chinese iron rod dragon puppet and people, with notes written in German.

Insights from the thinking lab. Photo Credit: Demirag Architekten.


Conviviality connects theatre and museum as a motor—they are both places of coming together (how much we noticed and missed this last year!). We like to strengthen this impulse with our work. But how do we go about this? For our next exhibition project, which will be the first one in the newly opened rooms in 2023, we will mainly present concrete case studies alongside the question of how scenic space is shaped by the complex relationship between audiences and the happenings onstage. Instead of claimed authentic reconstruction, our first priority is to explore aesthetic experiences. We are thinking about having five exhibition rooms dedicated to string puppets, merging the traditional marionette stage with a modern open space, Vietnamese water puppetry múa rôí nu’ó’c, the moveable animal puppet stage in the sogo bò of Mali, European hand puppetry, and Chinese iron rod puppetry (tiezhi mu’ouxi).

One firm conviction in the Thinking Lab is that the aesthetic experience comes first, whether on stage in a theatre or in a museum’s exhibition space, and that it is inevitably linked with presence. To us, the priority of the non-mediated, sensuous, curious aesthetic experience in exhibition rooms is central. The progression from one room to the next follows dramaturgical questions, considering each chapter of the exhibition no differently than the scenes of a play. The format of our future exhibition will be merged at some points with actual puppetry—guided tours will incorporate performative elements or end with played scenes. Theatre productions with a thematic focus relating to the exhibition will be created and, vice versa, ideas and impulses stemming from ongoing theatre productions will be developed as exhibitions. We no longer support the idea of a distinction between theatre and museum: here we create knowledge, and we share it.

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