Therapeutic puppets

“Once upon a time a boy of less than 10 years witnessed the murder of his family committed by his father. He stopped talking because of the shock, he lost all strength to start to live again. He was entrusted to the care of several doctors who were unable to find a way to make him reacting to the trauma. Finally he was entrusted to the care of a woman doctor, a particular doctor: she was a lover of puppets. She gave the child simple materials and gave him the task of building a puppet. After a moment of hesitation, with the help of the doctor, he began to build a puppet with his similarities: finished the work, the child began to talk to the puppet unaware of being observed by astonished doctors. It was thanks to this puppet that the child was able to overcome the shock and continue to live.”

This incredible event is not a fantastic story: it really happened! I’m talking about the great experiment made by Ornella Baragiola, a puppeteer expert in play therapy. In 1950, she started to heal childreen using puppets built with poor and simple materials. It has been proven that sick children respond very well to interaction with puppets, especially if they are built by them. Children tend to build their own puppet with their similarities, they need to recognize themselves in it to be able to trust it, as if it was an imaginary friend. As it happened in the episode narrated above, it is easier for a child to interact with someone who he knows, instead it is very difficult for him to trust strangers, especially after a trauma. Puppet therapy has greatly developed, and it can be compared to ClownTerapia, which is able to bring a smile to those children who no longer have reason to smile. In 1980 Ornella Baragiola founded the “Teatrino Tascabile”, an association engaged in the creation of events for children held in Svizzera and abroad. The mission of the organization is clear: to work in the childhood field to meet the emotional needs and to stimulate the imagination and creativity of children.


Traditional Puppets

The main type of puppet which even today is used in plays by theatre companies, arose in Italy from the first half of the 16th century with the “Commedia dell’arte”.

The “Commedia dell’arte” gives many of his inventions to the world of wooden figures: the popular character, the improvisation in play, the choice of comedy as a form of expression, the nomadism of the actors and the choice of the square as a social place of the play. Besides these feautures, the main innovation created by this new form of theatre and at the same time entered the world of puppets, is the “maschera”, a character with a mask and fixed features: the puppet is in fact the projection of the mask that leaves the face of the actor to arrive in the hands of the puppeteer autonomously. So we can find Arlecchino, lazy and naive servant, Brighella, cunning and trickster servant, the Doctor, scholar and conformist doctor, Pantalone, avaricious and lecherous old merchant, and many others.
Over the centuries, characters have multiplied, new ones were born, older ones have been renewed and they have been diversified by their region of origin.


What kind of technique was used and is still used to build these puppets?

A perfect explanation is given us by Romano Danielli, a famous puppeteer, actor and director from Bologna, who has been doing this job for 50 years with initiative and passion.
“The most traditional and widely used material in the construction of puppets is wood. It is preferable to any other material because it allows the production of particular sounds, such as when the puppet is beating with a stick or it hits his head on the stage. The most used wood comes from a particular kind of pine mountain called in italian “cirmolo”: it is a softwood and, even when the chisel works against the grain, it is easy to carve; the “cirmolo” is preferred to the lime tree, which is easy to engrave in the same way, because it is resinous and it is not moth-eaten. This feature is essential for a puppet because of many uses to which it must comply with and because of the long time it should last. The puppet is constituted by a wood head with wood or fur hair, by wood neck and wood hands, all connected by a piece of cloth called “buratto” that acts as a body and with which the puppeteer gives life to the puppet.”

In this site you can see every single stage of the process of a wood puppet construction:

How is a puppet moved by his puppeteer?

The hand of the puppeteer gives life to the puppet: the index finger is put in the puppet’s head, the thumb in one of the two sleeves of the dress ending with the wood hand, and the middle finger or even all three remaining fingers are put in the other sleeve (in the case of very large and heavy puppet, the puppeteer can hold his head with both the index and middle finger).

Stretching his arm up, the puppeteer sticks out the puppet above the plane of the scene and make him doing a great variety of movements. The special composition of the whole hand’s puppeteer-puppet is the origin of the peculiarities of the puppet and its unrealistic movements: for example to grasp a stick or a rifle the puppet has to cross both his arms, it cannot use his hands; it has a lopsided walk depending on whether the puppeteer operated by the right hand or left hand.

Stay tuned to discover many curiosities of puppet’s world!

A little about “what”

First of all, we need to know what a puppet is: a puppet is an inanimate object or representational figure which wears piece-goods and has a head made by wood or other materials. It appears half-lenght on stage and it is animated and manipulated by a puppeteer who puts it like a glow.

There are many different varieties of puppets, and they are made of a wide range of materials, depending on their form and intended use. They can be extremely complex or very simple in their construction.

Puppetry by its nature is a flexible and inventive medium, and many puppet companies work with combinations of puppet forms, and incorporate real objects into their performances. The different techniques of production of puppets depend on places where they are used and on the aim puppeteers want to reach: there are plays for childreen, which are different from plays for adults.

The main types of puppets are:

Hand or glove puppet: these are puppets controlled by one hand which occupies the interior of the puppet. Larger varieties of hand puppets place the puppeteer’s hand in just the puppet’s head, controlling the mouth and head, and the puppet’s body then hangs over the entire arm. Other parts of the puppet (mainly arms, but special variants exist with eyelids which can be manipulated; the mouth may also open and close) are usually not much larger than the hand itself.

Sock puppet: they are particularly simple type of hand puppet made from a sock and they operated by inserting ones hand inside the sock. One then moves his hand up and down to give the impersonation of speaking. Sometimes eyes and other factors are added to the sock in order to make the puppet more realistic. Sock Puppets are also popular in many puppet performances, as they are simple to make and easy to use. They are mostly used in satirical or childish works, as they are not very professional.

Rod puppet: it is constructed around a central rod secured to the head. A large glove covers the rod and is attached to the neck of the puppet. A rod puppet is controlled by the puppeteer moving the metal rods attached to the hands of the puppet and by turning the central rod secured to the head.

Human-arm puppet: it is also called a “two-man puppet” or a “Live-hand puppet”; it is similar to a hand puppet but is larger and requires two puppeteers. One puppeteer places a hand inside the puppet’s head and operates its head and mouth, while the other puppeteer wears gloves and special sleeves attached to the puppet in order to become the puppet’s arms, so that the puppet can perform arbitrary hand gestures. This is a form of glove or hand puppetry and rod puppetry.

The marionette is a particular type of puppet.  It is suspended and controlled by a number of strings, plus sometimes a central rod attached to a control bar held from above by the puppeteer. The control bar can be either a horizontal or vertical one. Basic strings for operation are usually attached to the head, back, hands (to control the arms) and just above the knee (to control the legs). This form of puppetry is complex and sophisticated to operate, requiring greater manipulative control than a finger, glove or rod puppet.

Many people think  the marionette is the same thing as puppet, but it is not completly true, because it is not animated directly by the hands of the puppeteer. The most famous marionette is Pinocchio, invented by Carlo Collodi who first call it wrongly “burattino” instead of “marionetta”.


What kind of puppets do you prefer? And most of all what kind of puppets can you find in your area?

Stay tuned!