A puppeteer is a person who designs, creates and dresses puppets, and who uses puppets to stage a live performance to entertain others.
Puppetry is the art of making puppets and presenting puppet shows. Puppets are small figures which are designed to be manipulated by hand or by wires for the purposes of entertainment. More recently, the art has expanded to encompass new technologies, such as the advanced area of animatronics, as seen in Hollywood blockbuster movies. In the UK, the erstwhile favourite Punch and Judy show remains popular with children, and many puppeteers choose to specialise in this type of show. It is still considered to be a “seaside favourite” around the UK, and appeals to audiences both young and old.
The puppeteer is not only responsible for moving the inanimate puppets, but they must also give them a voice and tell a good story too. For this reason, it is classed as a type of performance art. The art of puppeteering stretches back some 32,000 years, according to Thames and Hudson’s Puppetry and Puppets, and is popular all over the world. Puppeteers often design and make their own puppets, but there is a fairly large domestic industry for the sale of third-party manufactured puppets, props and materials.
Due to the fact that most puppet “roadshows” are run by one person on their own, or two or three persons working in partnership, the owners are self-employed, and so the range of potential earnings depends on two things: the amount of leg-work the proprietors are prepared to do in promoting their business and maximising the number of shows, and the amount of word-of-mouth marketing that successful shows receive from audiences. Puppet shows specialising in children’s birthday parties are often set up as part-time initiatives around a full-time job, and first year earnings may be as little as £5,000 or less. Successful shows with good word-of-mouth support and a nationwide service can bring in around £35,000 per year, with bookings stretching months into the future.
- Design and build or procure puppets and props to facilitate live performance of the puppet show.
- Write or obtain scripts for the performance.
- Deliver a strong story to captivate audiences.
- Give voice to the puppets in a credible and entertaining way.
- Organise bookings for the puppet roadshow or theatre, and deliver on deadlines and promises.
There are no formal academic barriers to entry, although a GCSE in drama or BTEC in performing arts can be useful in learning the skills necessary to conduct a public performance, and to overcome nerves. Indeed, many puppeteers do actually come from an academic background in drama, as it is often this which catalyses the desire to enter performance arts. Puppeteering is still one of the most unusual and characterful areas of performance art.
- Understanding of audience expectations for performance quality and authenticity.
- Understanding of marketing or advertising techniques, at least on a local basis, to increase bookings and revenue.
- In the case where puppets are self-built, an ability to produce high quality puppets. This art can take many years to develop.
- Ability to speak in public without trepidation.
- Ability to think quickly around problems in performance, such as forgotten lines or lighting problems.
Most areas of performance art would tend to be classed as low-risk working environments, and puppeteering is no different. It is, however, worth being aware of the fact that shows are conducted around hot stage lighting, and consequently, live electrics. Also, because the shows are being performed in close proximity to the public, it is essential that consideration is given to the well-being of audiences as well.
Many amateur puppeteers choose to begin with children’s parties, as it means that the candidate can start with a small stage rig, a limited number of puppets and props, and a chance to run the business with just one or two people. Repeat bookings and increasing revenues can mean the show can grow to include more equipment, a larger rig and, eventually, more people to be part of the roadshow team. In this respect, it depends on how far the leading puppeteer wishes to take things. Some are happy just to perform for smaller audiences. Others wish to build up their show as far as possible. Obviously, performing to larger crowds with significant ticket prices in large towns demands that the puppeteers are able to deliver a show of very high quality, and this can take many years to develop.
Most puppeteers are self-employed due to the small number of people required to manage and run each travelling puppet show. In terms of puppet design and manufacture, the most famous studio is The Jim Henson Company Creature Shop, which was responsible for bringing to life screen legends such as Yoda from Star Wars and Sesame Street’s Elmo. Positions at design houses like this are few and far between, and fiercely contested. They have studios in Los Angeles and New York.
Also known as…
- Puppet artist
- Puppet designer
- Puppet show artist
- Circus Performer
What’s it really like?
Professor Dill works as a self-employed puppeteer, and runs his own company, the Brighton Punch and Judy Show, which is very popular all over the country.
What made you decide to choose to get into this sort of career?
I have always been interested in performance in all its different forms. I started off by doing a degree in drama, and after college I began doing magic shows for children. As a child, I had always been fascinated by magic tricks and puppetry. I joined Equity ( the actor’s agency), and began performing comedy magic shows in cabaret. As a very young child, I remember watching a Punch and Judy show, and I can remember being absolutely fascinated by the strange and surreal world I was watching. Several years ago, having continued to work full time as an entertainer, I decided I would start a puppet show. I began to form Brighton Puppet Theatre, but soon after I realised that Punch and Judy was something that still seemed to be popular, and so I decided to specialise in that.
Do you have a standard day?
Not really. I broadly have two areas where I work. The first is children’s shows, such as birthday parties. The other area is things like festivals, sports days, open days, etc. The latter largely happens in the summer. Most of my work is thus done in the daytime. In the winter, I generally do four or five shows a week, which gives me a lot of free time. Things vary though; for example, it looks like I will be going to Canada this summer and working in hotels in the Calgary area, so every day is different!
As a puppeteer, you have to be good at doing different voices and if you do Punch and Judy, for example, you have to master Punch’s voice, which is produced by a device held in the mouth called a “swazzle”. It took me several weeks to get the hang of it.
What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry you must attend to?
The most common call-out is for children’s birthday parties. One common problem I have is that the booth is too tall for the room I am expected to perform in!
What do you like most about the job?
The best thing is definitely being your own boss. I can choose when to work, and I can choose when not to work. I also like the direct response of the audience, getting big laughs for a joke I do is a really great feeling.
What do you like least about the job?
Two things really; the main thing I dislike is the amount of travel I have to do. I can be working in different ends of the country within a day, so I can often spend several hours driving for a show that only lasts for half an hour. The other problem with being self-employed which is worth mentioning is that if you are ill, there is no such thing as sick pay; if you don’t work, you don’t get paid.
What are the key responsibilities?
Apart from being entertaining, you have to have public liability insurance (in case someone gets hurt by a falling booth or speaker, for example), which comes free of charge when you join the actors agency, Equity.
What about academic requirements? Any formal demands, eg- A Levels?
None at all.
What is the starting salary, and how does this increase over time with promotion?
Being self-employed, it varies, but I would say £35,000 would be an average for a successful performer.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
There is no doubt that you can earn money from puppetry. If you start a theatre, you can tour your own show in theatres and art centres. Children will be the main audience, and generally children’s shows sell very well. My advice would be to try to find a good prop maker/carpenter, as some of the equipment you need will be beyond the ability of the general person to make from scratch. Starting out doing children’s parties is a good starting point, and then try and develop a longer show that can be performed in larger venues.
What are the most important qualities an applicant must should possess?
You need to have a sense of humour, and a flair for story telling, Anyone can put a puppet on their hands, but not everyone can put on an entertaining show. In short, you really do need to have performance skills. If you have no performance skills, you are unlikely to be able to hold the attention of an audience.
Any closing comments/thoughts
You are unlikely to become very rich doing this, but as a lifestyle it is unbeatable. You work when you want, and if you are good, recommendations will follow. And you can’t beat having fun and being paid for it.