The dramaturg(ies) of puppetry and visual theatre

Dassia N. Posner*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

2 Scopus citations


As a dramaturg, when I have created visual resources for productions with live actors, puppets, or both, my approach has typically been to find images inspired by a dramatic text or by the story a director, puppeteer, or company hopes to tell. Some are illustrative and give needed answers to practical questions. Others are conceptual, creating open-ended potential signifiers for elusive signified ideas or emotions. These conceptual images are not always captured literally in a production, but might make their way into how an actor holds her body at a particular moment, which materials are used to construct a puppet, or how a scene’s rhythmic structure and mise-en-scène are shaped. Recently, however, I have moved away from the idea that visual dramaturgy is necessarily connected to story, character, or metaphor, and have begun exploring other ways the dramaturg can, in both puppetry and in other kinds of visual performance, support alternate “systems of meaning.”2 In this essay I will explore this expanded definition of visual dramaturgy as it relates to puppetry and visual theatre, examining in particular what Sumarsam has described as things that are “peripheral to the story, but essential to the performance”3 in order to track how the visual elements of theatre create unique trajectories of meaning that interweave with text or story. Inspired by Sharon Carnicke’s explanation of Stanislavsky’s notion of a production’s through line as akin to a rope woven out of multiple, individual “lines,”4 I view the theatrical event as consisting not of a single through line, but of many. One is the narrative as it unfolds as a result of the interplay of multiple “strands”: words, characters, sounds, or images. Another is the artist’s conversation with the audience about how and why s/he constructs meaning with a particular theatrical grammar for a specific production. A third is something more ineflable, something related to what Basil Jones has called the “ur-narrative of life” in puppet theatre,5 which I expand to also characterize the fragile thread of belief that is birthed and nurtured by audience and artist over the course of a production, something that, in the puppet theatre in particular, is woven out of things like breath, gaze, surprise, and expectation. Visual narrative, in my proposed definition, is comprised of images that support, interpret, contrast with, or otherwise interact directly with text or story. Visual meta-narrative is the visual grammar the artist uses to engage in self-reflexive theatrical dialogue with the audience about the performance itself and its aesthetic values. Lastly, visual ur-narrative encompasses visual elements of performance that exist independently of plot or spoken text, but that generate a distinctive through line of emotive and visceral audience response. These three unique narrative strands support distinct, interweaving, simultaneous systems of theatrical meaning that together produce a polyphonic rather than simple melodic theatrical experience for an audience. In order to explore the profound significance of the latter two, visual meta-narrative and visual ur-narrative, I will briefly analyze two well-known productions that use puppetry in innovative ways, The Lion King (1997) and War Horse (2007), investigating how each develops these alternate visual dramaturgies. Both have been instrumental in bringing puppets to the attention of mainstream theatregoers and are therefore often talked about in conjunction with one another. Both juxtapose puppets and live actors, use spoken and sung dialogue, and have a plot-driven dramatic structure. However, the visual grammars of these two productions are conceived very differently: while each tells a linear story, The Lion King actively interweaves this narrative with meta-narrative, while War Horse’s greatest innovation lies in its development of the puppet’s ur-narrative. I hope to illuminate new approaches for analyzing puppetry and visual theatre productions by investigating how.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to Dramaturgy
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages7
ISBN (Electronic)9781135122898
ISBN (Print)9780415658492
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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