Has The Popularity Of War Horse Killed Off Innovation in UK Puppetry? A Provocation


Puppet Place Executive Producer and Co-Producer of the Bristol Festival of Puppetry, Rachel McNally, ponders whether, despite its success and influence, the popularity of the hit show ‘War Horse’ has actually contributed to a stagnation in the appetite and understanding of puppetry as an artform and whether it is possible to develop beyond this?  

It’s 18 years since The Lion King’s opening on Broadway and over 10 years since ‘War Horse’ first came to the UK stage. This was Michael Morpurgo’s description of his reaction when he first heard the decision about using puppets in ‘War Horse’:

When (Tom Morris) rang me up and told me he wanted to make War Horse into a play, I was utterly thrilled. But then they told me the bad news – they wanted to use puppets. I thought to myself, there is no way that puppets can enact the seriousness of the first world war.  Tom knew I wasn’t convinced, so he invited me to London to see a video of Handspring Puppets in action – a giraffe. It was worked by three men and I remember feeling so moved by this creature, how it somehow breathed life.  Suddenly, I knew it would work.
(Guardian Article, Sep 2014)

For those of us working in puppetry Michael’s Morpurgo’s initial attitude is nothing new and still very much in evidence despite the success of ‘War Horse’, despite the widespread use of puppetry (and I mean live action puppetry not animation) in TV adverts and films.  The more day-to-day expression of this attitude is easily framed, however, by conversations that I have when I tell people I meet that I work in puppetry:

“Oh, well I don’t like Punch & Judy, it’s very violent and not very good, I don’t like puppetry…but War Horse was amazing!”


“I went to see a puppetry show with my children and it was very good….but….”

And I nod, I agree sometimes Punch & Judy is violent, but that when it’s good it is fantastic political satire.  ‘War Horse’ is amazing, I agree, but sometimes I do try and push and encourage people to think a bit more deeply about puppetry not being just for children. However, there is a limit to how much I wish to proselytise an artform at the checkout, on the train, and so on.

So what this tells me is that we have a situation where people have a spotlight attitude to puppetry.  They think “violent Punch & Judy” or “just for kids” and the runaway commercial success that is ‘War Horse’…

There are some notable oases within this strange landscape – e.g. the increase in the number of festivals showcasing puppetry; Skipton, Suspense, Manipulate, Bristol Festival of Puppetry and others are starting to develop adult audiences and expand notions of puppetry.  Yet outside these celebrations the picture is still not as advanced as I would expect it to be 10 years on from the first performance of ‘War Horse’ and , I think, this is where the popularity of ‘War Horse’ is a factor in the development of UK puppetry.

‘War Horse’ is not a puppetry show.  For me, ‘War Horse’ is a performance with puppetry. It’s a theatrical experience that employs puppetry as one element within the drama. It is powerful, it is significant and it is integral but it is all those things because a choice was made to use puppetry within the performance. An inspired choice, but still a choice.

This is absolutely fair enough, it’s an adaptation of a book and for those of us who know the power of puppetry – such as Tom – it makes perfect sense that puppetry is the theatrical tool to bring the story to life. However, this is the point – puppetry, in this context, is a tool of drama and theatre, not an artform.

So if I am saying ‘War Horse’ is not puppetry show – what is?

This is harder to articulate. For me it’s where the story, the narrative, the emotional impact can only exist through puppetry. And it’s telling that I can give you many examples of this more readily from other countries than the UK.  Zahra Sabri’s performance ‘Count To One’ uses clay to communicate a dreamscape of peace enacted by performers dressed as soldiers.  It is a powerful and subtle anti-war statement.  Zahra is an Iranian puppeteer and director.  In Iran women and men are not allowed to touch in public, so puppetry and Zahra’s use of clay in the performance to indicate a kiss or a hug or a dance is, politically, very powerful and subversive.

However, the use of clay and puppetry goes beyond circumvention of repression. In one scene, we see the performers (all dressed as soldiers who are sculpting the clay) depict the birth of a child, the relationship between the mother and child as her son grows.  They are literally taking the clay from the mother puppet and using it to mould the growing child from clay. This, for me this is an example of puppetry as a performing artform in its own right.

An interesting example that is from the UK is ‘The Paper Cinema‘. I would also describe what they do as “live animation” as well as puppetry and this is where I need to introduce the definition that I use for puppetry that it is bigger than a “puppet”. A puppet, for me, is a physical representation of a character either a marionette, a doll, a shadow puppet or something more abstract, but a personified object – an object that represents an agent with free will.

The Paper Cinema: ‘live animation’- cut out hand drawn illustrations animated live under camera and projected.

Puppetry is bigger than performing with puppets.  To quote Penny Francis, founder of Puppet Centre, “...puppetry is the art of bringing life to the inanimate” and this is something much broader and interesting.

Last year I did a free association exercise with myself about what this definition might mean. I ended up with an enormous piece of paper that included everything from long string marionettes through to glove puppets.  From special effects in TV to Artificial intelligence to prosthetics and it was quite liberating!

So, ‘The Paper Cinema’ sit very comfortably within this puppetry definition, I think. They use cut out hand drawn illustrations and bring them to life via projection of live feed from camera to tell stories. They also, always work with live music. The joy as an audience is watching both the live “film” on screen at the same time that they are creating it. The storytelling “editing” techniques they use with the illustrations are very cinematic, but the illustrations are all brought to life through the manipulation in front of the camera. This is not a traditional form of puppetry, it’s not shadow puppetry – though it has some elements in common – it’s something different, but form and content are one.

This is why I situate ‘War Horse’ as a performance with puppets rather than a puppetry performance. And this is where my frustration begins.

I run an organisation that exists to develop the artform and that includes increasing public engagement and artform innovation. The situation I now find myself in is that the public perception of puppetry is still largely coloured by ideas of violent Punch & Judy, it’s just for kids or the positive role model of puppetry being ‘War Horse’ – and it’s a show that does not tell the whole story…

So back to the provocation:  Why is this situation killing innovation in UK puppetry?

While ‘War Horse’ has certainly created an opportunity for UK puppetry in providing an alternative and positive public reference point there has been little expansion in public perception. Instead we now have a huge commercial hit and a generation of performers who will readily include puppeteering as part of their theatrical toolkit. And this is the issue that “puppetry performances” are being squeezed by “performances with puppets” so the perception of the artform of puppetry is becoming ever more distorted not just among the public but also performers and gatekeepers e.g. producers, programmers and funders.

This is the critical moment and the danger point: because tools of themselves are not innovative, they are functional, but an artform by its nature innovates, changes, develops and grows.

I would like to argue that we need to shift all of our thinking we need everyone to think about puppetry in a different kind of way.  The nearest analogy I can think of is dance. Dance is often used as a tool within theatrical performance, it is part of the dramaturgy and has a place within theatre, but it is also a performing artform in its own right with different styles and languages. A dance performance is not the same as a theatre performance. We need the same recognition for puppetry to give the artform and its artists the space to grow and develop, to innovate. Creating this kind of mental space will be positive both for puppetry and performance with puppets.

Let’s develop our mental map of puppetry.

‘War Horse’ is, currently, the significant and positive co-ordinate on the public mental map of puppetry. This is a mental map that is somewhat like the ancient medieval maps of the world. There are great tracts of blank space with the continents slightly mis-shaped and the odd dot indicating a known point of interest. So how do we fill in the rest of the map?

As we know with maps, the more detail the more useful and relevant they are. A good map enables all sorts of things to happen, you can find a place to stay, a place to eat, a place to visit, public transport routes, cities, countryside, coastlines and borders. A map gives the traveller the basic tools of survival and much, much more: the opportunity to make choices, to understand where they are and take the next steps on their journey.

So what might a good and useful public mental map of puppetry look like?

Firstly I would like to argue that we frame this map as “Puppetry The Place Where We Bring The Inanimate To Life.” Puppetry is a universal artform. It crosses and breaks down boundaries and there is a democracy to it as an artform which is hugely important. This is something that goes beyond performance into the political arena. Bringing life to the inanimate is the critical point. This is the framing of puppetry that gives context to all forms from performance through to robotics, prosthetics to therapeutic applications, and indicates how puppetry can situate itself within the arts and society more broadly.

This map shows the routes by which puppetry is both counter-culture and commercial – how it is both a “sophisticated” artform but also a simple process. By re-drawing the map the significance of ‘War Horse’ is properly balanced. We give artists the freedom to explore puppetry, to develop it, to fuse new technologies with ancient crafts. In short: we create the conditions in which innovation and brilliance can develop.

Finally, the “we” in this exercise is everyone from artists to public, from funders to educational institutions. The strength of puppetry lies in its universality in its ability to get under our skin and, as witnessed by Michael Morpurgo’s conversion, if we do not seize the moment, we continue to let the artform be defined only by history and needs of commercial theatre…

And, I think, our world would be the poorer for that.

Rachel McNally is Executive Producer at Puppet Place and Co-Producer of the Bristol Festival of Puppetry.  She has previously worked as a producer and tour booker for Full Beam, Pickled Image, Stuff & Nonsense Theatre Company and The Devil’s Violin Company.  More information about Puppet Place can be found on the organisation’s website at: www.puppetplace.org

3 thoughts on “Has The Popularity Of War Horse Killed Off Innovation in UK Puppetry? A Provocation

  1. Hello, very interesting blog, but I thought I’d just point out that the first performance of War Horse was actually in October 2007 so not quite yet ‘over 10 years’…maybe the artform needs a few more years.


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