Back in August of 2016 I wrote up a post about my visit to the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia. Short version: I loved it. Y’all seemed very interested here and on Facebook, and the visit launched a lasting interest in puppets for me, so I thought I’d finally follow it up with some book and movie recommendations!
There are two main books you can read that will recreate the museum experience to a certain extent, and provide more in-depth information:
Puppetry: A World History by Eileen Blumenthal is the closest approximation to a Center for Puppetry Arts visit, and worked with the Center for info and pictures, along with a few other places. It also provides more detail, history, and theoretical discussion since you can sit and read it at your leisure, unlike a museum exhibit. The images can’t replace seeing real puppets in a museum, but there are plenty of them to give examples and highlight a wide range of puppetry styles around the world. Super interesting and accessible.
The Art of the Puppet by Bil Baird isn’t as robust or reliable, but is a nice supplement to Puppetry: A World History if you want more after that, and it has a lot of experiential narratives of plays. So, that’s something different and interesting if you can’t see the shows (and most of them aren’t being performed anymore, so no one can). The book is also written by a puppeteer, so the parts toward the end about his own process and his thoughts on the then-new televised puppet performances are very interesting.
As a casual enthusiast, I pretty much feel like those two books covered it, and all the other titles are meant for practitioners or academics. The one thing I’d like to read more about is Punch and Judy, so I’ve got my eye on a book I saw in the Center’s gift shop, Punch and Judy: A Short History with the Original Dialogue by John Payne Collier.
If you’re getting into puppets, Jim Henson movies are gonna be your first stop. The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, everything Muppets. They’re good movies, and the skill is 100% there — you can appreciate the puppetry and enjoy the movie at the same time. That’s one of the interesting things about puppetry, actually. “Hiding the strings” isn’t a thing, part of the magic is knowing that an inaminate object is being made to move. That said, the more attention you pay the more you notice how many puppets there are in movies, especially of a certain era. Like Yoda. I forgot Yoda was a puppet. If you include stop-motion animation as puppetry, which I and the museum do, the range of relevant films is even broader. (I recommend any films by Laika for sheer visual impact and usually a fantastic story too.) And, if you do any searching at all you’ll stumble over Being John Malkovich, a very odd movie in which the main character is a puppeteer.
The special features on those DVDs are great for budding puppet nerds, too. They always have some behind the scenes featurettes and discussion of how it was done. I enjoyed the Dark Crystal featurette more than the actual movie, if I’m being honest. Other documentaries can be a touch hard to find, but there are several about Henson, Sesame Street, and major properties like that. I Am Big Bird is good and more emotional than I expected.
Those are all productions meant for film, so they’re a little different from a live show. (I only wish I could find more recorded performances). The Center for Puppetry Arts is well worth the trip for anyone if you’re close, and for enthusiasts at any distance, or you can visit UNIMA-USA or Puppeteers of America to find other resources and theaters!