In Waldorf schools the use of puppets happens in a variety of contexts: the class 1 teacher might elect to have on his or her hand a special “assistant”, who might help with introducing the basic steps in arithmetic, with the telling of special teaching stories, in foreign language lessons etc. Dialogue with such a “helper” makes it easier for some children to pay attention and join in with what is happening in class, simply because a process of mediation is in play.
For the children of grade 3 it is a different matter when, in handwork class, they actually make hand-puppets. In class 4, then, these often have the chance – to the delight of parents and other children – to appear in a full-scale puppet play done by the whole class.
A project on building marionettes can be carried out, say, in grade 7. This is very appropriate for students of this age-group, who are developmentally on the threshold of adolescence, and going through a growth spurt as well as other bodily changes. Both constructing and manipulating a marionette involve attention to a number of mechanical laws. In physics lessons the students are made aware of these laws, and then in craft lessons they apply them, for instance, in the making of the limbs and control bars for marionettes.
Puppetry attains quite a different dimension in the high school, where, for instance, it may appear as one of the alternatives to a second foreign language. (At some Waldorf schools “single language students” are offered their own practical craft or art lessons.)
Puppetry is an (artistic) craft. In his essay “On Puppet Theatre” Heinrich von Kleist was right to call the puppeteer a “machinist”. As such, the first thing he or she has to do is make the puppet. Hand-puppets require the smallest amount of technical effort, which consists mostly in modelling the head and sewing the costume. With shadow figures and marionettes controlled by strings and rods, however, there are many technical problems to be solved. This requires a basic knowledge of mechanics and optics.
The first goal of this subject, therefore, is the practical and artistic application of what has been learned of mechanics, optics and technology. In the case of marionettes, this means devising control-bar constructions appropriate to the mechanics of the figure in question. If it is “soft” marionettes that are being made (knotted or stuffed puppets without legs and at most with lead tape in the arms) – these can be manipulated without the need of a control bar. This kind of marionette is especially recommended for performances for pre-school children.
In contrast to normal theatre, the players in puppet plays remain invisible for the audience. (This does not apply to the kindergarten – here they can be seen.) They are merely “mediators”. The main actor is the puppet. And the puppet, marionette or shadow figure “tells” the player how it is to be manipulated. Each player must learn to master the technicalities of manipulation. That is the second aim in teaching this subject.
The third is more social in nature: The very fact that the players are completely out of sight means that they are having to give up the chance of being on stage themselves. For many students this is a painful experience, but for others it is a big opportunity to express something through the puppet that they might not be capable of doing as an actor. Above all, however, they are all dependent upon each other’s active help and support. Manipulating a technically complex figure requires several people working hand in hand.
The cooperative effort required of a team of – male and female – scenery technicians, lighting personnel, musicians, speakers and players involved in the performance of a puppet play is considerably more intense than in normal theatre. It is more intimate and requires an increased degree of empathy and care.
Perhaps, then, the most important aim associated with this subject could be formulated as follows: to promote attention to detail in every way possible.
If there is a possibility of going on tour, the contacts established during social practicals are likely to provide appropriate audiences. This gives the students the chance to share the fruits of their puppetry classes in curative homes, special needs schools and hospitals. Thus, through puppetry a degree of extra-mural social engagement is made possible.
In the four years of high school a course in puppetry can be carried out, designed to meet young people where they are and to encourage their further development.