When you hear the word “puppet”, you probably think of of sock puppets, Jim Henson’s Muppets, or puppets on strings like Pinocchio.
But the world of puppetry is SO much more vast than you probably realize!
Puppets come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and kinds and it’s an art form that charms both children and adults.
It’s an art form that's been around for thousands of years. There is even evidence of the ancient Egyptian use of puppets.
Here is an overview of the many types of puppetry in the world.
If you're working on a puppet project, grab my free cheat sheet on writing for puppetry.
First of all, What IS a puppet?
A puppet is an object that is given agency by the person controlling it; the puppeteer.
This means the puppet has its own goals, makes its own choices, and seems to operate independently of the puppeteer.
Most types of puppetry can be categorized into these categories -
The most thought-of type of puppet, the one most people go to immediately when they think of puppets, is … dun dun dun … the hand puppet.
Puppetry, in general, includes the use of the hands, so naturally hand puppets are the most common type of puppet.
There are many types of hand puppets.
We’ll go from the simplest to the most complex type of hand puppet.
Finger puppets are exactly what they sound like - puppets that go on your fingers!
Used most often in children’s theater, finger puppets are not the most versatile of puppets in terms of movement.
But they are cute.
The popular one-of-a-kind puppets that Barnaby Dixon creates could be called finger puppets. Really, really fancy finger puppets.
But more commonly finger puppets are little fabric tubes that go on your fingers, or even more simply a face drawn on the tips of the fingers.
When you're new to puppetry, peepers are one of the simplest ways to learn puppetry.
Simple, cute, and effective.
Lejo is an adorable example of Peepers put to good use.
A glove puppet is a hand puppet that involves full use of the hand.
The head of the puppet uses the middle two or three fingers, and the arms of the puppet are operated with the outer fingers - the thumb and pinky (or thumb and pinky + ring finger, depending on your puppeteering style).
Examples of glove puppets:
Greg the Bunny is a glove puppet.
Sock puppets are glove puppets without arms (if you add arms they’re probably operated with sticks, then you have yourself a hand-and-rod puppet)
Punch and Judy, the historic and wildly misogynistic duo, are glove puppets with carved heads.
Most puppets intended for small children are also glove puppets.
Hand-and-rod puppetry is exactly what it sounds like - your hand and a couple of rods.
The head is operated by one hand, the arms are operated by rods or sticks held in the other hand like chopsticks.
The operation and synchronizing of the head and arms takes a lot of practice, but once you really get good at operating arm rods you can do anything.
And it feels pretty cool.
Puppeteering is just like playing an instrument, and coordinating the control of a hand-and-rod puppet (and if for TV and film - while looking at a monitor) while making it look organic and alive is the best example of this.
In more complex scenes in TV puppetry a second puppeteer might operate both arm rods while the lead puppeteer does the head.
There’s a lot going on and it takes many, many, many hours of practice.
Live Hand Puppets
Live hand puppets are exactly what they sound like - puppets with live hands!
The most famous live hand puppet is The Muppets’ Swedish Chef, followed closely by Rowlf the Dog.
A live hand puppet requires two puppeteers - one person operating the head and one hand, a second person operating the second hand.
The Swedish Chef was originally operated by Jim Henson and Frank Oz - Oz doing both hands, and Henson operating the head.
This is part of what makes him so hilarious - Henson and Oz have to coordinate with one another, often not knowing what the other might do.
The other famous kind of puppet is the marionette.
Marionettes are puppets on strings and often carved out of wood or, nowadays, 3D printed.
They are then strung on transparent or black nylon strings, or fishing wire and those strings are attached to a controller.
The simplest marionettes are strung on eyelets on the head and arms and have a simple T or cross for a controller.
More complex marionettes have fancy controllers with lots of levers and hooks for making a marionette wink, bounce a ball or do a trick.
Shadow puppets are often thought of as the hand shadows we make with flashlights on the walls as kids.
But it’s a very underrated form of puppetry as there are actually multiple styles of shadow puppetry! It’s one of my favorite styles and capable of some pretty amazing stuff.
Shadow puppetry is any kind of puppetry involving a light source and can be done with a flashlight, an overhead projector, candles, or even the flashlight on your phone.
Hand shadow puppetry can be pretty complex and amazing like in these hand shadows in Cirque du Soleil.
Wayang is the ancient art of Indonesian shadow puppetry and has been around for thousands of years. It involves candlelight and really intricate, beautiful paper puppets and sometimes human actors in masks.
You can also perform shadow puppetry on an overhead projector - yes the kind from elementary school in the 1980’s and 90’s! Manual Cinema creates feature length works with multiple projectors.
There is this very cinematic style of shadow with paper puppets and a moving light source.
This is my favorite style of shadow, but it’s hard to find good examples!
Then there is the kind of done on a vertical screen, like the work of Richard Bradshaw.
Tabletop puppets is also a common type of puppet that has many different types in and of itself.
Tabletop puppets are usually controlled by two or more people holding the puppet directly by it’s body and limbs.
Bunraku puppetry is a Japanese style of tabletop puppetry where two or more puppeteers control a puppet by rods sticking out of the body of the puppet.
Bunraku puppets are larger than traditional tabletop puppets.
Czech black curtain tabletop puppetry is a style where the lighting is very specific in order to hide the puppeteer.
Topo Gigio, who was a popular guest on the Ed Sullivan show in the 1950’s, is a great example of black curtain puppetry.
Pageant Puppets / Parade Puppets
The puppets you see on Broadway in shows like War Horse and The Lion King are pageant puppets. Sometimes called pageant puppets, parade puppets, and giant puppets, these types of puppets require multiple people to operate them and can be quite heavy.
Bread and Puppet Theater is a puppet company in Vermont that uses parade puppetry in political protests.
Puppets that have to be worn could also be considered a hybrid of pageant puppets and full body puppets that are more like costumes.
Toy theater lives somewhere between tabletop and object puppetry.
Toy theater puppeteers use miniature theaters made of paper, cardboard, or fabric, paper puppets or actual toys. Toy theater is a great intro to puppetry.
Great Small Works is famous for its toy theater and during the height of the COVID Pandemic in 2020, introduced an online toy theater festival, leading the way in pivoting live shows into an online format.
You take an object and you make it move. That’s the gist of object puppetry.
Object puppetry or object theater uses everyday items to build a story. The object can be more or less anything given agency by the puppeteer - from a broom to a figure made out of multiple everyday objects.
Some don’t think of ventriloquism as puppetry, but it is!
A ventriloquist uses a dummy to puppeteer and the throwing of their own voice.
A ventriloquist dummy has mechanisms that make the mouth and eyelids move.
A bit of puppet jargon:
“Vent” is shorthand for a ventriloquist.
Puppetry mechanisms - or a trigger inside of a puppet that controls smaller parts of a puppet - face, eyes, mouth, etc - are often referred to as “mechs” (pronounced meCKs)
Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen popularized ventriloquism in the 1930’s. Sherry Lewis was an incredible ventriloquist - remember Lambchop?
Jeff Dunham and Terry Fator are famous Las Vegas ventriloquists.
Carla Rhodes was trained by Sherry Lewis and is a great modern ventriloquist.
Like many styles of puppetry, ventriloquism takes many, many hours practice to really get good at.
Crankie puppetry is really neat - the puppeteer operates a small tabletop theater that has one long, continuous scroll operated by two hand cranks.
Crankies are a very mechanical type of puppetry that generally uses paper puppets as sets and characters, or hand-drawn scrolls that act as a continuous scene that rolls by.
A humanette puppet is a small body puppet that attaches to the puppeteer’s chest or neck. The effect is a puppet with a big head on a small body.
The head of the puppeteer is the head of the puppet, the legs and arms of are operated by rods. A humanette can be operated by one puppeteer or two. Most often the puppeteer who’s head is on the puppet operated the arms adn a second puppetee is on the legs.
Humanette puppetry is a really fun and goofy way of playing with scale in puppetry.
The humanette can have a soft body, a 2D body, or can be the body of a doll or other figure.
Pee-wee Herman uses humanette puppetry in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
A body puppet is a puppet that has to be worn by the puppeteer and operated from within. They can be very hot, dark, and uncomfortable. Sometimes a puppeteer will have a monitor within the body of the puppet if they are doing TV/Film puppetry.
Big Bird is a full body puppet.
So is Snuffalupagus, and the famous Muppet, Sweetums.
Both Big Bird and Sweetums require the puppeteer to be inside of the puppet with one arm fully extended over the head to operate the head and mouth of the puppet.
Both puppets have triggers in the head that operate parts of the eyes and eyebrows.
Then there’s the kind of body puppetry done by Hugo and Ines, where part of their bodies are the actual puppet. More experimental in the world of puppetry, but very innovative and very cool.
Automata, Animatronics & Digital Puppetry
Automata is another debatable type of puppetry, as automata implies that the puppet is operated mechanically.
Another type of hand-cranked puppet, it uses gears to create movement rather than the full use of the puppeteers hands.
Thjis is where the line gets a little bit more blurry - is an animatronic just a robot, or is it a puppet? It’s really a modern version of automata combined with digital puppetry, as it can be operated live from a remote location.
The animatronics most of us are familiar with are the ones from Disneyland. Pirates of the Caribbean, anyone?
Digital puppetry came about in the late 1980’s and Jim Henson created the character Waldo C. Graphic for his show The Jim Henson Hour.
Basically an early form of CG, the difference between digital puppetry and CG is that the puppeteer can perform a digital puppet offscreen in real time by way of a Waldo controller.
This means that a digital puppet can interact with a live person in a live show.
Splash and Bubbles is a modern example of a show that uses digital puppetry.
Experimental Puppetry and Other Types of Puppetry
Stop motion animation is technically puppetry too, and there are forms of puppetry that can't really be defined yet – but experimental puppetry can be really fun or exciting to see.
As long as you're bringing something to life in some way, you're using puppetry!
If you want to learn a little more about the art of puppetry, download my free cheat sheet on writing for puppetry here.