Updated: 5 days ago
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.
And since puppetry is a visual art form, I've included loads of images and links!
If you'd rather watch video instead of reading a long article, check out my online course on the basics of puppetry which includes tons of amazing videos.
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.
But guess what?
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.
Peepers were invented by the amazing puppeteer Hobey Ford and are simple eyeballs that you put on your hands.
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.
If you're interested in learning more about puppetry check out my online courses.
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.