Puppets and Protest

If you read our last blog, you will have got a teaser for this month’s contribution to creative protest. This month we are looking at puppets! Perhaps, this could be considered an off-shoot of theatre and protest, but I thought it deserved its own stage (pardon the pun).

My journey of appreciating puppets as a form of protest started a few years ago when I was involved in an outdoor community performance about the history of a small area in Merseyside. During this performance the audience were introduced to two large-scale puppets in the form of Boris Johnson and Margaret Thatcher. They would sing songs and parade down the street, along with an elephant, a giraffe and a samba band.  Now, it would take too long to explain why this eclectic collection of puppets were together, but there is one thing the performance did, and that’s catch the eye of everyone around.

Two large puppets depicting Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson in a parade down the street.It is important to state here that puppets rarely work alone - to truly create a spectacle there is often dance, music, song all drawn together. However, having large scale puppets, often in street performances is what can attract the attention of passers-by and engage audiences.

It is this idea of ‘spectacle’ which is worth unpacking a little bit more. Welfare State International were a theatre company who specialised in this idea of spectacle for their work. They were best known for their large outdoor performances which included puppets, song, ritual and procession.  One of their most famous puppets was a large lantern of Margaret Thatcher which was paraded in Glasgow in the 1990s. However, creating puppets to unpick the actions of politicians is not a novel idea. It is the sheer size of the puppets that makes them stand out and creates the ‘spectacle’. For years, puppets have been used, often in tandem with comedy, to explore the actions of MPs and politicians. Take a look at Spitting Image for example. Spitting Image was a British satirical television puppet show, created by Peter Fluck, Roger Law and Martin Lambie-Nairn. It was first broadcast in the 1980s but was revived in 2020. Now, comedy may not be what we would normally consider a ‘protest’, however, in mocking the actions of governments we can explore more of the shortcomings of many of those in power. It can also act as a great educational tool for people to get into politics, without realising they are. Entertainment is one of the greatest forms of education. This is where we can link the smaller ‘Spitting Image’ puppets to the large ‘Welfare state International’ puppets.  This comedic, spectacle creating approach works well for both ‘Spitting Image’ and ‘Welfare State International’, using puppets to grab attention and begin educating the masses on issues of social justice. Image of a large Margret Thatcher shaped float lit up

You could say that building a community through large scale events is a by-product of using theatre. However, there is one company who ensure it is not just a by-product, but baked (quite literally) into the heart of their work. ‘Bread and Puppet’ theatre company bakes and shares bread with audiences during performances, to feed their manifesto that art should be as basic as bread to life. They hold the belief that in sharing bread as a communal act they will draw together audiences and the public. This is something I’m sure a lot of us will already be aware of through the sharing of communion. Let’s take a look at the etymology of ‘communion’, which comes from Old French communion, meaning "community" derived from the Latin ‘communionem’  meaning "fellowship, mutual participation, a sharing”. In joining together both in art and in food a connection is built between people. Bread and Puppet theatre prides itself on being a radically political company, who have been present at a number of protests, including peace protests against the Vietnam War. They are based on bread baking and the not-for-sale distribution of bread at moments created by art, and these moments are created “in opposition to capitalist culture and habit”. There are two types of performance they create- inside theatres for the audiences, and street theatre for the public. Their style is usually built from slap-stick methods, using handmade paper-mâché, large scale puppets to get across their message. However, in 2014 they sidestepped this usual style and created a much darker piece; ‘The Shatterer of Worlds’. Bread and Puppet were exploring Oppenheimer long before Christopher Nolan did it! ‘Shatterer of Worlds’ was based on the words of Robert Oppenheimer after witnessing the first atomic bomb. He quoted the Bhagavad Gita saying; Life, the splendour of 1000 suns blazing all at once, resembling the exulted soul, is become Death, the shatterer of worlds.” They represent the epitome ofImage of the manifesto from Bread and Puppet, it details the importance of art as a right not a privilege.  drawing community and politics together to share messages and protest. In particular, the focus on street theatre is important because it allows wider audiences to be reached. Their manifesto is rooted in ensuring art is available and accessible to everyone.Image of a large yellow puppet in the shape of a man lying down, lit up by lanterns

Speaking of street theatre there is one of the most famous puppets touring now, who is worth a shoutout; Little Amal.  Little Amal is the 12-foot puppet of a 10-year-old Syrian refugee child. The puppet of Little Amal was designed and built by Handspring Puppet Company, who also brought us the puppets from the show ‘War Horse’. She is based on the character, Amal, from ‘The Jungle’ by Good Chance Theatre (see last month’s blog on theatre for more information). She has become a global symbol of human rights, especially those of refugees. In particular, she represents thousands of displaced children around the world, and has become a symbol of hope. This year marks the 75th Anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. It may not seem obvious how puppets and human rights link together, however, because Amal is such a symbol and representation of so many children Image of a large girl puppet walking down the road in a parade, others are holding small signs and other puppets.who fear for their lives and their futures it is clear that although she herself is not ‘human’ she demonstrates the rights of all displaced humans. Article 13 of the Declaration of Human Rights outlines: Freedom of Movement, followed by Article 14: Right to Asylum. Amal stands for all those people who have to fight currently for those two rights. She has travelled the world, and is currently in Mexico, having finished her tour of the United States. However, she started her journey doing the 8000KM walk from Syria to the UK, following in the footsteps of many refugees before her. She is the perfect example of using puppets to join people together, as thousands of audience members travel to meet and watch her. As with the other examples of puppets, she has been paired with other art forms such as dancers and music at events to draw people into the performance. The events created are done by the local people and are meaningful to them. Often it will be communities at the heart of planning these events, so that it becomes a true expression of community building. Often, we can see protest as an angry place to be, however Amal is protesting through hope, love and solidarity.

Similar puppets have been used at other protests, such as ‘Displaced Dora’, a large puppet who was used at COP26 protests to demonstrate the plight of climate refugees. COP26 was the 26th annual meeting of stakeholders to discuss and negotiate plans for global climate action. ‘Displaced Dora’ was a character used at the Extinction Rebellion protest in Glasgow to call for real and tangible outcomes from event. Extinction Rebellion are a group of climate activists who protest using civil disobedience to compel government action against climate change.Image of a large black haired puppet with a face mask.

The uniqueness and eye-catching nature of puppets is what makes them so effective at protests. Because they can create a striking scene, and can incorporate satire, hope and meaningful messages they are an effective tool to use to spread messages. When coupled with social media this can move even further. As with Little Amal, who’s story has been shared and can be followed online, she has become a global phenomenon.

Happy Protesting!

Call to action:

Donate to the Little Amal fund: www.walkwithamal.org

Check out Little Amal’s Instagram and share the work of the charity.

Consider how using puppets at events can aid your message. They don’t have to be large scale and home made like Displaced Dora, instead smaller puppets can be used. For example, Kermit the Frog has been used at climate protests with the line “It’s not easy being green.” Humour can be eye-catching and deliver messages effectively.

Check out the work of Bread and Puppet theatre: https://breadandpuppet.org/

Make origami boats to send to the SCM boat campaign, to help stand in solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers.

Sign up for the talk from EAPPI: movement.org.uk/events