"Nobody's looking for a puppeteer in today's wintry economic climate," complained the unemployed Craig Schwartz, the character portrayed by John Cusack in Being John Malkovich. He wasn't wrong. Puppetry is an ancient art form, with archaeological evidence from the early Egyptian civilization and before, but the heyday of puppetry has passed and today it struggles to stay alive in most parts of the world.
Not all news is grim news in the puppet world, and puppetry is still thriving and even growing in popularity in certain puppet hotspots. If you want the world on a string, we've pulled together 10 top picks amongst the puppets from Lonely Planet staff and authors - and they're not just for kids:
1. Shadow puppets, Bali
Wayang kulit, Bali's famed candle-lit shadow puppet theater, is much more than entertainment. Performances can last six hours or more, with stories derived from the great Hindu epics. If six hours of shadow puppetry seems a bit long for your taste, several shorter shows can be found particularly in Ubud, Bali's cultural hub.
2. Punch and Judy, England
Punch and Judy shows aren't as common as they once were in the UK, but at the annual Covent Garden May Fayre and Puppet Festival in London you can get your fill of the darkly comic world of the stick-wielding Punch and his wife Judy. The plot will vary, but rest assured that marital bliss is never part of the story. Crowd interaction is encouraged, so yell along with the kids even if you don't know your lines.
3. Bread and Puppet, Vermont
Sometimes a name says it all. This might not be one of those cases. Solidifying Vermont's reputation for eccentricity, Bread and Puppet is an internationally renowned company performing "cheap art and political theater" with the aid of gigantic puppets (some up to 20ft tall) on the company’s hilltop farm. And yes, it does involve bread, which they bake themselves and pass during the show with homemade jam.
Bread & Puppet Pageant. Photo by Jack Sumberg.
4. Bob Baker Marionette Theater, Los Angeles
The adorable singing and dancing marionettes at Bob Baker Marionette Theater, one of the oldest puppet theaters in the US, have enthralled generations of wee Angelenos. Shows at the Baker Theater are unusual and highly interactive, with puppets roaming the audience and sometimes talking directly to audience members. If your sense of humor leans towards the bizarre and you like free ice cream, pay a visit to the Bob Baker Marionette Theater on your next visit to LA.
5. The Rathaus-Glockenspiel, Munich
The Marienplatz fills up with visitors daily, all trying to take in the animated Glockenspiel (carillon) in the Neues Rathaus, a neo-Gothic fantasy festooned with gargoyles, statues and a dragon scaling the turrets, described by LP staffer Candace Driskell as "puppety goodness".
The carillon has 43 bells and 32 figures that perform two actual historic events. The top half tells the story of a knight's tournament held in 1568 to celebrate the marriage of Duke Wilhelm V to Renata of Lothringen, while the bottom half portrays the Schäfflertanz. If you want to see the show at eye level, head to the top floor of the Hugendubel bookstore or snag a table at the Café Glockenspiel.
6. Italian puppet theater, Rome
Nearly all European puppetry owes its existence to Italian puppet theater, which also played a strong role in the origin of the Italian Commedia dell'arte. For one of the last old-fashion Italian puppet theaters in Rome, head to Gianicolo, Rome's highest hill for the free weekend puppet shows. The views over the rooftops Rome are worth the trip alone.
7. Water puppets, Vietnam
Lonely Planet staffer Anne Edmunds couldn't get enough of the water puppet shows in Hanoi: "The 'stage' is a backdrop put in the water, and the puppets are controlled by amazingly talented (and water-logged) puppeteers. Honestly the puppets are just bursting with life. The first few rows are the splash zone, and the stories are practically incomprehensible. It’s fantastic! Truly. I went again and again."
8. Guignol marionette show, Paris
France's answer to Punch, Guignol is the charmingly clever and violent protagonist of many French puppet shows, often variations on classic European children's tales. In Paris, see a show at the Théâtre des Marionnettes in the Jardin du Luxembourg with almost daily shows that amuse both children and adults who can squeeze onto the child-sized benches.
9. Marionette shopping, Prague
Prague is filled with puppet-related activities. You can see a show at the National Marionette Theatre, and you can also take a puppet home with you from one of the several puppet retailers in the city selling Prague's famed hand-made wooden marionettes. Under the famed Charles Bridge is the Marionette Shop (3-D tour here), or try the Rici Marionette Factory or craftsmen at local markets.
10. Bunraku, Japan
Bunraku is a form of traditional Japanese puppetry kept alive by only a handful of remaining companies in Japan. The puppets are large and highly intricate, with nearly all puppets requiring three puppeteers to control the lifelike movements of the specialized puppets used in the theatre. The National Bunraku Theatre runs several shows throughout the year in Osaka and Tokyo.
Bunraku puppet, photo by Richard Forward
Start planning your trip to Lonely Planet's top puppetry destinations with the newly releasedBali Encounter Guide and Prague City Guide - no strings attached.