Prior to the twentieth century training in the use of masks and puppets has often been accomplished through passing down skills within families, clans or tribes from one generation to another. The “initiation” system still operates in many parts of the world and the student is expected to serve as an apprentice (Wayang, Bunraku, Kathakali, Punch & Judy, Pulcinella). However, modern apprenticeships undertaken with contemporary mask and puppet companies often reflect the style and limitations adopted by those particular companies.
Are mask performers and puppeteers born or made? The old argument about nature and nurture still persists. Some espouse the idea that they are born with “genius” or that they are more likely to fit the psychological profile of the introvert or the gender profile of the young man dreamer. This is the master (guru)-apprentice model. This is an essentially elitist approach.
At the Centre we take the view that, while we may all be born with the ability to animate masks and puppets, this ability must be developed and supported by a belief – a Credo. We espouse the idea that the “genius” of the people is transmitted through popular and radical traditions that engage with masks and puppets. We do not advocate fixed psychological prototyping and are opposed to gender discrimination.The personality and authority of the teacher are used to enable students to take their own path towards the art of masks and puppets through an exchange of experience. This is an essentially populist approach.
This said, the professional training of mask and puppet performers as “dance-trained opera singers” is a rare thing in the Western world because the skills required in one person usually do not come together in synthesis under the age of forty.
The problem of professional training and the support offered to new training schools by UNIMA, ITI and other organisations still exists. There are a series of training schools around the world for those who prefer a more formal approach and have the resources to go in this direction.
Those seeking a vocation in the medium would be wise to work within a company first and to experience team work before going solo (in order to avoid being trapped in one style, medium or production technique).
A useful starting point is to consult works written by mask and puppet performers themselves such as Obratztsov’s My Profession, Miles Lee’s Puppet Theatre Production and Manipulation and Jean Louis Barrault’s Memories for Tomorrow.
There is also a great deal to be learned from coming to terms with the benchmarks set by other countries and traditions; and from seeing as much high-quality mask and puppet work as possible while simultaneously visiting museums, galleries, exhibitions, concerts, shows and libraries.
Of course, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel if you visit a Centre where this is already taking place and which is acting as a nucleus for dispersion.