Puppetry - Mario Ferreira Piragibe

December 21, 2018

"How Do We Train for Puppetry, Whatever it is"





(*) Mario Ferreira Piragibe is an actor, puppeteer and puppetry teacher. Since 2010 he has taught puppetry at the Universidade Federal de Uberlândia, Brazil. His studies concern mostly the poetics of contemporary puppetry and he holds a doctorate in Performing Arts (UNIRIO). ) He has just finished a postdoctoral stage on the issue at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (UK) and is currently dedicated to studying contemporary training for puppetry.


Abstract: The article discusses how puppeteers have been trained in Brazil since the decade of 1950’s. It overviews the transformations of Brazilian puppetry until present time and some of the main Brazilian puppetry masters of the last five decades. It discusses the absence – and if there´s need – of puppetry schools in the country. It also approaches the importance of university courses for the spread and training of puppetry artists.

Key-words: Puppetry; puppetry training; brazilian Braziliantheatretheater


How do we train for puppetry, whatever it is

            One of my most dear subjects as a puppetry teacher and researcher on puppetry concerns the current thoughts and practices on professional training for the field. As well as trying to learn about puppetry schools and methodologies, I'm interested in how the state of professional training and the presence of puppets in classrooms affects the puppetry artistic environment, and how does it relates to the general public´s level of interest the in the art of the puppet. A look at how professional training for puppetry has been conducted in the last few decades, gives not only hints about how Brazilian puppeteers endure and thrive in a not so friendly professional environment but reveals some fundamental pieces of Brazilian puppetry´s recent history.

Puppets came to Brazil from different origins and moments. Brazilian historiography reports the use of puppets by Jesuit priests to lure indigenous communities into the catholic faith, and the presence of European variations of puppet street shows in the most prominent towns, like Rio de Janeiro and Ouro Preto[1], during colonial and early imperial times.

Another important origin of Brazilian puppetry rest on popular traditions, mixing African and indigenous features that led to the development of a vast array of dramatic dances and processional presentations, like the Cavalo Marinho, and the many variations of the Bumba-Meu-Boi,[2] throughout most of the country, but particularly strong in the northern and northeastern regions. This is also the origin of the Mamulengo, a popular show with hand puppets made of wood and fabric, considered by many practitioners and scholars as the epitome of the Brazilian puppet[3].

            A third trend developed later, mostly in southern Brazil, with the migration from European countries in the late 19th century, especially Italy and Germany. The family traditions of making and performing with puppets brought by those bold settlers set a particular tone to the style and the craft of puppetry in that region that had great influence on modern Brazilian puppetry, not only in terms of artistic and technical features, but also as nice examples of dedicated and ethical puppetry professionals. Companies, puppeteers and scholars from the southern region of the country played a fundamental role in the modernization process of Brazilian puppetry by building consistent artistic careers, organizing and maintaining festivals and being among the most influential presences in researching and teaching puppetry in our umiversities.

            This brief overview intended to show how Brazilian puppetry came from different backgrounds, in order not to build a stylistic confluence, but rather to understand it as a broad field for mixing and experimenting.


The first schools

Whoever wishes to write the history of puppet theatre in Brazil must not forget the name of Pestalozzi Society of Brazil, nor the role played by this institution in the birth and the development of puppetry in Brazil (Ferreira 6).

The first known experience on puppetry courses and training programs in Brazil started in 1946, when the Pestalozzi Society, an institution focused on pedagogic studies and inclusive education, hosted workshops, small festivals and conducted productions on puppetry. Under the coordination of the Russian psychologist and pedagogue Helena Antipoff (1892 – 1974), the experience was focused mainly on the use of artistic practices as educational and therapeutic tools. When the society ceased its puppetry activities, in 1970, it could show a proud list of teachers and artists among its collaborators. One such collaborators, Augusto Rodrigues, developed another artistic and pedagogic endeavor, the Escolinha de Artes do Brasil, based upon the idea of education through art, the interaction between different artistic expressions and a kinder look towards Brazilian popular puppetry. Both initiatives were praised by authors such as Amaral (Teatro de Formas Animadas), Claudio Ferreira (Historico) and Dudu Sandroni (Maturando), as capital to the development of modern Brazilian puppetry. Although both schools were far more focused on children's education than training puppeteers there is no doubt that puppetry, among other artistic manifestations, didn´t play the mere role of a pedagogic tool. Until now, Antipoff's and Rodrigues´ adventures remain as the closest experiences to puppetry schools. There is no doubt about their importance to modern Brazilian puppetry, for their institutions sheltered most of the artists responsible for the creation of the Brazilian Association of Puppet Theatre (ABTB), enabling the discussion and production that followed.

Travelling masters and apprentices

            The 1970´s witnessed the modernization of Brazilian puppetry, led in great part by the foundation of the ABTB, a well-structured network of festivals and the fruitful exchange of knowledge between Brazilian and foreign artists. Indeed, the very landmark of the modern puppetry in Brazil was a foreigner´s creation. The Argentinian artist Ilo Krugli arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1960 to meet Augusto Rodrigues and collaborate with the Escolinha de Arte. After some inspired plays, mostly created in partnership with Pedro Turon Dominguez, he led a group of Brazilian artists, as writer, actor and director of História de Lenços e Ventos[4] in 1974. That play remains until today as one of the most iconic moments of both modern Brazilian puppetry and theatre for children. Among all the foreign master puppeteers who influenced the art in Brazil, a clear majority came from Argentina. Having been through an earlier outbreak of new ideas in puppet theatre and being the home of some of the most talented puppeteers in the continent, like Javier Villafañe, this neighboring country offered many inspired artists who have been some of our most valued teachers. To the list opened by Ilo and Pedro, must be added names such as Hector Grillo, Olga Romero, Osvaldo Gabrieli, Catin Nardi, Hector Lopes Girondo, Rafael Curci[5], among many others.

            Another movement that must be noted,took place between the early 1980's and the mid-90´s was the presence of Brazilian puppeteers in workshops promoted by the International Union of Puppetry (UNIMA) and the ABTB with some reputed artists, such as Jean-Pierre Lescot, Philippe Genty, Fabrizio Montecchi and Margareta Niculescu. The impact of such encounters was great at that time, especially because Brazil was going through one of its most intense periods of puppetry festivals, where there was plenty of space and will to spread knowledge and experience.

From festivals to classrooms

            When we look at the influence of the foreign masters over the development of Brazilian puppetry, it must seem at first that we are talking about an arid or too immature artistic context, but the fact is that the development of Brazilian puppetry that took place since the early 1970´s is due to the vastnessof both the land and people that make-up the country, sheltering an even bigger cultural diversity. Of course, most of the mainstream is produced and shown in the bigger cities of the southeastern region, like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, but when it comes to this period we could see and learn about artists and companies coming from the extreme south (like Cem Modos, from Rio Grande do Sul), and the north-northeastern region (like Laborarte, from Maranhão).

            It´s not true either that Brazilian puppetry relied solely on foreign masters to develop. By the 1970´s companies like Contadores de História (Storytellers) and Giramundo (Globetrotter) had already acquired a name for themselves, earning prizes and respect both within the countryand beyond. Giramundo was created by teachers from the visual arts course of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), in the city of Belo Horizonte. Its most famous name was Álvaro Apocalypse, who kept the group for a great part of its on-going existence directly linked to the University. This can be called the first act of the relationship between puppets and Universities in Brazil. By the late 1980´s two additional steps in this direction had been made, first by the theatre school of the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO), that, by introducing puppetry classes in its regular courses allowed the creation of one of the most important Brazilian puppetry companies of our time, the Sobrevento. But maybe the most influential interaction of the puppet inside academia was triggered by founder and director of the group Palomar, Ana Maria Amaral. Her efforts mentoring post- graduate students interested in puppets, alongside her groundbreaking books about theory and training in modern puppetry, caused a true revolution in both academia and Brazilian puppetry, that took sturdy steps through the gates of the universities.

            Among Amaral's students were people like Valmor “Nini” Beltrame (former member of the Gralha Azulpuppet company), Tácito Freire Borralho (founder of Laborarte) and set and light designer Wagner Cintra, who made their way into their own academic careers, allowing more universities to offer puppetry classes and building a future of a growing number of Masters and Doctorates on puppetry.

            It must also be said that alongside the efforts of teachers and artists to implement puppetry classes and research groups in Brazilian universities, the art of the puppet benefited from the growing interest in the puppet by modern artists and enthusiasts. The positive impact caused by the companies like Giramundo, Ventoforte, Sobrevento, XPTO, and many others, most of them notable for their plastic and performative experiments, caused puppetry to be seen as avant-garde, with strong visual appeal, metaphoric potential and offering a few new challenges in terms of the work of the actor. Soon enough, puppetry ceased to be seen exclusively as an eminently popular artform, performed by amateurs and good enough for noisy birthday parties to become, at least in part, an artistically fashionable artform that could lend insight and color to contemporary theatre.

            From the two or three puppetry teachers in Brazilian universities in the beginning of the 1990´s the number increased fast. The first study about the presence of puppetry in Brazilian universities was made in the context of the National Seminar about studies on Animation Theatre, organized by Doctor Valmor Beltrame, for the Santa Catarina State University (UDESC) in 2012, showed an as yet incomplete count of eighteen institutions with one or more puppetry teachers. Another count made in 2016 under the coordination of Doctor Ana Maria Amaral, for the Brazilian section of UNIMA, saw this number increase to twenty-one. Among these teachers, the vast majority came directly from puppetry companies or had previous artistic experience.

            Yet, there are no courses exclusively dedicated to puppetry, neither in universities or elsewhere. Some may argue that this could be a sign of the long road yet to be covered, but another common opinion among the community of Brazilian teachers-puppeteers is that puppetry has a role to play as an expressive possibility offered to the theatrical art as a whole, and in this way avoids locking itself into a ghetto. As we are going to discuss below, such a choice comes with advantages and disadvantages.

Those university snobs, what can they possibly know about puppetry?

            Since the late 1990´s universities became one of the main places for developing and trading experiences on puppetry. A number of festivals and seminars were held inside universities, benefited by the friendly netwok of contacts between the puppeteers-teachers, and was greatly impacted by the publication of the magazine Móin-Móin, by UDESC, which allowed the exchange of information, the disclosure of current research and the building of closer contacts with foreign artists and scholars[6].

          Offering puppetry classes in academic theatre courses,of course,allows a wider access by theatre students to puppetry and, it is hoped, has an impact over the local theatrical landscape, but also poses a lot of challenges that must be addressed. One of them concerns how to make an issue like puppetry fit inside the limited context of a theatre course. For a vast subject like puppetry, holding an almost infinite array of techniques, manifestations and shapes and with competencies that demand years of thorough dedication isn´t easily constrained into a program with one, sometimes two, semesters of classes.

            A second challenge concerns the relationship between the established, canonic, learning environment of the academic courses with the popular, intuitive, multiple and dynamic context of traditional puppetry. To this must be added the material and conceptual situation of today´s art courses in Brazilian universities. One of the main discussion topics among university puppetry teachers regards teaching methodologies which, in essence, concerns how to handle the lack of time and resources in order to develop a consistent learning experience. Much is expected from puppetry classes these days: they are supposed to broaden the student´s technique and artistic repertoire, deal with matters of visual poetics that are not taken into consideration in acting processes based on The System, link in a deep sense matters of innovation and tradition, and amplify the expressive possibilities towards a more avant-garde sense of acting, all while providing a powerful teaching tool. On the other hand, we are struggling to find a place to store our puppets and materials, trying to convince the university administration about the importance of a well-equipped workshop, and losing the argument about the need for specific time and space. But it must be made clear that it is of limited use to simply address these kinds of problems with the usual whining about funding and resources, which are, of course, matters which affect the entire range of art courses and programs in Brazilian universities. University puppetry teachers in Brazil must first face the fact that the choice made by many to embrace puppetry as part of the broad field of the Performing Arts necessitates further discussions about the whole perspectives and philosophies of the learning programs. Without such discussions about the role played by puppetry in the course's objectives and practices it would end up locked inside the same ghetto it tried so dearly not to build. There´s no doubt that part of this struggle comes from the enduring thoughtof puppetry as a minor art, an idea that not even the century long romance between puppets and modern art could erase. John Bell on the previous knowledge about puppetry his students tend to show:

The challenges I face as a teacher very often involve the general lack of knowledge about puppetry. We know that in most societies puppetry is not valued as an art form with a tradition as noble and as long as those of the visual arts, music, drama, and literature. In consequence, popular conceptions of puppetry tend to be dramatically limited. When I ask students what puppet performances they have seen, most will mention sock puppets or the Muppets of Sesame Street, but not much more (Bell 184).

            There´s no escaping the fact that the context given by the learning environment added to the objectives of courses and students profoundly determine the teaching methodologies, since the puppetry classes are but part of a broader program. I guess there´s another issue to be taken into consideration, which is what we could call the modernist approach to teaching puppetry, that sometimes seems to use as main reference the contemporary experiments, almost as if it could be something other than what developed from traditional puppetry. Again, John Bell: 

While an apprentice in the classical tradition in different parts of the world could (and still can) learn Punch and Judy or Mamulengo hand puppetry, Xingu ritual performance, Javanese wayang kulit, Bambara puppetry of Mali, or Chinese shadow theater as codified forms with specific rules of design and performance, an apprentice in the modernist tradition must learn how to create new forms of puppetry from the materials and influences around her or him. The quality of that modernist work is necessarily dependent upon a knowledge and understanding of what has gone on before. Good modernist work (in my experience...) relies on a solid understanding of the dramatic territories and aesthetic genres of previous work, which are the precedents, tools, and raw materials of the new work we make (Bell 178).

One of the approaches towards puppetry in this given context takes into consideration not only the material conditions, but also some contemporary thoughts about the materiality of the puppet. In this kind of approach there´s no effort at all concerning making or using puppets, but the whole work is focused on a somehow marionetized approach to acting. Since there´s no access at all to tools or built puppets, the focus of the work rests on acting principles for puppetry, like focus, movement dissociation, body manipulation and creative use of raw material. Most of the puppets presented in these classes are instant creations made of newspapers, plastic bags, strings, tape and so on. The work, which finds inspiration partly in the creative material of some modern puppetry artists such as Mummenchanz, Philippe Genty, Hugo e Ines and the Object Theatre movement, also tries to establish the puppetry classes as an addition to dramatic acting skills. 

Another approach tends to see puppetry as a tool for children´s education and to understand such classes as part of teacher training courses. Although there is no doubt about its benefits for pedagogic – and therapeutic – purposes,this view sometimes tends to see puppetry solely under this kind of approach, and not for professional performance training.

Whenever the classes manage to establish a link with puppetry traditions, especially with local ones, and employsa fair amount of energy into building techniques and materials, no matter how simple, it seems to achieve better results in terms of raising the interest of students in puppetry. This, in turn, could result in an increased use of puppets in other artistic projects, and also in the pursuit of further experience in other learning spaces.

There´s no argument about the importance of the university courses as places for the development of the arts of the puppet, for it has allowed more interaction between scholars and artists and spread puoppetry as a rich and viable artistic expression. The university connection has also stimulated work to register puppet construction and performance techniques, to collect records about prominent artists and companies as well as the development of serious analysis and reviews on puppetry works. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there are no courses or teaching programs exclusively dedicated to puppetry.

So, where do we train?

In depth training for an art as diverse as puppetry remains a job for the companies. The overview offered by the university classes and study groups must be deepened inside the artistic initiatives, where the poetic needs meet the specific calling of each artist, and where the broadened poetic possibilities offered by contemporary puppetry meet the technical and material restraints seen in every creative process. We must also investigate what "training" means in most production contexts, for the time and material limitations require the artist, not only to find enough disciplin to stick to a training  program, but, most of all, to understand and find among survival strategies, last minute choices and the awareness about the strengths and weaknesses of his work, what constitutes the technical and poetic identity of an artist, a show or a company. A couple of years back, the members of my former company and I had to develop a presentation about the company´s poetic features, and their development. After some time deeply concerned about the fact that it seemed to us that we had nothing to offer, we began to identify and register lots of little procedures – like the way we used strollers attached to boxes to move the visual perspective of the scene to the public, or the apparently insignificant choices we made about how to bring our puppets on-stage or take them off. These were procedures we adopted little by little, in rehearsals, that at that point (our group had just completed ten years of work) were what made the company unique.[7]

The workshop is also an important space for a company to spread its work – and raise money. When it comes to a point where an artist or a group of artists is able to understand their work process in order to pass it on, it can turn into a true experience for their students. Short term workshops allow students and puppeteers-to-be to broaden their references on the art and to establish contact with professionals, which sometimes can be decisive in a career choice.

Puppeteers can come from families of puppeteers, from apprentices in companies, from the universities and from workshop classes. In any case it is urgent to work to spread the art of puerty in a country that has a rich, though erratic, puppetry tradition. At the same time, while we are aware that “the appeal of the puppet”, as Tillissays, is a living flame in the eyes of Brazilian audiences, and we can proudly acknowledge our thriving academic production and world-reference artists, we know how far we are from establishing a steady environment for the puppet arts in Brazil. We don´t even know if this kind of goal is achievable – or desired. As we push our art forward we understand that there must be no boundaries between studying and practicing puppetry.

Ferreira 1

ferreira 2

Puppetry class at the Universidade Federal de Uberlândia (2018). Photo: Mario Piragibe. 



Abramovich, Fanny. “1980 – XIII Festival Internacional de Teatro de Bonecos da UNIMA”. Mamulengo 10 (1981): 33-41.

Amaral, Ana M. Teatro de formas animadas: mácaras, bonecos, objetos. São Paulo: EDUSP, 1993.

Amaral, Ana M. Teatro de bonecos no Brasil e em São Paulo de 1940 a 1980. São Paulo: COM-ARTE, 1994.

Bell, John. “Puppet knowledge and the life of the puppeteer”. Móin-móin: Revista de estudos sobre teatro de formas animadas. 14 (2015): 176-85.

Braga, Humberto. “Aspectosda história recente do teatro de animação no Brasil”.Móin-móin: Revista de estudos sobre teatro de formas animadas.4 (2007): 243-74.

Ferreira, Claudio. “Histórico”. Mamulengo 1 (Jul/Set 1973): 6-8.

Sandroni, Dudu. Maturando. Aspectos do desenvolvimento do teatro infantil no Brasil.Rio de Janeiro: D. Sandroni, 1995.



[1] The town of Ouro Preto, called Vila Rica in the 18thand 19thcentury, was one of the main sites for mining and trading gold in the country, and also one of the most populous LatinoAmerican cities during the 18thcentury.

[2] I chose to keep the names of the dances in Brazilian Portuguese because of the regional features of each terms, and their translations would be but approximations. For the sake of an explanation close translations to the dances could be (in order): “The Sea Horse dance” and “Dance, my bull”.

[3] Since 2015 the popular forms of puppetry from the northeastern region (Mamulengo, though being the best-known term, is one among many) were officially recognized as Brazilian Cultural Heritage by the National Institute for Cultural and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN).

[4] The title of the play could be translated as: Tales of wind and handkerchiefs.

[5] Curci was actually born in Uruguayibut was educated and made most of his career in Argentina.

[6] The first issue was released in 2005 and it now comes out twice a year. The magazine can be accessed at: <http://www.revistas.udesc.br/ index.php/moin/index>. 

[7] I´m referring to PeQuod Animation Theatre, created in the city of rio de Janeiro in the year of 1999.  More about the company can be found at: <http://www.pequod.com.br/2015/>.


La escena expandida ~ ISBN: 978-1-7320472-2-8 

Ediciones KARPACal State-Los Ángeles y REVISTA RASCUNHOS/GEAC, Universidad Federal de Uberlandia.

La reproducción total o parcial del presente libro es permitida siempre y cuando se citen el autor y la fuente.