I'm a puppet maker with a degree in theatre. A former lighting techie, stage manager and producer. And I like to think that with puppetry, the only limit is your imagination. More...
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Technically speaking, white light theatre isn’t a type of puppetry, but rather a ‘convention of theatre’. A convention is really just a fancy way to describe different styles of performance, like circus, or dance. White light theatre is also not really a term that most puppeteers use, since ‘white light’ itself is just … well, plain theatre. What do I mean by that?
Well, in puppetry, we have blacklight and light curtain - both conventions use lighting techniques that require the performers to be ‘blacked out’. That is, the puppeteers are invisible to the audience. If blacklight is literally blacking out the puppeteers, then white light is the opposite: in white light theatre, the puppeteers are visible to the audience.
Surprisingly, the general public often consider white light theatre to be an unusual way of presenting puppetry; but in fact, it’s extremely common. These days, with puppeteers working in fringe groups and having a limited budget, performing in the open is far easier and cheaper. There are fewer costs associated with costuming (covered head-to-toe in black is more expensive than you would think), with lighting, and with the need to black out an entire venue. Touring companies have a harder time using any blacklight or light curtain conventions, and so white light theatre is an obvious solution.
|Ronnie Burkett performing in Billy Twinkle. His stages tend to allow him to be visible throughout the show. Click the image for a larger view.|
Take away any hiding of puppeteers, and obviously, you get ‘normal theatre’… just with puppets! Some easy examples of the use of white light puppetry: parade puppets, Avenue Q and The Lion King. Consider also marionettes: traditionally, they are performed from above, with the puppeteers standing on a ‘bridge’ (a walkway above the stage) and the wings and bridge hidden from view using fake walls (or, in theatre terminology, ‘flats’). But well-known Canadian, Ronnie Burkett, usually performs in full view of the audience. Caravan, by Australian company, Black Hole Theatre, also used puppeteers in plain sight when performing table-top puppetry.
And even though the puppeteers are visible throughout the performance, bunraku is considered part of the blacklight/light curtain convention. The use of hoods and black clothing inspired many of the Western puppeteers to follow in style and developed into the blacklight convention that it is today. Bunraku, strangely enough, is not white light!
There are many reasons, however, why white light might not be suitable. Many people find the aspect of seeing the puppeteers distracting. In fact, if it’s puppetry done badly then it is indeed very distracting. Done well and it can be amazing: consider all those stand-up comedians and ventriloquists; or combining dance and puppetry as with Angel performed by Duda Paiva. Personally, I prefer to see the puppeteers work. Their faces, gestures and general movement can offer a great deal of insight into how puppets work. In fact, there are different schools of thought on how best to use white light theatre: do the puppeteers do their best not to express any emotion themselves and instead put it into the puppet they are moving; or do they show their emotions on their faces, creating a stronger connection with the puppet and the audience?
As with blacklight and light curtain, the use of white light theatre must be considered in combination with many other factors, as explained in my articles on why you should use puppetry and the basics of puppet design.send feedback / have a question?
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