17 June 2010

Tiny Theaters, entertaining and provocative

As a one-time theater major, I've long been intrigued by the notion of small theatre productions; ones that can be handmade, are portable, and allow for imagination and invention.  There are different kinds of tiny theaters to be made.

One kind is called Toy Theater (also called Paper Theater or Model Theater).  The Wikipedia article on this describes toy theater as "a form of miniature theater dating back to the early 1800s in Europe. Toy theaters were often printed on paperboard sheets and sold as kits at the concession stand of an opera house, playhouse, or vaudeville theater. Toy theaters were assembled at home and performed for family members and guests, sometimes with live musical accompaniment."

Also from the article: "Mass produced toy theaters are usually sold as printed sheets, either in black and white to be colored as desired, or as full-color images of the proscenium, scenery, sets, props and characters. The sheets are pasted onto thin cardboard, cut out, and then assembled for the purposes of the reenacting of a play. Figures are attached to small sticks, wires, or configurations of strings that allow them to move about the set. Some toy theaters and figures are enhanced with moving parts and special effects, and it is common for performances to include live or pre-recorded sound effects and music."

[from the Kanniks Korner model theater website]

"Fritz examines an enlarged Royal theater following
a performance of Carmen at the Danish Model Theater club."

[from the Valley Light Opera website]

"The Valley Light Opera produced Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore at Amherst Regional High School on November 5, 6, 7, 12, and 13, 2004.
A Victorian girl (Schuyler Evans) and boy (Kimaya Diggs) play with their toy theater, and the cardboard characters will magically come to life and portray the story"

Toy theatre, like any theatrical form, is also used to depict the poignant and horrifying.  The large-scale production of Kamp by Hotel Modern is a striking recreation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

[from YouTube description] "June 2 -6 Hollands Hotel Modern will join the 9th International Toy Theater Festival at St. Ann's Warehouse with their captivating production of Kamp. Hotel Modern attempts to imagine the unimaginable. An enormous scale model of Auschwitz fills the stage, brought to life by thousands of 3 tall handmade puppets enacting the greatest mass murder in history, committed in a purpose-built city. The actors move through the set like giant war reporters, filming the horrific events with miniature cameras; the audience becomes the witness."

A search on Google using the phrase "toy theatre festival" (in quotation marks as noted) acesses a range of videos of various toy theatre productions.)
* * * * * * * *

Then there is  Shadow Puppet Theater.  Shadow puppetry, also called shadow play, originated in the Far East.  It employs flat, often articulated figures and images presented  in front of an opaque, illuminated backdrop to create the illusion of moving images.

"Cool Shadow Puppet Art Inspired By The Last Unicorn: One of the great side-benefits of working with an author as creative as Peter is getting to see some of the creativity his work inspires in others. Like these amazing metal shadow puppets by Sara Kate Sams, a college art student."

Here is a 2.5 minute museum documentary on Wayang, Indonesian Shadow Puppet Theater.

In looking for information on how to make my own shadowplay theater, I learned that this theatrical form has found a home in elementary schools and home schooling.  Worlds of Shadow: Teaching with Shadow Puppetry by David and Donna Wisniewski (Teacher Ideas Press, 1996; ISBN: 978-1563084508) shows one approach to shadow theater which favors using overhead projectors in front of the viewing screen.  Shadow Puppets & Shadow Play by David Currell (Crowood Press, 2008l; ISBN: 978-1861269249) provides an excellent background into the more traditional screen-in-front method and includes information on puppet design, lighting, and staging.

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And there is Marionette Theater, perhaps the form of tiny theater most familiar in our culture.  In this form the articulated puppet figures are suspended on long strings and manipulated from above by the puppeteers. 

"Marionette puppet show for kids in Asbury Park, NJ"
[This image, which was originally posted to Flickr, was uploaded to Commons using Flickr
upload bot on 08:20, 29 July 2007 (UTC) by Man vyi (talk). On that date it was licensed.]

I once saw a remarkable marionette production of The Marriage of Figaro in Salzburg, Austria at the The Salzburg Marionette Theatre.  The theater was built to the scale of the puppets which gave the illusion of life size.  The lobby of the theater building had historic puppets displayed in glass cases; some were over one hundred years old!  A very neat feature at the end of the production was the curtain call.  First, each of the puppet 'actors' made their bows.  Then the upper curtain was raised to reveal a large, wide mirror in which the images of the puppeteers were reflected. 

A video snippet which shows onstage and above stage performers can be seen here (the embed feature was disabled for this YouTube item).

Street theater also favors marionettes. The Little Theatre of Dolls is the creation of the Scandinavian illustrators/artists/puppeteers Frida Alfinzi and Raisa Veikkola. Both traditional and avant garde, these artists have created travelling productions.

What I like about their work is how they include themselves as part of the theatrics.  "Weird and wonderful" has been used to describe their work. They have also posted videos of their productions at their website. 


  1. Interesting and a very entertaining read!

  2. Thaniks, deek! I've been working on some designs for some 'toy theaters' in my sketchbook lately. It's fun!

  3. I can't help but think about the scene in The Sound of Music... "High on a hill was a lonely goater ..."
    These are so much fun. It never ceases to amaze me the myriad ways that people can find to entertain themselves. Just awesome!

  4. I barely recall The Sound of Music (it was the first 'theater movie' I saw!) - so it was fun to have this brought back to me. :-)


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