Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Toy Theatre as Therapy

The 2nd World Congress of Art Therapy will be held in Hungary this coming August. I recently learned that toy theatre is one of the forms that will be discussed in the context of therapeutic application. While using puppetry as therapy is not a new concept, I was fascinated to read how toy theatre in particular is being explored to use in just that way...

NOTE:  I initially took offense at the writer saying that "Nearly everyone who has dabbled in the Juvenile Drama agrees that the performances of the plays were usually a failure. It was the preparation that provided so many hours of delight."  But then I thought about it, especially after I read his later observations.  I think he has a strong point - while I don't think performances per se are 'failures', the process of creating is as important, if not moreso, than the finished product (at least for me...)  Whatever your opinion, I encourage you to give this unusual paper a read and see what the writer has to say...

Toy Theatre:  Application of and Experiences in Psychotherapy with Adult Psychiatric Patients
By Orsolya Drávucz

The toy theatre or paper-theatre –I will use both terms- is very well-known and popular in Western Europe. For me it was a real surprise when I first heard about it. It wasn’t so long ago.

When I looked it up, I realised how big and interesting history this kind of theatre has in Western Europe. But I have not found any data in the Hungarian puppet-theatre books.

The history of toy-theatre

Toy-theatre is a unique form of puppetry, one which encompasses most of the known art forms in miniature. But it is not just a dramatic performance in little.

The toy-theatre originated in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century and played an important part in documenting the productions and theatres of the 1800’s because it copied the actual theatres, productions, characters, and performances of the time, and printed them on sheets of paper for reproduction in miniature in the home. The sheets were painted, pasted and cut out. The theatre itself was constructed of wood, or mounted on heavy cardboard. The play was rehearsed and finally performed for a living-room audience of family and friends.

Many prominent individuals, such as Charles Dickens, Hans Christian Andersen, Winston Churchill included a Toy Theatre in their childhood memories. The Sound of Music production featured such a theatre in the playroom shared by the Trapp family children.

The Toy Theatre was undoubtedly a direct descendant of the late eighteen century theatrical portrait sheets, which were in their first concepts designed to cater for the adult theatre-going public. However it was not long before they were spreading to younger members of the community, and by about 1807, the English Toy Theatre had begun to emerge. These were not however new to the continent of Europe, Vienna in particular produced model theatres long before the close of the eighteenth century, likewise the German publications of this toy also date from this period. But in England it’s growth was not to take place until the first part of the nineteenth century and within a few years they were collected by child and adult alike.

Although it was mostly the children’s hobby (the title Juvenile Drama refers to it) there were adults, too, with the same interest. Gordon Craig, Charlie Chaplin are a few of many who have built up their gaudy toy theatres, inserted the shaky sheets of incredible scenery, and manoeuvred the stiff cardboard characters across the stage.

The Juvenile Drama came into being soon after 1800, and rocketed at once to the heights of fashion. In the theatre proper, it was the heyday then of melodrama, pantomime and the equestrian drama and no sooner did a new play make a hit at Covent Garden, the Olympic or Astley’s, than sheets of the play would be rushed out for the miniature stage.

Early nineteenth century England was seized with a passion for the theatre. As the number of theatres and their patrons increased, so did the tide of souvenirs and mementos, floating on the top of this tide of popularity was the juvenile drama. By mid 1830’s these paper wonders had created a new interest that hit the playrooms of England like a tidal wave. The play itself would be potted down into a brief but emotional booklet. The characters and scenery would be drawn in miniature, engraved on to sheets, and sold in sets, the price being twopence for the hand-coloured sheets, and a penny for the plain ones which you coloured yourself.

In the early days the quality of the plates was magnificent. The characters would be exact portraits of the great actors of the day. There seems no doubt that at this date the toy theatre was a pastime for grown-ups. The Juvenile Drama was, in fact, your „Picture Post”. Instead of buying with lush pothographs of your stage passion of the moment, you bought a set of prints, and enacted your favourite play at home. But it soon became a popular game for children. In the great days of the Juvenile Drama, there were in London no less than thirty publishers producing miniature dramas and the men that produced them was as well known as Walt Disney  is to this generation.

Nearly everyone who has dabbled in the Juvenile Drama agrees that the performances of the plays were usually a failure. It was the preparation that provided so many hours of delight.

It was fun to choose sheets from the vast selection at the toyshop; coloured them in gaudy colours; cut out the characters and scenes; past them on cardboard; past the proscenium and the orchestra on to the theatre, fix the footlights.

It was incredibly difficult to push the characters on in the right order, to get life into the action, to make the dialogue comprehensible, where one or two children had, by squeaking and growling by turns, to represent a dozen different characters or more. A. E. Wilson, whose book Penny Plain, Twopence Coloured, gives a full and charming account of the history of the toy theatre, say the whole pleasure was in anticipation.

The ebb of popularity was to grow ever larger as the century came to its close. Many factors assisted in the decline of the toy theatre. There were newer and far more visual entertainments on the horizon which filled the late Victorian world with wonder. Almost every new scientific discovery seemed to result ultimately in the development of some new playing. Manufacturers adapted all the newly found principles to the commercial exploitation of the nursery and in doing cast and even larger shadow over the Juvenile Theatre. The live theatre also was to change, the age of melodrama was giving way to that of realism. The former stylized poses of the actor which had lent itself to the static positions of the paper counterparts ceased to be the fashion, adding yet another death knell to the paper theatre world. But in spite of all these factors the toy theatre did survive no longer as the pinnacle of the toy industry but merely as a shadow of its former self. Nevertheless it still remained within the echelons of the toy world well into the 1930’s and ironically outlived most of its Victorian rivals. Indeed many of its opponents have ceased to even be recorded or remembered.

The fact that the Juvenile Drama is still with us today must in no small part be attributed to Benjamin Pollock. For it was he more than any other who carried on this paper phenomenon well into this century, and on his death at the age of eighty in1937 had spent sixty of those years publishing and selling his toy theatres and plays. After Pollock’s death his two daughters carried on the trade until their shop in London was bombed during the World War II bringing the business to an abrupt close.

Many collectors believe that one of the reasons for the decline of the Toy Theatre was the elimination of personal involvement. First they became pre-coloured then die stamped and pre-creased, some slotted together eliminating gluing and so on. With each attempt to reduce to a bare minimum the efforts on the part of the constructor so the creative instinct declined.  The quality of the prints was going down, many being reproduced not from copper-plates, but as lithographs. And the audience was fast diminishing.

The birth of children’s magazines, the introduction of compulsory education (which meant homework), above all, the arrival of the play of ideas in the theatre proper, lowered the prestige and popularity of the Juvenile Drama. Some expert s in the theatre think that the Juvenile Drama must reflect the theatre of the time, and that cannot truly flourish in an age which laughs at melodrama.

Interest in Toy Theatre prints waned during the early 1900s but in recent years has experienced a remarkable revival in Europe. MDE Publications produced its first toy theatre for the Edinburgh Festival in 1968, since that time it has produced numerous theatres and plays. In 1989, all theatrical sheets were standardised and set to an A4 format. So the tradition of the late eighteen century are still being carried forward. Last year more than 17 countries participated in the International Paper Theatre Festival. (5)(6)

Puppets as a medium for therapy

The puppet always signs and symbolizes something. Its strength is enormous since the lifeless comes to life. The player lives through the role of the mover and the one that is moved at the same time. In the living theatre the actor transforms himself into his role. His real self is hidden behind the role, and can unite with the inner-system of another human being. This is not typical of the puppet-theatre. These are the main differences between human- and puppet-theatre.

Human theatre

Puppet theatre

It is the figure who brings the drama itself, it’s character is developing
The drama is in the action
Rational, cause and effect principle
Ratio is not important, tales
One of the artistic component is dominant (music in the opera, dance in ballet etc.)
The artistic components are equal
The actor identifies himself with the character, his personality is hidden
The actor can project his personality into the puppet, and can be outsider

The viewer sees only the character, and not the character and the actor together. The puppet theatre actor is in the role, but is an outsider, too, at the same time, so there is a distance to be more critical with the character. In the human theatre a universal message is showed as a personal story, but in the puppet theatre  there is only universal message.

Puppet theatre is a very good instrument to express religious contents, mysteries, moral teachings, and the view of life of a given time. With the help of the puppets we can express things to which the human body is unable. It can symbolise the superhuman attributes of the soul, the wonders and the secret and holy feelings. It can produce the illusion even if the actor were laughable. It makes complex effects.  It doesn’t know the big pain, but it is serious even in the funniest moments. It influences our feelings, not our mind. The subject of the puppet theatre is not to copy the human behaviour, its aim is to symbolise thoughts and feelings.

The puppet theatre is visual, which correspond to the children’s disposition and has a strong influence on the adults, too. It is dramatic, artistic, symbolic and based on the action. The puppet theater is a creative and joyful process. It is easy to activate the patients. It makes possible:

-to facilitate expression
-to express themselves, their problems and the hidden, ashamed and bottled features of their personality, too.
-to get a 3D vision of what is inside of them, inoffensive style, give shapes to complex feelings, values, voices, situations. I lived through but I am not through with it.
-to put these onto the stage, have a good view of them a personal distance, perspective
-the confrontation, the elaboration.
-Not only the revelation of the symptoms is possible, but the revenge without guilty conscience, and to live out the destructive tendencies in a playful, verbal and affective way.
-to find one’s own solutions by playing different roles, gaining in clarity and well-being
-the socialization, practice adaptive behavior-forms.
-to form a group.

The game with the puppets is popular and often used as a method in children-psychotherapy. Despite the advantages of the method, it is rarely applied in the adult-psychotherapy.

The method that has been used so far at the mainly psychotic cases has a wider indication than it has been expected and it carries further possibilities, as well.

Simple tools are needed to the realization of the performance (cardboard, coloured pencils, paint and thin sticks) so even the less skillful patients can be successful in it. The characters, the scenery and the wings made of paper and coloured by the players. The few materials that are used won't make the patients uncertain or less confident and it makes the interpretation easier for the therapist.

The toy-theater therapy group at the Jahn Ferenc Hospital works with 6-7 members. The group is heterogen in the respect of the illnesses. The group is open for any newcomers. The gathering has four parts:

1.     Theme: The group chooses an important topic and come to an agreement which story they want to see on the stage. (The therapist uses psychodramatic methods during this part)
2.     Art: The members design, colour and cut out the characters and the scenery.
3.     The Performance: the "original" story and the changes
4.     Discussion


In our department the patients are drug-abusers or have attempted suicide, but behind these symptoms there are many psychiatric illnesses such as depression, social phobia, anxious disorders, compliance disorders, and in a few cases psychotic symptoms.

It is a big problem for the patients to talk about themselves without any fear.

The beginning is always a little bit difficult. They are embarrassed as they see the pencils, the scissors and the paper theatre, and when they realize that they have to play. But soon they become relaxed, the process of the creation makes them forget their fears.

It was a great experience to realize that the adult patients can enjoy playing with puppets. Even the patients suffering from depression who lost the ability to find pleasure in creating something, could revive their manual creative instinct. It was easy to arouse their interest and make a good atmosphere in the settings.

Only the expression of their emotions can be curative. And this method helps to express themselves, to crystallize their ego. Topics can be very helpful, like Do your self-portrait, What am I afraid of? My illness, What do I want most?, My favourite tales.

Those patients who have problem to establish and keep contacts, have the chance to get in touch with others through the puppet.  The little paper theatre makes the illusion of the invisibility, so they can talk free and easy.

In the Far East the puppet theatre has great tradition. There is a strong belief in fate, so they easily identify themselves with the puppet who is moving by an outsider’s will.

It is liberating that they can make a very-very small being which is smaller than themselves and who talk and move the way they want. They endow puppet with emotions, motivations, voice and spirit. It gives a huge power to be the creator or to be the magician who can alter the lifeless into alive.

Problems can be projected into the puppets and can be worked through, allowing the dramatic release of feelings and the resolution of emotional conflicts.

Puppetry stimulates storytelling, providing useful diagnostic information, and offers the opportunity for patients to express and process aggression and relationship conflicts with limited anxiety, fear and guilt.

The negative characters are conforming since there are not only the good that can absolve them from guilty feelings.

It is also liberating that anything is possible. Everything that a human body can not do. And there are no limitation in the casting relating the body or the physical appearance. So anybody can be beautiful princess, strong man or old wise man…

The puppetry is said to be very childish. It is said that the adults outgrow the puppetry. Some things are important for the children and others for the adults.

Nursery-school age children are using mostly animal characters. The stories are simple and easy to follow. Moving the puppets give the opportunity to live out motions and emotions.

For the primary school age children fantasy will be important. The stories are getting more complex. In the puberty the focus of the interest is inside the ego. They have the need to analyse themselves, to understand the world. They are critical and unstable. For them the puppetry is too slow, boring and childish.

After the age of emotional-chaos, when they are not afraid of the charge of infantilism, the playfulness of the puppetry can attract the adult. It is more abstract, symbolic for the adults which stimulate not just the emotions, but the mind, as well.

As you might see, the puppet-theatre can help in the psychotherapy process to explore and work up the problems in a protected and gentle way. It has a wider indication than it has been expected and it carries further possibilities.


1. Ambrus Ferencné (szerk.): Játék és egészség, Az Egészségügyi Minisztérium egészségügyi felvilágosítási központjának kiadványa, 1972.
2. Dr Hermann Alice: A báb hatása a gyermek személyiségének alakulására in: Bábozzunk az óvódában, Népművelési Propaganda Iroda, 1969.
3. Polcz Alaine: A bábjáték lélektana, in: Hollós Róbertné (szerk.): A bábjáték lélektana, Népművelési Intézet. Tanulmánykötet 18. 1962.
4. Tarbay Ede (szerk.): Bábesztétikai szöveggyüjtemény, Tankönyvkiadó, 1976.
5. Sandberg, G.:Background Info on Toy Theatre in: www.datasync.com
6. James, A.S.: The end of the Juvenile Drama? In: www.puppetguild.org.uk

1 comment:

  1. Ann Neff, TT performer10:05 AM

    George Speaight debunks the idea that all performances are a failure. It was his feeling that very young children and certain "literary types" of adult had not the patience nor skills. George himself was one of the most successful toy theatre performers, right up until his death in 2005. See page 136 of his 1946 book "Juvenile Drama, A History of the English Toy
    Theatre". And many of us have not only seen very charming performances, but have given successful presentations ourselves. Do refer to the Toy Theatre Festivals in Preetz, Germany; Harderwijk, The Netherlands (Vischmarkt); and New York City (Great Small Works) for other documentation. There are also many other, contemporary, successful performers of toy theatre in the traditional style.