The Profound Psychology of Puppetry in Storytelling

Mar 19, 2024
A close-up of two hand shadows projected on a plain wall, creating the silhouette of puppet characters. One hand shadow appears to be a figure wearing a hat, while the other has spiky hair, resembling a fantastical creature. In the foreground, the hands of the puppeteer can be seen manipulating the small puppet figures against the light to cast the shadows.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend several events with the Future of Storytelling at the International Puppetry Festival in Chicago. This experience not only showcased the captivating art of puppetry but also expanded my understanding of what constitutes a puppet and the diverse forms this ancient art can take.

Understanding Puppetry and Its Forms

My initial reference points for puppetry were classroom hand puppets designed to make reading fun. Surprisingly, Sesame Street, one of the most iconic examples of puppetry in popular culture, didn't even register as puppetry in my mind. I learned that puppetry is an art form that involves the manipulation of inanimate objects to create a narrative or artistic expression. The range of inanimate objects used in puppetry is vast and varied, including traditional hand puppets, glove puppets, shadow puppets, marionettes, rod puppets, masks, digital puppetry - even paper cutouts. Often crafted to resemble living beings or abstract forms, these objects are brought to life through the puppeteer's movements and storytelling.

The events revealed the multifaceted nature of puppetry, an ancient form of storytelling that remains vibrant and impactful. Beyond its entertainment value, puppetry holds profound psychological implications. It taps into the depths of empathy, allows for complex narratives, and offers a mirror to our human experiences. Puppetry is more than an artistic performance; it is a gateway into the human psyche. The art form leverages simple inanimate figures to evoke complex human emotions and forge connections with audiences of all ages. It serves as a unique medium that can express ideas and emotions in a way that transcends words and directly engages the viewer's imagination and empathy.

Among the performances, I witnessed two unique approaches to storytelling: a workshop with the Emmy award-winning Manual Cinema and a performance of "Lil Carl." Manual Cinema, an innovative design studio, performance collective, and production company, blends various artistic elements to create immersive experiences. Their productions integrate handmade shadow puppetry, cinematic techniques, and creative sound and music, offering a fresh perspective on traditional puppetry and cinema.

Two of the most powerful takeaways during this workshop were when Artistic Director Sarah Fornace shared that stories come to life with our touch. Additionally, she mentioned that the team takes a breath together before any performance, suggesting that breath brings synthesis among the performers and the story. "Lil Carl," a poignant play addressing the challenging issue of gun violence, also incorporated the subtle and profound use of breath. Performed by Theatre Y's Youth Ensemble, "Lil Carl" is brought to life through puppets, dance, music, and poetry, creating a visually stunning experience aimed at countering feelings of despair. Both performances were impactful, evoking deep feelings of compassion and empathy, enhanced through audience participation and the subtle yet profound use of breath.

The art of puppetry incorporates the nuanced use of breath, both by the puppeteers and the puppets themselves, to create a rhythm that resonates deeply with audiences. This rhythmic breathing can be a powerful tool for immersion, subtly aligning the audience's emotions with the narrative flow. The shared breathing experience not only enhances the emotional connection but also facilitates a collective journey into the story's world, exemplifying the concept of Narrative Transportation1.

The Psychological Underpinnings of Puppetry

Narrative transportation is a psychological theory explaining the feeling of being completely absorbed into a story. It's when you're not just reading or watching; you're living it. You're so immersed in the world of the characters and plot that you forget about your own reality for a while. Three elements of narrative transportation include: (1) being in the zone, meaning you are paying close attention to the story and your mind doesn't wander; (2) vivid mental imagery, implying that you aren't just hearing or reading words, you are experiencing them - the sounds, sights, smells, tastes, sensations, and (3) emotional connection, suggesting that you care about the characters and what happens to them. You might feel happy, sad, scared, or angry right along with them. This feeling of transportation isn't just about enjoying a story. It can actually influence your thoughts and behaviors. When you're transported by a story, you're more likely to adopt the beliefs and attitudes of the characters.

Puppet characters, often exaggerated and distilled essences of human traits, serve as blank canvases upon which audiences project their feelings and experiences. This phenomenon can create a safe distance from real-life issues, allowing viewers to process emotions and experiences indirectly. Such a degree of separation can foster a unique form of empathy as individuals see aspects of themselves and others reflected in these animated figures. The relatability of puppet characters, despite their simplicity or abstraction, enables a deep connection that transcends cultural and linguistic barriers, making puppetry a powerful tool for storytelling and emotional expression.

The Value of Puppetry in Storytelling

The value of puppetry in storytelling lies in its universal language. It can bridge cultural and linguistic divides, making stories accessible to a broader audience. Puppetry's visual storytelling transcends spoken language, allowing for a shared narrative experience that is understood at an emotional level.

The International Puppetry Festival in Chicago was more than a celebration of creativity; it was a testament to the enduring power of puppetry in storytelling. As we continue to uncover the psychological benefits of this art form, it's clear that puppetry is not just about the strings and the stage — it's about the connections it fosters and the universal stories it brings to life. In a world increasingly dominated by digital media, the tangible art of puppetry reminds us of the timeless power of stories and the shared humanity they reveal.

Insights into Action💡

The power of puppetry can be harnessed in various fields. In education, puppets can be used to engage children in interactive learning. In therapy, they can provide a medium for individuals to express and work through complex emotions. In the corporate world, puppetry can offer innovative ways to communicate messages and values.

The profound psychological underpinnings of puppetry, particularly the use of breath and empathy, offer valuable insights that can be applied across various fields. Here's how professionals can integrate these elements into their work.

For Educators

  • Incorporate Puppetry: Use puppetry in the curriculum to enhance engagement and facilitate learning through storytelling. Puppets can bring stories to life and make learning more interactive and enjoyable.
  • Mindful Breathing: Integrate breathing exercises into classroom activities to help students focus and connect with the material more deeply.
  • Foster Empathy: Utilize role-playing and storytelling to encourage students to understand and empathize with different perspectives and experiences.

For Therapists and Counselors

  • Puppetry as a Therapeutic Tool: Utilize puppetry to help clients express emotions and tell their stories in a non-threatening way. Puppets can provide a safe medium for exploration and expression.
  • Breathing Techniques: Teach clients breathing exercises to manage stress and emotions, creating a conducive environment for therapy.
  • Empathy in Therapy: Use narrative therapy techniques to help clients build empathy for themselves and others, fostering deeper connections and understanding.

For Corporate Trainers

  • Puppetry for Team Building: Use puppetry exercises to break the ice, foster team cohesion, and engagingly convey corporate narratives.
  • Breathing for Team Dynamics: Introduce group breathing exercises to enhance synchronization and unity among team members.
  • Empathy in Leadership: Develop training modules emphasizing empathetic communication, using storytelling and role-playing to illustrate its importance in leadership.

For Content Creators

  • Puppetry in Digital Content: Explore puppetry as a medium for digital content to reach diverse audiences and tell captivating stories. Puppets can add a unique and engaging element to your content.
  • Incorporate Breath: Use breathing cues in audio or visual content to create a more immersive experience for the audience.
  • Craft Empathy-Driven Narratives: Focus on stories emphasizing emotional connections and relatability, encouraging viewers or readers to empathize with different experiences.



1 Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2002). "In the mind's eye: Transportation-imagery model of narrative persuasion." In M. C. Green, J. J. Strange & T. C. Brock (Eds.), Narrative impact: Social and cognitive foundations (pp. 315-341). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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