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Discovering Everyday Magic

An introduction to object theatre


Published: 16 May 2024

Time taken : ~10mins

There is a mind-blowing scene in the 2022 sleeper hit film Everything Everywhere All at Once. For two whole minutes, the audience watches two rocks have a conversation.

These are, astoundingly, completely ordinary rocks. They sit, immobile and silent, on the edge of a cliff overlooking a desert vista. But through text overlays and clever framing, the two rocks engage in a humorous and heartfelt dialogue about the nature of existence.

Even with cinematic storytelling aids, this scene is an example of object theatre, an artform in which stories are told with ordinary objects playing the main characters. Object theatre is sometimes called object puppetry, highlighting the effort of manipulating an inanimate object to bring it to life.

To the layperson, object theatre probably does not sound like much. In fact, to pick up anything around you and imagine grand adventures with it sounds just like child’s play. But don’t be fooled by object theatre’s simplicity and accessibility. 

Object theatre captivates audiences by transforming mundane items into vehicles for profound storytelling and artistic expression. It ignites the imagination of both performers and viewers. More importantly, object theatre invites us to deeply consider the everyday items that we often overlook.

Readymade theatre

One of the hallmarks of object theatre is its use of found objects as they are. Sometimes, several objects are put together to create a character, but the individual objects are still recognisable and untouched.

This “as-is” nature of object theatre distinguishes it from other forms of puppetry, such as marionettes, hand puppetry and rod puppetry, which rely on purpose-made, often humanoid puppets.

According to the World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts, object theatre has its roots in the avant-garde art movement of the early twentieth century. Avant-garde artists were pushing the boundaries of what constituted art, including looking to found objects as artwork. 

An oft-cited example of such artwork was French artist Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), a porcelain urinal exhibited as it was. Duchamp called it a “readymade” sculpture. 

Object theatre emerged as a trend in the 1980s as European and American puppeteers began eschewing purpose-made puppets for found objects, possibly as a reaction to the surge in consumerism and material wealth characterising the period.

In 1979, two object theatre pioneers, Christian Carrignon and Katy Deville, founded their French puppetry company Théâtre de Cuisine with the intent of building “a theatrical practice freed from the omnipotence of the text and the constraints imposed by the conventions of puppetry”. True to the group’s name, which translates in English as “Theatre of Food”, some of their earliest and longest-running shows (spanning several decades) were simply performed with fresh produce and kitchen utensils.

More recently, the ‘readymade’ nature of object theatre came into its own during the COVID-19 pandemic, when public spaces including performing venues were forced to close their doors. Amidst the isolation of quarantines and lockdowns, some puppeteers took to the Internet to video-stream performances making use of whatever was available, perhaps out of necessity, but also to show viewers that they too were capable of creating art while sheltering in place. 

For example, Paul Mitchell, artistic director of Australian puppetry outfit Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, appears in a YouTube video published in mid-2020 demonstrating how to transform “everyday objects into characters”. In the video, Mitchell turns a pail and a trash bag into the protagonists of the Aesop fable The Tortoise and the Hare. And all it took was a few deft movements and a dose of imagination.

Firing up the imagination

Object theatre requires a great deal of imagination. Because the objects appear as they are, the entire performance is created, performed and viewed on a metaphorical level. 

In Christian Carrignon’s 2011 treatise on object theatre titled Le Théâtre d’Objet: Mode d’Emploi (translated as “Object Theatre: How to Use It”), he refers to an everyday object used in object theatre as a “palimpsest”, likening it to ancient manuscripts that had been reused and written on multiple times, with traces of earlier versions still visible.

To Carrignon, it is important that the object in question is first recognisable, meaning that it holds social, cultural and/or historical significance to both creator and audience. The performance then grafts a new layer of meaning onto the object.

Object theatre requests all its participants to see both the object for what it is now, how they once remembered it, and what is created in their imagination, all at the same time.

In 2023, Thai puppetry group Ta Lent Show Theatre performed an object theatre show titled SAFARI at the No Strings Attached Puppet Festival in Singapore. In SAFARI, two performers play characters going on an expedition into the wilderness. Along the way, they encounter a whole host of wild animals, which are created from simple household items. Coat hangers and tote bags turn into a herd of gazelle galloping over the plains, toilet paper and a straw hat transform into a leggy ostrich, and a black trash bin and bin liner become a rotund hippopotamus gracefully wafting down a river.

Sometimes, object theatre can leave much more room for the audience’s imagination simply by not providing a clear story. At the 2023 Singapore International Festival of the Arts, Italian puppeteer Andrea Salustri wowed audiences with his polystyrene spectacle titled MATERIA. By taking advantage of the material’s lightness, Andrea made polystyrene foam bits, balls and boards levitate and dance about. A review of MATERIA in THE STAGE of its run in London earlier that same year reads, “There is no guiding narrative, no big message, but in under an hour of inventive object manipulation [...] Salustri creates something both meditative and magical.”

As object theatre ignites the imagination through its transformative use of everyday objects, the selection of objects becomes a critical aspect of the creative process, with careful consideration given to their inherent properties and potential for evocative storytelling.

An object’s inherent qualities

With the freedom to choose any object and conjure up any story with it, the possibilities in object theatre appear endless. But most object theatre practitioners take their cue from the objects themselves. 

Practitioners may select objects based on how they look, move or feel. Their texture or movement will dictate how they may be “cast” in a performance, as American puppeteer Paul Zaloom put it. 

In a 2013 YouTube video about his approach to object theatre, Zaloom asks us to consider the “inherent qualities” of an object. He says, “By manipulating, by playing with [objects], and by finding the full range of possibilities with them, they tell you what to do. You don’t really get to tell them what to do so much.”

In Love of Risk by French puppetry company Compagnie Bakélite, artistic director and performer Olivier Rannou quite literally cannot tell his co-starring objects what to do. Rannou acts as a restaurant patron who is served by robot vacuums. Robot vacuums work autonomously and move about almost unpredictably, and it is their haphazard movements that contribute to the dining chaos in Love of Risk.

Other object theatre practitioners may also select objects because of their symbolic connotations, which then add depth and resonance to their storytelling.

Take for example The Wind Came Home, an object theatre performance first staged by Singaporean arts companies Drama Box and ArtsWok Collaborative in 2014. Tan Beng Tian, a puppeteer of over three decades, built the show’s puppets from household objects which resonate symbolically with the narrative. 

The Wind Came Home is about an elderly couple making preparations for death, and one of the characters they meet is a social worker. Tan created the social worker puppet by using a pair of cleaning brushes as a head, a mop head for a body, and writing instruments for limbs. According to Tan, the cleaning and writing tools are meant to symbolise the corrective and administrative tasks social workers have to undertake.

For whatever reason an object is selected in object theatre and however it is played or performed with, it is an opportunity to look at the everyday items we often take for granted with fresh eyes.

An exercise in empathy

The indisputable charm of object theatre lies in its ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary with nothing but our imagination. But in doing so, it also teaches us that empathy and connection are possible even with non-living things.

In 2018, Glass Half Full Theatre from the US staged Polly Mermaid, Apocalypse Wow!, an object theatre show about climate change. In a world where humans have gone extinct, a mermaid lives with her motley crew of ocean trash puppets when they encounter a styrofoam cup. The aptly-named Cup shares a humorous but heartbreaking tale of a shining, but brief moment where it lived out its function as a hot beverage container, before it was thoughtlessly tossed away forever.

Glass Half Full Theatre’s Artistic Director Caroline Recks writes in an essay that this particular scene tugged at the heartstrings of audiences and actually made them reduce their plastic waste. She notes, “Theatrical moments like these put people in the position of empathically recognising their own ecological impact, which results in them actively changing their daily habits.”

In inviting us to consider the infinite creative possibilities hidden in everyday items, object theatre creates awareness of, appreciation for and connection with things we overlook. Object theatre reminds us if we are able to live a little more consciously and creatively, that even in the seemingly mundane, there is beauty, magic and meaning to be found.

Flipside 2024 pays homage to the ordinary object with a lineup of object theatre shows that will fire up your imagination. Catch performances and programmes from some of the artists mentioned in the article, including Ta Lent Theatre and Compagnie Bakélite at Esplanade from 31 May – 9 Jun 2024.

Contributed by:

Daniel Teo

Daniel Teo is a freelance writer. Previously, he worked at Centre 42, a theatre development centre, as a researcher, archivist and documenter.

The writer would like to thank Tan Beng Tian and Myra Loke of Singapore puppetry company The Finger Players for invaluable initial conversations about object theatre.

It's a whimsical world out there


A playful festival of circus, comedy, physical theatre and puppetry.

31 May – 9 Jun 2024
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