Victorian puppet theatre followed the notions of 19th century live theatre in that it attempted to trick an audience into believing in the reality of the show, according to "The Victorian Marionette Theatre" by John McCormick. Puppets were primarily used as visual aids for the oration of plays. The average Victorian marionette troupe owned about 30 to 40 puppets, which were used in a variety of roles in a wide range of plays. The troupe structure and operation resembled that of a repertory company of actors.
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Placement of Stage
Entire puppet stages were placed on the stages of variety theatres, which had sizeable and elaborate proscenium arches. Characterised by stucco work and gilding, these arches surrounded the smaller puppet stage like a picture frame. Special cut drapery was used to mask the top and sides of the puppet stage, a was also dropped in front of the stage to create a seamless facade within the proscenium arch.
Puppet stages reflected the ornate decoration of a live theatre's proscenium arch. Puppet stages were typically made of carved wood or paper mache, and were heavily gilded. Some were decorated with cream and gold colours. According to John McCormick's "The Victorian Marionette Theatre," puppeteers Chester and Lee created a stage with a red plush proscenium and matching drapes. As puppet stages later moved to music halls, their solid fronts were replaced by velvet drapes.
Size and Structure
The typical booth of a puppet theatre was about 30 feet wide. The front of the stage measured about 13 to 16.5 feet and was blocked off by thick curtains, known as the backcloth, or screens. The marionettes were placed in front of the backcloth and moved in an area defined by the length of their arms. The majority of theatres functioned with a single bridge behind the backcloth, where operators stood and manipulated the puppets. Some theatres sported a second bridge behind the proscenium. If the theatre had a deep stage, a third bridge could be inserted between the first two. The area beneath the bridge, or "discovery space," was used to expand the stage's depth or to set up tableaus.
Although artists painted simulated light and shadow on backcloths, puppet stages required light. They typically used a row of oil or gas-fuelled footlights. If the stage's depth was only about 5 feet, the footlights sufficed. During the 1800s, a commonly used effect was to place a bright light behind an archway or upstage cloth. Additional lights could also be positioned to the sides of the discovery space. A limelight could provide a beam of light on a puppet's face, and was considered the first spotlight, used in the 19th century. It was created by pressing bags of oxygen and hydrogen, which mixed the gases. This potent blend was ignited. The flames were then passed over a lime cylinder, generating the focused light.
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