Puppets just might be the most versatile collaborators for storytelling and performance-making on the planet. Their transformative abilities have captured the imaginations of storytellers and audiences alike. A puppet’s scale alone can make the inaccessible instantly accessible. In the case of the Pavakathakali, the traditional glove puppet theater from Kerala in South India, the small size of the puppets allows for the epic dance-dramas of the Kathakali (story plays) to travel and unfold in households and small communal spaces. Conversely, the paper-maché giants of the Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover, Vermont embody characters that can be seen from atop the natural amphitheater of a mountainside. Throughout the world, these adaptable performers — often constructed from materials such as mud, recycled cardboard, grass, tree branches, shadows or flickering light — shapeshift, fly, disappear and then reappear. They animate the invisible. And in some cases, they speak the unspeakable. Simply put, they can do things that human performers cannot.

Amy Trompetter, designer of Fantasque’s puppets and founder of Redwing Blackbird Theater in the Hudson Valley, began her design process by digging clay out of the earth and stomping and kneading it with her feet. Then, using straw, old papers, and cornstarch glue, she molded her creations. Out of these raw materials she sculpted objects that when animated by John Heginbotham’s dancers create the illusion of life.

The Redwing Blackbird Theater describes their performance ethos as follows: “We delight in using the art of puppetry to sing out with the varied nuances and overtones of our pre-language state of being. Puppets can more easily express what cannot be said with words.” Trompetter and Heginbotham’s puppets certainly have their own stories to tell in a unique language of movement and the visual, but perhaps they offer something else as well — an insight into the mysterious dual nature of the puppet itself. We know these beings as products of paper and clay but at the same time we imagine them as having life. Perhaps this is ultimately the puppet’s greatest collaborative gift: an experience wrought in the imagination of the audience.

Kristin Horton is an Associate Professor of Practice in Theater and Directing at the NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study and Chair of the Interdisciplinary Arts Program. As a theater director she works on new plays, re-imagined classics, and community-engaged performance. She also loves working with puppets.