This is an article from the spring 2015 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.

People tend to dismiss puppets as toys, but one LSA researcher is studying how puppets can be used to tell big stories in post-socialist countries like Kazakhstan and around the world.

For Meghanne Barker, a Ph.D. candidate in LSA’s Department of Anthropology, big messages come in small packages.

Barker studies puppetry in post-socialist countries, at sites like Kazakhstan’s Almaty State Puppet Theatre. Founded in 1936, the Almaty State Puppet Theatre is one of several theaters the Soviets established in Kazakhstan throughout the 20th century. These state-run puppet theaters were regulated by the central Soviet government and featured elements from both Communist art and native Kazakh culture.

Performances were bilingual—in Kazakh and Russian—and included traditional Kazakh folktales. A hub for government agendas, local workers, and traditional stories, the theater was ideal for Barker’s research.

“I study the relationships behind puppetry,” says Barker. “From the carpenters and seamstresses backstage to the puppeteers cooperating to animate a single puppet—all the pieces that bring the puppet to life.”

Large Stake, Small Puppets

Though there were small, independent puppet theaters, for many years the Almaty State Puppet Theatre was the only state puppet theater in Kazakhstan. The theater sent puppeteers out to collective farms where some audience members had never seen the art form before. Traversing Kazakhstan’s wide, sweeping spaces, the puppet shows connected people by telling stories that were relevant to them, and remain so today.

Puppets from the Almaty State Puppet Theatre, where it can take a team of three puppeteers to coordinate a puppet's movements. Puppeteers say they “become one self” when they animate a puppet together.

Take Anton Chekhov’s children’s story “Kashtanka,” which the Almaty State Puppet Theatre performed in 2014. In the story, Kashtanka, a dog, gets separated from her original master, who beat her and couldn’t feed her. She is taken in by a clown who gives her food and cares for her, and provides Kashtanka with a stable life. The memory of her former master fades, but Kashtanka is nagged by melancholy. When, by chance, her former owner comes to the circus, Kashtanka has to choose between staying with the clown or leaving with her original master: She chooses to leave.

The story, and its difficult emotional choice, resonated among the directors and performers as Russia and Ukraine battled over the fate of Crimea.

“The story was written more than 100 years ago, and the theater’s rehearsals had begun months before the Crimean Crisis,” Barker says, “but when tensions rose between Ukraine and Russia, the directors decided they wanted to take the play to Russia.”

Barker says it’s a mistake to think that a puppet’s small size means it can’t deliver a powerful message.

“A lot of people argue that the puppet’s power is in its size,” says Barker. “The figures’ smallness enables them to exert influence on a very large scale, and creates a very moving kind of intimacy.”