Intangible Cultural Heritage in Austria

Performance Practice at the Salzburg Marionette Theatre

Applicant: Salzburger Marionettentheater
Province: Salzburg
Domain: Performing arts

In many countries, marionette theatre is a tradition that goes back thousands of years and is considered the most highly developed form of puppetry. The Salzburg Marionette Theatre has been devoting itself to this art form since 1913. In order to achieve the most natural motions possible, theatre founder Anton Aicher invented a specific type of horizontal control bar, still in use today, that is occasionally compared to a harp. The puppeteers grasp the strings attached to this bar as they perform in order to make their puppets move, thus creating the specific “notes” that give rise to their figures’ individual characters. This technique has been taught to all puppeteers trained at this theatre over the past 100 years. In addition to passing on the necessary performing techniques, it is also essential to convey the manual skills that go into carving the puppets, costuming them, and moving them. The original stock character of Salzburg’s marionette theatre tradition is the Salzburger Kasperl, who is modelled after a humorous rural figure from the remote Lungau region that was originally put onstage by an itinerant puppeteer around 1700. Today’s Salzburg Marionette Theatre stands out for being the only such theatre in the world devoted to the performance of operas.

The Salzburg Marionette Theatre was founded in 1913 by sculptor Anton Aicher, whose children later succeeded him at the helm. Their family tradition gave rise to a theatrical tradition that has now run for over a century.
The founder, a renowned sculptor, aimed to create an “artists’ marionette theatre”, a fact still evidenced by the individual figures’ physiognomies and artfully conceived clothing. The theatre’s performance practice has changed but little over the years. The figures are fastened to their control bars with 1.5 m strings and moved by puppeteers who stand over 2 m above the stage. The heads and bodies of the marionettes are produced by sculptors in an expensive and time-consuming process.
As always, the puppeteers play a crucial role: they bring the marionettes to life and transfer emotions to their figures using the strings. Only certain technical elements—such as the places where the strings are attached, as well as the stage technology (lighting, puppeteer bridge)—have been adapted over time. New puppeteers are trained at the theatre itself, since there are no Austrian institutions that teach this speciality.
These days, the theatre stages a broad range of material—including operas and works of contemporary and classical literature. This serves to sustain the public’s interest in marionette theatre and counteract the general tendency to automatically categorise it as an art form for children.