Storylines: Puppets Past and Present at the A.R.T.

SEP 5, 2023

Little Amal bends over to put her head to a child’s.

Amal has walked a long way to be here. With a name meaning “hope” in Arabic, this twelve-foot-tall puppet of a ten-year-old girl has followed in the footsteps of thousands of refugees and migrants. Beginning at the Turkish/Syrian border in 2021, Amal first walked westward through Turkey and the EU before arriving in the UK. Now, in September 2023, she begins a new journey, tracing a 6,000-mile route across the United States. Amal’s cross-continental walk starts in Boston, with a special welcome event in Harvard Yard co-produced by A.R.T. and the Harvard University Committee on the Arts (HUCA) as part of Harvard University’s ArtsThursdays, a university-wide initiative sponsored by HUCA that provides free public arts programming during the academic year.

With Artistic Direction by Amir Nizar Zaubi (whose play This Is Who I Am was presented virtually as part of A.R.T.’s 2020/21 season), Amal was designed by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. Founded by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones in 1981, Handspring’s work has been presented in more than 30 countries—including their puppet design for The National Theatre’s War Horse (on Broadway 2011-2013). Amal Walks Across America represents Handspring’s A.R.T. debut.

In anticipation of Amal’s arrival in Boston, we look back at other puppet artists’ work in A.R.T. history, from 1984’s The King Stag to last season’s Life of Pi.

Photo: Little Amal in Toronto. © Luminato Festival, The Walk Productions. By Taku Kumabe.

The King Stag and A Gozzi Surprise production photo

The King Stag

1984, 2000

One of the A.R.T.’s most iconic early works, The King Stag re-envisioned an eighteenth-century fable by Commedia dell’arte champion Carlo Gozzi in a new production directed by Andrei Serban, with puppetry and movement by Julie Taymor (The Lion King). Filled with talking animals and magic spells, The King Stag follows a lovelorn monarch’s search for genuine love. After entering the A.R.T.’s repertory in 1984 (with a return engagement in 2000), the production toured the United States, Spain, Italy, Japan, Taiwan, and Russia.

Photo: Thomas Derrah as D’Aquila. Richard Feldman.

Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera


Featuring a chorus of automated “operabots” and an expressively animated stage, Death and the Powers offered a futuristic spin on traditional puppetry. Developed by the MIT Media Lab in partnership with A.R.T., this new opera (directed by Diane Paulus) begins when an eccentric patriarch in search of immortality downloads himself into a sophisticated computer program. The work premiered in Monaco before making its A.R.T. debut in collaboration with Chicago Opera Theater and Opera Boston.

Photo: Hal Cazalet and James Maddalena. Jonathan Williams.

The Light Princess

2013, 2014

This all-ages musical, adapted from George MacDonald’s fairy tale by writer Lila Rose Kaplan and composer Mike Pettry, follows the story of a princess cursed at birth to not have any gravity. With choreography by Jeffrey and Rick Kuperman and Scenic Design by Julia Noulin-Merat, The Light Princess used acrobatics, lifts, and puppetry to bring the princess’ high-flying world to life.

Photo: Ashley Monet and the ensemble of The Light Princess. Evgenia Eliseeva.

The company of Moby-Dick.



This new musical by Dave Malloy (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812), directed by Rachel Chavkin (Gatsby, upcoming), took audiences across the seas with the egomaniacal Captain Ahab and his crew. To bring author Herman Melville’s exhaustive taxonomy of aquatic species to life on stage, Moby‑Dick featured puppets designed and crafted from reclaimed materials by Eric Avery.

Photo: The company of Moby‑Dick. Evgenia Eliseeva.

Adi Dixit stands on a bed yelling with his arms in the air while Rowan Magee, Celia Mei Rubin, and Nikki Calonge

Life of Pi


After sixteen-year-old Pi’s ship wrecks on a trans-Pacific voyage, he shares a lifeboat with a tiger and other former inhabitants of the Pondicherry Zoo. With Puppet Design by Nick Barned and Finn Caldwell, this work used puppets to represent a vast menagerie of creatures. Following its run at A.R.T. in 2022, Life of Pi moved on to Broadway, where it was recognized with Tony Awards for Lighting Design, Scenic Design, and Sound Design.

Photo: Adi Dixit, Rowan Magee, Celia Mei Rubin, and Nikki Calonge. Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

By A.R.T. Editor & Associate Dramaturg Robert Duffley and A.R.T. Public Relations Assistant Ashley Lyon


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The King Stag and A Gozzi Surprise production photo

Artifice plainly heaped on artifice is the effervescent essence of this “King Stag”…The widely traveled production tells a frothy story about a lovelorn king, magic spells and talking animals that boils down to a profoundly simple truth: playfulness is serious business.

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