Thalia Theater manufactured by Adolph Engel from the estate of Wolfram Nagel, curtain J. F. Schreiber, stage scenery likely Joseph Scholtz Verlag Mainz (approx. 1880–1930)
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Oliver Ziebe


Once a year, adults and children come to the Märkisches Museum to be enchanted and enthralled by small paper figures. Unfortunately, in 2020/21, the long-standing tradition of paper theatre performances and workshops had to be interrupted due to COVID-19. Yet, work continued behind the scenes and still carries on.

by Randy-Noreen Rathenow

These days, paper theatres no longer play the role they once did. From the first third of the 19th century onwards, the miniature stages for cutting out and assembling in “good middle-class” homes were commonplace and even into the 1920’s it is hard to imagine virtually any children’s playroom without one. Advancements in printing technology in the 19th century had enabled the production of paper toys at an affordable price and in large numbers.

A Thalia theatre manufactured by Engel

In 1993, work got under way in the Märkisches Museum not only to preserve and research the extensive collection of paper theatres but also to open them up to the public. As well as a special exhibition and annual paper theatre performances, there were workshops during advent in particular. The Märkisches Museum also joined forces with other institutions, collectors and paper theatre actors and performers in order to exchange knowledge and foster contacts. This work was carried on after the founding of Stiftung Stadtmuseum in 1995, and the paper theatre collection was expanded and continually added to following the merger with the Historic Collection of West Berlin.

In summer 2021, the private estate of Berlin archaeologist Wolfram Nagel (1923–2019) was donated to the Stadtmuseum Berlin. This also included a very well-preserved paper theatre. This theatre is named after the Greek muse of comic poetry and entertainment: Thalia theatre. It comprises of a wooden box on which the sets and so-called proscenium are placed – the front section of the stage behind which the curtain is positioned.
Proscenium (not cut out), Verlag Gustav Kühn in Neuruppin (1840–1895) Hoffmann
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Friedhelm

The proscenium is also made of wood and laminated with lavishly detailed printed paper. At the bottom right-hand side is the signature of Berlin firm Adolph Engel, a manufacturer and distributor of toys, in particular picture sheets, paper theatres, picture books and other printed materials for youngsters. The company existed between 1848 and 1906.

Little Red Riding Hood, atmospherically staged with candlelight by “Papiertheater Invisius”. The theatre is a replica from the collection of the Stadtmuseum Berlin.
© Rüdiger Koch | Photo: Rüdiger Koch
The theatre’s stage scenery, i.e., set and characters, can be changed depending on the play and scene. 18 different sets of stage scenery have been included with the paper theatre, ranging from “farmhouse” through to “Oriental Palace”. They each consist of a background and usually six side wings, three on each side, from which the figures can enter and exit. Perforations in some backgrounds enable skilfully placed candles to radiate a sun effect in a darkened room or create a twinkling starry sky. Virtually all this scenery comes from J. F. Schreiber based in Esslingen am Neckar, as well as the twelve enclosed booklets.

Of lightning and witches

The firm J. F. Schreiber was one of Germany’s most famous paper theatre makers. Also internationally renowned, it was run as a family-owned business until 1988. J. F. Schreiber published many booklets on well-known fairy tales, operettas and plays and in each one additional texts/lyrics and stage scenery were recommended. So on the inside of the front cover it is immediately apparent which scenery is to be used for the particular play.

“Garden” stage scenery, Verlag J. F. Schreiber
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Oliver Ziebe

The booklets also provide tips for the performance – for example, how sound and lighting effects can be produced. Thunder, for instance, is created when a large and sturdy piece of cardboard is shaken and a flash of lightning is produced when powdered rosin is blown through a paper tube into a flame. There is a picture sheet on the rear inside booklet cover on which the figures belonging to the play are represented. In our theatre, most of the figures have been cut out, stuck onto card or wood and sometimes painted. For improved stability, a wooden base was attached to some figures, with a lead weight in some cases, or even an anchor stone from the toy construction sets widespread at the time.

The paper theatre and the accessories were most likely purchased in Berlin. Clues to this are a “5 Minuten Pause” sign including the name of the paper merchant “G. Honrath” situated at Charlottenstraße 62, as well as the booklet for the romantic opera “Tannhäuser” with a sticker belonging to paper merchant “Bernhard Keilich” situated at Große Hamburger Straße 21-23. To move the figures on the stage, the theatre also includes three home-made reversible figure movers from the 1930’s.

Intangible cultural heritage paper theatre

Given the latest piece in our collection, anyone with a lasting fondness for play and miniature models will perhaps understand why, even after 200 years, paper theatre still fascinates the public and theatre lovers. Not just because a performance is akin to that of a “large” theatre:  these days, in addition to lovingly designed paper figures, there are also modern plays, movable sets and sophisticated lighting technology. This requires creativity and manual dexterity. This is why in 2021 the German UNESCO commission recognised the tradition and artistic form of the paper theatre with its inclusion in the list of intangible cultural heritage.