In an article recently published in the New York Times, famed portrait artist Chuck Close gave students some advice that I loved: “Break the rules and use limitations to your advantage.”
Ah, limitations! There can be so many of them when you are a puppeteer. Puppeteers are constrained by the limits of their materials–a wooden hand clearly is not going to move like a fabric hand. Joints are always a challenge–which way do they need to bend? How do you construct them so they don’t break easily? Puppeteers also have to consider their own limits–there are only so many shadow puppet rods you can hold in one hand. But other limits for normal human beings simply don’t apply to puppets. Want a character to fly? Easy! Need a character to have its head chopped off, die and come back to life? No problem! Puppets are an art form that constantly push against limitations and break rules.
In many schools today, following the rules is heavily emphasized. Students are taught to value finding the ‘right’ answer to all questions, rather than asking the questions themselves. Children as young as age eight have come to me, worried that a B grade on a third grade report card will ruin their college chances (I’m not joking). In this kind of stressful environment, I believe that as Mr. Close says, breaking rules can be valuable, and that children need to learn to recognize their limitations and play to their strengths rather than expect themselves to be equally good at everything. Hopefully, the art of puppetry as we share it through performances and workshops, will help some students learn to find their own strengths and break some rules.