The Limitations of Puppetry

By Genna Beth Davidson

IMG_2616

Genna Beth organizing puppet rods for Saudade.

Those of us at Wit’s End Puppets think about puppetry a lot. I’m always interested in materials and the characteristics and possibilities of those materials. It occurred to me recently that it might be helpful to think about the limitations of puppetry.  How limited or limitless is it really? 

I think of amazing puppet works I’ve seen across the globe. There’s Royale De Luxe with their giant puppets controlled by dozens of people as they move through the city streets telling magical and gigantic stories. I think of the animatronics of Hollywood especially my favorite puppets from Underworld that one would assume are computer generated images, but they aren’t; they’re extremely sophisticated puppets. I think of the most basic puppets like a folded sheet of paper turned flapping wings of a bird. 

Obviously there are physical and mechanical limitations, only so many solenoids are fit in an animatronic mask, but what’s not limitless is the imagination. The most basic puppet designs allow the mind to explode with ideas, and I want to know how to do it all. Personally I’m limited by skill and access to the machinery and materials of my small shop. I don’t have a drill press or a vacuum forming machine (Christmas presents? Hint, hint!). Even so you can do a lot with just a hot glue gun and cardboard. So am I really limited? It’s easy to say “well I could have done this or that if I just had the means.” My gut tells me that’s a cop out. 

In the world of puppet performance on stage, one of the biggest limitations is how many hands one has to control a puppet. It really doesn’t make sense to have too many hands on a puppet because the bodies of those performers overtake the space and obscure the puppet. But I fall easily into the trap sometimes of thinking that more hands create more nuanced puppetry. I know it’s skill that creates the nuance because I’ve seen it done. That’s why one must be dedicated to practice. There’s no excuse for not getting out the mirror and working those muscles.

I heard recently that over 600 muscles control the human body. TV shows like West World tell of how one day we will be able to create ourselves to such an extent that we can’t tell organic human from android. Honestly I like that we cannot replicate the human form so exactly yet, because the suggestive power of puppetry is what makes it so memorable. It’s a shared imaging between presenter and audience. We silently make a pact at the beginning of every show in which all agree to believe that the inanimate have life and story. I love this and fear we will lose that joy as technology brings us closer and closer to creating life itself.

These musings lead me to the conclusion that there are limits in puppetry; materials, tools, engineering, number of hands, and skill level of builder or puppeteer. These are all limitations I bump up against regularly, and it’s where my problem solving brain gets to take center stage. Oh, and gravity! We are all limited by gravity for now. But all of that doesn’t really matter because the imagination of your audience is limitless. A shoe box becomes a treasure chest. A shoe becomes an opera singer. A ticking clock becomes a beating heart. For those who care to follow, it’s all possible.

Advertisements

Building a Slithering Conger

By Nina Budabin McQuown

Over the centuries, naturalists have described the fens as a landscape of extraordinary fertility and disturbing darkness. At once a place “of manifold horrors and fears, and the loneliness of the wide wilderness,” and a place of abundance, “plentifully endowed” (Merchant 169, 166). 

Perhaps the most potent symbol of that overlap of horror and abundance is the conger eel, a fish native to the fens, congers can grow massive in proportions, the recent record is 20 feet in length and over 130 pounds after gutting. 

pastedGraphic.png

Slimy, sharp toothed, and writhing, eels are also delicious. They were a central part of a local economy that depended on the land—including hunting, fowling, and cutting peat for fuel. Eel fishermen used baskets trap to catch them and transport them to markets.

pastedGraphic_1.png

For the fen landscape we’re building for Tiddy Mun, then, eels are an essential part, but in building our eels, we want to be sure that their movement communicated both size and slithering, abundance and slime. 

I wanted a puppet that could move like a real eel, and as I planned it, I thought of the toy wooden snakes I’d had as a child. Those snakes are built of a large number of wooden disks connected by a cloth spine. The internet, beneficent in all things, has an excellent tutorial on how to make them from scratch, but I needed our eels to be five to six feet long and five to six inches in diameter, so wood would be far too heavy to use as a material. Instead, I went for lighter cardboard. Instead of flat disks (I tried it, it would’ve taken approximately three hundred of them, individually cut in graduating size, to get the length and shape we needed!), I bent strips of cardboard into thicker rib shapes to build a skeleton. The plan was to connect them with fabric, then cover them with shining black nylon skin. In the end, this method produced an eel-like body shape, but if anything it was too flexible. It would require four hands to operate, and puppeteers might end up obscuring the puppet when all was done! 

Amy reminded me of another kind of toy snake:

pastedGraphic_2.png

These wider segments might hold up under the weight of the puppet and still slither, so I cut and bent cardboard into the shape of the segments, then built a frame for the eel’s face, tale and flippers:

pastedGraphic_3.png

pastedGraphic_4.png

For added strength, I used a cornstarch glue and cardboard paper mache to cover the body of the eel:

pastedGraphic_5.png

I painted the eel, then attached each segment with a vertical wire, allowing them to slide individually from left to right. Two glass eyes made the puppet live, and the final product moved like this:

So here I am finally, a proud eel fisherman with my catch (and my cat):

pastedGraphic_6.png

Re-Building Selkie

By Genna Beth Davidson

As we endeavor to mount Malevolent Creatures: What the Waves Bring as part of Space4 with CulturalDC, a big build is underway in my studio space. When we did a 20 minute section of the piece last year I had the main selkie puppet constructed enough for use, but she was far from finished, and I discovered some problems during that workshop. 

For one, the puppet has to be worn by our puppetress, Amy Kellett, who quickly discovered that the play we’ve written doesn’t have many “down” moments for Selkie. The lower legs of the puppet are Amy’s legs and the puppet is attached at the knees. Amy holds the puppets head and controls the movement of one arm, but it is actually taking A LOT of arm and back strength to keep the puppet from slumping down. This is a problem that my redesign/rebuild needs to address. I haven’t quite figured out yet how to handle it. I might reach out to a master designer in our area for some help.

Secondly I decided to put the puppet in a nude unitard because for some of the scenes she appears nude, but it didn’t end up looking like she was nude; it looked like someone wearing a nude unitard. In retrospect I think to myself “duh!” So I had to deconstruct the unitard and pull the material taut over each body part. This way it will look more like a nude woman. It’s very tricky pulling the fabric taut though. It wants to fold in ways that make it look like fabric. Learning to do this skin-job is a new challenge that I’m still figuring out too. 

Puppetry is full of problem solving. I never seem to anticipate all the challenges that come up, but that’s part of the fun for me. I remember working on a show a few years ago in which I built a puppet whose head didn’t move from side to side because of the way I designed the shoulders. It was a total accident, and then I had to quickly figure out how to adjust that design. I came up with a design in which I inserted the neck dowel into the hosing that was the spine. I kept them together with  elastic that ran the length of the spine and connected through the tubing and up to the top of the neck dowel where I had wired some loops around which I could sew the elastic (see image). It was pretty cool figuring that out. I love it when a problem comes my way. It’s the best part of building for me! 

20180116_120618_1516126556523

Genna Beth’s puppet head design. 

My dad is an engineer so sometimes I run things by him; he loves problem solving too. But on more than one occasion, he has wanted to take the design in a completely different direction. It’s at those times that I turn into a little kid again with the impulse to say: “No I want to do it by myself!” I have to remind myself it’s okay to learn from others and get more experience in the process. 

One Small Change

Sometimes I wonder what I would have done as a freelance art and puppetry teacher before Pinterest. Whenever I am stuck for ideas, wondering what new project three year olds can do using cotton balls, paint and paper plates, all I have to do is type a few keywords into a search box and the wonders of teaching blogs, mommy blogs and other artists are there for my perusal.

Because I’m teaching different groups of kids in different settings, sometimes I will repeat a project, and in the process, learn how to improve it. Here is a small case study: a penguin puppet.

I found this project (from the blog Confessions of a Teaching Junkie), attractive because of it’s simplicity. I also liked that it used paint, which is useful for stretching a project out to two lessons, because we have to let it dry. My students in an after school arts program, who are nearly all 6 or 7, were able to paint a plastic cup, cut out wings and eyes (I cut out the feet, as cardboard cutting skills are still a bit beyond them) and glue everything together. They turned out quite charming, as you can see. And they all looked pretty much the same, with some slight variations in the eyes.

IMG_6497

Then I decided to repeat the project with a different after school class. These are 7 and 8 year olds, so a little older, a little more assured with scissors and glue and paint. However, I made a major mistake, which is that I didn’t realize our paint was tempera, not acrylic and in no way designed to bind to the slick plastic of the cups. I didn’t take a picture, because it was slightly humiliating, but all the paint the kids piled on the cups simply shriveled up and flaked off.

So we had to try something else, which turned out to be paper collage. In the process of re-doing the project with paper instead of paint, I noticed something interesting. Perhaps because my students felt more assured with paper, scissors and markers, they started really putting their own stamp on the project. They added hats, hair, and accessories. Signs that read ‘I Love Penguins’. Their creativity was inspiring.

img_6809.jpg

I have no doubt that my students at the first program are just as creative and could have produced their own unique penguins. But instead, they followed my directions and example and made puppets that all looked pretty much alike. I am always interested in how to gently push my students to let their puppets reflect their own personalities, rather than making something they think will please me or their friends. For this project, it turned out that tissue paper was the magic ingredient.

Organize It!

By Genna Beth Davidson

When it comes to building puppets, you must bring together many different crafting skills: sewing, woodworking, papier mache, foam construction, painting, etc. I dream of one day having a huge studio capable of housing all the different arts that come together to create my puppets. But for the time being, I’m making do with a tiny space. It’s amazing what you can do with a small space if organized well.

20170904_110628

I have my work table on wheels so that I can easily move it around and away from the wall for sewing. My fabric is stored by color in a closet along with foam and batting. I have a power tools and hand tools section (which is slowly out-growing the space), my woodpile corner, a shelf for projects I’m working on, a shelf for papier mache paper, and a file drawer with deep, short drawers for flat artwork and pattern storage. I keep my sewing machine stowed under my work table, even though it’s a bit annoying having to pull it out every time I want to use it. If I had the ultimate studio, I would have a large, high table for laying out patterns and a dedicated table for sewing. Right now I often have to use the floor for laying out large patterns. I also have the ultimate junk drawer because you never know what you might need.

20170904_110622

I quickly outgrew this small space so now some of my materials take up bookshelf space in the hallway. That’s where I keep my paint supplies, beads, elastic, and assorted other adornments for the puppets. And I’m lucky that I have a back porch off the studio. My friend made me a big wooden table that I use as a workbench out there. In the winter it’s a little cold, but I manage.

Finally it’s really important to have boxes, pegboard, and other inventive ways of separating materials. I use a shoe organizer on the back of a door for feathers, leather, foam scraps, rope, plastic bag storage, etc. I use lots of large tupperware bins too, and a pegboard is great for easy access to tools.

20170904_110647If you are thinking about setting up a space for your crafting habit, a great place to look for organization ideas is Pinterest of course! But I recommend taking time to let things get organized as you go. It can be good to invest in top of the line organization, but you don’t have to. Sometimes things just find their way into a nook without you intentionally putting them there, or you come upon some organizational device that was intended for one thing but works perfectly for the storage of something else like my shoe organizer.

For me, organizing is fun! I think I’m lucky in that I inherited my mom’s need to organize and my dad’s habit for recycling and storing materials that could be useful at a later date. Thanks Mom and Dad!

 

Everything Wrong with This Caja Show

In 2012, I visited Argentina for the first time and I was fascinated when Mara Ferreya, a puppeteer from Cordoba, described a kind of street puppet show that took place in a box. She showed me a photograph, with three people all wearing headphones and looking through their own peephole at some invisible show inside a cardboard box. It didn’t look that hard to make.

Later that summer I made my first attempt at a similar show. I called it the Personal Puppet Show and performed it at farmer’s markets and community events. People liked it, but it was only after I went back to Argentina two years later and took a workshop with Mendoza puppeteer Gabriela Céspedes that I realized all of the things I had done wrong. Here is a list of them.

IMG_6149

1. The box is too shallow. I could only see one side of the box in Mara’s photo and I didn’t realize it had to be a certain depth. Part of the magic of caja lambe-lambe is that the tiny peephole creates a forced perspective for the viewer. This gets ruined, however, if the box isn’t deep enough and the puppets end up too close to the eye. My box is only about 6-8 inches deep which is great for transport, but not for creating a forced perspective.

IMG_6150

2. There are two eyeholes instead of one. This was purely me trying to be fancy. I thought two eyeholes would make it easier to see inside, but it’s actually the opposite. Because everyone has a slightly different distance between their eyes, some people find it much harder to focus, looking through two holes. One peephole per viewer works the best.

3. There is no viewfinder for the puppeteer. Another detail that I missed because I only saw a photo. There should be some kind of window in the back or the top of the box so that the puppeteer can see what they are doing. Otherwise, movement becomes imprecise and easy to mess up. Without a viewfinder, my puppeteering isn’t as good as it could be.

IMG_6151

4. There is a curtain at the back, instead of holes for the puppeteers hands. Another mistake that causes practical problems for puppeteering. Trying to smoothly move my hands (and puppets) between pieces of fabric is difficult and it’s easy for the cardboard puppets to get stuck. This creates a jerking motion as they enter the scene, which ruins the illusion of movement. Most boxes have holes for the puppeteer’s hands either at the back or the side, with a curtain over the top to block the light spill. It is much easier to place a puppet in front of this curtain and then enter the box, rather than trying to do both those movements at once. Another option if your puppets are on vertical rods is to cut the holes in the top of the box and bring the puppets in from above.

IMG_6152

5. The box isn’t created with a single show in mind. This is the biggest mistake I made, and it’s arguably the one that takes the Personal Puppet Show out of the category of caja lambe-lambe. A true caja show is a miniature world, one that is constructed for the purpose of telling one short, 1-3 minute story and that story alone. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, the puppets, the soundtrack–all of these should combine to create the illusion of a complete setting. My box, with its one-color walls, black curtain background and plain floor does not do this.

Despite (or perhaps because of) my many mistakes, I enjoyed building my Personal Puppet Show and felt very much at home with the style of puppetry. After studying with Gabriela Céspedes and building a second show as part of the 2015 Fringe project I Thought the Earth Remembered Me I was only more convinced. This year, I’m looking forward to premiering my third caja show, called Library Love and demonstrating how much I’ve learned since I first built the Personal Puppet Show.

In Progress Photos: Selkie

A series of photos showing the progression of our Selkie puppet, from the first tests we created for rehearsals to a workshop performance. This puppet was built by Genna Beth Davidson and Krista Duke and performed by Amy Kellett and Krista Duke.

IMG_5396

Headless and armless, Krista tries out a dance move with Chris. Photo by Cecilia Cackley.

IMG_5533

Selkie has a head now, sculpted in clay and then cast in latex. Pat is working out the choreography with Amy and Chris, which is challenging when the puppet has no hands.        Photo by Cecilia Cackley.

IMG_5555

Selkie now has a neck, hands and clothing and is being operated by two puppeteers (Krista Duke and Amy Kellett) instead of just one. Photo by Annalisa Dias

WitsEndSelkie20170522-061

In the workshop performance, Selkie (operated by Amy Kellett) dances with her husband (played by Chris Herring). Photo by David Moss.