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! 

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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. 

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Building a Puppet Ballet: Interview with Genna Davidson

This week, our managing director Patricia Germann spoke with Wit’s End artist Genna Davidson about her recent work constructing puppets for Pointless Theatre Company’s newest show, Sleeping Beauty: A Puppet Ballet, which is currently running as part of CulturalDC’s Mead Theatre Lab program.

Patricia Germann:  What puppets did you work on?

Genna Davidson:  I primarily worked on Sleeping Beauty, the Prince, and the Witch who turns into a dragon.  I worked on all of them, actually, but those are the primary ones.

Puppets in rehearsal. Photo by Genna Davidson.

Puppets in rehearsal. Photo by Genna Davidson.

PG: I recall that Pointless did a version of Sleeping Beauty before. Did they learn lessons from the last production, in terms of how they wanted them to move, or how they wanted them to be built?

GD: They needed the puppets to be way lighter.  Because for the first production of the show they had made them all out of papier-mâché and wood; they were super heavy.  They also wanted the puppets to have a lot of flexibility – but not limitless flexibility, because that makes them hard to control.  So I contributed the bodies, the structures, the new innards and forms of the puppets focusing on building with lighter materials.

PG: You had told me before that the company went to ballet classes.  Did that experience affect how you were building the puppets, or modifying them during the rehearsal process? 

GD: One thing we learned is that these puppets – because it’s ballet – they stand mostly in turnout. When I made the Prince, I made his legs with feet and knees pointed forward. At some point, we realized this means the puppeteer has to always be turning the feet out.  It would be much easier to just have them built in turnout, and then the puppeteer can turn them in as needed, which is almost never.  So I adjusted them on the Prince, and then when I made Sleeping Beauty, I made her legs in turnout. 

Sleeping Beauty in performance. Photo by Gene Carl Feldman.

Sleeping Beauty in performance. Photo by Gene Carl Feldman.

PG: Were the puppets pretty durable?  I’m thinking back to our own experiences with having to repair puppets over a run.

GD: From every project that we do, I learn more and more.  I’ve been very happy with some of the joints of these puppets, in particular the ones which I chose to make elastic from the get-go because of wanting to allow the puppeteers to extend through the ballet movements and then settle back; more breath.  So at important junctures, they have thick fabric-covered elastic joints.

Their spines are really cool. They’re made out of dishwasher drainer hose, which is connected to PVC with hose clamps and plumbing parts.  So there’s lots of plumbing inside!  The drainer hose allows for lots of flexibility, so that the spine can actually arch backwards and forwards.

I had to rig the head in such a way to allow for rotation to the right and left independent of the neck which can only get easy movement arching forward and backward.  Imagine a wooden dowel coming out of the  bottom of the head and inserting within a hollow cylinder, the spine. The heads can spin 360 degrees, but the reason that the head is staying inside of…or one part of the neck is staying inside the other part of the neck…is that I ran a piece of elastic along the outside of the spine all the way underneath the pelvis of the puppet and back up again to that dowel coming out of the head.  And that has been – knock on wood – really pretty durable.

PG: We haven’t really talked about the witch-to-dragon transformation.

GD: Basically you have to see it to understand it and I don’t want to give it away.

PG: Did they have a design for that going in, or did you come up with that transformation?

GD: No, I came up with the design.

The witch, built by Genna. Photo by Gene Carl Feldman.

The witch, built by Genna. Photo by Gene Carl Feldman.

PG: Wow, that’s really cool.

GD: Yeah, that one in particular was my feat of magic – but I wish we had had more time to rehearse the transformation.  It took me so long to construct that we were basically in tech and didn’t have long to choreograph it. [The transformation] works well, but I would have liked to suggest some other choreographed movement.  For a couple days, we were worried we’d have to cut the transformation onstage and leave it to happen offstage, which would have been really disappointing.

The one thing we couldn’t make happen was her face turning into a dragon.  We ended up just bringing on this mask and putting it on her face, basically.  It’s done in a way that works, but we had wanted to have the mask incorporated somehow into her as a witch, so that when the transformation happens, it would be like, “Oh, it was there the whole time!”  That was something we had to let go.

I do want to mention Kyra Corradin, who did the sculpting of all the heads.  Even the puppets who were primarily mine in body, she did those heads, and they’re really beautiful.

PG: You were telling me earlier about the challenges of trying to fit a controller into a head that was already built.

GD: Kyra had built these heads and made them hollow because it would make them lighter…but because she has built these kinds of puppets before, she didn’t think about how to build the head control mechanisms into the puppets.  But actually it worked out well because these heads are really well shaped, beautiful and completely hollow. Though it was tricky to get the mechanisms inside and not damage the sculptural work, it was worth it.  If we had had to build the head around the control mechanism, I’m not sure we would have been able to achieve that hollow, light head that she created. So not knowing is a benefit sometimes.

Pointless Theatre Company’s Sleeping Beauty: A Puppet Ballet runs through May 3, 2014, at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint.  For tickets and more information, visit www.culturaldc.org

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Saying Good-bye to Kismet

It’s a little counter-intuitive, but one of my absolute favorite things about live theater is that it ends. Each production exists in a certain span of time, no two performances are exactly alike and when a show is finished, that is it. Sets are broken apart, costumes put away, actors scattered to other places and projects. Ephemeral, if you will.

One of the cabinet units, now leading a second life as a useful part of the studio.

One of the cabinet units, now leading a second life as a useful part of the studio.

We are sad to say goodbye to Cabinets of Kismet which has been our main project for nearly two years now. Last Sunday was our final show and in just a couple of hours, the theater looked as though we had never been there. Risers are back in place, lights put away and speakers re-hung. Puppets are in boxes, cabinet units have been broken apart and are now housing gels and wood scraps, as well as shadow puppets.

Puppets join some older friends, including Anansi, Granny and the Malachite Palace marionettes on a shelf in the studio.

Kismet paper puppets join some older friends, including Anansi, Granny and the Malachite Palace marionettes on a shelf in the studio.

It’s been a fantastic experience, thanks to the wonderful support from CulturalDC, our mentor Pete Miller, our collaborators from SCRAP DC and of course the incredible audience members who came to the show and stayed to share their thoughts and impressions. If you came to a performance, THANK YOU and if you missed it, we hope to see you at our next one! Check back here for more information about upcoming events soon!