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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April Grab Bag

Ited fell down the rabbit hole of the TED website recently, with the result that this month’s grab bag is a mix of TED videos. Some are directly related to puppetry, others are more tangential. But they all made me think, wonder, and get excited about being a working artist in the world today. Enjoy!

1.  I was intrigued by the descriptions of arts festivals in this talk by producer David Binder; I was reminded of Ping Chong’s series Undesirable Elements as well as the upcoming Figment. And I REALLY want to get a closer look at those giant puppets!

2. In conversation the other day, a puppeteer friend and I were discussing how many people now immediately think of War Horse when you mention puppets. Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of Handspring Puppet Company talk about their amazing creations for that show in this talk.

3. Amanda Palmer is a musician, but she used to work as a living statue, a form of street performance that I’ve always loved. In this talk, she explains the art of asking and value of connecting with an audience. Lots of food for thought.

4. Traditional Chinese hand puppetry performed by Chen Xi Huang, with an amazing fighting sequence.

http://talentsearch.ted.com/video/Chen-Xi-Huang-The-ancient-art-o;TEDShanghai

5. This I think was the first TED talk (actually, TEDx talk) I ever saw, by one of the design editors at National Geographic, Oliver Uberti. I remember thinking that his comment that many of his projects “have a high risk of being terrible” sounded a lot like building a puppet. He also sounds like he’s had similar awkward conversations with employees of hardware stores who don’t quite understand what you’re trying to do!

http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxNASA-Oliver-Uberti-Smash-Th;search%3Aoliver%20uberti

These are five TED videos that intrigued me, but there are many, many more that I love and that I’m sure you will love. If you have some free time, check out the site and watch some videos. I’m sure you’ll find some interesting ideas!