The Long Saudade Crankie Saga

By far the most time-consuming part of building Saudade was the crankie which forms the bulk of the show. Additional images appear on the side screens, but most of the action happens on this very long roll of Tyvek in front of an LED light. It took nearly two months to design and cut out all the scenes on the crankie, and a week to put it all together. Here are photos from the process.

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Spacing the images is important and takes time.

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Amy and Genna work together to glue down an image.

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Each image gets sprayed with glue carefully. Sometimes it’s hard to keep different parts from sticking to each other before it’s glued down.

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The roll of Tyvek is longer than our box so we had to carefully measure and cut about six inches off the bottom of the entire roll.

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One of the many intricate images on the crankie.

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Delicate images wait on newspaper so they don’t get crushed before being added to the crankie. We took over most of the living room eventually.

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Most of the crankie images are cut from black Tyvek, but these included some silver tissue paper as well.

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Amy makes an adjustment before gluing down the final image.

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This is the final roll–nearly 3 inches thick!

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Our first rehearsal with the finished roll, testing the light and the box.

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Here’s what an image looks like from the reverse side…

IMG_2329And here it is in light! Hope you enjoyed this tour of the building process!

 

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Building SAUDADE #2

In shadow puppetry, the light is as important as the puppet. In reality, you are manipulating not the object but the space between the object and the light. Not surprising, then, that we spend a lot of time playing with different lights, lightbulbs and light placements to see what works best for any given show. Since this is the first time we’ve used our new screen setup created by Genna, experimenting is the name of the game. A few photos from the week:

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Should we use a combination of warm and cool light?

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Or all screens lit with the cooler tone?

Genna and Emily work on placing a clip light.

Genna and Emily work on placing a clip light.

Building SAUDADE #1

We’re in full puppet-building mode right now for Saudade, our next original puppet play which will premiere as part of the Atlas INTERSECTIONS Festival in DC at the end of February.

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This piece is all shadow puppets, which are being designed by Katherine Fahey, a crankie artist from Baltimore whose work we’ve been in love with for awhile. Here’s Katherine at one of our design meetings, looking mischievous:

IMG_2141 Saudade will use a setup similar to our piece Coyote Places the Stars in the sense that it uses multiple screens, but visually it will be much, much bigger. You can see Genna here, posing with the PVC frame she’s been working on to support all the screens:

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While not a traditional linear story, this play draws on the experiences of immigrants to the DC area, many of whom I had the pleasure of interviewing last summer through a partnership with REEP, an adult education program that is part of the Arlington Public Schools. Now I’m finally getting to cut out puppets of characters inspired by these incredible people, who bring so much to our communities here in the DC area. We’re looking forward to sharing their stories with you, too.

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Workshop Photos

Puppets are not for the faint of heart. Photo by Patricia Germann.

Puppets are not for the faint of heart. Photo by Patricia Germann.

We had a fantastic two showings of Malevolent Creatures a few weeks ago. If you were unable to join us, here are some photos of the puppets and the process. Check back soon for more information about the next development stage of this show!

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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.

Our Favorite Puppet Films

Since the film Muppets Most Wanted is opening this week, it seems like a good moment to talk about some favorite films that include puppets. 

Labyrinth_ver2Genna remembers seeing Jim Henson’s Labyrinth for the first time in elementary school, at a friend’s house. What made the biggest impression on her at the time was the variety of the puppets and how they ranged in dimension. from the giant Ludo to the much smaller Sir Didymus and Hoggle. Genna also liked the way that the human actors (Jennifer Connolly and David Bowie) got to interact with the puppet characters. Today of course she is more interested in trying to understand how each puppet was made and manipulated, and given a choice, she would like to try performing either Ludo or one of the Fire Gang.

file_164905_2_underworld_2_posterThe other film series that Genna has been inspired by is Underworld, a trilogy of movies about vampires and werewolves. Like Labyrinth, many of the characters wear full body costumes with animatronic puppet heads that are manipulated with radio controls by multiple puppeteers. The mechanics of the legs, which have extensions inside the foam latex skin, and the details in the features and hair are all amazing. You can see some of the work it took to produce this in videos here and here.

Cecilia on the other hand, was first introduced to puppets on film with the ‘Lonely Goatherd’ marionettes in the classic musical The Sound of Music. The sequence was performed by Bil Baird and Cora Eisenberg, and the catchy tune, with puppets similar to a set from Mexico that she had, made a big impression on her as a kid. Labyrinth also became a favorite later in college, but the film that was an inspiration as she first started creating and performing puppets in high school was Fool’s Fire, an adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story Hoptoad which was created by Julie Taymor and shown on PBS in 1992. Cecilia came across it as part of a retrospective of Taymor’s work that was shown at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in 2000. The story of a jester who takes revenge on the cruel king and court that enslaves him, it uses full body puppets to establish the difference between Hoptoad and his captors.

Hopefully some kids will see Muppets Most Wanted this weekend and be inspired to pick up puppets! What other puppet films do YOU love?

February Grab Bag

A round up of links and news we highlighted on Twitter this month: 

#1: Still from the documentary THE MAN WHO MADE ANGELS FLY.

#1: Still from the documentary THE MAN WHO MADE ANGELS FLY.

1. The Washington Jewish Film Festival has a documentary about puppeteer Michael Meschke called The Man Who Made Angels Fly playing March 1 & 2! We posted an interview with the festival director earlier this week and will be introducing the screenings, so come see some amazing marionettes!

2. Benedict Cumberbatch gets some counting help from the Count. I think the show Sherlock could use a few puppets.

3. A thought-provoking interview with Cheryl Henson about the potential pitfalls of being labeled a puppeteer.

4. Genna is working with Imagination Stage on their production of Rumplestiltskin for young audiences. We ran into some similar characters in our folklore research this year.

5. Our friend Ashley Hollingshead from Portland OR is raising money for a new devised theater show called Independent Women. Support new theater and make a contribution HERE.