The Limitations of Puppetry

By Genna Beth Davidson


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.

Unleash Your Inner Artist at Woolly!

Genna and Cecilia demonstrate the Personal Puppet Show.

Genna and Cecilia demonstrate the Personal Puppet Show.

For anyone in search of puppets this upcoming weekend, Saturday June 1 will be a busy day for us! From noon to 2pm we will be performing our Personal Puppet Show at Fenton Street Market in Silver Spring and then we will move to Woolly Mammoth Theatre in DC for their Unleash Your Inner Artist event from 3-6pm. If you’re in Silver Spring, stop by to see our latest 1-minute show ‘Jabberwocky’ while also finding some fantastic handmade items at the market! If you are hanging out downtown in the afternoon, get out of the heat and indulge your imagination with our show, the gigantic string instruments of Michael Verdon and the poignant love letters of the Love Collective.

You need to reserve free tickets for the Woolly event, so please come out and support us, our fellow artists and our supporting organization, FIGMENT DC. We had an awesome time playing with our friends at FIGMENT last fall and we are looking forward to partnering with them more in the future!

Puppet Workshop Announcement!!

scrap logoThe Amazing and Marvelous Cabinets of Kismet is a project that happened because a group of artists all read books by Shaun Tan and were inspired to create a new story. We hope that watching our puppet play inspires other people to create their own stories as well. To help that process along, we are thrilled to be able to present a PUPPET-MAKING WORKSHOP on Sunday, May 12 in collaboration with SCRAP DC.

Directly after the 2pm show, Karen Klein and Heather Bouley from SCRAP will lead a workshop on making puppets from recycled materials. This workshop is for all ages and is a perfect activity for families to do together. There are only 25 spots in the workshop due to space limitations, so buy your tickets today!

Kindergarten Puppeteers

I was delighted to spend February working with the kindergarten after-care group at School within School at Logan Annex, a Reggio Emilia inspired center of learning. We spent four sessions learning about different kinds of puppets, building our own puppets from recycled materials and inventing scenes and stories to perform in small groups. Here are some photos of their marvelous, creative work!

The student who made this was very clear that it was a duck, with gold wings.

The student who made this was very clear that it was a duck, with gold wings.

This puppet is named Elizabeth.

This puppet is named Elizabeth. Her hair is scrap fabric and her body is a toilet paper tube.

Students performing a scene using chairs as a stage.

Students performing a scene using chairs as a stage.

The chairs allowed students to play puppets both above and below the seats.

The chairs allowed students to play puppets both above and below the seats.

Three student made puppets hitch a ride on a chipmunk puppet that a teacher brought.

Three student made puppets hitch a ride on a chipmunk puppet that a teacher brought.

Shaun Tan & Paul Klee

The Bird KingIn the introduction to his latest book The Bird King, Shaun Tan quotes the artist Paul Klee, who once said something along the lines of “Drawing is taking a line for a walk.” Klee, if you aren’t familiar with his work, was an Swiss painter who lived from 1879-1940, taught at the Bauhaus school, and was part of the Expressionist and Surrealist movements. I love that Tan references him, because Klee was also interested in puppets. Using a rich combination of color and texture, he created a set of hand puppets for his son, many of which can be seen in these excellent photos on Flickr.

Tan also quotes a second Klee metaphor, imagining the artist “…as a tree, drawing from a rich compost of experience–tihngs seen, read, told and dreamt–in order to grow leaves, flowers and fruit. Art, following the laws of horticulture, can only make something out of something else; artist do not create so much as transform.” Both of these quotations strike me as being entirely appropriate to The Amazing and Marvelous Cabinets of Kismet. Many times during this building process, I feel like I have been ‘taking my materials for a walk’–arranging and rearranging and seeing what shapes and characters emerge. So many of these characters have been created without a real design in mind, that it has felt both terrifying and liberating all at once. As a piece of theater, this is very much an example of Klee’s tree; it is art that draws from many different sources in visual art, story and film, and combines them into something new. This is reflected in the hodge-podge of materials we have been using to create our puppets and set, from paper scraps, to bottle caps to empty wooden spools.

Tan comments in the same introduction that he is often “…wary of using the word ‘inspiration’…” and that “…it sounds too much like a sun shower from the heavens, absorbed by a passive individual enjoying an especially receptive moment.” I understand his hesitation, but for me, inspiration is less like a sun shower and more like a flash of lightning or a moment of recognition; something that makes me go YES. That is TRUE. Now DO something with it. Inspiration for me isn’t passive, it is active, a call to act and create. Tan’s books give me that moment of recognition often; so do Klee’s paintings. I feel so fortunate that I get to spend my time turning the inspiration they give me into my own art.