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. 

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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.

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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:

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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:

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

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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):

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Not a Box

Here’s a quick look at the transformation of a Cabot cheddar cheese box (kindly donated by Whole Foods) into the caja lambe-lambe show DRIFT, created for banished? productions. It’s definitely not just a box anymore!

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Book Review: Ashley Bryan’s Puppets

A new book from Ashley Bryan.

A new book from Ashley Bryan.

One of our central principles in creating puppets is to be sustainable wherever possible. We source our materials carefully, using recycled or second-hand supplies as much as we can and we teach others to do the same in our Puppets From Recycled Materials workshop. However, the master of creating puppets this way has to be author-illustrator Ashley Bryan, who just published the book Ashley Bryan’s Puppets with Simon & Schuster.

Bryan, who is 91 years old, lives on one of the Cranberry Isles off the coast of Maine. On his walks on the beach he collects debris and shells, which he turns into intricate puppets in his studio. Ashley Bryan’s Puppets is a large picture book that combines photos of the puppets by Rich Entel with poems by Bryan introducing them to the reader. It opens with a brief author’s note and a picture of Bryan in his studio, which helps to communicate that these puppets are intended as performance, rather than being solely art objects. This is followed by a photo spread of shells, driftwood and sea glass from the beach. The puppets are first shown in groups of around eight, with their names printed below. Then each one is given a spread of close up photos, along with their own poem.

The puppet names are all African in origin and the poems sometimes cite a particular job or character– “I am a cow” “I apprenticed as a printer” –while also specifying the materials used in the creation. “I’ve trained my wishbone whiskers” “My acorn husk eyes” “Head bone, bone face, laughing metal jaws”–all of these lines give the reader a better understanding of the photograph (and the puppet). All of the poems are fun to read aloud and give a good sense of the puppet’s character in performance. This is a beautiful book that will provide inspiration to artists and environmentalists of every age; a celebration of Bryan’s unique artistic vision. I’m looking forward to sharing it with our puppet-making students as part of our workshops!

Recent Workshops

IMG_1653In the past month, we’ve had several different workshops in DC and Virginia, teaching students ages 4-16 to design, build and perform their own puppets. Here are some pictures of what they created. As always, if you are interested in learning more about our workshops or bringing us to your school, check out our Education page.

The photo to the left was taken at the American Immigration Council’s Take Your Child to Work Day event. The puppets below were created in a workshop with the 2nd and 3rd grades at Tuckahoe Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia.

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March Grab Bag

See #3.

See #3.

1. Creature Shop Challenge!  We’ve had reality shows about losing weight and finding romantic partners–why not about building puppets? Syfy channel has created a show where ten designers compete for a job at the Jim Henson Creature Shop. It airs on Tuesdays at 10pm, but you can also watch the episodes online. I haven’t seen it yet but I’m hoping to get some building ideas from watching what they come up with.

2. A theatrical version of Miyazaki’s film Princess Mononoke from 2013 that uses puppets made from recycled materials. Seriously, there’s absolutely nothing you can’t love about that sentence. This show is currently in a Research and Development stage again, so maybe there will be more opportunities to see it in the future!  From the UK company Whole Hog Theatre. 

3. The World Stages Festival has been amazing and inspiring and we will be writing more about the performances we saw soon. If you can, stop by the Kennedy Center before the end of the weekend and see the fantastic puppet installations.

4.The Manipulate Festival is an annual celebration of visual theater in the UK that encourages visitors to ‘leave preconceptions at the door.’ Here’s an article highlighting several productions this year that included puppetry.

5.Muppets Most Wanted needs no explanation. A new feature length film with Kermit & Co–what are you waiting for? Go see it!

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!

Kismet Rehearsal Videos

Our puppets Kismet and Mophead taking a break on the set.

Our puppets Kismet and Mophead taking a break on the set.

We’re heading into our last few rehearsals before tech starts later this week.  New faces, new movements and even some new puppets! We have loaded our cabinets, drawers and lots and lots of paper into the Mead Theater Lab at Flashpoint and are figuring out how Kismet’s story fits into this space. Looking back over the past months of rehearsal, here are a few (very tiny) videos of our experiments and ideas from this crazy journey.