We’ve been extra busy working on the next phase of Malevolent Creatures, so not much time to write a long post, but here are some photos of rehearsal as we get closer to refining the story of the Selkie. Enjoy and we hope you come see our workshop performance on March 2!
Curious about puppets? Looking for some basic information about how to tell what kind of a puppet you might be looking at? You’ve come to the right place. Puppets are quickly gaining exposure in our popular culture, but they belong to a very old tradition, and are just as diverse as many other art forms. Here are some basics to know:
The definition of ‘puppet’ can be slightly different depending on who you talk to. Most people picture the fabric toy puppets they might have had as children, or the Muppet characters created by Jim Henson for Sesame Street. We often say that a puppet is any object brought to life by an operator, a definition which includes both realistic and abstract characters.
Hand puppets are puppets operated by the puppeteers hand inside the puppet’s body, usually making the head and hands move. Punch and Judy are good examples of traditional hand puppets. Sometimes a hand puppet is operated by two people, such as Telly Monster from Sesame Street.
Rod puppets are puppets with a rod holding up the body and usually two rods controlling the hands or arms. This allows the puppeteer to put some distance between themselves and the puppet. They are traditionally found in southeast Asia, primarily Indonesia.
Marionettes are puppets controlled by strings or wires. A good example of marionettes are the puppets in the movie The Sound of Music. Some marionettes can have up to a dozen strings controlling all the different parts of the body. Marionettes are usually human figures but can also be animals or abstract figures.
Over-life-size puppets is the term used by puppet historian John Bell to describe puppets that are larger than human size or enclose the puppeteer inside the puppet. Big Bird, from Sesame Street is an example of this kind of puppet.
Shadow puppets are flat cutout figures traditionally seen in silhouette, behind a screen. They can be made of paper, plastic, or leather and are sometimes opaque and sometimes translucent.
Object puppet is a term we sometimes use to describe characters that are created from found objects. All puppets can be classified as ‘object theater’ but these are characters made from a single object such as a hairbrush, fork or pair of binoculars.
Bunraku is a style of puppet originally from Japan. They are usually half or three quarters of human size and are operated by three puppeteers at once.
In addition to some fantastic puppet performances at the World Stages Festival, the Kennedy Center played host to several different art installations which could be enjoyed by the general public for free.
The first installation, Raw to Real, was a series of puppets by Handspring, the South African puppet company best known for the life size horses from the show War Horse. The main equine character from that play is Joey, and he greeted audiences entering the hall. Up close, it was easy to appreciate the complexity of the controls and joints, the care that went into the building and the strain that is put on the wood with the movements of the multiple puppeteers it takes to operate.
A series of video interviews with various people from Handspring gave insight into the construction process and their main material, which is wood. Additional screens played clips of shows featuring the puppets on display. While War Horse uses life size puppets, many of their other shows use smaller rod puppets, around 3 feet tall. There were many of them, arranged in groups so you could see the relationships between them, some of them in pieces to give a better sense of the research and construction process. The engineering behind each joint is just as detailed and specific as the aesthetic of the face and costume. I really appreciated the fact that the puppets were displayed out in the open, in strong light and with video support to give a better sense of how the puppets operate in performance. While I love seeing different kinds of puppets and museum exhibits are often the best way to find them, it occasionally feels odd to me to see puppets frozen in one position–like any instrument, they are meant to be manipulated and played.
The second installation, Pequeno Teatro (Little Theatre) was by Rosa Magalhaes, an award-winning designer from Rio de Janeiro. This one was puzzling to me. It was described as “puppets representing four theatrical writers from different time periods and regions of the world.” While it was fun to see which writers and works were selected, the objects themselves looked like dolls hung on cords, rather than puppets. There were no controls to be seen and it wasn’t clear at all how these ‘puppets’ might be manipulated. This of course begs the question “What makes it a puppet?” Is any object representing something else (in this case, playwrights and characters) a puppet? Even if they were not created for performance, are they still puppets? For me, what identifies a puppet is the intent to bring it to life, and that did not seem to be the case with this installation. The designs were displayed and they looked like costume designs, with no thought given to how to manipulate and move the object–a far cry from the detailed engineering diagrams and studies of the Handspring puppets also on display.
I’m very glad that the Kennedy Center chose to give such a prominent position to puppetry at this festival. I applaud the decision to encourage other theatrical designers to experiment with the form of puppetry. I just wish this installation had been pushed a little further, perhaps as a collaboration with actual puppeteers, rather than allowing the playwrights and their characters to simply sit in their theater, with no hint of life in them.
We’ve been hard at work building lots and lots of puppets for our show Fabulas Mayas, which opens next week at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Here are a few pictures of the process:
Genna and I experimented with adding controls to some old characters last week, including Swirl Dancer, here:
We also created Mophead, a friend for Kismet, who is made of odd plastic pieces and fabric scraps: