Peripheral Visions International Puppetry Workshop in Tanzania, February 2016 a personal essay by Ronald Binion
Media Puppetry in East Africa.
What if we could produce quality films using puppet characters in Tanzania?
What if there were a team of performers and artists working in East Africa that could make videos with puppets that would be able to respond to current events and deal with social and political issues in a fun, engaging and entertaining manner?
How can the high quality skills of children’s television and puppetry as developed in New York be brought to Tanzania?
What will the East African artists do with this innovative and expressive visual art form?
Why a Puppet Workshop in Tanzania?
Peripheral Visions International produced a number of puppet films in New York for distribution in Uganda and other East African countries. New York has been a center for television and film puppetry ever since Sesame Street was first produced in 1968. Many New York artists have spent years working in Children’s television and are versed in a high standard of using puppet characters for television. PVI capitalized on this pool of talent when they assembled the artistic team for the first Katwe Corners films. This included script writers, puppet builders, puppeteers, and on-set puppet craftspeople.
The Katwe Corners films were successful but this naturally led to an important question, could more puppet films be shot in East Africa using local performers and artists? Could artists in East Africa be trained to perform the specialized skills of video puppetry?
The benefits of having artists trained in puppetry working in Tanzania are important both practicality, and artistically. Having Puppet artists in Tanzania increases the capacity and flexibility of shooting segments that can respond to current events. Using local performers also increase the authenticity of the characters and visual references to the production. The task is training and maintaining the quality of performance that has been established by New York performers and other notable works of video puppetry. I firmly believe this is possible, but it is no different than developing any other performance skill, it takes time dedication and support. PVI’s Puppet Workshop in Tanzania was a huge step in this development.
Background, the Katwe Corners Films in New York.
I started working with Peripheral Visions International in 2013. I began by designing and building a small group of fabric puppets for us to use on one of the first puppet segments for Katwe Corners. I also puppeteered on the films with other well-established puppeteers such as Lisa Buckley and David Feldman. I had a lot of fun working on the films and it was quite hysterical to see these simple cute puppets expressing so much emotion and drama and giving characterization to the voices that were recorded as conversations in Uganda.
Gosia Lukomska recorded the conversations in Uganda and it was a joy to hear the conversations and listen to the way Ugandans spoke English. My job as a puppeteer was to listen to the recorded conversation and learn the lines from one of the character. I had to memorize all of the sounds, breaths, coughs, interruptions and anything else that one could hear on the track. Our brains tend to filter out sound information that are not strictly words, but there is much we say, and sounds we emit that are part of communication that are not necessarily words. Even silence can have enormous significance. The time it takes a person to respond can be very important. As a puppeteer who has to physicalize or enact those sounds and words I have to be very familiar with the recorded track. It usually takes several hours of study to memorize the lines of a five-minute track.
On the day of shooting the puppeteers put puppets in front of the camera and suddenly we were seeing this conversation come to life with puppets and it made the conversations more exciting and fun to watch.
Even though I was focusing on my character and my performance it was still a surprise and enjoyable to see the other characters coming to life and saying both funny and important things.
The films we shot in Brooklyn were successful, but we also capitalized on a lot of support and artistic experience. One of the reasons the videos were successful was the collaborative spirit and mutual respect that starts with the officers of PVI, but translated to everyone and made the films a positive experience. I greatly appreciate that the Director of Photography was patient and spent time framing shots that enabled the puppets to move around with ease while still giving room for the performers to operate.
The question that naturally follows is simply could this be done in East Africa? Could we use talent from the countries where these films are being targeted? Further, if we use local talent, how could that talent bring a unique and distinct sensibility to the production?
In February of 2016 we began a serious puppet workshop and production to find out.
Planning for the Puppet Workshop in Tanzania.
Gosia Lukomska organized the logistics and planned the workshop. The venue would be an art facility in Dar es Salaam called Nafasi Art Space.
Lisa Buckley and I flew to Tanzania to conduct this unique training.
Both Lisa and I have done puppet training in foreign countries many times. In the past we have conducted Puppet Workshops to enable the participants to perform puppetry as part of a live presentation. This was the first time we were doing training in preparation for a television production.
Lisa and I are both career television puppeteers and we know first hand that it takes years to properly develop in instinctive skills necessary to perform puppetry for the camera. We were going to condense our knowledge and try to impart as much as we could in two weeks.
We also wanted to the workshop to be fun because a major part of the discovery of puppets involves play. This is also the opportunity for Lisa and me to learn from them.
Puppetry for television is different than theater puppetry mainly because all of the performance is focused on the direction of the camera. The performers need to be able to operate the puppet while looking at a monitor so they can always see where their character is in the frame. This also enables puppeteers to make sure their head or other body parts are not in the shot.
In theater puppetry the puppeteer is hidden behind a curtain or is dressed in black to minimize being seen.
Television puppetry can, in some ways, be more liberating because one can film in any location, but the puppeteer still has to figure out how to hide below the frame. The camera wants to see the puppet character, not the puppeteer.
These are the technical skills of puppetry, but another major consideration is the performance artistry of moving a puppet in a way that reflects a character.
We certainly had our work cut out for us, but if I have learned anything in my travels it is that there is amazing talent and energy to discover and this experience would be no exception.
The workshops were hosted at an art facility that hosts visiting artists from many countries exploring many different types of art from performance art to fine arts, painting, sculpting, textile work, and so on.
This was probably the first time Nafasi Art Space hosted a puppet workshop.
My concept was to focus on two clear goals each week. The first week would end with a theatrical presentation of short puppet scenes, and the second week would end with a presentation of short scenes, but this time the performance would be directed towards a video camera, and the audience would be able to watch the performers as well as the monitor showing the complete illusion.
Our days were subdivided into different concentrations. In the morning we did physical warm-ups, followed by manipulation drills and exercises to impart performance skills. In the afternoon we worked on creating scenes, rehearsing, presenting and then critiquing.
The Workshop Begins.
Lisa and I walked into a large room at Nafasi Art Space and set up our workshop table with the puppets and equipment we would need for the workshop. The day began with warm-ups, introductions, and then we jumped right into our first Puppet Manipulations drills that involved learning how to hold a puppet up straight.
After a few hours of being up on our feet working with puppets we changed gears and broke off into groups and wrote short scenes. We then rehearsed the scenes, presented and had a short critique session. All on the first day. (More on the first day.)
Making the Puppet Scenes.
Simple scripts were written and then enacted. At first the participants performed the scenes like actors using no puppets, then gradually we added a puppet character, and then, as people’s skills grew we could do scenes with puppets, and then quickly made cardboard props.
Another layer to this workshop was trying to convey a message or deal with an issue. I did not emphasize this at first but it was something that evolved naturally. Many scenes dealt with political corruption or racism. We also had scenes that were funny and entertaining. It was good to see a mix of both.
The backgrounds of the participants were varied. All of them had experience with creative and artistic endeavors. Many had backgrounds in visual arts or filmmaking. Only a few had performance training, but as we were developing scenes it seemed clear that people had a strong sense of how to convey drama visually. They were thinking in terms of embellishing their characters with props or small details to make the role of the character more recognizable.
As we were developing scenes the participant would also be at the puppet workshop table busily making props and signs out of cardboard and wooden dowels, bits of felt and anything else we had available.
In one example a scene took place in a restaurant. In the script the puppet characters entered the restaurant and sit down at a table, then the waiter brought them some drinks. To visualize this the performers cut out a square piece of cardboard to stand in for the small tables that the puppets would sit at, and to raise them to the height where the puppets would be performed they enlisted some other participants to simply stand and hold the cardboard on top of their head. It worked beautifully and it was also a fun site to see.
In television puppetry one would use a thin tall pillar to hold up a prop table, but it shows how resourceful the participants were being as they developed their scenes.
The scene was about a waiter refusing to serve someone because they were different, in this case because they came from a different town and spoke with a slightly different dialect.
The scene did not end with a clear vindication of the stranger defending their rights, in fact the group played with different endings because it sparked a debate. As a facilitator I did not persuade the group to go in any direction because I wanted to see how they would decide, and because the greater achievement was in raising the issue and sparking the debate. One of the fun things about drama is the ability to explore different endings and different outcomes.
The scenes that were developed all took place in ordinary day-to-day settings, offices, dance clubs, people’s homes, street scenes, and football pitches. It was fun to see what the participants came up with, but also interesting to see a cross-section of issues and places demonstrating people’s current thinking and concerns about issues both local and global. Sometimes the local issues were more interesting, and it was fun to see depictions of local politicians.
The concern in Dar es Salaam at the time was the demolishing of old buildings to make room for large luxury apartment builds. People felt different things about this issue. On the one hand history was being destroyed but on the other that history was a colonial history, and in it’s place would be a new building that help boost the economy or it could be a new form of foreign control. All of these points of view came across in a puppet scene lasting three minutes.
The different points of view were made clear, and it was highly memorable.
The Final Presentation of the Workshop.
On the last Friday of the workshop we did a presentation of scenes performed specifically for the video camera and the audience watched both the performers and a video projection of what the camera was filming. On the screen were puppet characters talking and reaction to one another and on stage the audience could see the elaborate and intertwining choreography of puppeteers that it took to make that happen.
The final scene used live music and got all of the participants dancing in front of the camera. It was a lot of fun to watch and I was very proud of all of the participants. After the show the performers answered some questions posed by the audience. One question was about the skill of performing a puppet and a performer answered by demonstrating the proper puppeteer stance, and how the performer has to hold the puppet over their head, operate the rods controlling the hands of the puppet and also lean their head out of the way so that their head does not pop up into the puppet world. In that moment I knew we had achieved our goals because the performer was able to explain the skills of puppetry and strike the pose of a puppeteer with precision and grace. In that moment I had very high hopes for the potential of what this group could achieve in the future.
The goal is to create an artificial world of cartoon-like characters that can be simple, goofy, and fun, but use them to address issues head on. The artist in East Africa are in a much better position to bring a level of detail and realism to a puppet production, and I think that collaborating and skill-building will develop into a very powerful creative engine that can respond to changing issues, and create eye-catching, and memorable media.
Judging by the final performance I was very pleased with the group that spent two weeks with us learning the eccentric art of p
uppetry. We came up with funny scenes, we learned manipulation through focused exercises, we made simple props and set pieces out of cardboard, we spent time working in front of the camera and translating all of the skills learned to the unique parameters of a film environment, we created a lot of fun characters, and we were able to be creative, and critical while working together in collaboration. I think a huge part of this success was due to the supportive atmosphere created by Nafasi Art Space and the dedic
ated organization and caring support from Gosia Lukomska representing Peripheral Visions International.
I was impressed with the skills we were able to impart in such a concentrated time. I think the participants acquired a very solid foundation of performance skills that will enable them to further develop and be on the track to creating amazing works of puppetry and video. The workshop touched on many aspects of theater, presentation, scene development and teamwork. I am hopeful that the workshop will inspire all sorts of other creative output that will go beyond puppetry. The challenge will always be to improve skills and push for quality, but I was amazed at how much was developed during the workshop. I was impressed with the talent and hard work of the participants, and I am confident that exciting puppet videos can be produced in Tanzania but I’m also excited to see how the artists continue to innovate and develop to produce imaginative work that could never be done in New York.