Transformed Puppet

Puppetry Artwork of Ronald Binion

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Tanzania Puppet Workshop-Why Small Can Be Big.

On the first day of the workshop we met roughly 20 participants who had signed up to take a course in “Video Puppetry”. I knew that these participants probably had no real idea what “Video Puppetry” entails. It is understandable that puppetry falls outside of people’s understanding. Even in the United States puppetry is an elusive and marginal art form. To perform puppetry there are some very simple ideas that result in some complicated and challenging scenarios. We want the audience to see the puppet characters and we want those characters to interact in their smaller world. For that to happen the puppet performer has to perform with their arms and the puppet raised over their heads. This physical stance is an uncomfortable position for anyone who hasn’t done it before.

 Most jobs do not require people to walk around with their hands in the air. It can be a bit funny and strange. It certainly feels very awkward and even wrong the fist time anyone tries it.

In order to create the illusion of the puppet looking natural in the puppet world the puppeteer must bend and operate in a way that is unnatural in the human world. When I’m standing in a workshop looking out at all the new faces I can’t help smiling and feeling hesitant because I know for the next few weeks it will be my job to ask these people to contort their bodies in bizarre and physically challenging positions in order to learn puppetry.

That is why it is so important to start each day with physical warm-ups and stretches.

We expect dancers and athletes to stretch and work out to be in top physical condition so they will be able to handle the challenges and stresses of performance. We do not immediately think the same is true for something as simple as operating a small hand puppet, but it will only take a few minutes of puppet drills before people start to feel tired and have muscle aches. This is mainly due to the fact that puppetry uses muscles in a unique way. So we always start very slowly and the exercises are very short with time to recover and relax the arm before we begin again.

My colleague in puppet training is Lisa Buckley in addition to being a master puppeteer she is also highly trained in yoga. She guides everyone through stretches and physical games that are fun but also mentally and physically challenging which serve to prepare people for focusing on the peculiarities of puppetry. She is also very talented at keeping all of these challenges upbeat and fun.

The normal and natural tendency is for people to move their bodies in ways that are comfortable to them; the human scale. Performing puppetry demands that the performer twist and move their body in ways that serve the puppet. Even if this seems like it would be easy it quickly becomes complicated when one starts to add several puppets to a scene. Puppets are small, and the spaces between them also need to be small, which means that the puppeteers have to get very close to each other, much closer than most people are used to working with other people, but this is also part of the fun. Puppetry demands teamwork and for people to literally work closely with each other.

When people are standing in a free space with puppet on their hands they tend to spread out and take the space that is comfortable to a human. Even when we were performing simple scenes with just puppets and no set elements the small puppets seemed to be far away from each other. When we added a curtain and asked puppeteers to perform behind the curtain with the puppet above the curtain it became very clear that the puppets needed to come closer together.

As participants watched the exercise I could tell from their feedback that the puppets needed to get closer together, but when they went behind the curtain and performed they also had to be reminded to move towards each other. Even when people know that they need the puppets to get close there is still a natural motivation to find the spacing that is comfortable for humans. As we spend more time in practicing puppet we also have to get past the instincts and habits we have as humans and learn a new set of instincts that allow us to get close to our fellow performers and then move our arms and hands in ways that bring life to the puppet, in their smaller world.

In the end what is created is a puppet world that is a microcosm of our world. It is smaller, and cuter, and the audience really wants to see what these little people are going to do. The smaller scale is part of what makes puppetry endearing to an audience. Humans have a tenderness and affection for small creatures. We love our babies, our children, and our pets. Small animals fascinate us. The puppet world evokes this natural affection and interest. Therefore the mindset of the puppeteer has to be one of thinking in terms of a smaller scale. This is not easy and it can take years of practice to develop instincts that are appropriate to the smaller scale. All of our instincts and sensibilities are designed around a human scale. It takes a lot of effort to rewire our brains to think in terms of something smaller. but when the small puppets operate in a way that is believable the audience is enchanted and will gladly go on any puppet adventure. When a small puppet picks up a tiny little pencil and takes notes on a tiny little clipboard it suddenly becomes high drama and everyone is riveted and excited.

The next challenge with our newly developed skills is figuring out what the puppets will do and say.

After a few hours of physical puppet manipulation training the participants are very grateful to sit down in groups and write scenes.

(Perhaps we’ve discovered that to motivate people to write clever and creative scenes we should have them do puppet exercises for a few hours. It does seem to work brilliantly.)