Adventures in Puppetry: Part One
by Guest Blogger Holly Hartman
I’m a few minutes early for class, and instructor Jonathan Little, the puppeteer and fabricator behind Little’s Creatures, is chatting with students about puppetry. He tells us where he buys the fur he uses in building his own monster puppets, why medical-grade foam is a good choice for puppet hands, how he fixes a puppet’s eyes and arms in place. I learn why all the Muppets are a bit cross-eyed and what makes Kermit’s head especially difficult to construct.
This serendipitous conversation (among others) is one of the pleasures of a class I’m taking at Puppet Showplace Theatre: “Furry Monsters 101,” an introduction to Muppet-style hand-and-rod puppets. One of the things that impresses me about Puppet Showplace is how it supports puppetry not just as a theater venue but also with workshops and courses like this, offering the public a chance to work with seasoned teaching artists.
I’m a longtime fan of Puppet Showplace and a current volunteer, but this is my first class. Seeing puppet shows here has gotten me curious about what it would be like to try my own hand (literally) at puppetry. It’s an art with many forms, but all, in my view, seem to involve some alchemy by which a puppeteer brings an object to life. How does this happen?
Class One: Inhale, Exhale
In our first class, Jonathan tells us that one of the surest ways to hook an audience is by letting them see your puppet breathe. He demonstrates with a lifted hand: an inhale, wrist shifting upward; an exhale, fingers subtly releasing the puppet’s breath. I am transfixed—it’s a creature! But no—it’s a hand.
|Jon Little hand makes all of the puppets for Furry Monsters 101|
This suspension of disbelief is part of what fascinates me about puppetry. Jonathan’s brother Chris, also a puppeteer, is helping out with this class, and during our introductions he describes watching Puppet Showplace artist emeritus Paul Vincent Davis animate a milk carton—it became “the happiest milk carton in the world,” then the saddest. Puppetry, Chris says, involves the ability to imbue objects with energy.
We make our hands into puppet mouth shapes and practice making them breathe, sigh, sneeze, sniff, snore. Like infants, our hands then progress from sounds to words. The technique involves one precise flap of the thumb per syllable—downward, the way the human jaw moves in speech. We sing the alphabet, slowly. My thumb sags in confusion when we reach the impossibly multisyllabic letter W.
Finally, we try lip-synching to music. Time flies when your puppet hands are having fun. Suddenly it’s 9:00 p.m., class is over, and around the room students’ hands are rocking out to “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Practice Makes Puppetry
For homework, I practice lip-synching with my hand. It’s hard. It’s fun. The occasional moment of fluidity is a thrill. My puppet hand has an affinity for the songs of Leonard Cohen—slow, simple lyrics punctuated by danceable instrumentals and the odd long word. Hal-le-lu-jah.
Class Two: Hands in Puppets
In the second class, when we start using hand-and-rod puppets, lip-synching feels different, strange. Each puppet is a new experience. I feel awkward maneuvering the tiny mouth of the first one I try, and enjoy posing the jointed neck of the second. Each student performs a scripted monologue, and when my turn comes I keep flapping my hand upward, causing what Jonathan calls, during the critique, “a bit of flip-top head.” Whoops.
Like everything else we’ve done in this very immersive class, the critique is fun and illuminating. I like seeing what qualities each person brings to their puppet performance. Some puppet characters are kinetic, others droll. Talking about what we saw that worked—and what didn’t—is invaluable.
Next, we take our first steps—or, rather, make our puppets take their first steps—in front of the camera and video monitor. It’s harder than I would’ve guessed, both because it’s tricky to keep your puppet moseying along on its fictional floor level without slumping, and because on a video monitor, left and right are reversed. When you stroll your puppet onscreen from stage right, its furry face appears on the monitor at stage left. Surprise!
Also surprising: I love working with the monitor. It’s magic to see the puppet isolated in the world of the television screen, moving within its own reality, the puppeteer nowhere seen. I think I could watch that furry monster explore its onscreen world for hours, or at least until my arm went numb from holding it overhead. I feel like the kid who does not want to stop playing with a new toy.
As I leave the theatre, I am a little stunned at how much I’ve gotten to try in the last two hours. For someone who grew up with Sesame Street, it’s a heady feeling. And we have two more classes to go… I’ll be back in a couple weeks with a final report!