Rehearsing with the Peter puppet

The puppets arrived yesterday from China. I was so tired when I got home after rehearsal that I didn’t write it up. So, I’ll try to hit what yesterday and today were like.

Yesterday:

The puppet is beautiful, with a bright lively face and a vibrant costume. It’s a curious blend of old and new construction styles. The body is made of L200, which is a dense industrial foam. Fantastic stuff and I love using it because it is flexible and yet rigid enough to be used for structure. The head is made of carved wood in a more traditional manner.

As soon as I picked up the puppet I realized that I had a problem. The weight of the puppet is supported by strings to a cap on my head, which is also supposed to control the head. However– holy cow. I just realized how much jargon I’m about to trot through to explain this to non-puppeteers.

Bear with me while I explain marionette theory. Imagine a styrofoam ball, if you put a single string in it, when you pull the string up, the ball rises. Now put two strings on it on opposite sides. If you pull the right string, that side rises allowing you to tilt it from side to side.

Now connect that to a body, which creates a third point of attachment. When you try tilting it again, the entire body is going to tilt. BUT, if you attach strings to the shoulders of the puppet then you can isolate the body and get movement from just the head. Make sense?

So, my puppet has a direct connection to my feet. I have rods to the hands. I have strings to the head. Nothing supports the weight of the body, so I can’t turn the head without the whole body moving.

Monumentally frustrating. Also the neck was a snug fit, which looks good and is fine for a direct manipulation figure, but marionettes can’t have any friction or they won’t move.

Now, there’s this saying in puppetry, “Never blame the puppet.” Why? Because the moment you do, someone else will pick the darn thing up and do whatever it was you said couldn’t be done. Even so, I felt like I spent the whole night fighting the puppet. I finally widened out the neck opening so that I had some more room for the head to turn.

Honestly, my impulse last night was to put a nub on the back of the head so that I could just grab it and turn it.

Today:
We tightened the head strings so that the puppet doesn’t sag at the knees when I look down. It means my neck is constantly under tension, but it’s not a long show. I also figured out a way to brace the puppet so that I could get a little head movement. It’s not as specific as direct manipulation, but it’s something. I continued to feel like I was fighting the puppet, but also starting to get more of a feel for what it was capable of and how to trick it into doing what I wanted it to.

I know that sounds like I’m anthropomorphizing the thing, but no more so than a computer. Oh tell me that you don’t use the same language when talking about your own machine.

I still want to go in there and fiddle with the neck joint so I can get some more movement out of it. We’ll see how tomorrow goes. The one thing I know for sure is that I will need a massage before this is over.

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7 Responses

  1. Mike F

    That sounds like a lot if hard work. I can barely get a sock puppet to work to entertain my kids. You have probably been asked many times; but how many years of training does it take to get to your level of expertise? I would guess many years. I bet it is fun as well as challenging.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      Sock puppets are trickier than they look because they have no structure to help you.

      …how many years of training does it take to get to your level of expertise?

      Think of a puppet like a violin. Anyone can pick it up and make a noise. Some people will pick it up and have an immediate affinity for the instrument. Others will practice for years just to acquire a technical mastery. So the amount of time it takes will vary from person to person, but it will always require practice.

      In my case, I’ve been working professionally as a puppeteer for nineteen years. I started puppeteering as a hobby two or three years before that.

      1. Mike F

        Thanks for making me feel better about the sock puppets. 🙂 Is there anything you don’t do? Author, puppeteer, musician; seems you take to creative things easily.

        1. Mary Robinette Kowal

          Heh. I played violin, emphasis on the past tense. I was one of those people who practised and never acquired more than technical competence. I love the instrument, but was a mediocre player even when I was playing regularly.

          I suck at all sports, math, heights… I tend to not do the things I’m bad at.