Rob and I had to go out of town this weekend and I was struck by how many of the places we visited had a touring memory attached to them. I played in elementary schools all over the place and we were very much in my old stomping grounds this weekend.
At one point, we needed to get diesel for the car and Rob said that he thought he’d wait until we exited for our next turn. I thought that there weren’t any options at that exit — and I was right. It was weird.
If you were in elementary school in Washington or Oregon in 1995-97 or in Idaho in 1993-1995 or 1998, then I almost certainly performed for you. It is a little awkward how many adults I run across that have memories of seeing me perform or rather of seeing the shows that I performed.
I did arrive safely at World Fantasy three hours after I’d planned to get here. The storm system that delayed our arrival in Minneapolis was an inland hurricane. The bizarre side benefit of this is that it meant that my connecting flight was also delayed so I was merely late and didn’t have to get rerouted.
Both flights were entirely smooth, which is nice, although I did get a nose-bleed upon landing in Columbus. Ah, comedy.
I ran into Kay Kenyon at baggage claim and it turned out that we were on the same flight. We shared a cab to the hotel and had a bite to eat. The nice thing about WFC is that it is like old home week. The sheer density of wonderful people is fantastic.
Today I’ve got a 3 o’clock panel on Puppetry and Fantasy with Kathe Koja in the Fairfield room. People keep asking me if I’m going to bring a puppet and, though I hadn’t planned to, I think I will just in case we veer from the theoretical to practical.
Hey! A reminder that I’m reading tomorrow night (Wednesday, August 18th) at the KGB Fantastic Fiction series with the wonderful Laura Anne Gilman.
The official press release is below. One thing that it doesn’t mention is that I’ll be performing The Broken Bridge, which is the shadow play that occurs in Chapter 10 of Shades of Milk and Honey
FANTASTIC FICTION at KGB reading series, hosts Ellen Datlow and Matthew Kressel present:
Laura Anne Gilman is the author of more than a dozen novels, including the Nebula-nominated FLESH AND FIRE and HARD MAGIC, part of the best-selling “Cosa Nostradamus” urban fantasy series. She has also sold more than twenty-five short stories, published in magazines and anthologies such as POLYPHONY and REALMS OF FANTASY. Her forthcoming novels include WEIGHT OF STONE: Book 2 of The Vineart War, and PACK OF LIES.
Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY (Tor 2010), the fantasy novel that Jane Austen might have written. In 2008 she received the Campbell Award for Best New Writer and in 2009 her story “Evil Robot Monkey” was nominated for the Hugo Award. Her stories have appeared in STRANGE HORIZONS, ASIMOV’S, and several Year’s Best anthologies. Subterranean Press released her short story collection, SCENTING THE DARK AND OTHER STORIES, in 2009. Mary is also a professional puppeteer.
Wednesday August 18th, 7pm at
KGB Bar, 85 East 4th Street (just off 2nd Ave, upstairs.)
Books will be available for purchase thanks to Bluestockings Bookstore
I was talking with a friend of mine and he said that my blog read like “Mary’s Greatest Hits,” because I never talk about the things that go wrong. This surprised me since most of my best puppetry stories are of shows that go horribly, horribly wrong. But he’s right. When I talk about television I’ll say “Oh, this shot was really hard, but we got it in the end.” And in fiction, the stuff that goes wrong usually gets fixed in private. I realized that it’s because I never think about things in television or fiction as going as horribly wrong in the same way they do on stage. I mean, things in stage will go bad in rehearsal, but you rarely tell stories about it. That’s part of the process and the only things that matter are the things the audience sees. In television, I screw up and we do it again. In fiction, that’s what the delete key is for. It never really seems to me like things go wrong.
I was working on updating my portfolio today and chatting with someone who didn’t know that I built things. Puppeteer, yes. But the fact that, in my case, the word puppeteer also includes designing and building, in addition to performing, was new information.
Have you ever had this nagging thing that you knew was wrong, but you couldn’t figure out what? For the last two years, I’ve known that the props work wasn’t satisfying, but I didn’t realize how much I missed the world of puppetry until coming down here this weekend. Some of it was performing, but more of it was hanging out with puppeteers.
We had dinner last night with twelve puppeteers, only three of whom spoke English as a native language. It was this great wide ranging conversation about art and connection.
Today we performed twice, which went well. I got to see the short film series Heather Henson curates, Handmade Puppet Dreams which I’ve been wanting to see for a couple of years now. Here’s one of the pieces, Incubus by Lyon Hill.
Before you watch this, you need to know that these are puppets and are being performed in real time. I tell you this, because otherwise it looks like animation or photoshop. No. Puppets.
See! Totally inspiring.
Afterwards we went out to dinner and I just…I’ve really missed this. Puppeteers talk about their in ways that writers don’t. I mean, we’ll sit around and say, “I’m thinking about doing this one man show…” and everyone will join in this collaborative discussion without (most people) without ever trampling on the other person’s vision. I love writing, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve missed collaboration.
Writing Chapter 3 went fairly smoothly, but when I got to Chapter 5 I realized that I’d made a geography error in Chapter 4. To fix that involved going back and laying in some small details in the first two chapters and rewriting the last two pages of Chapter 3 in order to lead in correctly to Chapter 4.
I’ll be able to keep the emotional throughline of Chapter 4, but have to move it to a different location. Now, I could wait and just make a note that I’m going to fix that, but it’s almost as easy to do the shift now. Sometimes I do that, just make a note [move this to rose garden] and keep writing as if it’s already there.
In this case, the change of location is also going to change the reactions of some of the characters so I’d rather fix it now becuase the potential for it to cause other changes is large enough that I’ll save effort by doing it now.
I’ve got this puppetry workshop I do in elementary schools where we adapt “The Three Little Pigs” Each group of kids gets to do their own production and make changes to the basic story. The one big rule of adaptation is, “If you change one thing, it changes everything else.”
True in puppet shows. True in SF worldbuilding. True in moving scenic locations.
Here’s a snippet of Chapter 3
Jane nodded, as she followed his train of thought. “The twist of the glamour creates, in essence, two layers of fabric that keep the interior from being either a mirror or a dark sphere. And you think a jacquard would enhance the effect?”
While we’re talking about amazing shadow puppetry, this is another company that I saw for the first time at the San Fransisco puppetry festival back in 1993. Larry Reed’s Shadowlight does really ground breaking work involving using full human figures and multiple projectors to play with scale.
This is a sample of their Monkey King
At the SF Puppetry Festival I volunteered to help with whatever was needed and was lucky enough to be assigned to the Shadowlight production of In Xanandu. This mostly meant I was a runner if they needed anything, but the upshot as that I got to watch the show from backstage. As a young puppeteer, this had a huge impact on me. This photo is of Miranda and Ferdinand from the production of Tempest we did at McCarter theater. I think you can see the influence.
If it interests you, here’s Part 1 of a two part documentary about their work, including behind the scenes shots.
In 1993 I went to the National Puppetry Festival in San Fransisco and saw the Shadow Theatre Budrugana from Georgia. (That’s the country of Georgia, not the state.) Now, I’d seen shadows before, but this was a troupe of hand shadow puppeteers. Everything in their shows was produced by shadows of human hands. Nothing I’ve seen since has rivaled them.
I have a clip of one of their shows on video tape from that festival and used it while teaching for years. Everytime someone posts a YouTube clip of a hand shadow puppeteer, I do a search to see if Theatre Budrugana has anything online.
Today they did.
This is a scene from one of their other shows. Look at the fluidity of the bear and the water that the duck is in.
This is an overview with a lot of different clips, plus some backstage photos. Notice how the hands look like random shapes until you see the shadow on the screen? It’s astounding work. (The second clip is from the show that I had on video. I still want to see the whole thing of that again.)
I taught a puppetry class on Friday and am reminded, as always, at how much better 1st graders are at following directions than adults. In general, I find that adults tend to think that they know how to do something or can figure it out on their own and will jump ahead without waiting for instructions.
Kids will also do that, but with them it’s more a matter of being so excited about the project that they just want to dive in immediately. But they’ll actually stop and listen to the instructions. And if they don’t know how to do something, they’ll let you know instead of being embarrassed about their lack of knowledge.
Now, in general, I’m a big believer in showing kids how to do a thing and then letting them do it on their own. Frequently, they’ll say, “I don’t know how,” or “It’s hard.” Grownups will do the same thing. But kids… if you tell a kid, “Yes, it is hard, and it was hard the first time I did it too. It just takes practice,” then they’ll actually try it.
Grownups tend to get disgusted and give up faster and they should really know better. Plus, you know, when a grownup misbehaves, you can’t give them a time out, no matter how much you might want to.
I laughed. “There is no materials cost for this project.”
“How can that be?”
Allow me to explain. I start by using a piece of scrap blue foam as the base for my sculpture. I just trace the profile of dog’s head on it. Now if I’d bought a piece of foam, the cost of this piece would be, maybe, fifty cents.
I then cut it out with a bandsaw.
Next I turn it ninety degrees and draw the top view, which also gets cut out with the bandsaw.
I rough cut the shape with a saw.
I sand it a little to take off the hard edges and give me a loose dog head shape.
I sculpted the details in clay. I prefer working in waterbased clay because I like the feel of it, but for this I used plasticine clay because I had it on hand. A block of clay costs between $12 to $20, but once you’ve got it in stock it gets reused.
You can see that some parts of the sculpture still show the blue of bare foam. If I were planning on casting this I’d have used clay over the whole surface to make it very smooth because the details would show up in the final. But, I was planning on doing direct mache which tends to obscure details so there was no need to go overboard in making things smooth. It took me about two hours to get to this point from the original drawing.
For the first layer of papier-mache I used an old script and a couple of rejection letters — my favorite material — and wheat based wallpaper paste. The wallpaper paste is the only material so far that I’m not able to reuse. Estimated cost of the amount I used? Maybe forty cents.
The key with papier-macheing is to not get the paper too wet with paste. If there’s too much paste, it will form airbubbles as it dries. Those reduce the structural integrity.
For the second layer, I alternate with brown paper bag. It’s got nice long fibers and is heavier than the scripts so it tends to be stronger. It is also a different color which makes it easy to make certain that I have even coverage on each layer.
Each layer takes about 45 minutes to do. If I were going into a mold I could work faster because only the first layer — which is the top layer in a mold — matters. The other layers can be all wrinkly and they’ll have no impact on the level of detail in the finished product.
With direct mache every single layer and every piece of paper matters because each one obscures the original sculpture or has the potential to introduce an unwanted wrinkle.
For this, I did five layers of mache. White, brown, white, brown, white. That’s fairly standard.
The same number of layers in a mold would take about forty-five minutes total. So why didn’t I make a mold? Time. Making the mold would mean less active working time, but I’d also have to wait for it to dry before using it. A damp mold means that it would take forever for the mache to dry. So using a mold would mean less time for me, but a longer overall process. Plus, I knew this was a one-off. We won’t need to make a copy of this.
Even without worrying about a damp mold, I still made a jury-rigged hot box to speed the drying process. It’s basically a hairdryer and an upside down bin. Like the world’s ugliest easy-bake oven.
I used a mat-knife to cut the mache off the sculpture by carving right down the middle.
Warning: If you do this and discover that the mache is still damp inside, make sure you tape the thing back together and dry it. If you let the two halves dry separately they will warp, which is unpleasant.
I ran a bead of hot glue down the halves to hold them together and then papier-mached the seam inside and out. The mache gives it strength, the glue would give fairly quickly.
This is pretty fast, I don’t think it took more than half an hour.
I also seal any raw edges, like the ones around the back of the head. It’s prettier, but more importantly, it keeps the edges from peeling.
Here’s a shot of the finished head and my design sketch.
And this is the head attached to the original dog body.
And here, because I like the final effect, is a detail of the paint job on the dog. All told, I spent between seven to ten hours making this and spent maybe a dollar in materials.
This is one of the hard things about making puppets, explaining that the major cost is in the labor. And don’t worry, the producer of the show totally got it. It’s just interesting that it’s a conversation that I have to have almost every time I build a puppet. I think people make estimates based on puppets they built in elementary school.
So… figuring that I’m skilled labor, how much do you think something like a simple puppet head costs?
By this point, I think everyone probably heard about Jay Lake’s colon cancer news. The man is a cancer survivor the likes of which the world has never seen. When I heard the diagnosis, I emailed him asking if there was anything I could do for him from New York.
Oh yes. Yes, there was.
Jay asked me to build a puppet of his tumor, because he wanted to be “smarter and funnier” than his cancer. Before I had materials in hand, it was clear that Jay had kicked the tumor without the need for puppetry.
The colon, on the other hand, is a troublesome thing. So, I’m building Jay Lake a puppet of his colon in a jar. Today, I went shopping for specimen jars. Besides needing something the right size and shape, it also needed to be plastic so that I can drill holes in it with abandon. Tomorrow I’ll start the mech for the “mouth” of the colon.
Today was largely uneventful.Â I picked up a check so I could start building the springer spaniel I need to make for a show.Â I’ll tell you, standing around on the sidewalk with the artistic director and having a conversation about how much blood you want the dog to have on it and how it should twitch when it gets shot is… well, even in NYC I felt a little exposed.
Mostly I felt sorry for the two dachsunds tied up next to us.Â Everytime we mimicked the sort of yelp the dog should give in the show, the dachsunds looked panicked.
Now I’m trying to prep my office so it’s ready for the build.Â I won’t be able to really work on it until I come back from Readercon because I have to wait for the skull to arrive.
(Tor Books – July 14 2020) Mary Robinette Kowal continues her Hugo and Nebula award-winning Lady Astronaut series, following The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, with The Relentless Moon. The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and […]