Posts Tagged ‘Puppetry’

An American Marionette Story

Paul MacPharlin horseRolande Duprey documents the process of repairing an historic marionette. It’s fascinating and with beautiful photos.

Paul McPharlin, sometimes called “the Father of American Puppetry” built a marionette covered wagon with a team of two horses and a driver for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair “A Century of Progress”.

Many years later, the horses and driver were discovered at an elementary school in Michigan by Fern Zwicky, who recognized them as having been at the “transport” exhibit at the fair. She gave them to John Miller, who kept them in his collection as she had found them. In the 1970’s, one of the horses, that was in fairly good shape, was photographed by Time/Life for a book on puppetry.

The other horse was missing a foreleg and hoof. In the spring of 2008, John’s widow, Marilyn O’Connor Miller asked me to repair the horse’s leg. I brought it to the O’Neil Puppetry Conference, where Phillip Huber and Jim Rose could help give advice on how to go about the repair.

A week of Peter and the Wolf in one post

We did the benefit performance of Peter and the Wolf yesterday. I’d spent the week in rehearsals and intended to blog about them, but I kept dropping into bed instead. I know, I know. Picking sleep instead of you guys. Clearly, my priorities need work.

So, we’ll catch up today.

The puppeteer who played the narrator/Grandfather role could not be with us this time, so we substituted Jodi Eichelberger instead. Jodi and I have worked together for years, but haven’t performed opposite each other in ages. While I was looking forward to that, the thing that I loved was that we took the time to really work the scenes between Peter and the Grandfather, something that we’d not had time to do with the other puppeteer.

As a result, those scenes were clearly tied to the music and had a specificity that was lacking before. Funny what a little rehearsal will do, eh? It also helped that Jodi and I have performed so much together (years touring) that we can anticipate the other one.

I also got to see the video of the show for the first time. In the last performance, we had no mirror in the rehearsal room and so I had to rely on other people and what little I could see of the puppet myself. I mean, I could only really see the top of Peter’s head. Parts of the video made me happy, but great swathes of it made me go, “Gah! People were letting me get away with that?”

I think the first rehearsal that Jodi and I did largely focused on getting the puppets to walk without looking like they were being prodded with sharp sticks in the rear at every step.

The stage we were on was significantly smaller this time. So there were places where I simply didn’t have enough action and no amount of scenery chewing was going to fill it out. So I asked if they could speed that passage up. Lo! I still had to chew the scenery, but not as much.

Other than that, it was easy to pick the show back up again. I wish we did more than one performance though. As frustrating as the puppet is, I like the show a lot. Or maybe it’s just that I like the music and the live musicians. What a joy!

Downtown Artists Unite for China’s Earthquake Victims and UNICEF

Benefit Poster

New York – The Players Theatre will host Hands together: New York Artists Gather for China Earthquake Relief to Benefit UNICEF presented by Matrix Music Collaborators on June 14, 2008, 3pm, 115 MacDougal Street (between W3rd and Minetta Lane) in Greenwich Village, New York. Admission is $45 / Package of Four for $125. All proceeds will go to U.S. Fund for UNICEF. Tickets can be obtained through TheaterMania ( at (212) 352-3101. For individual donations, please visit for U.S Fund for UNICEF.

On May 12, 2008 the largest natural disaster in a generation struck Sichuan province in China.

According to date recently collected by UNICEF, more than 10,000 school buildings in Sichuan were badly damaged by the earthquake. Almost 7,000 schools were completely destroyed and many others suffered partial damage. UNICEF estimates that the number of school children affected is in the millions. Most of these children are now trying to continue their schooling in temporary shelters and tents. Precise figures are still very difficult to obtain. As the death toll from the earthquake exceeds 68,000, according to official estimates, the needs of survivors are growing daily. At least 300,000 people were injured and 5 million displaced. Now in the aftermath we can see that the scale of the humanitarian crises before us is truly staggering. Supplies are being rushed to the five million are literally without shelter. Like so many Americans we stand together with the people so deeply affected by this massive earthquake to find ways to help.

This special performance will feature an international line up of artists to include Min Xiao-Fen; Wu Na; Huang Ruo; members of the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre; Asian American Writers’ Workshop; the cast of puppeteers from Peter and the Wolf and Matrix Music Collaborators. It is geared for all ages.


Drunken Man by Jiu Kuang, based on a famous poet of the western Jin dynasty (265 -420)

Blue Pipa (inspired by Miles Davis) by Min Xiao-Fen

The North of Sunset
by Thelonius Monk, arr. by Min Xiao-Fen

Mo (dedicated to the victims of the Sichuan earthquake) by Min Xiao Fen and Wu Na

Performed by Min Xiao-Fen, pipa / Wu Na, qin

Four Fragments for solo violin
by Huang Ruo

Performed by Yoon Kwon, violin

Oblivion by Astor Piazzolla

Performed by Matrix Music Collaborators

Excerpts from The Joy Luck Club

a play by Susan Kim, adapted from the novel by Amy Tan with direction & musical staging by Tisa Chang

Performed by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre

“Super Cop World” video installation featuring mighty Mario and Jackie Chan

Designed by Eric Siu

Peter and the Wolf, Op. 57 by Sergei Prokofiev

Performed by puppeteers: Deborah Hertzberg; Serra Hirsch; Daniel Irizarry; Mary Robinette Kowal; Chris McLaughlin; Jessica Scott; Meghan Williams, and Jodi Eichelberger, directed by Jane Catherine Shaw and Terry O’Reilly with Matrix Music Collaborators under the direction of Sheryl Lee

Readings by published authors from Asian American Writers’ Workshop

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The further adventures of things I say at work

By request, this time, it’s a quiz. What do you think I really meant when I said each of these things?

  1. I have to go repair the moose, sew some curtains and carve a donut. Not in that order.
  2. Are we inside him?
  3. When he comes, I’ll grab his britches.
  4. Do you want the tumor to talk?
  5. I can’t keep his head up. He’s limp.

Peter and the Wolf, returns

Details will follow, but I want to give as much warning as possible. Saturday, June 14th we’re doing Peter and the Wolf as part of a festival called: Hands Together: New York Artists Gather for China Earthquake Relief. We are working with UNICEF and have some great guests coming in such as Pan Asian Rep.

WEIRD TALES: The 85 Weirdest, Day 48: Jim Henson

WEIRD TALES is honoring the 85 Weirdest and today is Jim Henson.

Think JIM HENSON (1936-1990) and you think Muppets — yet there’s so much more to the man’s genius. His experimental filmmaking ranged from Time Piece to The Cube. Though his interest in puppetry started as a way to get on television, he stayed with it because of the stories it allowed him to tell, and the weirdness from his film work shone maniacally through. Even with the Muppets. Like those dancing tubes with eyeballs in “Java.” (Wait for it.) And hey, what exactly is Gonzo, anyway? ((I wrote most of this description.))

I backed this video up a couple of times because the puppet turns around and I was trying to figure out where the heck the rods are. I’m pretty sure they must be below, but the the darn thing goes and steps on another character. Still… they’ve got to be below.

Dancing Brains

This is a viral ad. Why am I showing it to you? It uses Brains, one of the characters from the Thunderbirds, and combines puppetry, CGI and motion capture to good effect. What I love about it is that, though are a few things that a marionette can’t do, ((The very fast spins, in particular, but otherwise, most of it is possible)) it doesn’t violate the rules badly and it takes advantage of the fact that it’s puppet by doing things that a person simply can’t.

But what’s even better is the behind the scenes footage. It showcases the work of Ronnie LeDrew (who did the giant marionette Levi’s ad) as the head puppeteer on this one.

Spotted at PuppetVision.

How I got started in puppetry

Elizabeth Barrette asked, “How did you get into your cool practice of acquiring bizarre props and building puppets?”

This is one that comes up a lot and, strangely, I don’t think I’ve posted on it, so I’ll give the long answer.

I was one of those kids who wanted to do everything. My parents indulged me and so I took violin, art, theater classes, writing workshops and then, in high school, discovered puppetry. A friend of mine went to a church that had a puppet ministry program, which was the coolest thing ever. I started going to the church so I could be involved — maybe not the best reason to join a church. Anyway, I got very lucky because the leaders of the puppetry program worked very hard on teaching us good skills. A lot of puppet ministry programs have truly dreadful puppetry.

I loved the puppetry. When our high school did Little Shop of Horrors, I was the plant.

I did puppetry as a hobby until I went to college. I majored in art education with a minor in theater, which was the closest I could come to combining everything that I loved to do. ((Later I learned about colleges, like the University of Connecticut, that had puppetry programs.)) My sophomore year, the college did Little Shop and I was the plant again.

Then a professional puppeteer came to see the show. Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that someone would actually get paid to do puppetry. I mean, sure, I’d seen Sesame Street, but that was on PBS and everyone knew that PBS was run by volunteers, right? Yeah… But this puppeteer, Dee Braxton, owned a house, only worked a couple of days a week and most importantly, was willing to train me. By the end of the first summer, she was handing me the gigs she couldn’t take. People were giving me money. To do puppets. I was making more money doing that than my part-time job.

Later, I realized that we lived in an area of the country with a very low cost of living and that we were the only puppeteers in a three county radius. It helps.

From there I went to the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, GA for an internship. This shaped me as a puppeteer more than anything else. George Latshaw (like unto a god, in puppetry) was directing, and the cast was a dream team of puppeteers, Jon Ludwig, Jane Catherine Shaw, Bobby Box, and Peter Hart. Pete was in charge of the internship program and my mentor. If I tried to say enough good things about that program, I would bore you, so suffice to say that I can trace everything back to there.

After the internship, I just kept working. I’ve been at it for nineteen years now and, with the exception of a two-year break due to a wrist injury, have made my living as a puppeteer.

Until I came to NYC.

Now the irony here is that, before Iceland, I’d had several years where I worked three to five months out of the year here, as a puppeteer. I always felt as if I would work constantly if I lived here. And behold, that’s true. The odd thing is that almost all the work has been in the props department.

That’s something I stumbled into and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, I enjoy it and it’s honest work. On the other hand, it’s not why we came to NYC and is taking up so much time that I haven’t had a chance to really pursue puppetry and it’s cutting into my writing time.

Rob and I are talking about how to balance that, going forward. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.

Film puppets are different than stage puppets

Thursday, Jodi and I shot a pilot episode. We were the only two puppeteers on the shoot, and as often happens, the only people in the room with prior puppetry experience. The puppets were charming but, to my eye, built by a stage puppeteer rather than a film and television puppeteer. How could I tell? Small details, like visible specks of glue. Now, for stage, this doesn’t matter ((We have a saying, “forty feet on a galloping horse” which means that if you won’t notice it while galloping on horseback forty feet away you won’t notice it on the stage either)) but for film work you have to be prepared for extreme closeups.

These were rod puppets and the necks were extremely thin, long and sproingy. ((Yes, that’s a technical term.)) Our slightest tremor translated into a giant head wiggle. On top of that, the mouth trigger would actually pull the whole head down with it. None of this violated the forty feet and a galloping horse rule, but boy howdy did it look funny in a closeup. We weren’t doing lipsync so much as headsync.

AND one of the puppets broke moments after we got there. I had a total MacGyver moment and repaired the puppet with a paperclip, gaffers tape and superglue. (( No, I can’t describe the repair in more detail because to do so would require explaining what the characters were which would blow the secrecy around the pilot.))

The guys we were working for were supernice and thankfully understood the challenges pretty darn quickly. On the whole, they seemed pleased. Hopefully I’ll be able to show you some of it down the line.

Bunny delivery system

We thought we had the the system solved to deliver the donut “magically” to the middle of the stage. Alas, using a foam bunny as our test subject ((before carving it into a donut)) we discovered that the foam caught on even the tiniest bit of friction. When the friction released, the bunny shot into the air like a, well, rabbit.

After fiddling with it, we got rid of all the complicated bits and switched to the bluefoam donut I made last night and this morning. The new system works like a champ. Whew. No more fail! I tried taking photos, but the line is too thin to show up on my camera.

Basically, we run a piece of 15 lb braided dacron ((black fishing line that I use for marionettes)) offstage, using screw eyes and tubing to control where it runs. The donut sits on a short ramp on the upstage side of the tv, out of the line of sight of the audience. While they are looking at other business onstage, a stagehand pulls the string and the donut slides up the ramp and into place.

The string on its bottom is held in place by a piece of clear tape. When the actor picks up the donut, the tape, caught by a screw eye, releases. Voila. Magic donut.

Now that you know how we do that, I’ll have to kill you.

Brain closure

We had our first two Peter and the Wolf performances today. I was going to write a lovely post about the differences between a school crowd and a family crowd but I think my brain just shut down.

Writing and storytelling

I had an interesting experience the other night as a writer or, more accurately, as a storyteller.

I had to pick up a prop two blocks from the Puppet Kitchen and thought I’d poke my head in to see what they were working on. A big group of my favorite people were there, making what has got to be one of the most gorgeous puppets I’ve seen.

Sometimes, when I’ve needed a break from sewing or basket-weaving or whatever tedious bit of puppet building I’m doing, I’ve read these guys a story. So Emily saw me and said, “Read us a story!”

“Err… I only have an unfinished one with me.”

The group gives a very gratifying chorus of “read it anyway.”

Now, I’ve read unfinished stories to Emily when I’ve been stuck so I could bounce ideas off of her but never one that stopped quite this close to the beginning. “I mean, really unfinished.”

“That’s okay.”

And I wanted to see if the opening works, so I pulled out my palm pilot and started reading:

Half-consciously, Kim put a hand up to cover her new nose ring. She knew it pissed her parents off no end that she could tolerate cold iron and they couldn’t, not like there was that much iron in a nose ring.

It still made her break out sometimes, but didn’t burn her like it did them. “Kimberly Anne Smith,” Mom’s voice caught her in the foyer as surely as if she’d been called by her true name. “I’ve been worried sick. Do you know what time it is?”

“11:49.” Kim dropped her hand and turned to face Mom, her Doc Martins making a satisfactory clomping sound on the hardwood floor. “I’m here. Home before midnight. No one with me.” As if she’d take the chance of her glamour dropping and showing her friends what she really was. A freak, like her parents.

I kept reading for another two thousand words and right as Kim was about to go into The Scary Place the story had been leading up to, I said, “And then… this is an unfinished story.”

I thought they were going to throw the puppet at me.

“I told you!”

“Yes! But what happens next?!?!”

I glanced at all the sharp instruments they had in their hands, decided that my life was in danger, and told them the rest of the story. My word-smithery went out the window pretty fast leaving me with voice to convey mood and then… the rest was all about the plot. What happened next.

I knew basically what I wanted to have happen, but I hadn’t worked out any of the details yet. Having a live audience listening to me as I found my way through the rest of the plot points showed me exactly which things were interesting and which weren’t. (The car chase is right out.) If they had a question, I could stop for exposition, (See, the Faerie Queen knew there was a traitor, she just didn’t know who) while making a mental note that I needed to plant that piece of information earlier when actually writing it.

When I got out of there, I sat down with the keyboard and the words fairly flew out of me. I still have a couple of thousand words to go, but I know exactly what happens next.

Hans Christian Andersen used to do this. As he was working on a new story, he would tell it to a live audience and then go write it down. I don’t think I’ll do this with every story, but telling this one to a group was a good reminder that writing was created to capture the spoken word. I might be a writer, but I do that because, really, I’m a story-teller.