Posts Tagged ‘Puppetry’

Working with live musicians

The live musicians came in today, which was fantastic. Yuri, the violinist paired with the Peter character, is funny and immensely talented.

Initially she looked a little nervous, when we described the way Peter would be running in circles around her and said, “Be careful.”

“Don’t worry. I played.” ((Seventeen years))

She immediately relaxed. “Okay. You get it.” So, she’s totally game to strolling on stage and letting Peter run in circles around her.

I completely understand her concern. A lot of people don’t understand how fragile violins are or how expensive they are. It’s the same with puppets, though they aren’t nearly as expensive. People tend to think of them as dolls or toys and will just pick them up to play with them. Basic etiquette: Never touch a puppet that isn’t yours.

In fact, a couple of the musicians did that last night and it really annoyed me. You’d think they would get that automatically, since I can’t imagine they would be happy if someone picked up their instrument. I didn’t say anything, because I figured they were just excited. Still, I might ask the director to casually talk about how the puppets are our instruments.

Aside from that one, minor, annoyance, it was so unbelievably fantastic having the live musicians there. Everything felt more immediate. The clarinetist and flute players were getting into their characters and teasing each other on stage, just as a cat and bird might.

I’m very much looking forward to the next rehearsal

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.


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.

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.

Come see Peter and the Wolf

Peter and the Wolf I know a number of you are coming into town for Comicon. Why not take a break from all that industry stuff and come see a show? I’m puppeteering Peter in Peter and the Wolf.

Sergei Prokofiev’s classic Peter and the Wolf is re-imagined by Mabou Mines co-artistic director Terry O’Reilly and Jane Catherine Shaw to speak to the experience of children newly immigrated to the USA as well as young native New Yorkers. The Matrix Music Collaborators is a playground for the puppets – a garden of delight for Peter and his animal friends and safety from the wolf outside the gate.

Matrix Music Collaborators, a New York-based innovative chamber ensemble presents interdisciplinary collaborations through the unique approach of bridging dance, theater, visual art, film and poetry with classical, experimental, contemporary and world music, sharing the stage with an international roster of accomplished musicians.


W.A Mozart Excerpts from Eine Kleine Nachtmusik featuring ‘Rainy Nights’ (2002) by Hong Kong artist, Eric Siu

Sergei Prokofiev Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67 – a staging with Chinese Puppets directed by Terry O’ Reilly and Jane Catherine Shaw

Paul Wiancko Hip Hop Cello Concerto No. 1

John Williams Music from the Movies

Instrumentation for Matrix: violin, cello, flute, oboe, horn, clarinet, bassoon and piano under the direction of Sheryl Lee.

Tickets: $10 Individual | $30 Family of four
Free family workshop Saturday, April 19 | 1 pm | 212.352.3101

Wolf image: Simon Wong

Steve & Idi, Teddy, Peter and Katherine

I spent today getting props together for Steve and Idi a new play that I’m working on for Rattlestick theater. In the afternoon, Rob and I went down to pick up a rug for the Bully Pulpit, a play about Teddy Roosevelt.

In the evening, Katherine and I headed down to the Peter and the Wolf rehearsal. She alternated between reading and watching rehearsal while I painted puppets. Did I mention that I’d done the design for the animal characters? No… anyway, my puppet isn’t here from China yet, so I’ll be mostly observing till it gets here on Wednesday.

After rehearsal, Katherine and I went for Japanese food. At the moment, I’m creating some hand props for Steve and Idi before heading to bed.

A paper puppet meets a certain end

This is a beautifully manipulated short with a paper puppet.

Now, I have to say that though I think this is really well done, it disappointed me. Let’s sum up. Puppet comes to life. Discovers world. Discovers that it is a puppet. Dies.

I was really excited when the video started, because it is beautifully shot and manipulated. I liked the way they let the light shine through the puppet and make no attempt to disguise that it’s a puppet made from brown paper. It is lovely. But then they had to go to the cliche ending. Granted, there are variations on this trope. Sometimes the ending is that the puppet kills the puppeteer.

This is not new material. I know, I know. There are no new ideas. I’ll grant that. But if you are going to recycle an old storyline, then you have to bring something new to it besides just making it pretty.

March Fourth + Shadow Puppets = Awesome!

March Fourth Marching Band has this amazing music video with shadow puppets that I’m totally in love with. Should you have any doubts about watching it, you should know that one of the title cards says, “Meanwhile in Deep Space…”

How can you pass that up?

Seriously. This is one of the hottest uses of shadow puppets I’ve seen in ages.

On sockpuppets

gentlebeingsThe intarwebs use the word sockpuppet to mean someone who has created a character for the purpose of supporting his or her arguments by pretending to be someone else. Let’s take a look at that term, shall we?

Most puppets fall into five basic categories broken down by the method in which they are manipulated. You have hand, shadow, string, rod and body. There are endless combinations of those forms, plus sub-categories and also some puppets which defy categories.

In addition to this, you also have overt puppetry, where you see the puppeteer, and covert, where you don’t.

Now Bert, over there on the right, is what we’d call a moving-mouth, hand and rod puppet. He’s not sock puppet, but they’re both operated the same way. Typically, you don’t see the puppeteer with these puppets.

A ventriloquist’s dummy is, by necessity, overt. The puppet itself might be a hand and rod, or it might simply be a rod puppet with a trigger control to work the mouth. Charlie McCarthy worked like this. He’s what you think of when you think of a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Jeff Dunham on the other hand, uses a variety of puppets, including a puppet that is very similar, structurally, to Bert. (He’s hilarious, by the way.)

And then there’s Shari Lewis who used, yes, a sock puppet.

The thing is that ventriloquism is a performance technique wherein a single puppeteer tries to create the illusion that there is another character on stage. This character gets to say things that the manipulator can’t say. Sound familiar?

Sure, sock puppets are less expensive to build than a traditional vent’s dummy BUT I do have to defend sockpuppets from the charge that they are not convincing and poorly done. That’s amateur sockpuppetry and amateur ventriloquism is even less convincing. Nothing is quite as distracting as watching someone who is trying not to move their lips and failing.

Professional sockpuppetry can be really quite lovely. Check out the Lady from Sockholm for example. Heck, Kermit is only one step away from sock puppet.

I don’t expect to actually change anyone’s mind about this, because sockpuppet is more fun to say than vent dummy. While I personally think that vent dummy is a better term than sock puppet, fun trumps accuracy almost any day.

Barging into the head

Names redacted for protection.

M.S. was trying to get Barge into a tight corner inside the head on which he and E.D. were working.

E.D. said, “Why don’t you glove up, squirt it onto your finger, and apply?”

M.S. replied, “This might be a little cold.”

And people wonder why puppeteers have so much fun.

Cookie Monster on NPR

PuppetVision Blog pointed out that Cookie Monster was on NPR yesterday. There’s a long tradition of puppet characters appearing on radio, but we are lucky that the wise folk at NPR also made a short video of Cookie answering the famous Proust Questionnaire.

You can listen to the whole interview at the same link. “C” is for cookie. That’s good enough for me.

I am running for SFWA secretary

For the past several months, I’ve been helping out by recruiting volunteers for SFWA. As I do, it becomes apparent to me that the organization faces several hurdles.

1. It lacks continuity.
2. There are no clear lines of communication
3. The public interface is out-dated.
4. Volunteers’ time is not efficiently managed.

Here is how I would like to tackle those items.

1. When I was the Secretary of UNIMA-USA (The American branch of the International puppetry organization, which is the oldest continually operating arts organization in the world), I was responsible for updating and maintaining an Officer’s Handbook. This contained, not only the minutes and the bylaws, but also a detailed description of the goal of each committee and the semi-annual reports of the committees.

I would like to implement a similar system for SFWA.

2. At the moment, when a committee is created, it exists as an entity of its own, without reporting to a specific member of the board. The problem with this is that when a committee becomes inactive, it can languish in this condition for months or years without anyone noticing. Several times during the past months, I’ve contacted a committee chair, only to have them say, “Oh. Am I still on that committee?”

I would like to re-evaluate the committee structure, and rebuild it using more vertical lines of communication. This will create more accountability and a smoother line of communication. For your interest, I have done a diagram of the current committee structure and a proposed restructuring.

3. We all know the website is outdated. Rather than using a committee to redesign this, because we all know how successful design by committee is, I would like to see SFWA hire an actual web-designer to do a complete revamping of the system, including adding a forum.

In particular, I want to see redundancies removed. For instance, we have a team of extremely hardworking volunteers who update the Nebula Recommendations. It is all hard-coded with HTML in several different places. This is something that cries out for automation, so that the volunteers merely need to moderate it and check for errors.

4. SFWA uses the principle “Want something done, ask the busy person” so that the brunt of the effort comes down on a few people. I want to implement online volunteer management software, which will track availability, hours, and skills. Let’s stop burning out the volunteers.

About me: I have spent most of the past seventeen years working in the non-profit sector. Volunteers are the backbone of non-profits and I’ve managed them on projects ranging from running a week-long festival to getting envelopes stuffed to making a cyclops head. In addition to being a writer, I’m a small business owner and freelancer. I’ve got the publishing credits to be an active SFWA member, but more importantly, I know how to run a non-profit efficiently.

Movies with things that explode

Normally I’m all etiquette books and puppets, but there are days when what I really want to see is a movie with things that explode, you know? Today was one of those — don’t ask — and so Rob went out to find something for me. He came back with The Bourne Supremacy, which I saw in Iceland and Charlie’s Angels. Good fluffy explosions and fight sequences. I love wire work and there was plenty of it in this.

The urge to watch this kind of film doesn’t come up that often so I don’t keep up with the good action films out there. I’m looking for suggestions for the next time I need an exploding film nights.

To start you off, here are movies that fit the bill:
Almost anything by Jackie Chan
The Blues Brothers
Indiana Jones
The Bourne Identity

Some Bond, such as Goldfinger

There’s a tendency for comic book escapism here, you might note. It’s not that they need to be light-hearted it’s just that I don’t handle monsters well.

So… got any suggestions for me?

The Odyssey Experience

I’m designing props and masks for The Odyssey Experience for McCarter Theatre’s education department. Here are the drawings I’m sending up to them for review.

Athena The idea is that rather than masks, each character has a helm which they wear, to signify which character they are. Athena has her classic helm, which I want to be silvered to make her really shine.

Athena's shieldAthena’s shield plays with the look of Greek vases. However, that is the most unfortunate Gorgon that I’ve ever seen. I was working from an actual vase and yet somehow I’ve wound up with Betty Boop.

EagleAgain, using the lines of a vase, but here, for the Eagle, it is batiked on China silk and used like a ribbon dancer.

Poseidon For Poseidon’s helm, I’m using the shape of his beard to suggest waves. I also want to make this one look like copper with a heavy blue-green patina in the beard. From the crest I want something that has the shape of a classic Spartan plume, but can double as a wave about to crash down.

Zeus Finally, Zeus. Here I see weathered bronze and gilding.

I’ve got no idea if the director will accept these or not, but I’ll keep you posted.

1852 Article on Puppetry

This article covers so many of the things I geek out on. Old books? Check. This issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine came out in 1852. Puppets? Check.

MADAME DE PUYSIEUX was a witty and vivacious lady. Among her recorded sayings is one that exceedingly well suits us for the nonce. “I would rather,” she said, “be occasionally found looking at puppets than listening to philosophers.” There was doubtless some reason in this, but the fact is also indubitable that puppets and philosophy are not so far apart.

Further on:

The gravest of authors are at issue as to the actual origin of the puppet race. Charles Nodier is satisfied in tracing it to the doll that lies in unconscious felicity within the loving arms of youthful and precocious maternity. M. Charles Magnin, on the other hand maintains that the puppet does not spring from the hearth but from the altar. The rude god whittled out of a gnarled bough is with him the undoubted sire of the universe of dolls

Hey– That last sentence could be the plot of a fantasy story. Hm…

The harpy strikes again

I was at the puppet studio with Emily until 3:30 a.m. I spent almost the entire time just dealing with harpy wings. Too tired to explain why now.