Puppetry isn’t all fun and games. It’s got a long history of being used as a means of political satire and in Burma, that got two puppeteers and comedians arrested back in 1996.
U Pa Pa Lay and his cousin U Lu Zaw, “The Moustache Brothers”, spent seven years in jail, while Amnesty International have campaigned for their release. Their crime? Performing a routine in which they joked about their governments and Myanmar’s generals.
UNIMA, the international puppetry organization, reports that the Moustache Brothers have been re-arrested.
“We strongly urge you to denounce this situation to the media of your country and write to your Ministry for Foreign Affairs so that they take an interest in these artists’ situation and their release!” UNIMA International: 18 Oct 2007
There’s no puppetry in this clip, but you can see the dozens of gorgeous puppets hanging on the wall behind them.
This is beautifully animated, but there’s one detail which makes me go a little buggy. Watch the baby’s eyes. They are so real, compared to the rest of the figure, that it edges into the uncanny valley.
This is a problem that crops up in a lot of different forms of world creation, from set design, to animation to straight puppetry. If you have one element that seems totally real, it makes everything else seem strange. But if everything is stylized in the same manner, then you accept that visual vocabulary. For instance, no one complains that they can’t see all the fur on the Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. But if a real dog wandered through the scene, the entire world would look flat and the dog would look strange. It’s uncanny.
It’s 1:15 am. I just got home. The crocodile and leopard are not finished. Tomorrow I’m supposed to temp and after I finish that I’m heading back to the Puppet Kitchen to finish up so that the puppets can get on a plane at 6am on Tuesday.
Oh yeah, and I have to send the Pirate issue to the printer tomorrow. Should be a slow day, huh?
We finished the fish today. Got good work done on the crocodile and leopard. Best of all, an old friend came into town and dropped by to help out. (Hi Rob!) Afterwards, Rob and my Rob and I went out to catch up.
Emily DeCola has been hired to create puppets for the African Children’s Choir. She started with these design drawings and has hired me to help her build the puppets. My primary job on the fish is to take her drawings and translate them into patterns that can be quickly reproduced for the sixteen fish puppets we need to make.
The patterning itself involves a lot of tracing and testing. Here are the patterns for the male fish in a neat pile. Even though I create these patterns through the process of piecing a fish together, I still won’t know if they actually work until I try to make a second fish.
This is the test fish. You’ll notice that a lot of the pieces are still represented by paper.
For a dress at this stage I would have used muslin for the pattern, but for this I need to make certain that the things I use for the “muslin” have the same properties as the final product. There isn’t a good substitute for the ethafoam (the blue stuff). But, see how the belly of the fish is black? In the finished puppet it will be brightly colored and made of a similar but different material. Since I had a substitute available, I used that because it is cheaper than what we’ll use for the final product.
We had four people in the shop today and working together this is as far as we got. We had one male fish pinned together and…
…one female fish pinned together. A lot of this time was spent figuring out patterns or cutting things out. These are fairly simple puppets but there are sixteen of them and that just takes a while, even if you think things are going quickly.
I’ve got some video for you to show how quickly things can go.
I spent the day shopping for fish supplies. You know, the usual stuff: bathmats, spray adhesive, tarps… It took far, far longer than it should have, in part because I needed 16 very specific bathmats and had to hit two different stores just to get three.
I will post photos, but for the moment, I am going to bed.
I met with Emily DeCola today to talk about a building gig that I’ll be working for her on next week. I’ll be helping her build 16 fish and a crocodile.
Now… if you have an interest in puppet building and are in the NYC area, we can use some volunteer help. You’ll be fed — Emily has very fine craft services — and instructed in the fine art of puppet construction. Not only that, it’s for a good cause. These puppets are for performances by the African Children’s Choir.
Want to help? Contact me and we’ll get you started.
Today I auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly. Their production uses a bunraku-style puppet for Madame Butterfly’s child. This style of puppet normally takes three performers and they were casting understudies; the principals were pre-cast.
First of all, receiving an email which says, “go to the back of the Met to the stage entrance,” was pretty darn cool in and of itself. Once you get past security the way to the rehearsal room is through a labyrinth of halls crowded with set pieces. In one corner stood a trio of temple bells. Another hall took me past a vast marble arch disassembled on the ground. The first rehearsal room had singers in rehearsal for a production, but no puppeteers. I rounded a corner, past a stack of chairs, and at the end of the hall found our rehearsal room. In it, they had put up the set for Madama Butterfly. A vast black lacquered floor dominated the room; shoji screens sat waiting in tracks to be slipped on stage.
I was one of the first puppeteers to arrive. For a while, it looked like there were only going to be eight of us auditioning but a whole gaggle of puppeteers arrived as soon as Mark Down (head puppeteer) said, “Shall we start?” All told there were between twenty to thirty of us auditioning.
Mark had us start by doing some elementary yoga. It was really nice that he took fifteen minutes or so to make certain that everyone was warmed up. Of course, it’s also a covert way to check for limberness and fluidity of movement.
He then introduced us to the puppet. As I mentioned, this style normally takes three puppeteers, but Mark wanted to see what we could do solo. He asked us to do a short scene using only the head and the torso to emote. We simply had to run across stage (with the puppet lifted so the feet didn’t drag) and then explore the “room” that our character had entered. What he wanted, he said, was a sense of breath and of the puppet being. He wanted to know that the puppet looked and listened rather than just seeing and hearing because he wanted to know that the puppet was thinking about what he was experiencing — incidentally, that’s good advice for writers too, I think. Then he said, “So who wants to go first.”
The room was silent for a moment as we all held our breath, waiting for someone else to volunteer.
“I’ll go,” I said as I stood and took the puppet from him. Inside I was trying to reassure myself that it was actually a good plan. I figured showing initiative and eagerness would make me stand out of the pack. Also, it meant that none of the obvious emotional beats had been tried yet. Anyone who came after me would either have to come up with something new, or repeat what I had already done. There is a downside to going first, of course. You can’t see how the puppet moves and don’t know what the director is looking for.
So, I ran the puppet across, peered around the corner of the screen set center stage and entered the “room.” The rehearsal hall phone rang. Instinctively, my puppet turned to look at it. Everyone laughed. Whew. But then… now what do I do? In order for the puppet to really look at something I needed to know what he was looking at. We were standing alone on a blank stage. So I decided that my character was looking for his mother. I didn’t do much walking because the dragging feet annoyed me. The whole time, a part of my brain was thinking, “When is he going to stop me?” It felt like I was up there forever.
Mark asked me to be very still with the puppet. There’s a difference, and it’s a very fine one, between still and static. With a puppet it is very easy to have stillness become static — it is, after all, an inanimate object. The difference comes from minute movements of breath and focus to keep the puppet thinking. My hand started trembling. I shifted position to get into a stronger hold and ignored the tremble.
(By the way, when I use the word “breath” I mean the rhythms of the puppet rather than just the act of breathing. When I teach puppetry I say, “Focus indicates thought; breath indicates emotion,” because the only time you notice someone in the act of breathing it carries meaning. The rest of the time we filter it out.)
Anyway. The rest of the performers went and I did the usual compare and contrast between their performance and mine. And that’s the thing. It really felt like I was watching performances; these were, for the most part, really good puppeteers. Some people he let go for a long time. Some he stopped fairly quickly. Some got direction. Others didn’t. It wasn’t always easy to tell why.
Then he introduced us to the choreographer. Since the stage is so bare, the performers form a large part of the world of the opera, so they needed puppeteers who can move well. They went in the same order as before, which meant — joy! — I was first again. The choreography was deceptively simple. Walk in, kneel, bow, sit up, say your name, stand, exit. No problem, right? Now do this very particular Japenese stage hand walk, where your feet don’t leave the ground. Keep your eyes facing down at 45 degrees. Fold your thumbs into your palm so they don’t show and you have “long fingers.” Make sure when you kneel, that your left foot is half a pace back and you kneel straight down like an elevator… The specificity went on.
This is where it sucked going first. I only got to see the movements twice before trying to remember them all. I was not expressing the “soul” the choreographer was looking for; I was expressing, “what next?”
Then came working as a team. Three performers on the puppet and we had to run the puppet across the stage. I dunno, sixty feet? Here’s the thing. The person on the feet had to crouch or squat. Go ahead. Try this at home. Crouch down and put your hands on the floor. Now stretch your arms out as far in front of you as possible, without losing the crouch. Now, in that position — while trying to make feet look like they are actually walking — run sixty feet. On a raked stage. I sucked at it. I felt marginally better because everyone sucked at it. Until one guy got up on stage and just did it. It was like watching magic. The puppet ran; the puppeteer didn’t fall on his face.
They had us break for fifteen minutes while they conferred.
When we came back, Mark said, “We’re going to break for lunch and when we come back we only need to keep these people. Jodi, Mary–” I stopped listening at that point. Thank God. I’d made the first cut.
He only kept seven of us. Some friends, who are brilliant puppeteers, didn’t make the cut. I’ve been on the other side of that line and it’s always hard.
After lunch, we headed back down to the rehearsal hall. This distinguished Spanish man was in the catacombs and a group of elderly ladies was lost. He said, “People who have worked here for years still get lost” and proceeded to tell them where the elevator was. I wonder if they knew that they were talking to PlÃ¡cido Domingo.
In fact, as each of us walked back into the rehearsal room, there would be this moment of, “Was that…?”
“PlÃ¡cido Domingo? Yeah.”
But, back to the audition. Mark kept switching us around trying to see what team would mesh best. Poor Oliver, the fellow who could do the feet, was on the feet the whole time. Granted, he knew he was cast by implication, but it was an awful physical position to be in for hours. Mark had us act out miniature scenes and play off an actor. It was fun to be onstage and wonderful to be in the audience. Everyone was good so it was like watching lots of little puppet shows.
After one of the teams did a very nice scene, Mark said, “Well, we’re only casting three people, and I think I’d like it to be the three on stage now.”
So. After reading all that, you now learn that I am not in the upcoming cast of Madama Butterfly. Which, you know, I’m okay with. Being on the list to audition for the Met? That’s something.
And here’s the final cool thing. One of the casting people referred to those of us who didn’t get cast and said, “We need to get their contact information, in case someone can’t do the part.”
Mark said, “Oh, right. I think we can just get Mary and Jodi’s information, then.”
I’m not cast. I’m not even an understudy. But I’m on the list for replacement performers and that’s not a bad place to be. Not bad at all.
This. Today. That opportunity is why we moved to New York.
Jodi came over this afternoon and we spent a while with one of my rehearsal puppets practicing some overt manipulation. We’ve got an audition tomorrow and figured it would be a good idea to brush up. The thing is, that we’ve performed for so long together that we got back into the groove really fast, which I know is totally misleading us about how the audition will go.
No. I won’t tell you what I’m auditioning for yet — I’m strangely superstitious that way — but I will ask for you to send good vibes my way from 11 – 4.
Afterwards, we all went out to dinner with Jonathan who is heading down to New Orleans for a film shoot. It was a good day today, all in all.
In the question of what would happen for us about Iceland, those of you who voted for the angry sheep have won the day. This was actually my code phrase for “We may be asking for too much money.” Because we have a two year commitment to the apartment in NYC, we needed to be able to make enough money to support two households. In part, because I would have to commute between Iceland and NYC in order to keep the puppetry career moving forward.
We are sad that it couldn’t work out, but living in NYC is not a bad consolation prize.
(Tor Books — August 21, 2018) Continuing the grand sweep of alternate history laid out in The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky looks forward to 1961, when mankind is well-established on the moon and looking forward to its next step: journeying to, and eventually colonizing, Mars. Of course, the noted Lady Astronaut Elma York would like to go, […]