Posts Tagged ‘Puppetry’

Mouth mechs

I installed the moving mouth mechanisms in two of the puppets today. The female version works great and can be operated with one finger inside the head, but the male one is going to wind up needing to be attached to his rod. There’s something not quite right about that sentence…

Today’s comments included, “I’m having a lot of trouble with the little monkey’s butt,” and “It works best if you spank the monkey.”

I’m taking pictures of everything, honest, but I’m not getting home until midnight pretty much every night and just don’t have enough brain left to write it up in a coherent manner.

Non-verbal thought

I had an interesting experience today. We ran into a problem with the girl monkeys because their heads were cast of a significantly heavier material than the rehearsal puppets. The workshop design required them to be light. What to do.

After ages of trying different things and getting frustrated and thinking that we would have to recast them with featherlight, we decided to go to dinner and not think about it, hoping that our subconscious would present us with an answer later.

We got back to the studio, and Lo! the answer presented itself to me in beautiful three-dimensional renderings, with a clear plan on how to make it work. I exclaimed that I thought I had a solution. Emily asked me to explain. In the process of pulling the answer out of the non-verbal part of my head and translate it, the entire idea fell apart. It just didn’t make any sense at all.

I grabbed a reference book (Rod Puppets and Table-top Puppets, by Hansjurgen Fettig) hoping that I could bolster the crumbling idea with an illustration. As I was flipping through the pages, my brain offered me another idea.

Rather than explaining it to Emily, and risking losing it when I translated, I just built the thing. It worked, beautifully, and doesn’t require recasting. If I had to articulate the thought process now, I’d say that I stopped thinking about how to make it work like it did before, and started thinking about what the most comfortable hand movements were. That’s it. That would be all I’d be able to say verbally.

The rest of the idea happened in a space without words. Which makes me wonder, if I had just built the other one, would the idea have held up? I think it would have. It felt right. If I had time, I might try to pull that picture up and try to build it. I don’t have the time, but it still makes me wonder.

I’ll post a picture of the solution tomorrow. I’m very pleased with it.

Monkey Handles

Monkey PrototypeFor the workshop of Serendib, Emily made a series of prototype monkeys. This is the female model and is a beautifully simple design. The puppeteer slips her hand inside the torso of the monkey, and manipulates a small internal rod for the puppet.

Photo 020807 001My job is to translate these structure prototypes into puppets that will survive a run. Emily had me start by replacing the cardboard tube, which makes the hip and shoulders of the puppet, with PVC. I cut it in half, sanded it with my belt sander and wound up with something that looks like the brace on a pair of high end crutches.

Handle PatternThe original had a simple dowel handle, but I’m a firm believer in ergonomic puppets. The less energy I spend holding the puppet the more energy I have for performance. An ideal puppet is one that fits so well, I don’t have to grip it. That’s what I’m aiming for here. It took two drafts, but I settled on a fairly standard pistol grip, canted at an angle to match the natural line of the puppeteer’s. I made the first one, and then created a pattern from it to make the second.

Monkey frameThe PVC pieces are joined by spring steel, as in the workshop, and the arms are simple airplane cables. What’s lovely about this is that it’s extremely light, but has a firm structure.

Handle with paddingI padded out the handle with foam and wrapped it in leather to control sweating. You’ll notice that I use very little foam. The cushier the handle is, the more responsiveness I lose from the control. I put in just enough to help it grip the puppeteers hand.

Cloth tubeFinally, I wrapped the whole thing in black stretch velour which Emily will use to attach the silk outer body of the puppet.

The next thing I’ll do with these is to attach the head, but they are still having the mechs installed. I’ll post a picture of the finished puppets when they are ready.

A musical convergence

This morning Rob and I were standing in the kitchen. The classical radio station was playing the background as we waited for the opera to begin. As we were talking, I heard the announcer say, “And that was ‘The dance of the dolls’,” which immediately made my head turn to the radio, because dancing dolls sounds suspiciously like puppetry. He continued speaking, “And it was played by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra.”

I just laughed. I mean, that’s as fine description of my last year as you can get in music.

It turns out that the piece is called Okon Fuoko. I’m going to have to track down a copy and listen to it with intent, because the plot does look like something which might be adapted to puppet stage. It’s like Petruchka in Japan.

Brooklyn and Puppets

I’ll be in Brooklyn building puppets for the fabulous Emily DeCola and a production of Serendib. I’ll be building monkeys from February 6th-February 22nd. Consider yourself forewarned.

Life with a touring puppeteer: 1998, Day 11

Friday, October 16, 1998
Day Eleven

Today started at 6:30am. It’s our last day in Seattle so we had to pack our luggage into the van. Fortunately we both pack light. The show itself was in a small town outside of Seattle. We found it with no problems, but it was an old school so Joe had to run an extension cord to the building next door to keep our lights from blowing a fuse. The show went well, the kids were great. But the puppets began to self destruct. There’s a ganged control (ganged control means that several puppets work with one mind, like a gang) of three bees. One of them fell off during the show. The two harder repairs where Weha and Brer Rabbit. Both of them had leg trouble.

We’ll start with Weha. At one point in the show he gets scared and runs off stage with his legs spinning like a cartoon character. The photo to the right is of Weha’s running mechanism. It’s a very simple control. Each leg is attached to a metal axle, and string is wrapped around the axel. When it’s pulled, it causes the legs to spin around. You can see the string wrapped around the axel for his left leg.

The right leg string broke. Fortunately he has a good access hatch.

Weha wheelThe problem is that he is a narrow puppet and the hole I was aiming for is tiny. To give you an idea of scale look for the phillips head screw in the middle of the photo. I needed to get the string (braided dacron fishing-line) through the hole in the metal rod on the left. I was not successful. It was dark, I was backstage and the audience was coming in. So, I did a quick fix. There was a hose-clamp around the leg axel to keep the leg from sliding out of the body. So I tied the string to that. It worked fine for two shows, but I’ll need to make a better repair at some point.

Brer’s repairs were a lot easier. He’s got six rods, and the ones at his feet take a lot of stress. One of them came off. Joe reattached it using a ziptie. They are handy for quick repairs and readily available in hardware stores. He actually used two zipties, because of how much stress those rods are under.

Brer Rabbit repairWhen the puppet was built five years ago the rods were sewn to metal rings that were permanently attached to his feet. We wanted to be able to take the rods off in case they got bent. At some point the sewing broke and someone replaced the rod with a ziptie. No one has sewn it since.

Brer Rabbit repairIt is important to trim the ends afterwards. They look ugly. I highly recommend carrying a swiss army knife on tour with you. We use them constantly.

The second show was at a school that was built in the fifties. We tried to spread our electric load but wound up blowing a fuse anyway. It took out our lights and our sound. Of course we were in a big gynasium with no windows, and it was at a scary part of the show. We had four hundred screaming children on our hands. Some of them were genuinely scared, but most of them liked the chance to scream. Joe went with the Principle to try to get some lights on and power restored. I tried to reclaim the children’s attention. The hardest part was that I didn’t have a microphone, so being heard was a challenge. But there’s a trend at schools these days to use a clapping pattern to focus the children. It’s the same rythm at all the schools. Clap Clap Clapclapclap. They clapped back and I began to talk. First I explained that the lights would be on soon and then I looked for any topic that would distract them, while being vaguely educational. It’s amazing the things you can find to talk about when you need to stall. We discussed the difference between hares and rabbits. (thank you Janet Bradley for that information!) Rabbits are born without fur, hares are born with fur. When they got the gym lights on, we started the show again, by going back a few lines and asking the audience to pretend that the blackout had never happened. We also chose to not use our own lights for the rest of the show. They seemed to still enjoy it.

A mountain in Snoqualmie, WashingtonThis last photo is a shot from the parking lot of our last school. That mountain is just one of the reasons to tour. But now we’re going home for the weekend. I’ll continue with our adventures after our shows on Monday. See ya then!

Life with a touring puppeteer: 1998, Day 10

Thursday, October 15, 1998
Day Ten

Today began at 7:00am for me. Joe got up at 6:30 to handle his e-mail. You will all be happy to know that we found both of our schools without incident. The first school had a really lovely loadin. Notice the covered area next to the door.

Unfortunately the students were really rowdy. Sungura the Hare is an audience participation show. We like a live audience for this, live meaning “with us” or “enthusiastic”, however, there is such a thing as too live. If you ask them a question and they never quiet down after answering you’ve got trouble on your hands.

I wound up having to use my “I’ll wait until you are quiet” speech, during our transition to Brer Rabbit. I used to be afraid to be disciplinary during shows, but I have found that in schools the teachers appreciate it if you can control the students. And on the whole, as long as you’re not mean, the behaving students seem to appreciate it too.

Load in

See how we can back the van up to the door? This is great.

Here’s a shot of what our van looks like loaded. We finally have a good load-out pack. It looks a little messy, because the last couple of pieces in are the bags of the large puppets. In an ideal world your pack looks neat, and is the same everytime. There are two reasons for that. 1) Loadout goes faster if you don’t have to think about where things can go. 2)You can look at the van and tell if you’ve gotten everything. If there’s a hole in your pack, something is still inside. The only time I’ve ever forgotten a puppet is when it was out for repairs, and not in it’s usual place. I thought it was in a box and didn’t know it was gone till after the show had started. Oooo boy, where there some interesting adlibs flying then.

Load in
Now for those of you who wondered about my little accident yesterday, we passed by and this time I had my camera. Notice the parking ticket. The telephone pole is where the corner is. Oops

Life with a touring puppeteer: 1998, Day 9

Wednesday, October 14, 1998
Day Nine

Today we got to sleep in, til 7:30 am. Oooo. We’re staying with some friends of Joe’s (Shawna and Steven) that live in Seattle. In tour talk, this is a “home stay”. Tears of Joy gives us $40 in per diem for food and hotel, but we get to keep the leftover soooo…. I normally don’t like homestays but this one is great. No, I’m not just saying that ’cause they might read this.

It was an eventful day. We did our trick of slightly wrong street names with the first school. NE 8th vs. 8th St. We got to the show late, and had half an hour to load-in to a school with steps. This is called a “jogging load-in.”

We hate steps. Most of our set-up time is actually the walk into the school.

[Missing Photo] This is a shot of our second school. Notice the Extremely Long walk to the other side of the gymnacafetorium. The stage at the far end is both a plus and a minus. It means that we are definitely high enough for everyone to see. The problem is that most of TOJ’s shows are designed to be on a gym floor and visible for an audience that is seated on the same floor, with no chairs. So everything begins at the three foot level and is elevated. The problem with being on the stage is that it makes our performance six feet above the audience’s heads. Very bad sightlines for the kids in front. If we move away from the playboard at all the puppets vanish.

Also at this school we had the joy of trying to find electrical outlets. Our lights and our sound draw a lot of power. Each light uses a 500 watt lamp, we have six lights. You do the math, and you see our problem. Sometimes, especially in older schools like this, we’ll blow a fuse. So we try to spread the current out to different currents in the room. At this particular school a good half of them were already dead. And all of the ones close to the stage weren’t working. Which means that Joe had to first, find outlets, and then establish that they weren’t working, and finally snake cord from the stage to the far end of the room.

To add to our joy, the person introducing us didn’t check to see if we were ready. We were not. We’d even gotten to this school fifteen minutes early. Joe was still focusing lights, and wasn’t in costume yet. So, I talked to the kids about microphones, because I was still putting mine on. I explained about electricity, and older schools, and what we were doing. Then when Joe went backstage, I segued into talking about Africa where the story is set. Then we started and they were a really great audience. Very live.

I find that if you know the background of the play you can generally expand a normal introduction for however much time you need. Although I try not to make a practice of needing expansion.

Van rideSo it was off for Shawna and Steven’s house after that. We spend a lot of time in the van, and will be touring almost till Halloween. Notice the pumpkin. Anyway, here’s the view from the van in Seattle.

My last bit of adventure was a small car accident. Yes, I’m fine. I was turning the corner in my very large van and did not see the very small, illegally parked car. It was at a diagonal, partially in an intersection. My wheel became wedded with the front bumper of this car. I couldn’t go forward or backward. We were dropping off Joe and his friend, Matt at Matt’s house. Matt says that this car has been there for two months. It even had a parking ticket.

So we called AAA and the police. AAA pulled the van sideways off the car. The police said that technically I was at fault, but he didn’t want to charge me, so he waived the fine. TOJ’s insurance will deal with the accident, so I’m basically okay. I’m just making really wide turns right now.

My plate

This is what I have on my agenda for the weekend.

  • Arabian Nights scenic design
  • Repair Kids on the Block puppets
  • Pack house
  • Design two websites
  • Clean for new housemate’s arrival

Life with a touring puppeteer: 1998, Day 6

Sunday, October 11, 1998


Rabbits, Carrots and Whales set
Our day together started at 9:40am. Joe came to pick me up in the touring van and we drove to TOJ to do one last run-through of the “Brer Rabbit” part of the show. I was still shaky on some of the lines. Then it was off to Beaverton to set up for our first performance together. It was, as Joe says, trial by fire. The stage was too low for us to fit on. We have a 10 foot ceiling height, so we had to set up on the floor in front. But because we knew they were sold-out we tried to crunch as much as possible by having parts of the set on the floor, and parts on the stage. This created interesting staging concerns. We could no longer go behind the tree.

But things went okay. Since it was a public show, instead of doing our usual demo and Q&A, we just showed the audience puppets up close and answered questions individually. This lets the parents get out with the problem children. And it’s nice for us to have a closer contact with our audience.

Then it was time to pack up the van and head out. It takes us about an hour to set up, and an hour to take down. Everything goes in this van. We also have luggage and the bench seat too. So you can tell that it collapes pretty well.

Now we are on the road to Tacoma, WA. Jodi will be with us today and tomorrow. He and I have a meeting tomorrow with the man who is writing the script for Secret of Singbonga, a tale of India. Tonight we are having Canadian Thanksgiving with our friends, Aaron and MaryClaire.

Life with a touring puppeteer: 1998, Day 2

Tuesday, October 6, 1998

We’ve now had day two of rehearsal. I say rehearsal loosely, because most of it was spent repairing puppets. In addition to Sungura’s ears, the other challenge we faced today was admitting that one of the puppets is missing. We’d hoped yesterday that it would show up, but no- the small Brer Rabbit puppet is gone. Joe spent the day making a new one.

This is a nifty little control. What you are seeing is the armature for a running puppet. It has cables running to two points on the thighs and then down to a toggle. When you rock the toggle, the legs do a lovely running motion.

Joe with the Little Brer Armature
I did manage to fix Sungura’s ears today. I was quite proud of myself. It was one of those repairs, where the more you fixed, the more broken things you find.

Look! His ears are down. I’m holding the control for the ears in my left hand.

Me with Sungura's ears, down
And now, I’ve pulled on the cable and they are up. The head is controled through a bicycle break in my right hand. (I had to fix that too.) If you are interested how I fixed him, you can take a closer look at my repairs. Sungura with his ears up
We did actually get to run through Brer Rabbit several times today. Joe is working Brer. It’s a six rod puppet. He is holding the main control in his right hand and controlling the other four with his left. It’s not as bad as it sounds, but still tricky. The head and body are both manipulated with a Fettig control in Joe’s right hand, so he has two rods there, but only one control.

The stage is not as tall as Joe, and it slopes so he can’t stand up straight, and there are places where I have to duck to. Not good for our posture, eh?

Joe with Brer Rabbit
I’ve got Brer Elephant, who also needed repairs, his head was all wobbly. He’s also a rod puppet, but he has cable controls for his legs, much like the little Brer Puppet. You can kinda see the rocker bar in my right hand. Me with Brer Elephant

Life with a touring puppeteer: 1998

With the move and everything, I’m feeling a wee bit overwhelmed so I’m going to use the wayback machine to post my online journal from a tour in 1998. At the time, I was touring with Tears of Joy, the second largest puppet theater in the US. The tour was a short one, only two weeks, and I covered it on my online journal. I’d just gotten a digital camera, I guess, and had a website on geocities. That was back in the day when it was all hand-coding, none of this fancy-schmancy wordpress stuff.

The puppets were twenty years old. They broke every single freakin’ day on tour. Enjoy.

Monday, October 5, 1998

The picture to our left is of Joe and me realizing that we have to remember this show. We each have performed it in the past, but it’s been a couple of years and we didn’t perform with each other. I’m also doing a role in the show that I haven’t done before, so it’s an adventure.

But seriously, we started by reading through the script to familiarize ourselves with each others rythmn and timing. It was also good to make sure we both know the same version of the show. Sometimes a team has deleted a section, or added an ad lib that stuck. Joe and his last partner have added things that are new to me, but they are fun, so I’ll learn them.

Joe and Me
The next stage was to get on our feet. We worked in sections today on Sungura the Hare, one of the two stories in this show. Joe is working Pembele the rhinocerous in this photo, but he won’t use all of the costume until later in the week.
Joe with Pembele
During the course of today’s rehearsal we discovered several repairs that need doing. These puppets are twenty years old, so they require a bit of love to work. I’m trying to fix Sungura’s ears. They are supposed to go straight up in the air when their string is pulled. Pretty much the first thing that happened today was that it broke. I’ve added the duct tape to test a repair, but the masking tape appears to be original to the puppet, because it has some fiberglass repairs on top of it.

Tomorrow, we’ll have more repairs to make and hopefully rehearse Brer Rabbit

Me and Sungura the Hare

Feed me. Feed me now.

Audrey II, pod 4My company owns a set of Little Shop of Horrors puppets which we rent out to different venues. I just called my storage facility to arrange a visit to the plants so I could check for damage before sending them out on the next rental.

They aren’t there.

They were never returned. I’m trying to track them down now and want to reenact some of the bloodier scenes in the play.

Free Puppet T-shirts to good home

Puppet t-shirtsWell, gentle readers. I’m cleaning house and have a whole passel of puppetry t-shirts ranging from new to very used, and they all have very cool illustrations. Rather than taking them to Goodwill, I thought I would see if any of my puppetry readers wanted them. I’d like to see them go to a good home.

The selection includes a Kermit Warhol, West Coast Puppetfest, UNIMA-USA, Punch and Judy, Center for Puppetry Arts, UNIMA congress Croatia, and National Puppetry Conference.

Edited to add: They have already been spoken for and I’ll be mailing them out on Monday.

More set

Most of the time a set designer draws a pretty picture and then a TD (technical director) makes it a reality. I think I’ve been able to do that with one set. Most of the time, because of the limitations of puppets, I have to think about the mechanical as I’m designing. Also, because I’m usually designing for tour, I have to think about the mechanical to know if what I’m asking my TD to do is even possible.

When we’re in the same town, we can discuss things back and forth and hammer out the details of what goes where and how. With Lance, the TD for Other Hand Productions, all I really have to do is say, “I want it to fold here.” He’s toured enough that he knows what it’s like.

With this particular set, I’m working with a very talented, very professional theater who haven’t really built a school tour before. It’s different and I’m trying to do really detailed drawings so that it’s clear what I need the set to do.

If you are interested, here is a pdf of one set of drawings for Arabian Nights. Next, I have to do a set of side drawings at about this level of detail. I’m hoping that their TD won’t be insulted that I am not just giving them a pretty picture. Last time we tried this they built every thing out of wood. It was very heavy. This is a large part of why we are doing a new set for this tour.