Posts Tagged ‘Puppetry’

School tour set design goals

HamelinTouring to schools is different from touring to venues in one major way. The performers set up the show in schools. In venues, you frequently have stagehands. School tours also often have to set up and tear down the same show at two different locations in a day.

Here’s what I’m thinking about when I design a set for a school tour.

  • Each item that needs to be carried in counts for about five minutes of set up time, which means that each item added to the set adds five minutes.
  • Each item that has to be carried by two people counts as two items–ten minutes
  • Each loose pin hinge or bolt with wingnut adds one to two minutes. (Oh, and by the end of the tour, all loose pins will be replaced by coathangers because the performers will have lost them.)
  • Each movement required to set it up counts for thirty seconds.
    For instance, say that I have a light and two walls next to each other. Each requires an upright support. If they can all use the same upright, I’ve cut two items. In an ideal world, an item will come out of the truck with a single person, go straight to the place where it needs to be and snap in place. Better yet, that same person can carry in multiple items at once–here I trade extra movements (set the items down, unpack) for extra trips. Extra trips cost more time, so the extra movements are worth it.

  • Cut every extra ounce. If I cut enough ounces, I’ve cut a pound. Since in a school tour the performers are the ones who do the set up, it’s vital to make the set as light as possible. It also makes it more likely that they can carry multiple items in a trip, thus reducing setup time and saving their energy for performance.
  • Sticky out things suck. When you have to shove something into a van or truck and pull it out every day, you will curse the one bracket that sticks out and catches on everything.
  • Measuring adds time, focusing adds time so I want a set that locks together so that distances are fixed. For some shows this isn’t a real issue, but anytime I am doing work with shadows or Czech black it becomes vital.

So my goal is to reduce all of these. The fewer items and the lighter they are means the better the performance will be. That doesn’t mean a simple set, it just means a lot of thought and time building it. The set in this picture is 20′ x 20′, sets up in half an hour and comes out of a standard van. Then we do a forty-five minute operetta with two people and eighteen puppets. We couldn’t do that with a heavier set.

Sometimes it’s better not to know.

I’ve had three different people ask me how my day was, to which I answered “fine.” They then pressed for details expecting, no doubt, me to regail them with tales of puppets gone bad. Alas. I’m working on a spreadsheet, which I explained. Two of the people did not believe me when I explained that it is deathly boring.

For those unbelievers, here is one of the formulas that I’m writing.

IF(AND(B2< =5;OR(C3<=5;C3=11;C2=1);OR(B3<=5;B3=11));"in January - May, and November";IF(AND(B2<6;B3>5;B3<11;OR(C2=1;AND(C3>5;C3<11)));”in June-October”;IF(AND(B3=12;OR(C3=12;C2=1));”in December”;IF(AND(B2=6;OR(C3=5;C3=10;C2=1);OR(B3=5;B3=10));”in May and October”;IF(AND(B2>6;B2<9;B3>4;B3<11);”in May – October”;IF(OR(B2=9;B2=10);”year round.”;IF(AND(OR(AND(Formulas.C3>5;Formulas.C3<10);C2=1);AND(B3>5;B3<10));”in June-September”;”THE MONTH FIELD DOES NOT MATCH THE DATE ENTERED”)))))))

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Puppets in the New York Times

Santa and RudolphI’m not often jealous of my friends, but in this case… oh yes. Thank heavens, Santa has already come, or I’d wind up on the naughty list for my covetous thoughts.

In the Sunday New York Times, I learned that the original stop-motion Rudolph and Santa puppets are on exhibit at the Center for Puppetry Arts. That gave me an immediate, “ooo! neat!” reaction, and then I read this…

For restoration, he turned to another stop-motion studio, Screen Novelties, in Los Angeles. There, Robin Walsh, a puppet maker, ordered kid mohair for Santa’s beard, consulted museum restoration experts for the best ways to clean painted wood and grimy wool, and discovered, by freezing frames from “Rudolph,” that Santa’s mouth had once been painted. The broken lead wires in the puppets’ arms and legs also needed to be replaced.

The hardest thing, Ms. Walsh said, was getting over her fear of handling the puppets.

“I was holding my childhood in my hands,” she said.

Robin and I were at the Center at the same time. She’s gone on to work with Ray Harryhausen and do other mind-numbingly cool things.

To read the whole article, you have to be logged into the New York Times, but it’s pretty amazing and worth it.

George Latshaw

I just found out that George Latshaw passed away.

When I was in college, I got an internship at the Center for Puppetry Arts. To add to my good fortune, I was assigned to the cast of Wizard of Oz, directed by George Latshaw. I had already read his book, The Complete Book of Puppetry, and was stunned to be able to work with him.

He was kind, witty, charming and wouldn’t let me get away with anything less than my best. My work in puppetry was so strongly shaped by the month under his tutelage, that I can’t even begin to dissect what George taught me from my understanding of the art form. The following summer, I went to the Eugene O’Neil Theater Center for the National Puppetry Conference and spent ten intense days working on George’s Bonsai Boy. I remember him saying that he’d spent his whole life with one foot in puppetry and one foot in theater and that he wanted to be able to stand with both feet under him. My God, that connected with me and still does.

The thing about George that remains so inspiring is that he was constantly engaged with life and pushing the boundaries of the art form. I’ve said before that I wanted to be George Latshaw when I grew up; by that I mean that I want to maintain that childlike enthusiasm and interest in life. Oh. Oh, I miss him.

Arabian Nights revisited

Last year, I designed the set of Arabian Nights for McCarter theater’s touring production. They have re-imagined the show, eliminating the frame story and making other changes significant enough that the existing set doesn’t make sense any more. At the same time, there are scenes within the show that they did like and want to use those scenic elements.

Jon Ludwig, whose work I adore, is directing the show. When I was an intern at the Center for Puppetry Arts, I was extraordinarily lucky to be in a production of Wizard of Oz, with Jon as the scarecrow, and George Latshaw directing. If you’re a puppeteer, I don’t have to explain how cool this is. For the rest of you, suffice to say that that combo makes may puppeteers drool with envy. Anyway, this is my first chance to work with Jon since my intern days, which were fifteen years ago. (GAH!)

Here is a teaser of what one of the options for the new set. We’re still playing around with looks, but I’m basically riffing off of Rajasthani puppetry.

Arabian Nights

We pretty much like the proscenium, but are still working on the front curtain. If you are curious, you can download the pdfs of the sample curtains and the different scenes. Both files are massive. The ground plans are here; these is all very rough right now as we’re still defining the look.

Back on the boat

So. For those of you who have only recently begun reading my blog, I’ll do a little backstory. In 2000, I had a wrist injury and wound up having to take about two years off from puppetry while things healed. I got a job at the Portland Spirit, a river cruise dinner boat, in their sales department. Yes. I was a sales weasel.

When the wrist was better, I had recognized the glories of being able to turn down the types gigs which I found loathsome, which a steady job allows one to do, so I stayed with the company, but switched to waiting tables. Yes. I was a singing waitress.

They are used to people in theater and have noooo problem with me saying, “Hey, I’ve got a gig, I’ll be gone for five months. Is that okay?” They have been amazingly supportive of me and have a track record of taking really good care of their people. Anyway, before I got back to Portland, knowing that the holiday season is busy, I dropped Dennis a line and said, “If you need any help…”

Fool. Little did I know that they had acquired a second boat and were understaffed in addition to the usual holiday crunch. Dennis also told Lori, in the sales office, that I was coming back, and she asked me to do some training for their new sales staff as well as updating some different computer thingies that I set up. Despite using the word “thingie,” I was the sales department’s token computer geek. The company has an IT guy, but I was the bridge between the two because I can speak geek and sales. It’s a handy skill.

This is great, it’s income and it’s with people that I like. But.

But in the past, the two departments have always had to juggle my schedule to avoid putting me into overtime. Knowing that I’m only in town for a limited time, the president has given them permission to put me into overtime. Heh. So, if my number of posts declines a wee bit in the next couple of weeks, you now know why.

No puppets?!?

Oh my. I just realized that, in Shades of Milk and Honey, I’ve created a world where it’s quite likely that shadow puppetry would never have arisen. In fact, I think that puppetry and mask work may only have come up as a form of sham glamour.

This is very strange for me.

I’m thinking that if it did arise it would be like the interplay of Kabuki and Bunraku, or even as the puppet operas did. A way to poor-man’s way to mimic what the “real” artists did, and then gradually become an art form of it’s own. Okay. Yes, I can see that happening.


Mind you, this has almost zero bearing on the story. But still. A world without puppets? Ugh. I shudder.

For those of you who are not reading along as I post chapters, I’ve posited that magic works, but it’s confined to glamour, so a glamourist can make illusions but it takes a physical toll in the form of energy, just like running up a hill or biking in the wind. The more complicated the illusion, the more energy. It’s relegated to a women’s art, along with painting, music and embroidery and they are frequently fainting from over-exerting themselves.

In fact, the vocabulary they use to discuss it is taken from dressmaking. If a piece of glamour is “tied off” then it can continue without costing the creator energy, but it is tied in place. So a person can use folds of glamour to create an image of a character but have to constantly work the folds if they want the character to move around. That would be its own form of puppetry and maybe someone would have created a physical puppet in order to work multiple characters at once, without fainting.

My waaaay deep idea is that it developed as a protective technique and then as people evolved it slowly had less importance until it became strictly a decorative art.

Maybe I should be writing the novel now instead of rambling about the imaginary relationship between puppets and magic in my Regency England.

Puppets, dialogue and me

So for the last two days I was at work, shooting commercials and other small things for the show. It felt really, really good to do some puppetry again. Mostly it was my standard routine of fetching carts, and hats for the puppeteer. I did do some hand work for a couple of different shots. We were shooting some dancing and the puppet needed to clap. It’s just plain easier for the lead puppeteer to let someone else take over the rods and handle the clapping.

Besides the choreographed stuff, we also had a sort of free-dance. I was in live hands and following the lead puppeteer. It’s sort of like ballroom dancing, except not as graceful. The goal is to look like one being, even though there are two of us dancing. It’s fun. Sometimes it was successful and sometimes it was disjointed. I had some trouble because the elastic rode up on my right arm. I kept my arm out of the shot, but the puppet’s arm got really short. That probably doesn’t make sense, huh?

It’s like this. My arm enters the puppet at the elbow of the puppet, but my elbow and the puppet’s elbow are not lined up. These are supposed to be kids, so their arms are much shorter than mine. The puppet’s elbow lines up with the middle of my forearm. Make sense? So, the puppet has this stump that attaches to my arm with elastic. If the elastic slides toward my wrist, the puppet’s forearm gets shorter. I’m sure my sleeve flashed a couple of times, but they will only use short portions of this. We did it multiple times. Both of us were out of breath at the end. It’s amazing what six weeks off will do to a body.

Thank heavens I’ve been biking. I guess I should start lifting weights too.

After I finished the puppetry, I switched roles to dialogue coach. They had asked me to do this because they needed a native English speaker to make sure nothing was wonky. Just like the trouble I’m having with Icelandic, it’s the small words that trip people up. Most shots, I was there just to say, “Yep, the English is clean.” Very occasionally, I would say something like, “It’s ‘having a ball’ not ‘having ball.'” My personal favorite was supposed to be “Throw it up here,” except the line came out minus the “it.”

I thought I would speak nothing but Icelandic, since I was the only foreigner on set. But with the dialogue coaching, I never got out of the habit of speaking English. Someday.

Prepping for fiberglass

Unfortunately, the battery on my camera died so I don’t have very many pictures of this part of the process.

Polar bear sculpt with jaw detachedI first removed the lower jaw and then carved out an upper and lower palate for the bear. While I’ll fiberglass all of it, I’ll wind up cutting some away later giving the bear a hard and a soft palate. This will make the performer more comfortable, by allowing more air to flow through and also avoiding hard poky bits of fiberglass. I put the jaw back on for the photo so you can see how our bear will look with his mouth open. Isn’t that a nice smile?

Profile of bear with jaw detachedIn the profile, you can also see that I’ve removed his nose. I’ll be making the nose out of leather so it’s nicer to touch. I’m also planning on cutting part of the snout off and replacing it with foam, to make the nose friendlier. I’m expecting the bear to do a lot of hugging at the children’s hospital. If the performer misjudges the distance in a hug, which can happen when your nose is suddenly ten centimeters longer than it has been, then the softer nose will cushion any bumps. Besides, kids will like to squeeze it. I don’t know why but they always seem to do that with puppets.

Hey. I wonder what would happen if we put a squeaker in the nose. Hm… I might have to look into that, it could be very cute.

After this, everything gets vaselined and goes under fiberglass.

Reading Aloud 7: Breathing

This entry is part 7 of 17 in the series Reading Aloud

In puppetry we say that breathe carries the emotion. The only time a person notices another person breathing is when it’s important, when it’s carrying information. The simplest example is what happens when you look at someone lying down. You automatically notice if they are breathing, to make certain they aren’t dead.

But there are other things that breath comunicates. If you see someone, whose chest is heaving then you know that he’s just exherted himself. Laughter is a form of breath. And how many characters do you know who have gasped in surprise. The quality of breath indicates how someone feels.

When you are performing a character this is good to remember, but it’s also important to remember when you are speaking as yourself or as the narrator. If your breath comes rapidly, you will convey an unconcious sense of panic to the audience. So let’s talk about how to breathe while speaking.

This is a fairly mechanical way to remember, but it is where I breathe and will help your reading in general. Breathe after every period. If it’s just a quick catch breath, then you’ll convey a sense of urgency so think about whether that’s appropriate. Besides improving the flow of oxygen, it will force you to pause after periods which is generally a good idea.

Really, what I’m asking you to do is to inhale before beginning your next sentence. It’s something you do naturally when you speak or act, because your brain a) stops to gather its thoughts or b) knows how much air you need for the next sentence so it catches it.

The period acts as a stop sign. While you are in that tiny space between sentences, read ahead quickly with your eyes. You’re cueing your brain on how big of a breath it needs to take.

You are also setting the emotional tone for your piece. A thoughtful passage might have longer pauses, while a shorter one will be more clipped with less space for breath. You know when you’re writing an action sequence and reach for the shorter sentence? In part you are doing that because it gives the impression of faster breaths. Allow me to demonstrate. I’ll read the same passage with even breaths and then again with faster ones. Naturally, this affects pacing in general.



See how much the tone changes by picking up the tempo?

So, unless your fiction is full of spine-tingling thrills, remember to breathe. In some ways, you can think of that space between sentences as the space for thought. The more the thought changes between sentences, the more space you’ll want to allow for it.

And really pause for a couple of nice good breaths at section breaks. Not only do you deserve the oxygen, you also are cueing the listeners that things are changing.

Of course, in an ideal world, this would only be for cold readings. You will have practised this at home and will have built the breaths in. In fact, when you are preparing your manuscript for reading, you can use the singer’s mark for breath. Put an oversize apostrophe anywhere you know that you really need to take a breath for the emotional content of the piece.

And deep breath before you go on stage, just to get rid of the tension.

Now. Here’s a special treat, just for Jason. One more way that breath can change a reading.

Puppets getting a bad name, again.

I read the discussion on Miss Snark, the literary agent about Sock Puppets and I’m saddened to see puppets once again taking a bashing.

Back in the early days of the blog I’d surf around the net to see what people were saying about me. One of the recurring themes I found both hilarious and strange was “she comments on her own blog anonymously” and “she makes up letters”. I wondered what kind of total nitwit would do that, let alone what double nitwit would think I had to make up anything.

Wellllllllllll, come to find out there’s a term, sock puppet, for aliases people use who comment on their own blogs, or defend themselves on their own blogs.

At least, in this case, the analogy is a fairly apt one. Sock puppets are usually made by someone sitting around at home. They usually are crudely constructed and monodimensional, often badly manipulated. But not always. Still, it’s better than the standard use of “puppet” as a metaphor. It’s at least specific as to the type of puppet.

Mirror, mirror

I went in today to hold up puppets for a photoshoot. They needed all of pictures of all of the puppets in all of their costumes. It went surprisingly quickly, thanks to the photographer and our wranglers and wardrobe department.

The photographer was standing in front of a mirror, so I could see to focus the puppets’ eyes on him, but my brain kept trying to make it a monitor. It was very amusing. He’d say, “Move left” and I’d move right. Sigh…

New things said at work.

To kind of shake things up a little, I thought I’d explain what these things mean this time.

Things said at work.

  1. I need to get his head in my lap.
  2. Will it be faster if we just take her arms off?
  3. What kind of head do you want?
  4. Our director said, “I need more red in the blue zone.”
  5. Will you put the car on top of him?
  6. I’m already looking under my own armpit.
  7. He’s twitching. Is that normal?
  8. Another puppeteer said, “The problem with going up his ass is where to put my head.”
  9. I’ve done better balls than that.
  10. “Head, head, head! Come on, squirt it. Now give me a good cherry.”

What things really mean.

  1. In this shot I was doing live hands for a character and we were working on the floor. The only comfortable position was if the lead puppeteer used me as a cushion, but because we were between two set pieces it took a bit of wedging to get into place…that explanation doesn’t really improve things, does it?
  2. We needed to change a puppet’s clothes, and the arms velcro in place. Because the puppet had rods in his hands, it looked like it would be easier to unvelcro.
  3. The puppets have two types of head, one where the puppeteer enters through the neck and one where they enter through the back of the head.
  4. I work there and I have no idea what this meant.
  5. If a puppet is in a car, it means there’s a puppeteer under the car.
  6. Frequently while performing with live hands, the only way to keep my head out of shot is to bend it as far forward and down as possible. With my hands over my head, this means that the easiest place to see a monitor is if it’s positioned so I am looking under my own arm.
  7. There was a remote control puppet on set. Sometimes radio signals will override the control and cause a puppet to twitch.
  8. The discussion was about a puppet sitting down on a bench, which means it would have legs and a seat, where the puppet normally truncates at the waist. So the puppeteer could get his hand inside the puppet but then his head would appear to be chopped off and on the bench next to him.
  9. I was throwing balls, and it went wrong in a take. The ones before had been better.
  10. This is what happens when puppets make cakes.

Keeping honest

It’s been awhile since I posted one of these. I’ve been editing and set poor Pimi to the side. I’m not sure how many words I’ve written today, because I forgot to look at my wordcount before I started.


Pimi fingered a length of cloth on a low shelf in the clothier’s shop.


He gestured to a curtained area. “We keep them here.”

Besides this, I spent the better part of the day watching puppets talk to each other. I’m fairly certain that I did no manipulation myself, although yesterday was very busy.