I was talking with a friend of mine and he said that my blog read like “Mary’s Greatest Hits,” because I never talk about the things that go wrong. This surprised me since most of my best puppetry stories are of shows that go horribly, horribly wrong. But he’s right. When I talk about television I’ll say “Oh, this shot was really hard, but we got it in the end.” And in fiction, the stuff that goes wrong usually gets fixed in private. I realized that it’s because I never think about things in television or fiction as going as horribly wrong in the same way they do on stage. I mean, things in stage will go bad in rehearsal, but you rarely tell stories about it. That’s part of the process and the only things that matter are the things the audience sees. In television, I screw up and we do it again. In fiction, that’s what the delete key is for. It never really seems to me like things go wrong.
Rehearsal tonight went fairly smoothly. I’m fortunate to have a pretty good kinetic memory, which means I learn blocking quickly. I compensate for this by having almost no memory for names and a poor one for faces. Luckily! I don’t need either of those when learning a new show.
Even accounting for the kinetic memory, I’m finding Tiger Tales spectacularly easy to learn because someone else is doing all the voices, so all I have to do is focus on the manipulation. Also, because it’s a shadow puppet show, using an overhead projector, I only have to learn my blocking in two dimensions. My puppets, with one exception, always enter from stage left.
The challenge comes once they are on stage because, well, somone else is doing all the voices. While that relieves me from the pressure of learning lines, it also means that I have to pay ferocious amounts of attention to the inflections of his voice and try to match my movement to his. Add to that the fact that my puppets can only move in two dimensions and I have to use that narrow range to express emotion. Some of the figures have no moving parts at all, so it’s all about the angle and rhythm of their movement.
So this show, which on the surface looks so easy to learn, actually presents interesting challenges to perform well.
If you are near Orlando on Saturday, I hope you come see a show and say hello afterwards. And now, I need to go finish packing.
Today was one of those days that looked like I had nothing on the calendar and then I was out of the apartment all day. I started with breakfast and tea with a friend, then trotted off to the Puppet Kitchen to show some of the saw players I met this weekend around. From there I went to rehearsal for Tiger Tales.
There was some writing on the subway but I only managed to get 455 words in today. That brings me close to wrapping Chapter 5, which will hopefully happen tomorrow.
Knowing my interesting in movement, my mother-in-law just sent me this video of 21 dancers, all deaf. I watched this the first time accidentally without sound. I had the speakers turned off but just thought it was silent on purpose. No, there’s music, but watching it without is a heck of a lot more compelling because you realize the incredible amount of rehearsal they must have gone through to be this synchronized.
Lately, my schedule has been keeping time with Rob’s which means that we’re often up until 2 a.m.Â The advantage to this is that when he goes to bed, I can continue recording in the quietest time.Â The downside is when I have to be up early the next morning.Â Like today.
I had a rehearsal this morning for a show that Jodi and I are doing on March 12th. It’s a very short piece which involves me being a dish, a fork and a bowl.Â Jodi plays a spoon, a knife and a plate. The tension and high drama!Â Actually, I think it’s a good little piece and I’ll post a link to the show information later.
I went straight from that rehearsal to a production meeting for a different show where I’m building some crows and a box of entrails.Â Really, I have the best job.
When you demand a prop, a strange and difficult to acquire prop, which requires some hours of time to get for you, please think carefully when presented with the object before you announce that you prefer what you’ve been using in rehearsal.
Many thanks for your time and attention.
A prop master who is checking on the return policy.
So… let’s recap today. Pilot overslept. Then thunderstorms. Still no pilot. Plane delayed by two hours. Miss D.C. connection. Rebooked on a flight for 6:15 am the next day. Sad. Get standby flight. Happy! Flight is delayed. Why? LaGuardia wasn’t letting flights in. Sad. Finally arrive in NYC. All buses are running! Happy! All buses Except mine. Sad.
I think, if I’m doing accounting for the timezone right, it took me thirteen hours to get home today.
And then! I made props and went to the theater to watch the dress rehearsal. Happy? Bed now. Happy!!!
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
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.
I have missed performing. And it’s not just the getting up in the audience that I’ve missed, it’s the rehearsals. The process of working out a show is strange and fascinating, especially if you have collaborators that you can trust.
We’ve been rehearsing Peter and the Wolf for a couple of days now (minus a trip to ballpark for me) but yesterday marked the first day that I’ve been actively onstage. Since my puppet doesn’t arrive from China until Tuesday (we hope) the focus has been on scenes that I’m not in. We’ve run out of those, so started staging Peter’s scenes with me standing in for the puppet. It’s fun and odd.
I have to think about the kinds of movements the puppet is likely to be able to do and work through that. For instance, if you look at the illustration of the puppet (by Simon Wong director of the Ming Ri institute in Hong Kong) you can see that I’ll be standing behind it, which means that if I turn the puppet’s back to the audience all they’ll see is me. So I’m going through the rehearsals playing me as a puppet playing Peter.
It’s fun. I hope my guesses are remotely close to the puppet’s range of movement.
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.
I’ve just been cast as Peter in Peter and the Wolf. It’s a workshop production put on in joint collaboration with Terry OReilly, a long time member of Mabou Mines, and a Chinese puppet company– Guangxi Puppet Art Troupe with live music performed by Matrix Music.
Performances are April 18, 19 and 20 at the Abrams Art Center. I’ll post details and of course rehearsal updates as we go.
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.
(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, […]