Today actually began with snow, freezing rain, and many subway lines being down. A lot of the participants had to walk to the workshop today, but such was our zeal that pretty much everyone made it and made it on time. We traded stories of wading through slushy morasses and generally all seemed to feel a certain masochistic pleasure, you know… “Back in my day, we had to slog to puppet workshops through calf-deep slush, uphill! Both ways!”
Still, because of the transit difficulties, Marty, Peter and Matt started us with the Q&A portion that they’d planned for the end of the day. Questions were things like, “Differences between TV and film puppetry?” Answer: Very little. The biggest is that often you have a crew that has never worked with puppets on a film, whereas a tv show, because of the repetition, they are more likely to figure things out. Also, there’s sometimes a flicker on the monitor if the video feed is coming from behind the shutter.
Once we were all assembled, they started demonstrating how to do rolly work. A rolly, or rollie… hm. Never seen it spelled before. Anyway– a rolly is a small rolling stool, sort of like rolling stool in which the cushion is attached directly to the castors. Plus some noise dampening stuff, like a baffle round the outside edge and some extra foam to control echoes. They started with two characters, Telly Monster and Wilbur (not his real name), a little green puppet.
They showed basic tricks like, “loading,” which means stretching your legs in front of you in the direction you need to move, so you can pull yourself in, rather than having to move with little steps. Once positioned, you pulled your legs up, or tucked to the side to make room for the other puppeteer. They demonstrated changing position with other puppeteers. How to interact with a live actor and two puppeteers. Showed us how to “bobsled,” which is when you line up your rollies and straddle each other like bobsled racers. The biggest thing, through all of that, was having an awareness, through peripheral vision, of what was happening around you and making space for your fellow performers.
Then Matt and Peter stepped out, and let the participants start rotating through the scene. I hopped in to live-hand for Telly. I probably should have gone for the rod puppet instead, since assisting is what I did on Lazytown, and I have actually live-handed for Telly a couple of times (Back in Elmo in Grouchland, when Marty’s usual right hand, Pam Arciero, wasn’t available). I will admit that I headed for Telly simply because it’s fun and Marty is a joy to assist. Telly’s intentions are so clear, through the breath and rhythm that it’s like being partnered with a really, really good ballroom dancer. I just have to follow and not screw up. No idea how I actually did, but Marty didn’t grab the right hand, which is a way lead puppeteers will restrain wild assistants. On the other hand, he may have just been letting people screw around and screw up on purpose. Regardless… such fun.
Also fun to watch other people jump in and improvise. While they were doing that, Matt came in and said, “How many people here have wet feet from the slush?”
Most of the hands went up.
“Who would like dry socks?”
My hand totally shot up. Waterproof boots are great, unless they are only ankle high and the water/slush/doom is higher. The reason I tell you this is not to make you jealous of my dry socks but because this sort of generosity of spirit characterized the entire week. It’s not just that Marty, Matt, Peter and the folks at Sesame Street were willing to share their experience with us, but they think about us as individual people, too. My feet offer their thanks.
After that, they handed out actual Sesame Street scripts. I was in a group of six people doing a bit called “Sons of Poetry.” My team made a couple of mistakes. They had said that we had only twenty minutes to put the piece together so we needed to get it up on its feet as quickly as possible. They also said that twenty minutes was way, way more time than they ever had to plan things. So my team read through the script quietly, divvied up parts, and then grabbed puppets and tried to rough block it AND do our read aloud at the same time. That was a mistake.
Marty and Peter saw us and came to suggest that we should probably do a table-read first. (Table reading means you read it, usually at a table, without puppets) Basically, that would give us a way to figure out pacing and beats before we were attached to puppets. So we put the figures down and did that. We should have done it first, because the time we spent rough blocking, while not totally wasted, was not used as efficiently as if we had table-read it first.
We were up third. Now, I don’t have our version to show you, but I CAN show you the original Sesame Street sketch. When you watch it, know that I played Jax in our version, although we were not using those puppets.
I didn’t get to see that clip until I started writing this up tonight. What is interesting to me is that our blocking was very similar. The Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett characters were center screen. We had two Sons of Poetry on the left, and two on the right.
Our version was… rough.
We tended to sink in the frame. For me, this was straight-up fatigue. My puppet was one of the taller ones, so I was stretched to full height and on my toes. If I’d been thinking, I would have taken my shoes off, because I have a weird thing with the way my feet are built so I can go onto my toes and “lock” there. This is handy because it means that I don’t usually need an applebox to be taller.
A brief digression. When one puppeteer is too short, they put them on a box, which is called an apple box. Apple boxes are a weird industry term leftover from when they were actually boxes, that are now standard heights. The downside to having them is that it means the short person is locked in place and the tall people have to work around a box on the floor..
Back to the scene. As handy as it would have been to “lock” onto my toes, it’s also good that I didn’t because it means stocking feet, which would not have been a good choice today because… Midway through the scene, as the Sons of Poetry were heading for one of their huddles, while the Browning and Barrett puppeteers were backing upstage out of our way. One of them stepped on my foot as I was trying to clear, and caught me at at angle so I literally fell out of frame.
(Oddly, this happened on the first day as well — I will say, that I found both hilarious. While collisions happen less often in a group of seasoned pros because they are more aware of their surroundings, you do just sort of run into each other sometimes. Marty told us a story about getting actually knocked out during a scene. I also took an elbow to the jaw yesterday, but saw it coming and turned with it. Tight spaces. Limited vision. Hands wrapped in foam. Accidents happen. Most of my injuries in life have been from puppetry. Ask me in a bar sometime about the Little Shop accident that took me out of puppetry for two years.)
Anyway, I got the puppet up again as quickly as I could, but it was entirely without finesse. We had some missed lines and other bobbles. It was a good experience, but I wish I had a chance to run it again.
We watched the other teams run through and get their notes as well.
And then… it was over.
I wanted more time. Desperately, wanted more time. I felt like I was just hitting the point where I was going to be able to start finessing things when we had to stop playing. Of course, that fits in with the old adage, “How long does it take to make a puppet show? One more day.” A group of us went out for lunch and met up with some of the next group of twenty-five. We shared notes and were all sad that we wouldn’t get to play together tomorrow.
It was an amazing week.