My journey creating and producing puppetry... trials, tribulations, inspiration and contemplation.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Winter's Children

Photo above is from my latest project which bowed yesterday. I was asked by my friends at Just Off Broadway, Inc. to include a short puppet piece for their Dinner with Santa event. My good friend and fellow puppeteer Rich Hotaling suggested using the Winter's Children poem for a performance by the puppets. My friendly monster Russell, in the foreground, played the part of Wind. With a faux branch of brown leaves, he swayed the branch back and forth as he delivered his poetry with command and character. Drew and Sheila, the humanoid puppets, stepped into the roles of Jack Frost and Ice respectively. Both are from my show Helping Drew. Costumes were made by my very talented friend Hannah Butler. I fashioned pointy ears for Drew made to slip on his original ears. Ice crown and snow crown were made by myself. The friendly white monster Snow was specially built by myself for this production.

We had four days to record and rehearse but, all told, only about a ten minute piece. New dialogue was written in between the verses of the poem for banter between the characters. The 'Old Man Winter' part of the poem was replaced by Mother Nature who was played by a live human actor, Cat Capolupo. Cat is one of those actors who understands immediately the direction given to her and flawlessly creates magic with her performance. Her interaction with the puppets was reminiscent of The Magic Garden and early Sesame Street. She inspires me to want to create more puppet/human interactive pieces.

At the conclusion of Winter's Children, Mother Nature sang a beautiful rendition of Winter Wonderland, naturally, joined by the puppets as they swayed and broke out in various ad-libs. As the evening wound up, puppeteers came out front to join the elves and our young guests in a Christmas carol sing-along. Naturally, we stuck around for pictures with our guests and a couple kids had hugs for the puppets as well. It's safe to say, the puppets were the hit of the evening. I'm already looking forward to creating a yearly tradition with our friends at Just Off Broadway, Inc. and thinking up new, creative ideas for each show.

Puppeteers David Manley as Jack Frost, John Marro as Wind and Rich Hotaling as Snow

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Pondering Master Puppeteer and Puppet Performance

I have some puppet build and latest project news I thought would be my next post but, I don't have all the images just yet. Instead, my mind was wrapped around what it means to be a master puppeteer and the idea of realistic hand/rod puppet performance.

My promotional video for Helping Drew was shot at the end of a long day and just after a showcase which was just filmed. I knew the producer would need my interview and I can still see how bleary-eyed I was in that clip. I was asked about my goals and blurted out what I thought was the ultimate goal as a child. I had always heard the term "Jim Henson, Master Puppeteer" and that's what I aspired to. What I didn't realize when I was 10 was "Master Puppeteer" is a term that you don't just achieve, it is a title that is bestowed upon you by others, not something you can easily 'claim' unless you are Jim Henson, Bill Baird or even Basil Twist. A college journalism major interviewed me for a paper she was doing on someone following their passion. She had prepared by looking over my website and watched the promotional video for Helping Drew. She asked me to expand on the idea of being a master puppeteer and I laughed. I mentioned how I could not claim that title and was certainly no master but it's still something I attempt to strive for. I offered her that a master is obviously someone who has mastered the craft and can also indicate teacher. What the O'Neill Puppetry Conference stresses are the three disciplines that comprise puppetry: creating a narrative; building the puppet and training the performer. Those are, certainly, all things that Jim Henson encompassed as a master puppeteer. Creating a narrative can be something as simple as the puppet's character. It creates a relatable back-story that enables the audience to relate to the character. It goes hand in hand with bringing that inanimate object to life... not just flopping a puppet around but, really breathing life into it as only a true puppeteer - an artist - can.

I use hand/rod puppets in the 'Henson' style. Whether I'm working with students at the theatrical academy or working with a new puppeteer for Helping Drew, I want them to get the subtlety of the mouth movement and how to create the reality of bringing that inanimate object to life. These thoughts kept me up last night as I jotted the following into my notebook.

When you make the mouth of a puppet move, you are not just simulating the syllables of its speech escaping its mouth. You are simulating SUBTLE jaw movement to give the appearance of life-like speech. This is more subtle than trying to get the mouth open on every syllable. A good puppeteer will not have to open the puppet mouth on every syllable but still give a very realistic appearance that the puppet is actually talking. Getting syllables out does not equate believability. Gesture and nuance and being subtle makes the performance believable.

For example, if a puppet says "Hi, I'm Dave, how are you?" You do not need to open the puppet mouth 6 times. The words "how are" flow together and require only one movement. The words "how are you" require only 2 pulses of the hand. In the Helping Drew script, Lee sings "Jokes make people laugh". Although 5 syllables, they require only 3 pulses. Gentle pushes and turn of the hand will color the performance to make it look as if the puppet is speaking every syllable. Also, when we learn the basics of theatre, emphasis is put on the actor being IN the scene. Just as you would act and react to what is happening around you, so must a puppet in whatever scene they are in.

There was a great piece, I think, in the book "Of Muppets and Men" where the discussion regarded the proper lip-sync being central to the performance. That needed to come naturally before the rest of the performance for the puppeteer to be on their game. One of my favorite videos on puppet speech is a short clip of Frank Oz in this compilation [below]. His explanation of puppet lip-sync starts around the 4:03 mark.