Handmade by Computers

Terrible Comfort updates and thinks

Archive for puppet history

old style puppets and performers

An old man called Norman Brown came to perform at our school the other day. He told jokes, juggled, could play a massive variety of instruments (including a bass oboe and a keyed bugle which was 200 years old and made before they’d invented trumpets) and he also had a bunch of trick marionettes and a ventriloquist dummy that he’s clearly been using for a long time.

The trick marionettes were fantastic to watch. I’ve read about old style trick marionettes in books and online but this was the first time I’ve ever seen them in use. There was a sausage dog that ran all over the kids and then balanced a bone on it’s nose, there was a clown that walked up to a acrobat bar, hung from it and flipped around (imagine a puppet with strings to a controller doing that!) and there was a skeleton who danced around and then came apart to all the separate bones.

Although I’m pretty good at looking at something and figuring out how it’s been built, I was completely stumped by these guys. Partly because they were always moving and jittering around, but partly because there were so many strings and I have no idea how they were all attached.

I made a marionette once, from instructions that appear to no longer be on the net, and she was beautiful and I was really happy with her, but she was really very simple. These marionettes were really complicated and I’m still in awe at the craftsmanship.

The other puppet he had in his repertoire was a ventriloquist dummy called Monty. The kids were delighted with Monty, they loved him. He, again, was an old fashioned and very complicated puppet. His eyes moved independently of each other, he could wink and blink, his arm and his tie lifted up, his bottom jaw moved up and down and at the end he was prompted to smile by Norman which involved his top lip lifting up to show his top teeth. Just incredible. The kids were delighted and after the show kept calling for “the man in the box” (he’d come out of a suitcase). When he first appeared, Norman had asked all the kids to shout WAKE UP MONTY to start the show. Later I found one of the Prep students standing by Monty’s suitcase whispering to it. When I asked her what she was doing, she said that Monty was still asleep in his box and that he couldn’t hear her, but if all the children shouted WAKE UP MONTY again, that he would wake up and POP out of his box to talk to them again. As she said ‘POP’ she jumped up in the air and had the most hopeful smile on her face.

Later in class they were all trying to figure out how Monty worked. They knew he wasn’t real, but with their hearts I think they still hoped. They referred to him as the real pretend man, and they thought maybe he was a robot with a soundtrack inside.

It was incredible to see just how much their hearts and imagination were captured by the puppets that Norman performed, and it again makes me think that puppets are such an incredible resource in the classroom.

And I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have seen these old style of puppets, puppets I’ve only ever read about, in use.


Paper Puppets from last century

I was just looking for quick and interesting paper puppets to make with children and I came across this page: http://www.barnaclepress.com/list.php?directory=Papercraft It’s a number of items of papercraft printed by the New York Times around the 1920s. They’re all single page PDFs with suprisingly detailed figures that are articulated, including photographers, blacksmiths, carpenters and a guy listening to the radio that can be coloured in, cut out and constructed. They’re wonderfully arcahic, and I’m figuring that some of the stuff in the prints will have to be explained to the kids, but still none the less I think they’re a wonderful resource.

I’ve printed a few out and I’m going to be putting them together at home. Rather exciting!

the scarcity of puppet resources

I’ve been searching the net for things. Puppet related things, well amongst others. I’ve found  heaps of How To puppet resources

how to make a finger puppet

how to make glove puppets with your class

how to make simple marionettes with children ect

and there’s heaps of puppet companies out there with web presences, most of whom make puppet shows for children, with lots of fun bright colourful photos of the shows.

What I have difficulty finding is the other side of puppetry. Puppeteers discussing their craft, not just the How Tos, but the Whys. No one ever talks about Why they do it. I have difficulty finding people who muse about the/their chosen artform. Who talk about what they’re doing and why (rather than just selling the show to a prospective audience). Who get into discussions about why people relate to puppets, what it is that gives puppets their hold over people, makes them so fascinating (the only one I’ve found so far is Puppetrylab http://puppetrylab.com/ whose authors talks about a number of different parts of the art of puppetry and puppet theatre as well as occasional thinks about the form itself)

It’s hard to find comprehensive puppet history on the net. I’ve read a number of books, all that I can find, but I’d love to be able to find comprehensive, detailed information of each country’s  puppet history, and how great would that be if it was electronic?

I’d love to find that the puppetry community has created a worldwide forum to talk about their craft. I was interested to read that UNIMA, the international puppetry association has just released their first, massively comprehensive Encyclopedia of Puppetry, which took them 15 years to write. According to the UNIMA USA site, it is:

2 1/4″ thick and weighs nearly 4 kilos (9 pounds) with 864 pages, all in French. There are 506 plates (10″ x 11 3/4″).
The book was proposed in 1978, revived in 1995 and published in November 2009. There were 39 editors and fact checkers, 9 translators and 234 contributing authors. Amazon France lists it at 76 Euros but that’s without shipping. With shipping to the USA, it could cost approximately133 Euros, about $200.

Apart from it’s cost, and it’s weight, which affects shipping and thus the price, the biggest problem is that it’s all in French.  Oddly enough, I’m currently learning French, but since I can’t fully put simple sentences together yet I think that reading the Encyclopédie mondiale des arts de la marionnette is probably some way off yet.

But this whole post was actually sparked by something different, a puppet wiki I found a link to from the wikipedia entry on puppets. I was curious about the puppet wiki, I sort of hoped that it would be a digital version of the Encyclopédie with masses of information. Heck, I’d even settle for some information about puppets, the different kinds and general history. But alas, it was not to be.

The Puppet Wiki appears to cover mostly character puppetry. By this I mean there’s entries on every puppet character you can probably think of, today’s article featured on the front page is ALF. The article itself is pretty small, but it gives you a quick, if shallow, understanding of his character . There’s a huge index of hundreds of puppet characters, although mostly they seem to be TV characters, Henson characters, and Avenue Q guys. Now I’m not begrudging these puppets their place in history, don’t think that! These puppets are all an important part of recent puppetry history. What did strike me is that the way this wiki is set up, it’s not really about puppet companies, it’s about the puppets themselves. This wiki was not created for companies like us, that make puppets for a specific show and then put them away again. This wiki is for the sphere where the puppet itself is the king, and the story is secondary. Kermit, for example, is not known for being part of a single story, he is a celebrity in his own right, a puppet actor who has taken on many roles. ALF only had one role, the role he played on TV but still it was a rose he played for years and he was a puppet celebrity, I remember him on tshirts.

And so this mornings research has made me understand the public face of puppetry a little more. The general public seems to want to know about the characters, but are not so interested in theatre puppets. I looked up ‘Handspan Theatre’ in the hope someone contributing to the wiki was Australian. There are no mentions of Handspan. So I looked up ‘Bread and Puppets’ figuring that if there are any puppet companies at all listed on the wiki that Bread and Puppets would surely be one of them. The only mention is on a puppeteer’s profile page, she once worked with them.

So I abandoned the search. Clearly this is not the wiki I was hoping for. I wonder if the resource I am looking for even exists out there. But as a last action, I looked up 3 of the most famous Australian television puppets.

Mr Squiggle isn’t listed (although he has a Facebook fan site), niether is Ozzie Ostridge (again with the FB however). But, weirdly enough, Dickie Knee has a page on the Wiki.

But my tiny hopes were dashed, the page is blank.

This post isn’t meant to be a complaint about this particular wiki, more that the entries on this wiki revealed that it appears that people arn’t interested enough in puppet companies and the work they do to start building an internet resource such as a wiki. But then maybe the factor I’m missing is that the people who usually build Wikis are fans of whatever it is, and puppet theatre companies don’t attract the kinds of following that celebrity puppets attract.

Or maybe it’s something else entirely.


When limbo goes horribly wrong…

This is one of the newer guys. It’s not aimed for any show at the moment, we’ve got the two shows this year to create puppets for, and they’re both bowling along nicely, but occasionally there is time for other guys too.

I was watching a woman I know the other day, she’s tall and impossibly thin, she’s older, so her skin is textured with wrinkles and it seems paper thin. She’s pale, but wears a lot of black which just throws into greater relief just how pale she is. She seems delicate and fragile, but there’s this hardness underneath that’s fascinating. As I watched her, it occurred to me that she’d make an incredible puppet, or more correctly, she makes an awesome base for a puppet design.

So I went home and started on it. This puppet, which has neither name nor gender at the moment (although I’m wondering if it wont turn out male) was created from kebab sticks (for bones), nylon twine (for joints) and masking tape (for body form). It has hands and fingers but no feet at the moment, I expect I’ll make it feet further along in the process.

I wanted to be able to emulate the skin texture of the woman that inspired this puppet, so I bought some crepe paper. Oh, crepe paper, dreaded craft material of many childhoods! It doesn’t tear neatly, instead it stretches out badly before ripping untidily. When ever it was wet, glued or any kind of damp, the dye ran horribly and not only made it look terribly patchy like bad tie dye but also stained fingers, clothing and any faces that got too close. Disappointing, horrible crepe paper! . Yet still, everything has it’s uses, and I’m SO proud that I’ve finally found crepe paper’s. It’s make an incredible skin texture for this puppet. I can’t wait to continue on it!

And staring at this puppet, tangled in the PVA glue container as it was (drying, you understand. If you cover the whole of a round thing in glue, you then have to figure out a way to let it dry without touching anything, otherwise it’ll stick to whatever it’s resting on. Hence it’s carefully balanced on the PVA container) and I was looking at it, and it occurred to me one of the reasons I love making puppets. It’s such a magical, wonderful world. Not only can anything exist in the puppet world, but you can make anything you can imagine without it not fitting into the world.

In the puppet universe, all of the usual rules are suspended.  The laws of gravity and relativity, physics and science are warped and molded to fit imagination and fantasy. Anything you can imagine can be created and live and breathe in this world. There are no limits. Huge creatures, needing three or more people to move, can exist in the same space as tiny delicate little guys no bigger than your finger. The possibilities are endless in the puppet world. And that’s beautiful. Beauty is endless in the puppet world (but then I’m biased 🙂 “Theatre of the impossible” is the title of one of the books on the history of Australian puppetry (by Maeve Vella and Helen Rickards) the phrase comes from someone (and I’ve just for the moment forgotten who) describing puppetry. Theatre of the impossible. There’s no point using puppets for things that human actors can do. Why wouldn’t you get human actors to do that then. Puppets are best utalised when they are doing what comes naturally to puppets, things that humans can’t.

And staring at that half made, impossibly thin puppet caught in the handle of a glue container, musing things impossible for people that puppets can so easily do, it struck me that the world of puppetry is beautiful and unique. Anything I can think of, I can call into being, and anything I can make can live and breathe.And that’s an incredible world to be a part of.

This is how Frankenstein must have felt.

Without all the rotting body parts, grave robbing and crushing guilt, of course.


A little bit of history repeating…

So we’ve recently acquired two really good books about the history of puppets and puppet theatre. I love reading up on the history of things. It’s so important to know history, to know where things came from and why they were developed, but it’s also really interesting.

For instance, we have a set of little heads (and how many professions get to say that!) which we have spent quite some time discussing how to make into puppets. We’re heading down the marionette path, but didn’t want to go the whole 8 string complication. So we thought and we figured, we chatted and discussed and didn’t really make any decisions. But early European marionettes from the 17th and 18th centuries provided the answer. They had a single wire attached to their heads and a single long looped string attached to each wrist that went up to the wire. Nice, simple, clever design and that’s how we’re going to wire these guys up.

There’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot in the past 6 months, “Why reinvent the wheel?” and I think it’s a smart idea. Why spend all your time trying to figure out the first steps when a bunch of people have already done all that work for you? I’d rather spend some time researching and then using the knowledge of the past as a launching pad for where I want to go next. History is a goldmine of ideas to be inspired from, to borrow from and to build on.

I love using historical skills and patterns. It connects you to a long tradition and hundreds and/or thousands of people who have lived before you. It neatly slots you into the history and running narrative of the world and it keeps traditions alive for the next generation.

It’s also fascinating to learn more about whatever you’re interested in. For example, Toy Theatre is not, as the name might suggest, bunging some Barbies and Lego on stage. Rather it was a take home set of thin printed card which, when assembled, was a little proscenium arch theatre with flat card sets and actors which allowed people to have the theatre shows of the day in their own home. Like TV, only paper. How beautiful is that? Love the take home theatre idea!

Some of the old puppets are also really inspiring. I found images of puppets that transform. Some are acrobats, who have multiple heads pop out of their hats and bodies, and some change totally, like an opera singer in a massive dress that flips totally upside down to become a hot air balloon. I love that idea, that they totally change from one thing to another. So I’ve found another type of puppet I want to create.

All from reading history books.

I love a good bit o’ history. And a nice cuppa, of course…


%d bloggers like this: