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Puppets out in the world

Ok, I admit it. I’m obsessed with knowing what people use puppets for. So I’ve started in on doing some research. I started with posting to our friends on our Facebook page, asking people if they have puppets at home and if so, what they use them for.

I got a number of responses that were all really interesting. A number of our artists contributed, which was great to read. One said she had finger puppets purchased as souvenirs of her travels around central America, and a marionette from her sister as a gift when her sister visited Mexico. Puppets as souvenirs was something that I’d never considered, but so that was interesting to know.

Another of our artists said she has a number of finger puppets that have been gifts from friends and family. She keeps them with her stuffed toys and use them occasionally when she’s baby sitting.

Another of our artists is a puppeteer and a mum, so she has heaps of puppets around the house, some from stores but most made by her. She had a puppet show in the works a few years ago and made a number of types of puppets for that, but the show didn’t happen due to a family illness and so her son plays with the puppets now instead.

The fourth respondent is a teacher and a mum, she says that she has a number of store bought puppets but that her kids don’t really play with them.

That was all really interesting to learn, and thank you to those that participated! I had a look around our adopted puppet collection and this is what I came up with.

1 lion – given to me by one of my students, used in the classroom
1 Max (Where The Wild Things Are) – bought and used in the classroom
12 assorted animals – bought for but not used in the classroom

24 assorted knitted animals – bought and used in the classroom

2 bought as a gift by a friend from Bali

1 dragon bought as a gift by a friend from China, hanging as decoration in the loungeroom

But that wasn’t enough. I know my adopted puppets, I know some of our friends adopted puppets, but I want to know more. I want to know what the world uses their puppets for.

So I started a Flickr group called Puppets We Own to see what other Flickr users have lying around. I went off and did a search on PUPPETS to find people to invite to contribute, and in doing so I found out a bit more about people’s puppet habit. There were a number of fans of things, star wars, transformers, George Lucas, that had made puppets of their obsessions. This wasn’t something that I’d put together as uses for making puppets before this search.

I found that very interesting too.

Love learning things!


So I’ve been thinking…

If you’re reading this post, feel free to answer any of these questions via the comments section…

I’ve been thinking about puppets out in the world. Who makes puppets? Who uses puppets? Where do they appear in the real world?

If you do a search on google images, you’ll get a bunch of photographs of teenage girls bent over in awkward positions with badly photoshoped strings coning from their wrists and ankles. Clearly puppets are a popular idea and being manipulated from outside resonates with artistic youth. But what else will you find? There’s tiny felt finger puppets with big stitching and at the other end there’s photos of beautifully created professional hand and mouth puppets. Who are the people making them? The puppets that you can find seem to fall into three categories – made for children by parents/ friends of their parents, puppet companies making their own guys and people claiming to be professional and offering to sell you their hand and mouth puppets.

Are these the only types of people that make puppets? And since type 2 and 3 can make their own puppets to use, is the only people buying puppets people who are buying gifts for children?

The 2 other types of puppet that appear over and over in a google search is a hand puppet of Angel from Buffy (and, erm, Angel) and Christian Ministry puppets. I haven’t seen the episode where Angel turns into a puppet but it was a great merchandising moment for Joss Wheadon, but I can’t help wondering that if the puppet hadn’t appeared in the show, would all those people out there simply buy puppets of Buffy, Angel, Spike and the rest of them? I have my doubts that they would have been so popular as the Angel one. The Christian Ministry puppets is an interesting one, although I can find lots of Christian Puppet Ministry sites out there, most of which include great resources to make your own puppets as well as buy ones premade, I can’t find anywhere a place that talks about WHY puppets are used in Christian Ministry.

I know that kids love puppets, I’ve seen that in my classroom as well as on tv. What I want to know is WHY children love puppets so much. For that matter, why do adults love puppetry as much as they seem to do? What is it about puppets that capture people’s imaginations and hearts?

That’s my current quest. To try and find these things out. Who is out there making puppets, apart from puppet companies and parents. Does anyone else make them? Who owns puppets? Again, is it just the companies and the families? A friend of mine went to Bali and bought me back some beautifully painted shadow puppets and another friend went to China and bought me back a dragon marionette, so people must be out there buying them, for decoration? For interior design? Does the general public have a use for puppets? And if so, what is it?

Lots and lots of questions to hunt out the answers for…


puppet ripples in the classroom

My current school was visited by children from my last school the other day. The kids from my old class all came running up to me for hugs and then chats. The very first question that ALL of them asked was – “Did Dave get voted chief monkey?” When I told them that yes, Dave had won, they all got very excited. There was smiled and shouts of YES! with fists pumped in the air like they’d won a race themselves, rather than a monkey puppet they met once winning a pretend election.

One of the girls came up to me to tell me that for her final project for this year, she’d made puppets. She said that her mum couldn’t work out how to make mouths that opened and closed, but that they had sticks on their arms to move their arms around. I was so proud that she’d made puppets for her project. It made me feel like I’d made a difference in their class.

Today, I got a Christmas present from one of my students. It’s an awesome hand puppet of a lion. It’s got a great expression and a little flower on it’s belly. I’m so wrapped! I love that a) I got a present from one of the kids, how nice is that, and b) that it’s a little hand puppet.

Puppets make me happy. And clearly they make other people happy too!

Musing on the show now it’s done

Owl in Spotlight – Salem Witch Trial

So the show went well. We had a ball doing Owl in Spotlight, and we learnt a bunch of things. One thing that we were exploring with this show was making a puppet show for all ages. It wasn’t a kid show, specifically for kids with little to no adult interest (as I envision (but don’t know) that something like The Wiggles are) but instead we tried to make a show that everyone could watch. We advertised it as an all ages show and waited (a little nervously) to see what would happen. We thought the content was fine for children, but we were hoping the kids and parents thought so too!

We did have a mainly adult audience. Kids came, not in droves, but they did come, with parents in tow. We had a special offer that if you came in costume you got a discount. Only the kids turned up in costume. We had witches, wizards, vampires and a zombie with bleeding bullet holes in his head. Much more gruesome than the show’s content! The night the zombie came I knew that our show was fine.

We had two sets of school groups in on different nights, each wanted a 10 min Q&A session after the show. The first group were a year 9 drama class. They asked us questions such as “what was your inspiration for the show?”, “How long did it take you to make all the puppets?”, “How long did you rehearse for?” and that kind of question. We discovered that we answer questions in an entertaining but overly long fashion. We need to learn to be more succinct. But they had some great questions that really got us thinking.

The second class was a high school literacy class. They had different kinds of questions. “Which is your favourite puppet and why?”, “How did you write the play?” which we also found interesting, but for different reasons. The drama class wanted to know about the performance, the show and the nuts and bolts of how we put it together. Which makes sense, since that’s what they’re learning in school. The lit class were more interested in the story and the words. Again, sensible, and interesting to note. Different people come to the show to watch different things.

So the show is down and the puppets are stored away, but it’s nice to know that the Owl legacy lives on. Our youngest audience member, a tiny 3 year old girl, was dreadfully cute during the show. She was very quiet almost the whole time, bar when something was creeping up on our heroine, Dort, from behind (a tiny “oh no!”) and whenever Chuck Norris was on stage (“babbit!”). Her mother tells us that she’s now obsessed with rabbits and carries a toy one constantly around with her, one that has previously been totally ignored her entire, short life. We were very touched. Her parents are also trying to teach her how to say “Chuck Norris”, however they report that they are still a way off.


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.

Puppets in the classroom

The other day I took Dave to the class I was teaching, partly to use him to give them a postcard lesson (Dave the monkey receives a post card from his Uncle Sol, who is in Africa, which leads to the children writing postcards to someone from a country they have studied) and partly because I was curious to see how a puppet in the classroom worked.

The children loved him. I figured they’d like him, but I was overwhelmed by just how much they loved him. We started the lesson by Dave knocking at the door and peering in the window. The class had seen Dave’s political ad, him running for Chief Monkey of Australia (http://www.youtube.com/user/TerribleComfort#p/u/0/17i2UZyw8Ww), so they instantly recognised him and were dreadfully excited. I came in and sat down, and they had hundreds of questions, which I figured they would. I had put aside about 20 mins for Dave questions. They asked a number of interesting questions and some that I didn’t expect.
“Dave, do you have any siblings?” (Yes, two brothers, Bill and Graeham)
“Where are you from? You sound like you have an American accent.” (Dave is actually Canadian).
“What’s your favourite food?” (Bananas, of course)
“What’s your favourite colour?” (Yellow)
“What do you like doing?” (EATING BANANAS!)
“Dave, why do you only have 4 fingers? If you’re a monkey, you should have 5 shouldn’t you?”. (Dave considered his fingers for a second and said “It’s just how I was born. My mum and dad only have 4 fingers, and so do my brothers.” That was not only an unexpected question, but a hard one to answer.)
“Do you have a girlfriend?” (No, but he has a girl he likes, Penelope).

I found that it was easier to answer these questions than I thought it might be, because I’m so sure of Dave’s character. We’ve been working with him for a while and I know how he thinks and how he would answer things. At the same time, since he’s an actor, it was ok to answer questions with not quite the truth for Dave, because this was sort of a role he was playing. So I’m not sure that Dave does have two brothers named after the Goodies, or fancies a girl called Penelope, but he is Canadian and does like bananas. But he was in the class playing a role of a monkey, so he answered in monkey fashion to some of the questions. For example, quite a number of the answers were banana-related.

So once the questions were all exhausted, we went on with the lesson, Dave explaining that he got a postcard from Uncle Sol in which Uncle Sol related some of the adventures he was having in Africa. Uncle Sol had seen elephants, been chased by giraffes and peed on by a tortoise. We talked about what a postcard contains and then we modelled one on the board. Dave wrote one to Uncle Sol (with the class’s help) about visiting the town we were in. Then we sent them off to write their own, and Dave left for a cup of tea in the staffroom. I figured that keeping him in the class as they wrote would be way too distracting.

The students wrote beautiful postcards. Something that I didn’t expect was that when I gave the students the free reign to write the postcards to whomever they wanted, that all but 2 students wrote their postcards to Dave. That was heartwarming. They all drew little stamps on their postcards too, and 90% of those were Dave or monkey related too. He really captured their hearts!

One of the most interesting things I witnessed while Dave was in the class was all of the students were having a ball, they found Dave and what he said all very funny, they were all clearly enjoying themselves, but one of the girls found him so funny that all she could do was laugh, and laugh until she went red in the face, and then keep laughing. She couldn’t answer any question from Dave at all, all she could do was laugh. One of the girls put her hand up and suggested that I talk to this girl, rather than Dave. That was an incredibly helpful suggestion actually. So I told Dave to hush and I spoke to the girl, and then she could gather herself together enough to share her postcard with the class. A few of the girls were also too shy to share their postcards, so the same girl suggested that Dave read those postcards out. Another awesome suggestion, so he read those out and then all the students who had already read their postcards out clammered for Dave to re-read theirs out. Dave sensibly refused, that would have taken all day. One of the shy girls had written a very personal postcards, she requested that I read it out, not Dave. So I obliged, and Dave sat silently and held the postcard for me.

I participated in a Life Education van class for grade 1/2 a few weeks ago, in that there was a giraffe puppet named Harold. Harold whispered to the presenter and the presenter translated for him. “What’s that Harold? You think all the children are sitting quietly? You think that’s really nice?” Harold never spoke directly to the children. I think that’s fine, clearly the presenter didn’t feel comfortable enough in doing a puppet voice and the trick of whispering worked fine, the students all loved Harold anyway. On the way back from Life Ed, I overheard a handful of students debating whether Harold was a real giraffe or a puppet.

I don’t think that a single student in my class thought Dave was a real monkey. I referred to the fact he was a puppet once, someone was pretend shocked (“Dave is a PUPPET?”) but it wasn’t a real reaction, he was just playing along.

Which reminds me of a conversation I had with a retired teacher, she remembered a marionette performer who came to her town and she took the whole school to see it over a week. She got them to draw the puppets afterwards, and out of 250 students, only one student drew the strings of the puppets. Every other student drew the characters in their costumes, but totally ignored the strings. Which makes me wonder if the students know its a puppet, but just don’t care.

And today, I think that’s the same. The students commented on the fact Dave has no legs, they wanted to know how me moved around, and asked if he had teeth (which he doesn’t) or a tongue (which he does). Dave has one rod to manipulate his left arm, but no rod in his right, mainly because if you have your right hand manipulating his mouth you only have one left hand to wave his hand around. I’m aware that the Muppets usually have two puppeteers per puppet but we just don’t have that many people. Although he has a rod for his hand, I found myself grasping his hand to move it around, rather than using the rod. As I was sitting and at such close quarters, I found it easier just to hold his hand. At one point, one of the students asked me to use the rod rather than moving his hand around by grasping the bottom of it. So they all knew he was a puppet, but that doesn’t seem to matter to them.

Maybe it’s that children have a vast imagination, where plants and other inanimate objects talk and interact, and that they can recognise and accept it in puppets too, which are inanimate shaped objects. Although it works with adults too, pull out a puppet and anyone is transfixed.

I can’t wait until I bring in another puppet.

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.


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