I have had the privilege of watching over a hundred puppet teams perform and have seen great performances. Many, however, were mediocre at best. What makes the difference? Well, there are many reasons, but this article will focus on three common mistakes that mediocre teams make, which if corrected can make for a great puppet team.
The number one goal when working with a puppet is to make it look as realistic as possible. The more natural your puppets appear in their manner and actions, the better quality your equipment will maintain. Below are three areas that, if corrected, will make your puppets appear more realistic.
The dreaded quicksand patches
Often when watching a puppet show, one or more puppets will slowly begin to sink as if they are trapped in a patch of quicksand. This happens when the puppeteer’s arm gets tired or does not focus on his puppet.
I’ve seen plays where you can only see the foreheads of the puppets on stage. Other times, it appears that the puppet is traveling in a boat with high waves. They move slowly up and down throughout the performance. Others start with the puppet so high that you can almost see the puppet’s arm and end where you can barely see the puppet’s mouth.
Not long ago, however, I saw a high school team perform and what surprised me was each The puppet started at the proper height and remained there for the entire performance. If a high school team can do it, the same is true for almost any puppet team.
There are two keys to maintaining the proper height. The most important thing is to make sure your puppeteer’s arms are strong enough to maintain a constant height. This is accomplished with weekly practices. The key is not to let the puppeteers slack off during practice. If they do, it will show up in performance.
The second key is that the puppeteers should focus on their puppet as much as possible. If you are doing recorded plays, they should spend at least 90% of their time looking at their puppet; the other 10% look at the puppets near them.
When a person stops looking at their puppet, they do not know if the puppet is at the proper height, leaning sideways, or rocking. When you have the puppet at the proper height, make a note of the part of the body under the theater. Then keep scanning throughout the job to make sure it stays there.
One more note. If you find that your puppet has lowered too low, slowly reposition it to the proper height. Opening it will draw unwanted attention to that particular puppet.
The frozen arm
This error occurs when the puppet’s arm is extended for most of the program. The puppeteer understands the importance of using the arms and makes a movement, but then leaves the arm extended as if it were frozen. I have seen plays in which two or more puppets had their arms outstretched all the time on stage.
The problem is, it seems unnatural. People don’t walk with their arms outstretched all day. Usually they make a move, they drop their arm, then they make another move, they drop their arm, etc. You should do the same with your puppet.
Before your program, place rods in both arms. During the game, let your arms hang naturally until you decide to make a move. At that point, lift the rod, make the move, and drop it. Do the same with the next move and so on.
Many movements only use one arm, so alternate between the right and the left. Use your right arm once or twice and then use your left. Don’t just alternate left arm, right arm, left arm, right arm, etc. That gets too predictable and doesn’t seem natural. People are predominantly left-handed or right-handed, so it is good to use one more arm in your movements. Observe how people use their hands and arms in normal conversation and then have your puppet copy them. Your puppet will be more realistic and the quality of the program will increase.
What are you looking at?
When two puppets speak, they should be looking at each other, not at the audience. I have seen plays in which one puppet looks at the audience, sideways or in the air while talking to another puppet. It is okay to look around you, but the focus should be on who you are talking to.
When you watch a television show, look at the characters. How often do you look at the studio audience? They do not do it. They focus on the person they are talking to. Imagine watching a sitcom in which all the actors are looking at the audience instead of at each other. Would you see it?
Sometimes the lack of eye contact is due to tired arms. As a puppeteer’s arm tires, they tend to lose focus on the puppet and struggle to keep their arm raised. Other times, it is simply inattention to the puppet. These are the same two issues that were addressed above.
Sometimes the position of the puppet makes it difficult to maintain eye contact with another puppet. In your practice time, it is a good idea to position the puppeteers so that the puppets can maintain proper eye contact. A left-handed puppeteer working with a puppet on the right side of the stage will have difficulty looking to the left. The same goes for a right-handed puppeteer working on the left side of the stage.
There are times when the puppet will look at the audience, but these are usually during the songs or parts of the play when the audience is recognized. Where do your puppets look when they speak? Looking in the right places increases the professionalism and impact of your team.
Here are three things to work on that can help make your puppets look more realistic and increase professionalism in your presentations. Apply them and see what happens!