The evolution of puppets in modern times has gone hand in hand with yo-yoing shifts in their perception. History has seen them evolve before the public eye from crude Punch and Judy shows on the beach through to the Muppets in the 70’s when Jim Henson invented a new style of rod and glove puppet for TV. And now puppets are back in the mainstream with The Tweenies along with many other popular children’s TV shows. One thing is clear, that they hold a continued success as an important tool to entertain, and even educate.
Puppeteer Steve King describes the current trend and how people respond to live shows, “opinion is changing as there are more and more popular puppets on TV etc, and more companies are out there making them. People are delighted to see puppets live when they recognise them from TV shows like Roly Mo, Storymakers and The Shiny Show”.
I love how a puppet engages with an audience.
Not only children but adults too are able to suspend total belief and perceive a manipulated object as living thing. And it’s a lovely art to bring life to something and act through it. King describes performing for his audiences, “I like the immediacy of the puppets, they are big and colourful and relevant to young children, which is the audience I cater for. People find it fascinating when you give something that is an inanimate object, a pile of cloth, foam and wood, life. It’s a blank canvas on which you can build. I like the subtleties, with a turn of the hand you can make it look so completely different”
Working as a puppeteer in a theatre in a family theme park has provided me with a crucial new dimension to puppet building. Standing in awkward angles with your arm at 90 degrees up a puppet for 20 minutes gives you an appreciation for the performer, and you discover so many issues involved in manipulation. Small things like joints, shapes and sizes can completely change or create a character, by affecting how the object moves. A lot of our puppets have the same look but minor adaptations, a larger bottom jaw, shorter snout, give them unique characters when you pick them up.
Puppet making is a lot about experimenting
I like that there’s few rules, that puppet making is a lot about experimenting with what methods and materials work for you. I like to carve from solid blocks of foam rubber but have also experimented with sheets of half-inch foam, which allows for a free-er nip/tuck method. Tougher plastazote foam can be cut to a pattern and keeps a good firm hollow shape allowing room for internal animation servo’s and mechanics such as blinking. Then there’s the cosmetic issues, fur’s, feathers and fleeces all have their own unique properties and lend themselves to certain functions. They might catch the light in a certain way, or add a lovely movement to the puppet. A flexible mouth may be more expressive or a stiff one may suit better. Control options need to be considered from conception- where will the access for hands and rods be?
My experience with the furry cast of the Dragon tale theatre has informed my current projects in building up my folio of puppets. Brinsteen was born as part of an independent excersize in building hand and rod puppets. The troll has access in the back of his neck with rods coming from the elbows for arm manipulation. This allows control from floor or raised level with a full body view. He is mainly carved from foam rubber with a hard foamboard mouth, and posable hands and feet crafted from wire, wadding and foam. I found virtually all the materials for the puppet in markets and particularly like the finish of the crushed velvet which gives him his wet, dirty appearance.
Puppet shows at Chessington World of Adventures by Rainbow Productions Ltd
Steve King is a director of Frank Bearfoot Productions
By Ria Wicks September 2005
Ria Wicks is a profeesionally trained Theatre Designer and graduated from Nottingham Trent School of Art and Design in 2003, since graduation Ria has worked in Puppet based Theatre in the UK and Australia.