This week on HowlRound, we take a look at the many faces of American puppetry. Once again enjoying a resurgence in pop culture, puppet art’s impact on our nation's culture is deeper than most would think. This series will take a look at the art form through the eyes of some of its most innovative and stalwart thinkers. Find the full series here.
There is very little that frustrates me more than seemingly minor alterations at the request of a client. If you've ever worked a design job, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's that terrifying moment near the end of a contract when your client is giving the last notes and there is always one thing. One modification. One innocuous request only matched in its apparent frivolity by the time and effort it takes to accomplish. Paradoxically, it is this aspect of my work that I love the most.
I’m a puppet builder, but if I wasn’t, I think I would be a toy maker. I honestly can't imagine a more romantic job. There is something instinctively gratifying about seeing a child smile. You get a second hand buzz—all the benefits of firsthand experience, but with the added bonus of reflecting on the moment, in the moment.
A strange kind of magic is invoked when crafting an object capable of capturing and focusing the imagination. Its fuel is the desire to witness that metaphysical chemical reaction, the spark behind the eyes when the right child discovers the right toy. Suddenly, new worlds the toymaker never had access to prior are unlocked by this child. In a way, it's like making a set of keys for locks that have yet to be discovered. Puppets exist in the same phylum as toys; they are the whimsical tools of the performer. An ideal puppet is an object that has the right amount of built-in character to be physically evocative, but still with an empty space for the puppeteer to fill. It needs the right balance of aesthetics and movement potential.
It would be great if these dual axioms of a puppet were complimentary, but all too often, one exists at the expense of the other. Let’s look at one specific type of puppet, the hand and rod style, which was popularized by Jim Henson as the “Muppet Style.” Every puppeteer’s favorite puppet to use is the sack, or “sock” version of this style. Think about Kermit the Frog and how malleable and expressive his face is. The movement potential is unparalleled, but its aesthetic range is very limited. This becomes a problem when you are trying to create a more complex physical character, or anything that is not shaped like a loosely structured sack draped over a hand. Now, compare and contrast Dr. Teeth to Kermit. All of the expressions made by Dr. Teeth’s face are the result of mechanical additions. The more features you add to an underlying shape, the more potential you have to obstruct movement and the freedom of the puppeteer.
Many puppeteers I know can tell you a horror story about having to manipulate a puppet that looks amazing, but fights every movement. In a nightmare scenario, this puppet hurts the puppeteer during the performance. Regrettably, I’ve had to make several puppets just like this. Sometimes using a different material, revising the construction technique, or slicing away the innards of the puppet are the obvious solutions, but it’s rarely that simple. A different material may not have the exact look desired by the designer. Different construction techniques may weaken the durability of the puppet, which means constant repairs. And there may not be excess material inside the puppet to shave off without causing unsightly wrinkling, or even collapsing its shape. Physics doesn’t care about your artistic vision or comfort.
There is always hope of compromise between designer and performer, such as sacrificing certain points in the design to allow for freer movement of the puppet, and giving the puppeteer space to do their job. However, what often results is unsatisfying. If a character is truly going to come to life and capture an audience, compromise is rarely a viable option. With the right puppet in their hands, a puppeteer intuitively creates the truest form of magic, casting a spell over an audience so potent that the puppet ceases to be a mundane object and is filled with the crackling energy of life. It’s the “right puppet” that builders are constantly chasing after. If the broad strokes of new materials, different techniques, and puppet surgeries don’t cut the mustard, what does? In my experience, unwavering attention to detail is key.
If the puppeteer is truly going to cast the spell of suspended disbelief, then the correct magic needs to be in place. For an intricate puppet, the different factors capable of binding or restricting movement are incalculable. Various elements, such as types and weights of foam, stretchable fabrics that move in contrasting ways, mechanical effects, and parts with a solid anchor, need to work together. Sometimes the effective jaw movement of a puppet is thrown off by a poorly cut fifteen-degree bevel in the foam used to construct the head. If the placement of a blinking eye mechanism is off by one thirty-second of an inch, there can be interference with the cable pull and bind movement. These minuscule details can make or break your product.
So often, the client doesn’t know what it means to ask for a mouth that can open just a bit easier, or a free animation effect that moves just a tad slower. Sometimes a tiny increase in movement requires several hours of work. But if the show is truly going to work and you want to create that moment when a lump of mundane matter sparks to life, then you have to swallow your impatience, keep the end goal in mind, and make the modification. If you don’t, the spell is lost. Your puppeteers are in pain and all the prep work you did was for naught.
It’s a weird state of affairs to love and hate a singular aspect of my chosen career. My desire to see the piece finished conflicts with my desire to craft the perfect tool, which is something I would never give up. Much like when a child discovers the perfect toy, seeing a puppeteer bring life to the pile of fabric and foam I’ve invested my time and effort into making is one of the joys of my existence. Watching that moment and the exchange of energies, feeds me. It gives purpose to my hours spent cutting foam and inhaling cancerous vapors. I’m not just a builder; I’m also part of a network of artists working together to remind audiences and us that magic does exist.