Wrapped up another semester of puppetry instruction at Humber College, and what a smashing good time it was! We always end the year with a public presentation. This year, we tried something new.
We had a full house that included Ann and David Powell, Robyn Polffus, Eileen Smith, and Frank Meschkuliet, who kindly gave me a cup of Tim Horton’s coffee to keep me going. (Shawna Reiter and I started this day -- as did the students -- first thing in the morning and we didn’t wrap until 10pm.)
We also had a very full stage. Fourteen students is a lot, but once they donned their “puppeteer blacks” and placed their hands on the puppets, they were an impressive army of manipulators who managed to disappear and allow their puppets to take the focus.
It was Shawna’s idea to begin the evening with “a bunch of those little spongy dudes running around all over the place” to serve as whimsical eye-candy: goofy little androgynous characters climbing, sliding, jumping and generally being elflike and silly all over the room while people trickled in and found their seats.
When the evening officially began I took the stage to greet the audience, while all over the room the little spongy antics continued. All part of the plan …
“Good evening and welcome to our final puppetry presentation. We’re calling this a ‘potpourris’ - a sampling of the many things we’ve been working on this semester. Some of the puppets you’ll see are the ordinary classroom puppets that we use for exercises. Some have been found and repurposed. And some have been specially designed and built by Shawna’s production students. And sooooo …. let us begin!”
My little spongy puppets were still scattered around the room, playing and leaping and climbing …
“One of the first things we learn when we study animation theory and then apply it to the practice of live animation, is that it’s not quite so important how a puppet moves, but rather, just as important how a puppet stops.”
Here, just as rehearsed, all of the spongies en mass gave a collective “Hmmmm?” and stopped, frozen in a listening pose to wait for what I would say next. I could hear that rivet of silence that I love so much: the one that tells me that yes, we have them. And so I turned and looked at my waiting characters and said “exactly!” - and there we had it: the first chuckle of the night, and a resounding success from there on.
“We’ve also learned that we can direct the audience’s eye …”
Here I stepped out of the way and let the puppets take over. We’d spent a lot of time rehearsing this sequence, and I was very pleased with the results. This was my “ping-pong” theory come to vivid life. All of the spongy puppets began to assemble from the far corners of the room, but they marked their journeys in increments and they did so One. At. A. Time. First, a little fellow hopped over to a group of puppeteers who were sitting near our table surface. He stopped. Then, from the other side of the stage, another little guy approached a similar cluster of bodies. He stopped. Then the first one, climbing up to the top of someone’s head. Stop. Back to the second one again, hopping across a terrain of heads. Stop. Back to the next guy. And so on. By the time we’d gone back and forth and finished, all of the puppets had made their journeys to our table and landed there with a triumphant “tada!” I wish I’d thought to tape the audience from my vantage point, because, just as we always hope, their heads most certainly must have pinged and ponged from character to character, like an audience watching tennis.
“Very good, but you are all so small. Maybe the people in the back can’t see. Could we scale this operation up a little bit please?”
Here the spongy guys jumped off the table, one by one like dominoes, except for the very last one, who was distracted. Another character had to come up and pull him down. (This was the beginning of our running gag featuring “the puppet who’s always last.”)
Then, one by one, like dominoes, my colourful ball-and-shirt cloth neutrals leapt into view, ready for action. Except for the last one, who climbed up last, struggling.
“Very good. Welcome to our stage. Now, puppets express themselves physically using their bodies. It has to be physical or else we won’t see it. Physical therefore visible. And a lot of this expression actually happens when they use their heads, because that’s where their brains are, and their eyes. So we learn something called Language of the Head don’t we?”
The puppets all nodded their heads, yes.
“And now we know everything we need to know about puppetry, right?”
The puppets all shook their heads, no.
“Well, we know a little bit more than we did before.”
Here the puppets sort of shrugged, tilting their heads in that “maybe so” move that I teach.
“For example, we know that puppets can use their bodies to express different emotions. Puppets can be …”
… and here we went down the line one by one and had the puppets strike the perfect pose …
“… hungry, sad, confused, surprised, worried, scared …”
Again, our last puppet on the end wasn’t paying attention and had to be nudged by the puppet standing next to him.
“… and absent-minded.”
Another laugh. Our running gag is working!
“We also know that puppets can interact with each other.”
Here the puppets traded different interactions: nods, bows, hugs, hand-shakes … except for the one on the end, who had to be nudged again.
“Now, we’d like to show you an extended example of live animation, something that includes everything we’ve learned. You’ll see stops, you’ll see language of the head and interactions, and you’ll also see some fully realized animation as one, sometimes two, and sometimes three manipulators team up on a single character. Here, then, is a little bit of everything …”
What we called “The Island Story” in class as we were cooking it up was a totally non-verbal and completely esoteric piece of puppet theatre that, as my friend Frank said afterward “made no sense, but it didn’t matter.” That was fine by us. It was only loosely a story. What it really was, was a showcase for puppets and puppeteers.
The only hint that we were on an island came from an ambient soundscape added at the last minute. It was lovely, and created an exotic atmosphere just as intended.
The story began with blue waves (one of my old sheets from home) lapping against the floor, and the rising of an ethereal, floating ocean goddess (one of the production student’s creations) who was ushering the waves. When at last the waves retreated, there was a boy (my unfinished homemade bun-raku dummy) who now lay, motionless and manipulator-less on the floor.
One by one the denizens of the island came to check out this lifeless form. A horse (my white cardboard Shaw prototype), two little children with cute shuffling dresses (more of the production student’s work), and then their dad (a production student creation with a beautiful head and live arms inside of a man’s shirt). This character emerged from behind our playing table, approached the boy, knelt, regarded him, lifted him gently from the floor, and placed him upon the table.
The boy then awoke, and stood up, in a beautiful display of full animation as three puppeteers teamed up to create realistic human motion: wake, roll over, stand up, feel woozy, look about, kneel down to look over the edge of the table.
A friendly dog (one of my stuffies from home) came bounding in. The dog and the boy cuddled. The horse returned, which made the boy nervous at first, but then they bonded and the horse invited the boy to ride him. Here again was some lovely manipulation from the team - a human mounting a horse, acutely observed and performed with great detail. When the horse rose up and the boy was astride him, the illusion was remarkable, considering the horse is just cardboard, only a head, with a mop for a mane, and the boy just a lump of white clay with no eyes.
The horse and his boy went for a gallop around the table to (what we presumed to be) a new area of this weird island, and here’s where our menagerie of strange island denizens emerged. Most of these puppets came courtesy of Shawna’s production students: a big yellow monster, a giant scuttling spider, my multi-coloured beanie-bear, an opera singer with a giant mouth and jaunty hat, and a sassy cat. There was also a porcupine whose quills were made of syringes.
Then, for no logical reason (but perfect for esoteric reasons) three of my mask puppets rose up from their puddles of fabric on the floor. (They’d been resting there in plain sight all this time.) They acknowledged each other, found a ukulele, examined it, and placed it on the table. Then they dissolved into the floor again as, one by one, the cloth neutrals appeared on our playing table, found the uke, and passed it along from each to each to each. The puppet at the very end of this line used the uke to bonk another puppet on the head. (A nice laugh.) None of these characters knew what to do with this thing. They hopped down again. And then, tada! Our absent-minded puppet who was always distracted and struggling, picked it up and strummed it, leading into a musical jamboree that was the grand finale of the night: a village of colourful puppets dancing.
We cued music for this sequence: three songs pre-selected by the students: I Need A Hero, I Believe in Miracles, and Hooked on a Feeling. The centre song accompanied a nicely choreographed “pole dance” by one of my cloth neutrals, performed by two students who had obviously spent a lot of time on it. Another student had the brilliantly comical idea of holding up a mirror ball during that pole dance!
The final portion of the night was a Show & Tell hosted by Shawna. A highlight of this sequence was a rapport that developed between the student who designed the opera singer, and the puppeteer who offered to help demonstrate it. These two reacted to each other, responded, and the puppet showed nuance that blew my mind.
Everyone in attendance was extremely complimentary. “It’s a show!” said Frank. “This is a good program now!” said Ann Powell. “We could have this at Stratford this summer!” said Eileen Smith.
Remounting the piece will depend on who’s available and how much time we’ll have to re-polish, but I’d love to do a version of this Puppet Potpourris for Eileen’s PuppetWorks in Stratford, and for the Powell’s Fresh Ideas later this spring.
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