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How to bring a puppet to life: CELL puppeteers explain their secrets ahead of Hong Kong show

Breathing life into an inanimate object and convincing the audience it is a living being caught in a dramatic set of circumstances is an art form to which certain ‘rules’ apply

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 9:34am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 9:34am

You can make a puppet out of a sock, or a cut piece of paper, or a mug, or you can use a delicate, complicated piece of machinery that will look and move like anything you want – a car, a warhorse, a cartoon character. But how do you make that inanimate object come alive and – if you do it really well – how can you make it move people to tears?

I asked the question of British puppeteer Molly Freeman, who is part of a team of three – from Smoking Apples and Dogfish companies – coming to Hong Kong’s Ngau Chi Wan Civic Centre from November 10 to 12. Their show, titled CELL, is about a man, Ted, who finds that, like brilliant scientist Steven Hawking, he has motor neurone disease (MND) and decides to go on one last big journey – an interrailing tour of Europe.

There are several “rules” of puppetry, says Freeman, whose British drama school sent her for a year to Prague, Czech Republic, where she learned about the wonders of puppets.

The head leads

Eyes are really important especially when you are working in human form puppetry. Ted’s eyes don’t move or blink but sometimes people say I saw him breathe. Or I’m sure I saw him shed a tear. It’s amazing, when we can’t move his face, that they feel that.

Focus

Take any object. And focus on it. Where your focus is, the object can come to life. And the puppeteers should at all times be looking at the puppet. “If we are looking somewhere else, then the audience will. It’s a focus thing about passing energy into the puppet,” Freeman says. “So for example we make Ted look into the sky, and then the audience look into the sky ... but all the time we will be looking at the puppet. As soon as puppeteers take our eyes away from the puppet we become present, like an actor would.

Breathe with the puppet

Perhaps the most important thing is how a puppet breathes – and indeed that it is always breathing. “Without the puppet breathing it will not appear to come alive,” Freeman says. She operates Ted with two others, and they often find themselves breathing at the same time as each other, in synchrony. “It’s usually led by the person in charge of the head,” she says. It means that you can have moments of stillness in a show, but as long as the puppet is breathing the audience will stay with it. The Tony award-winning Handspring Puppet Company have an excellent video on breath, made at the National Theatre in London.

“We found when we worked with opera singers that the way to make the puppet match the singing was for us to learn where exactly they would breathe, so the influence of their in-breath was reflected in the puppet,” says co-founder and artistic director of Handspring, Adrian Kohler. “And that let us on to realise that if the audience doesn’t see the puppet breathing, they hold their own breath for the puppet. After a while you get tired of doing that, so the image dissolves.”

Use your props to tell the story

Ted has glasses, and he takes them off and puts them on at important points. The glasses both signify his interest, and highlight his eyes and make them important. But also, as he starts to drop them more and more, they are a vehicle to show the audience the spiral of Ted’s illness.

Remember light and blocking

In the Czech tradition, puppeteers are almost entirely hidden, in black clothes and masks, and it is vital that they do not get between the puppet and the audience. Lots of other puppeteers remain concealed but for CELL the puppeteers didn’t need to hide their faces. “There are nice moments where we almost play the role of carer. We look after Ted. And at the end he doesn’t need his puppeteers because he can no longer move, which people have said made them cry.”

If you are going to have the puppet talk, get the mouth timing right

The Muppets are some of the most famous puppets on TV and have inspired many future puppeteers to do what they do. “It’s a different skill, because they speak, and one of the biggest things for them is matching the mouth with the dialogue.”

Create a world and a story that builds on the characteristics of the puppet

CELL started with the idea of a man who goes on a journey and overcomes an obstacle. “That was it. Everything else came later – we had no idea what journey or what obstacle,” Freeman says. Later they decided it should be MND, in which you lose the ability to move on your own (an ability which puppets of course have never had). They made him a blank-looking figure without specific clothes because they wanted each person to imagine what he would look like in real life. “MND does not discriminate between people, so we didn’t want to choose the kind of person Ted happens to be.”

Know what they are thinking

Ted does not speak except in electronic voice overs: MND makes it too hard. However, in rehearsal, puppeteer Matthew Lloyd would voice Ted’s thoughts aloud. He’d say something like: “I have to go and feed the fish.” And although in the show Ted’s internal thoughts aren’t heard, the puppeteers know them. “When I remember what he’s thinking, it helps me know where we go next.”

Find some of your teachers online

Handspring Theatre Company has several excellent videos. But also watch great puppeteers in action. “Watch the German shadow puppets of Lotte Reiniger in the 1920s – she made incredible shadow films and we are hugely inspired – it really plays with scale and if you come to see CELL you’ll see how we make use of 2D puppets in some of the scenes.”

Exercises

1. Pick up an empty coffee mug and find the face. Perhaps the handle will be a nose. Or perhaps you’ll find (or draw) the eyes in the pattern. Practice making it look up and down. Then add a tea towel as a body, and make it move. You’ll see that where the head leads the body will follow.

2. Pick up an object in the room, and think about what its natural properties are. So for example paper naturally flaps so it could be a bird. Try making it a seagull, or turn it the other way to be a songbird or something else. Follow the head, make it breathe, give it a little story. And when you have a sense of something coming alive, use your phone to film it (and you).

“Watching from the outside is so important in puppetry,” Freeman says. “It bridges the gap between what you see and what has been created.”