Puppetry Tech Notes


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Saturday, April 01, 2006


- this list will be updated and reposted periodically

White Shadows- 05/09/02, Wire Marionette Controls -05/07/02, TableTop HandPuppets- 06/01/02, BottleBased Rods-07/07/02,Sok Sekrts07/07/02 Solo Booth- 09/08/02, Paper Bag Stage- 09/08/02, Quik StyroHead -08/07/02, Bigger Booth -24/08/02, Curtain o' Light-23/08/02, Rolling Racks-19/08/02, PortaBridge- 12/01/02, Plastic Canvas Masks - 12/03/02, Ladder Based Stage- 1/01/03, MANIPULATUION 7/28/04, Panto Horse - 4/18/05, STYROGOYLES - 4/19/05, "One Piece"Stage- 1.31/06, Open Toy Thtr - 2/01/06


Feb. 2006

The traditional British Toy Theatre is a replica of the Victorian stages on which the plays published were produced. The form has a great deal of antiquarian charm and limited sightlines, suitable for the nursery but not for public performances of any size. This updated version, which offers the option of using continental slots as well as British slides can be used for small audiences of about 60 in a flat floor room with a low platform. A steep rake is not appropriate and while sightlines have been improved, a frieze stage isn't advisable.

The base box which support the slotted toy theatre floor sits on a standard 3' square card table and can extend slightly beyond it in front.
The main operator, hidden by the backdrops sits behind the table and manipulates those figures used in the slots. Since a script can be mounted on the back of the theatre, this person is the primary reader.The theatre works best with two more operators, one on each side, dressed in black. Two TV tables behind each of them hold the figures they'll move. They should learn their parts if possible, but cue sheets can be mounted on the back of the wings if needed. A black curtain behind everything is desirable. (See rough sketches Floorplan & View)

To open the show, a proscenium with a lowered curtain stands at the front of the stage. The "orchestra" in the pit can be raised from behind by a simple lever inside and lowered after the overture and any announcements at the start of the show. The two side operators lift the proscenium and curtain unit and pass it over the backdrop to the person behind the scenes. Or they may place it on the floor in front of the stage out of the stage lighting. This reveals a trapezoidal stage with free standing wings and the first backdrop visible. There may be a figure or two already onstage. The lights mounted on stands off stage left and right not so far forward as to interfere with the sightlines come up.

The box under the stage floor should be high enough to raise the surface to at least 44" from the actual stage. The length of the seated operators arms determines how far a figure can be pushed forward in the downstage slot. Lighting and sound controls should not be in the box but rather to either side of the operator. Foot controls are also possible. Controls may also be placed under the back corners of the table where they can be reached by the side operators if necessary.

The slides for figures which enter from the wings need to have a slight turn-up at their tips so they won't catch in the slots. A higher turn-up will allow the operator on one side use a wire with a loop in the end to capture and pull a figure off on the side opposite from where it entered. If it's two-sided, the character can then reenter from that side and be similarly pulled back from whence it came--with practice. If the scenery is made 30" inches high, figures up to 15" inches can be used for interior scenes. For exteriors or large spaces, 10" to 12" figures can be used. providing the scale of the scenery is properly adjusted. In some cases, a greenery teaser or a ceiling piece can be put across the back wings to force the perspective.

Scenes within an act can be stacked in order and changed a vista by dimming the lights. For more elaborate changes between acts, the proscenium and curtain should be put back in place, and entre'act music played. The length of the performance will determine which practice is appropriate. A minimum of four front lights are required, gelled warm and cool. By dimming out the warm circuit, night effects are possible. A row of nightlight bulbs in reflectors can function as "footlights". These can be standard fixtures plugged into a row of outlets at the back of the "orchestra" on their own dimmable circuit. Two circuits, one white and one colored using Xmas lights can be used for effect. The side operators may use flashlights from the wings for special effects. Also consider illuminating some backdrops from behind.

Floorplan & View

Email:Will Stackman, Master of Motions

posted by will 1:44 PM

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Egg-Carton Dragon

MAR 2006

I've used "Puff," a dragon mouth puppet made from an pulp paper egg carton for years. Recently, a puppetry class of challenged adults I teach was working on a production of "The Frog Princess" set in Florida. To add some interest to the opening scene in the garden with the well, they decided that Princess Lily should be chased around by a couple of alligators. So we began working on egg carton mouth puppets based on my old friend. My class is also fond of my Punch figures and particularly enjoy watching Mr. Punch match wits with Croc. That mouth puppet has a hinged plywood mouth which makes a very convincing sound when it snaps shut. Old Puff is barely audible. But banging two cartons together does make a good sound, especially after they've been stiffened by water-based fixative spray. Some redesign was in order.

It became clear that it takes two egg cartons for a puppet because cutting it in half doesn't let the two sections hinge nicely. It takes eight "eggs" for both the top and bottom of the jaw. We discovered that by leaving the lid of the carton on the upper "jaw," and then cutting into so it could be carefully folded up , there's a front for the head to mount eyes on. Use a serrated steak knife to cut the pulp cardboard neatly. (See #1)

Hinging was worked out using ordinary masking tape. First open each cut-down box. Trim down the rearmost flatter edges for a cleaner hinge. Small pointed scissors work best. On the carton that still has its whole top, use scissors to cut a slit in each side so the head can bend up. Lay a straightedge across the top between these slits and fold gently. This may be easier if a line is scored in the pulp first and the center may need to be cut and retaped. Finally, inside the lower "jaw," use scissors to snip out the rearmost center bump, after making a cut with the knife to start.

Close the boxes and stack them upside down with the opening facing you. Masking tape doesn't hold well or last long but can be easily redone. Start using strips of duct tape if you're confident, however. Pin two strips of tape sticky side out along the back of the boxes over the hinge from edge to edge. Run one strip of tape from inside the uppermost box next to the first bump down inside the lower box to the same position. Stick down well inside and then push this tape against the pinned tape. A little slack won't hurt. Tape the other side and remove the pins. Fold the extra tape from each side over the hinge strips.Now put a third strip down the middle over the trimmed edge. Now try out the hinge gently by putting four fingers into the top jaw, two on each side of the rearmost bump and the thumb in the bottom jaw.

There will be play side to side. Get a piece of paper tube trimmed to the length of your thumb. Squash slightly and insert in lower jaw. Tape in place, try it, then glue it down. I use low temp hot glue. For a tighter fit, glue a scrap of foam inside the tube on either side before final placement. Tape over the outer end of the foam to ease putting the puppet on. Some duct tape around the rearmost bump in the top "jaw" will make gripping it more comfortable. (See #2)

To raise the head up, cut two curved pieces of grey cardboard, say from the back of an old pad and glue these inside the head across the slits in the sides so these "darts" are kept open about 30 degrees. Bulging eyes can be cut from the bottom of two eggs "cups" from one of the discarded scrap sections. Glue these on just above the bend. Or try ping pong balls with their backs cut away. Or eye snipped from foam. My Croc has eyes purchased after Halloween that were intended to float in drinks. Before gluing the boxes shut, you may want to fasten dark green cloth inside the lids to fill in the holes.

The body is a cloth tube with the head end trimmed to fit against the eggcartons. To make it easier to attach, sew only a short section at the top of the head end and pin the rest. Use scrap muslin to get the right size and shape, then transfer the pattern to some green cloth. Before attaching permanently, base paint the cardboard with matte acrylic, probably green on the lids and white for the "teeth. Staple the cloth to the head using a small paper stapler, then hot glue. Use glue to cover the staples with cloth scrap. I have green hot glue left from the holiday season which I used (See #3).

You may want to stitch a line of points down the back when you close up the tube. If these are stiffened felt, a larger paper stapler may be used. Make the tube loose and flexible. Then finish decorating the head and the body. Glitter glue will make it seem scaley. You can also glue pieces of the internal separators between eggs at the front of the top jaw as nostrils, or just paint black spots. The spaces between the teeth can be black, red, or green. A piece of black or green tape should cover the hinge inside the mouth. It can be used to secure whatever sort of tongue you decide to use, flat and stubby, or long and serpentine. Whatever sort shouldn't deaden the sound too much, however. Ours were red crinoline.

Email:Will Stackman

posted by will 2:51 PM

Thursday, February 23, 2006


Wire slides for Toy Theatre

The slides I'm currently using are hand-bent from malleable, slightly stiff wire, scavenged from cheap umbrellas. Local puppeteers collect these every spring when gusty weather in downtown Boston sends many bumbershoots into the trash cans, especially around historic Copley Sq. I haven't seen this type in stores recently, but there still seem to be a number of such black umbrellas out there, with no maker identified, which use round wire ribs. Rod puppeteers normally prefer the folded metal kind so we swap our finds. Shadow puppeteers like the wire ones as well, which is what I first used them for. Old black wire coat hangers can also be used, especially for bending practice.

My bending pattern is achieved using two pairs of pliers, one needlenosed, one flat jawed electrician's style.
(1) Bend one end of the straight wire at right angles about 3/4" in.
(2) Bend that angle down about the same distance further in. Now the tricky part.
(3) Fold the second end shut using the flat jawed pliers. (Slip-jawed pliers can be used but they're even trickier.) Pry this slot open so the sides are parallel and squeeze the fold so it lies flat. Lay the slide on a flat surface to check. A tap with a mallet between two pieces of wood may be needed.
(4) Fold the other end at right angles in the opposite direction making sure this bend is in the same flat plain.
(5) Create a handle by laying this end of the slide on a piece of cloth tape and folding it over so the tape sticks to itself. Use black or even colored tape (for coding). Trim neatly. Use a small label to the tape with the character identification, which can be covered or peeled off when the slide is reused.

To mount figures on this kind of slide, salvage some heavy aluminum foil from disposable bakeware. Cut a rectangle as long as the base of the figure and about 1 1/4" wide. Rough up one side with medium steel wool. Fold a right angle into it the long way with one side 1/2" and the other 3/4", roughened side out. Glue the 1/2" flap to the back of the figure and trim to match. UHU glue stick works well. Put cloth tape on both the bottom and the top of the 3/4" flap to add weight. Slide the figure into the fold in the slide. A bit of removable tape over the right-angle extending back will make keep things secure.

To store figures with these "feet" on them, stack them back to front with the flaps overlapping and clipped together. Lay them face down on tissue in a box. Sorting them by acts will make setup faster. Store the box so the figures are upright. They can also travel fastened to the slides in a large box with the flaps overlapping and the scenery stacked on top of the wires and tied down to prevent shifting. This sort of box has to store and travel flat.

Email: Will Stackman

posted by will 12:23 PM


Bowling Pin People

This project began as a way to quickly create table top figures for use with a class of mentally challenged adults at a sheltered art center. There were a few small white plastic bowling pins lying around from an activities class. We first just drew faces and wrote names to have something to work with. However, these cheap toys tip over easily, and require a lot of imagination to acheive characterization. There were readily available at a local dollar store so we experimented.

First came arms. We joined two standard pipe cleaners and wrapped them around the neck of the pin, creating posable and somewhat manipulable appendages. A loop in each end indicated hands. These were soon covered by mitten shaped cut-outs. Cardboard cutout with bent elbows and "shoulders also rorked but were hard to activate.

The figures were now tippier, so a base aka feet was added, cut from posterboard. These extended further forward than behind, shaped like a trapezoid with rounded corners and a vee cut into the front. Low-temp hot glue secured them to the bottom of the pin.

The head of the pin, while easy to draw on didn't offer much room for facial features. We did add simple hats-such as bottle caps, small clown noses from using miniature pompoms, big moustaches, etc. Stryofoam balls were considered, but securing them would involve hollowing out a neck hole, messy and somewhat difficult. Paper masks were tried with some success, drawn on basic geometric shapes. A return to the dollar store offered one solution; cheap minature plastic fruit by the bagful A serrated kitchen knife and heavy shears made holes to the diameter of the neck. The head of the pin was then squashed enough to pop it in where it expanded. Blowing into the molding hole at the base of the pin after enlarging that opening with a pencil helped. The head will turn on the neck, but can be anchored by pushing a large "T" pin through the back of the head into the top of the bowling pin

There was now room for small google-eyes, bigger noses, larger hats, various mouths, earrings The tip of a hi-temp hot glue gun will melt holes in such cheap plastic. Plastic flowers and toys from the same source were disassembled and used to create rather fantastic characters. Use lo-temp hot glue sparingly and anchor such additions with straight pins during the glueing process.

There are larger plastic bowling pins available at chain toy stores. These usually come in bright colors rather than white, but can be painted if primed. Besides adding "feet" these need weigh inside to stay upright. Large plastic "easter eggs" can be used to give these bigger heads. Plastic bottles work too. There's definitely room for experiment.

Email: Will Stackman, Master of Motions

posted by will 12:14 PM

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


A lesson in design and practice

revised Winter 2006

(Key Vocabulary in CAPS; glossary at end)

A few hours spent on this project will result in both a usable small puppet theater and an understanding of the parameters for presenting puppetry to a small audience. Refer to sketches 1 -6

Simple XEROX BOX Stage - for tabletop use

1) Get sturdy copy-paper carton with a seperate lid; white if possible Find a spare lid too. (1) Some extra cardboard of the same weight is used for side wings.

2) Reinforce box and lid(s) with wide paper packing tape, particularly at corners and along edges. Use wide white freezer tape if looks matter.

3) Cut a flap in one long side of the box 1/2 way down from the top edge. Leave 2" on each side. Fold this ?ap under to create a PLAYBOARD. Tape and/or glue in place. The main part of the box we'll call the BASE. The 2" side ledges support the INTERNAL WINGS. (2)

4) Cut a large Flap in the top of the lid for a PROSCENIUM opening.

    a. Measure 2" in from each end and cut a slit along one long edge of the fold.

    b. Draw a line parallel to the other long edge 2" in. Now, 2" in from each side, draw lines from the slit       to meet this line. Then cut these.

5) Fold this Flap up in front which almost doubles the height of the proscenium, forming a Pediment. Keep this upright by using two strings with knots in each end run to back edge of the lid, caught there in slits. This flap helps "hide" the operator. (3, 4 &5)

6) Fasten Proscenium to Base. Use big paper fasteners. Reinforce holes.

7)Make EXTERNAL WINGS for proscenium from the extra cardboard. These should be as tall as the Proscenium on the Base combined. Cut from rectangles and fold into two screens with one 4" side. The shorter side that overlaps the edge of the PROSCENIUM and the INTERNAL WINGS is secured using paper fasteners.
(See note* for folding such units to fit in the base for storage.) (4)

7A) Make two INTERNAL WINGS. These fit inside the Proscenium on either side and extend to the back of the Base. The center is cut out. A flap at the bottom rest on the side ledges of the BASE. Paper clip on. (5)

8) Scrim curtain hangs across wings. Use dowel or cheap curtain rod no longer than diagonal of base. Anchor using rubbber bands thru Internal Wing corners.

9) Set on desk or cardtable with cloth. Sit or stand.

10) Use small weights in bottom corner of Base to stabilize. Cans of sand work.

11) Decorate appropriately, especially bottom (it's the front) Add title on top ?ap. Curtains of some sort in the proscenium add theatricality. The extra lid is to protect the bottom(front) when stored.

12) Smaller boxes can become sidestages and become part of Wings.

13)Use a smaller box as a shelf for props or standing puppet support.

Use this theatre for ?nger puppets, small hand puppets, simple rods, or with a piece of vellum, for shadows. With some extra ?ooring, it could even be used for small "Czech" marionettes. Modify the wings to use for toy theatre and decorate the proscenium appropriately/ Show(s) can be kept in the box, along with all parts of theatre for easy storage and transportation.


BASE - the main part of the box, one side cut away.

PLAYBOARD - the ledge in front of the puppets which serves as their stage.

PROSCENIUM - the frame for the show, made from the lid.

WINGS - panels on either side, either behind the Proscenium or beside the Base.

Parts list

Carton w/lid, Packing tape, Big Paper fasteners, Big Paper clips. Extra cardboard(posterboard, etc.), Thin fabric, string, Dowel, slat or curtain rod, Rubber bands, Decorations
*To fold the wings, slit the side which goes againt the proscenium in the middle. Fold the front wing forward at this point. Use four paper fasteners(two on each side of the slit to secure the wings. Reinforce the cut edge with packing tape and then use masking tape over the slit for extra security.

Will Stackman, Master of Motions

posted by will 3:29 PM

Tuesday, January 31, 2006


"One piece" Puppet Stage

Jan. 2006

     This design is based on one originated for touring by Paul      Vincent-Davis, the longtime Artist-in-Residence at the Puppet Showplace Theatre in Brookline MA. It's been used by all and sundry in programs there for the last quarter century or so. The fitup was even used as PVD's main stage for a production of "Punch & Judy" and as one of the three stages for his more recent "Puss-in-Boots." The main unit fold down flat to a compact 3'x4' package      about 5" thick. This puppet stage was designed to be used by a standing puppeteer      but a tall stool of the right height will allow the operator to sit and perform.

          His original is made from good 1x2 common stock which has stood up remarkably well. The design could also be realized using aluminum framing and has been adapted using tri-wall cardboard as well as "Gator" board. The main folding unit has five panels (A, B1&2, C, D1&2) carefully hinged together with the playboard permanently hinged on as well. A bar (SB) for the scrim, which hides the standing puppeteer, and a propshelf (PS) are separate. These strap onto the main unit when it's folded for transportation and storage. (See Plan#1 below)

     The largest panel (A), the lower front, is 4'x3'. Both dimensions can be adjusted to fit the puppeteer and how the fit-up will be transported or stored. A cross bar parallel to the floor can be optionally added to get the height of the prop shelf just right. Incidentally, the propshelf holds the whole setup square. The lower side panels (B1 & B2) are 2'x3' or the same height as (a) and half its width. This matched pair are permanently hinged onto the back of the main panel (A). (Piano hinge may be used.) If a cross bar is set it's at the same height as the one on (A).

     The top panels, (C), which sit on (A), and (D1 & D2) which are left and right "handed" are dimensioned to achieve the ideal playboard height. I use 54" inches, so my C panel is 4'x'18". This unit is permanently front panel A. The playboard (PB), made from furniture grade 1/2" ply covered with muslin, is permanently back hinged onto C. There's a loose pin hinge on the front to keep PB from tipping. (See note below about loose pins)

     top side panels (D1 & D2) are L-shaped mirror images of each other with 2' bottoms matching C1 and C2. Their lower front section is the same height as C. Mine are 18". The inset of the "L" can be adjusted to accommodate the depth of the playboard and the position of the scrim. Mine are set back 9". thus the top of the L is 15". Both are permanently front hinged like C. Each has a loose pin hinge on the front corner which secures then to the top front panel C. We've outgrown bent finishing nails and use "hitch" pins from the hardware store in all our stages.

     There are two pieces for this fitup which are not permanently attached. The most important "loose" piece is the propshelf (PS), which rests either on the inside of units C and D1&D2 just above the fold or on the optional cross bar. The fitup is sturdier in the former configuration. The front corners of PS are carefully notched to match the right angle fold at each corner. The shelf is help in place by two velcro straps which wrap around it and either the fold or the cross bar. Additionally, loose pin hinges on the back corners or "T" pins into the frame will help keep the self in place. I usually just tie the propshelf down using black line permanently knotted through holes in the rear corners. The straps and ties also secure the playboard and the scrim bar onto the folded fit-up for transportation or storage. Nylon buckle straps can also be used but velcro is quicker.(See Plan#2 below)

     The scrim bar (SB) rest atop D1 & D2. It is secured to the outer top corners by loose pin hinges. The scrim can be rolled around it permanently or velcroed on just for performance. If more height is needed (primarily to hide the puppeteer) a light weight pediment (TP) can be set on the scrim bar and pinch clamped in place. Since this fitup is shallow, sightlines can be improved by pivoting thin aluminum or wood curtain bars (CB) off the top back corners of D1 & D2. The masking curtain can be separate or incorporated into the side drapes. Use "T" pins through the frame to support these bars when in position or perhaps pinch clamps.

     Paul Vincent-Davis' original stage is covered in black cloth, with loose spots where the playboard is secured. Decorative curtains are velcroed on the outside for various performances. The main front drape wraps around the corner fold to line up with the uprights of D1 & D2 "L"s. The longer side curtains overlap slightly and can be wide enough to extend back onto the pivoting curtain bars. An opaque under covering means that these "show" curtains can be light weight. We tend to use wrinkle resistant polyester. Some visiting school groups have use painted paper scenes.

     When the main unit is carefully folded--the hitch pins can even be kept inside of their hinges--the prop shelf and the scrim bar are strapped on top for the center fold using the velcro straps used to hold the propshelf. Slots in the pediment will allow it to be strapped on also. PVD has a giant canvas "tote" bag to store his in. A 6' x 8' "tarp" works as well, held on with bungee cords.


Will Stackman, Master of Motions

posted by will 3:58 PM

Tuesday, April 19, 2005




Styrogoyles were invented for one of the early First Night parades in Boston. The year before we had suffered in the cold hoisting top-heavy Bread & Puppet ?gures. I was determined to create something lighter, so I requested a small budget and set to scrounging. I had orginally intended to use beadfoam packing forms simply as a light-weight base on which make several cloth-covered paper-mache heads. As I assembled “skulls” from my collection of odd foam shapes, I became inspired by these artifacts themselves and STYROGOYLES were born.

So to begin:
First look at the scratch illustration at the bottom of the page

1) Collect a number of beadfoam packing forms, including those from the boxes of past warantee appliances and electronic equipment creating a ?re hazard in your attic.
2) Get a package of 10" bamboo cooking skewers and a low temp hot-glue gun and clear some table space.
3) Start with a large rectangular shape, or join two similar pieces to form something of the sort for a base. Fasten beadfoam units together by carefully pushing skewers through both pieces. Use hot-glue sparingly to reinforce the joints. Decide which is the bottom of the face.
4) Faces are bilaterally symmetrical. Find two smaller shapes about the same size, either identical, mirror image, or just interesting together with holes in them. Position these above the midline of the base for eyes, leaving room for a nose. Then ?nd an interesting single solid piece for a nose and put it in place.
5) Finally ?nd a medium sized open piece for a mouth, perhaps something with tooth-like notches and put it below the nose. The mouth doesn't have to be straight or centered as long as it looks like one. The idea is to create a head with a profile as well as a head-on look.
6) Anchor the features to the base using skewers but don't glue them yet. Let the ends of the skewers stick out. Pick your STYROGOYLE up off the table and look at it from the side, from below, etc. Make approriate adjustments.
7) Now lay it back down and glue the smaller pieces to the base, add extra skewers, or even tie pieces in place. Cut off any protruding skewers with electricians pliers or heavy shears.
8a) A STYROGOYLE can be used as a two-handed mask, but if you want to put it on a pole, get a heavy cardboard tube. Ones from bolts of cloth are ideal. Glue and tie this to the back of the base. Use strips of white cloth to tie it on. Mount two similar pieces of beadfoam on either side of the tube at the top of the head to brace it and to make a better pro?le behind.
8b) If you can find tubes that fit in each other, put a short piece of the larger size on the back of the mask. Glue a smaller tube in the end of a full length larger tube. You should be able to display the head than six feet to eight feet overhead. Make a simple cloth sling that goes around the back of your neck and forms a pocket at your beltbuckle. Tuck the bottom of the tube in there take take up the weight and head for a parade. Tubes look better painted with black or white house paint.
9) Add decorations, such as hair made from strips of plastic bag or thin ?exible packing foam, or plastic plate earrings. You can cut disks of broiler foil and hang them in the eye holes. Don't be afraid to incorporate open spaces into your design. Holes help.
10) I leave my creations basically white; they show up better at night, but if you want to paint them, use cheap white ceiling paint as a primer, then craft grade acrylics for the art work. Try spattering or airbrushing for texture.
11) Holes in the design will let the wind through. You can add a thin shoulder board made from doubled cardboard or wall paneling scrap and hand strips of plastic or cloth down for a sort of costume. These move in the wind well.
12) It's probably best to dispose of STYROGOYLES properly rather that try to store them since the materials aren't partucularly fire resistant.

Email:Will Stackman

posted by will 5:14 PM

Monday, April 18, 2005


Suspended Horse

instructions - Will Stackman ; Spring 2005

(based on a Puppeteers Collective design)

Active youngsters really get into these simple parade pieces which doesn't require any masking. The figure is based on the pantomime hobby horse from British tradition. A group of these makes an easy display and stores in very little space.

1) Get a roll of relatively soft fence or heavy bailing wire. Each horse takes about 5 yards.
2) Draw an 3 foot oval on a piece of thick plywood about 3' x 4'. Drive 8d nails 4" to 6" apart around the circumference.
3) Starting at either long end, leave a 12" to 18" "tail" and wrap the wire around the oval twice. Leave a similar "tail" at the end.
4) Wrap duct tape around the wire loop several times on each side. The springier the wire, the more taping needed.
5) Twist the two "tails" together and bend up for a neck to support the head.
6) Draw whatever size horsehead with a neck needed. Trace and cut out two copies on corrugated cardboard and two on light posterboard.. Make the same 1" deep slot in the bottom of all four pieces about 2" from the back of the neck. (This slot will slip over the body oval to keep the head from turning)
7) The flat posterboard heads can be decorated before installation. Lay them nose to nose and draw more or less identical features on each. Half styrofoam ball eyes and paper sculpture ears and nostrils can give dimension. Textured collage materials also help as well as ribbon for the headstall and bridle.The mane will be added during assembly.
8) Depending on time available and whether these figures are intended to last for more than one parade, varying assembly techniques can be used. A large pinch type stapler is a real help when using corrugated cardboard. Hot glue and lacing are also options.
9)Staple and/or tape the front of the head from the top around under the chin and down the front of its neck. Slip the head over the wire neck on the oval and fasten the bottom A piece of plastic cut from a milk jug can be used to reinforce the slot.
10) Insert whatever material used for the mane into the back of the neck and staple This could range from shredded paper or cloth to raffia, wool tufts, or unraveled coarse rope. Hot glue may help with this part of the installation or the edge can be laced shut, "sewing" the mane in place.
11) Wait to put the two posterboard faces on last. First tie the shoulder straps, made from torn strips of muslin or broad cloth on. One continuous one starts a few inches from one side of the head runs up and around the back of the rider's neck and back to the other side, about in the center of the oval. Two shorter straps are first tied then safety pinned to this loop 8" to 10" apart behind the neck. These run down to the oval several inches on either side of the tail area. Adjust to fit the rider. Straps can also be made from old stocking or panyhose.
12) A strip of cloth at least 18" wide with a pocket in the top edge can be slipped over the continuous loop to hang down between the two back straps forming a cape and neck padding for the rider/puppeteer. A continuous skirt is sewn or stapled to the oval hoop starting on side of the tail around the front and back to the other side. Tails should match the mane and are secured to the back of the oval.
13) Use safety pins for initial installation, especially if the puppet is being fitted to a particular rider. Pins are also useful to adjust the fit of the straps later on. Pretend legs for the rider can be fastened to the skirt on either side, positioned in relation to the straps.
14) Fasten the two decorated posterboard faces onto the corrugated cardboard head. Glue is best. The edges can be taped with appropriate colored tape and the decoration touched up. To make the head really stable, punch a hole through all the cardboard where the bridle would fasten to the bit and run a strip of cloth through. Tie either end to the oval 3" inched or so from the head. Tape in place.
15) To operate, drop the "horse" over the riders head and settle the should straps in place. The rider grasps the oval near the head where the bridle attaches. With a little practice and some fitting adjustment, the horse is ready to prance. To dismount, it's easiest to slip the straps off and drop the puppet to the ground, then step out carefully.
16) A pile of such figures will stack neatly on top of each other by alternating head and tail, putting the heads side by side. Store additional costume items for the riders stacked on the bodies.
17) If three dimensional heads are made, using papier mache for example, these will require more storage space, but can be similarly decorated and mounted.

Materials list

Wire for oval; nails and base for bending jig.
Duck tape

Corrugated cardboard, medium weight
Light posterboard
Styro balls, paper sculpture weight art paper, ribbon, etc -optional 3d decor

Paints, markers, crayons
Assorted fabric for skirts and capes
Stuff for mane and tail.
Pinch stapler, hot glue, white glue, thick soft string (optional lacing)

Scratch illustration at bottom of http://www.geocities.com/profwlll/PunchPix.html

posted by will 3:36 PM

Wednesday, July 28, 2004





Several years ago, I saw an brief act by one of the students at the O'Neill Puppetry Conference which used a series of signs to advance the action. This reminded me of a similar skit I'd seen at summer camp long ago. Since I was committed to performing at a special Puppet Slam for an upcoming Puppets/Education Magic weekend, as well as teching that program, I wrote a simple routine which used signage to figuratively turn the audience into puppets--briefly. The act worked well enough that I repeated it for the first potpourri at the 2001 PofA National Festival in Tampa. All I had to do was pick up 10 sheets of posterboard and a magic marker on site. My "script" is appended to this article.

While recent puppetry theory has concentrated on the puppet as a performing object which the puppeteer symbolically brings to life, it might be interesting to consider the form, and indeed theatre in general, as a process of manipulating the audience as well. Concentrating on the puppet and the puppeteer without considering
the real purpose of puppetry, which is to influence the audience leads on occasion more to performance art, which requires no audience acceptance, than to theatre which does not exist without an audience.

A sign act is a good example of such a process, There are only a few things a performer can do with a sheet of cardboard with some words on it. I joking described my act as a silent movie with no pictures only title cards, and indeed, for my reprise at the N.E./MidAtl Regional Fest in July 2004, I was happy to have Steve Weidman accompanying me at the piano. The audience merely by reading along becomes complicit with the situation. Once they start to participate, the die is cast.

But now a few technical details. The easiest way to present signs written back to back is to write the message on the backside upside down. Then the board, held by the sides merely needs to be flipped over. This assumes that the longer edges are top and bottom. It is possible to hold the board in the center of the top and bottom edges and either flip it or rotate it. In the latter case both messages must have the same orientation. Signs can be written vertically and manipulated in a similar fashion, but the words have to be shorter. One can even have a horizontal message on one side, and a vertical on the other, which involves flipping and turning the message at the same time. If more than one sign is needed at a time, hold each by the top center. Variations in presentation may be used for emphasis and/or interest, but shouldn't be overdone. K.I.S.S.

When preparing a sign set, start by numbering the boards and marking Front and Back. This will make it easier to put them back in order. Make sure the lettering won't smudge when they're stacked and handled. I perform with the signs lying in order on a card table to my left. I drop those I'm done with on the floor. They could be stacked on the seat of a chair leaning against the back, with some kind of temporary stop to keep the signage from slipping off. I don't speak and even wear dark sunglasses to avoid real eye contact with the audience, adopting a cool attitude for the performance. I hold all signs in front of me, except for Applaud (#9), which I hold against my arm extended to the right so I can gesture towards the words. The final sign MANIPULATION (10B) is written vertically which may take slightly longer for the audience to read.




Copyleft - Will Stackman, July 2004



1B I said ! (Flip back; push forward)

drop; quickly show 2

2F That's a start

pause; flip

2B Enjoying yourselves?

hold; pick up 3

3F I'm not convinced - (repeat 2B; push forward; drop 2)

then flip

3B You're learning - (drop)


slow flip

4B is an ART


5F Shout out for


5B ART! - (hold, top grip)

(Pick up 4F PUPPETRY
top grip; back to 5B ART; alternate, drop all)

6F Everyone please


6B Shut your eyes

drop; pause; pick up


pause; flip

7B NO Cheating!

8F Raise one hand

top grip, raise and
lower one hand, then flip

8B Now the other

top grip, raise and
lower other hand, then drop

9F Who needs strings?

fast reveal; slow flip,
side display

9B Applaud yourselves

wait for it; drop

10F You've demonstrated

flip; big finish?


E-mail:Will Stackman

posted by will
2:51 PM

Wednesday, January 01, 2003


Ladder-based Hand Puppet Stage

Jan 2003

    Using a pair of stepladders and some boards to improvise a hand-puppet stage goes back several decades, and can be useful for workshops and school programs. Professional troupes, such as the Tilroe's Frog Print Puppet Theatre or the Periale's Perry Alley Theatre have based touring shows on the idea. Several variations are possible.

    The quickest setup is to place two 6' ladders about 5' apart facing each other. Put a 6' board across the middle steps so that puppeteers sitting behind it are hidden when a curtain hangs down in front. Push this playboard to the front and clamp in place. A 6' bar with scenery hanging down rests across the ladder tops toward the back, also clamped in place. Short bars with side curtains can be used to hide the ladders. (See illustration below)

    This arrangement is limited, of course. Two puppeteers can work side by side, but they won't have much freedom to move. They probably can't see the audience either. Puppeteers standing behind the scenery can work above it, but they don't have much contact with those below or the audience.

    A much better setup has the two ladders facing the audience. The playboard and the propshelf are supported by short boards resting on steps, clamped or bolted to the sides. These boards can be any width of common lumber from 3" to 6" which allows the height of the playboard and propshelf to be customized. The boards holding the playboard project forward; those for the propshelf are inside the ladders on a lower step. Secure these boards using ties, straps, trunk-latches or loose-pin hinges to suit setting-up conditions. (See illustration above)

    The front curtain hangs from the propshelf and may be "permanently" fastened to it. The upper shelf/bar can have either opaque scenery hanging from it or a scrim. Performing seated is not recommended unless circumstances require it. Puppeteers standing behind a scrim have more mobility and are better able to relate to their audience. Black masking behind the whole setup is a good idea. See "Rolling Racks" for a simple solution. The ladders are masked by long "banner" curtains which form a kind of proscenium. Support these strips using "T" bars extending forward from the top of the ladder. Mount these supports with bolts and wing nuts for easy removal or use strong nylon clamps.

    The quickest setup in front of an audience require two adults and two children. Each adult carries a ladder with its curtains attached in and unfolds it in position on its marks. Two children follow carrying the playboard, with the propshelf on it, and the top bar on top. Fold the curtains up and over so they don't drag. Children move to the front.

    One adult unfolds the curtains, the other takes the top bar and the shelf. The first adult, with the children's help, mounts the playboard and straightens the curtains. The second adult set the propshelf in place and mounts the top bar securely. This adult checks all fastening while the first and the children bring out puppets, props, back table, and other puppeteers. With practice the show should be ready to perform in under five minutes. The whole thing can be done while singing. Strike the setup is simply a reverse of this procedure.

E-mail:Will Stackman

posted by will 3:04 PM

Tuesday, December 03, 2002


Plastic Canvas Masks

Late Nov. 2002

Halloween's past, but there's always New Year's Eve, Mardi Gras, and next Halloween. This technote is inspired by a project last month with a group of artistically-inclined but challenged adults. It uses inexpensive common craft materials.

Plastic "canvas" mesh in various colors is sold at chain craft stores for as low as 20 cents an 10+"x13+" inch sheet. It's intended for low-end embroidery projects. The mesh is coarse enough to see through easily but dense enough to hide the wearer. The real advantage is that it cuts easily with craft scissors and can be laced together quickly into a variety of forms. Gimp in matching colors is the best choice, but odds and end of wool work too. For speedy assembly, however, nothing beats 1/3 of a colored pipe cleaner pushed through, twisted twice, clipped off, and bent over.

A mask base can be quickly created by trimming the sheet into an oval, cutting a slit into the bottom center, and overlapping it to form a dart. Two pipe cleaner "twist'ems"--the paper ones are a bit too weak--and the job's done. For quick surface decoration, permanent markers
work well. Water-based ones won't last but have the advantage that they can be washed off and the base reused. Water-based hairspray will fix such markers temporarily, Cheap basic colored markers made by Carters can be found in large office supply stores. They should be used in well-ventilated areas, where they can be "recharged" with lighter fluid.

Humanoid masks are generally taller than wide; animal masks wrap the long dimension around to the sides. A muzzle can be created using two slits on either side of the bottom center, A deep box results from cutting into the center of the long side to the center line and overlapping substantially. A little experimenting with stiff scrap paper will suggest various possibilities.

Since it's possible to see through the mask almost anywhere, no eye holes are needed. Eyes can therefore be placed creatiuvely. Various surface treatments can simply be tied on or woven in, as long as the wearer can still see out. A drop of low-temp hot glue on a hole will secure light items if they're pushed in before the glue sets. Putting colored backing into parts of the mask creates more variety. Medium-weight round elastic tied into the sides is enough to hold these light-weight creations on, but the material can be used to create headbands from side to side and over the top.

With a little thought it's possible to design such masks so that eyeglasses can be worn underneath. Masks can even be fastened to the glasses, using pipe cleaners of course.

Any craft material that can be tied on, woven in, or otherwise fastened to the mesh will serve for quick decoration. Shapes cut from cloth tape can be applied and removed for temporary designs. The scrap left from cutting out the base shape can easily be secured to base with pipe cleaner. Simple paper sculpture techniques for making eyebrows, ears, and noses can be adapted to this material for more detailed constructions. It won't really hold a crease, however. If areas need to be filled, light-weight latex spackle works, but needs to be sealed in with acrylic paint on both sides after it dries. Taping over the inside behind the filled area might also be wise. The mesh can also be used with polymers like SculptOrCoat to bond fabrics to both sides for masks, millinery, or prop construction.

Masks based on this technique should be useful onstage, particularly for dancers. The wider field of vision makes moves easier and safer. For speech there virtually no muffling of the voice. Choose waterproof materials for decorative additions and they should work well outdoors in inclement weather or for water ballet. Using stencils and markers, a number of identical masks can be made quickly for choruses or stylized crowds. If the performer wears a closefitted hood with matching makeup around the eyes or even a stocking mask, the face underneath will fully disappear.

Email: Will Stackman, Master of Motions

posted by will 2:02 PM

Monday, December 02, 2002


Technote: CarpetSculpt

Carpet Sculpture

Late Nov 2002

  Paper sculpture techniques can be employed to design large, light-weight puppet heads and masks, as well as body parts. Often, corrugated cardboard is used for such designs. Sealed with housepaint, these creations can last quite a while. Eventually, the essential fragility of the material makes them unusable except for display. Another common material, not as easily salvaged, can be used to create slightly heavier and much more durable objects.

  Non-woven "felted" carpet, frequently used as sturdy padding, but also sold as cheap indoor/outdoor rugging, is stiff enough to use most paper sculpture techniques (not origami), sturdy enough to survive vigorous action and careless packing, and lasts quite a while. It can be finished with common paint products. The thinner cheaper grades of rug actually work best. New carpet has more creasability; used carpet has its own qualities and can be restiffened with water based glues.

  Folds and/or seperate pieces can be held in place using regular temperature hot glue. **Remember to have a container of cold water handy as burn protection. Hold things in place until the glue sets using nylon shop clamps. Metal welding clamps work too. Avoid any with thin rubber padding which melt from heat.

  For reinforcement, critical areas should be wired together. Use an awl or an ice pick to make holes. "Hog" rings can also be used if fencing pliers are available. Large pinch-type staplers are another possibility. A sharp sturdy paper punch will make holes in this carpet, so pieces can be tied or laced together as well. For really thick overlaps, use a short fine thread power screw through a washer into a block of wood.

  Size the carpet with white glue and dry in front of a fan. Prime with a thin coat of flat latex. Then finish using whatever technique is appropriate. Acrylics will work quite well. If the piece needs to stay flexible, consider adhering stretchy fanric to it using a polymer like SculptOrCoat. If a papier mache surface is desired, use a second coat of white glue to adhere a layer of soaked brown craft paper, then work as usual.

E-mail:Will Stackman 

posted by will
1:12 PM

Sunday, December 01, 2002


Technote: Stands

Stand By Me

Late Nov. 2002

Supporting a puppet stage using stands rather than frames has become a popular alternative, especially with puppet teams. Folding stand can be expensive; homemade alternatives, such as buckets of cement or plaster get cumbersome. This is a grab-bag survey of alternatives.

Classic photographers' light stands, mostly made by Lowell, show up in yard sales, thrift stores, flea markets, etc. These come in three and four leg models, and generally extend to six feet. Steel wool and lubrication with white bike grease plus replacing missing adjusting bolts will generally make these useful. Small chem lab setup clamps are especially good for attaching crossbars, but U-Bolts and hoseclamps can be pressed into service. Those with tubing for the final stage will take a heavy wire hook in the top. Attaching gallon jugs of water to the bottom center makes them much more stable.

Any stand will benefit from being fastened to a floorplate, made from plywood, which enlarges its base and can take extra weights. Tieing the stand to a plate and taping the plate to the floor is often better than adding weight

Similar, but not as adjustable, are stands salvaged from portable movie screens, which can often be gotten for nothing. Dispose of old glass-beaded screens carefully. Sometimes the swivels for the screen case are riveted in place and must be drilled or sawed to remove them. Larger screens have square stock for the smallest extension, which can be carefully bent to a right angle for mounting purposes.

Various stands from the world of music can be adapted. The various units for drumsets can be gotten free or cheaply when the specialized mounts at the top give out. Folding music stands are flimsy but have their uses. The bottom parts of orchestra stands are often salvagable, the inner tube can be replaced with PVC. Even guitar floor stands can be modified to hold up light weight units. (See the design for "Ultralight"; www.puppetsbostonguild.org/pages/technote.html )

Then there are the plastic bases intended to be filled with sand or water to hold up beach umbrellas. These aren't especially convenient, but are easy to adapt for use with 1" PVC. They won't mark the floor and can easily be strapped to a circle of 3/4 ply which increases their stability.

Army surplus can still turn up useful stands. WWII vintage steel speaker stands are heavy but will hold light trees up to 10' high. There are Korean War era and after antenna supports made from fiberglass which have real possibility, if you can figure out how they go together. State surplus depots, which can sometimes be used by school programs are worth looking into.

Mike stands are of course another possibility. Their threaded bases not really intended to take much angular stress. The kind with four or five folding feet weigh less (and cost more) and are best used with an extra floor plates. But bases can be picked up second hand and there are cheap upright sections. Aluminum gas pipe will fit into most center tube, which will get about six foot of extension. Or PVC can be slide over the upper tube. So can smaller diameter aluminum tent pole.

Various floor lamps, particularly halogen lumieres, come in short sections with threaded connectors and have fairly heavy bases. These get thrown out regularly and are best used for free-standing banner or setpiece supports. Some smaller quartz lamps are also made from threaded sections and with the addition of plastic barbell weights make good stands for life-sized puppets.

Email:Will Stackman

posted by will
1:48 PM



Late Nov 2002

   Even if there is a stage, in most multipurpose rooms the platform's too low to present string puppets without some sort of "bridge." This makes touring small scale marionette shows to such venues too cumbersome and uneconomic. This miniature setup will serve for a one person variety presentation or lecture-demo using string puppets strung to work at foot level.

 1) Find a sturdy folding kitchen step stool, the kind actually intended to sit on--with a backrest . Steel is preferable, but a good grade aluminum one will work for lighter puppeteers. The top step should be about 2' off the floor and big enough to stand on comfortably. Heavy rug padding fastened securely will help. Fasten a toe stop at the front. If it's used, check all welds and pivots. Contemporary metal and fiberglass models will probably need a piece of plywood to stand on. Bolt this board in place, taking care that the stool will still fold.

 2) A cheap footlocker--not the metal covered kind, approx. dimensions 16"x16"+x"32+"--will serve to carry everything needed for the show with the stool and stage table legs strapped on outside. Use a folding luggage hand-truck with big enough wheels to move this rig around. Reinforce the trunk by gluing muslin to the inside with white glue and painting over it with latex housepaint. Give the outside a coat of sturdy paint as well and don't forget to add a logo of some sort. And disable the &%# lock; use a padlock if necessary.

 3) For the puppet "stage", get two flat-topped TV tables-- the kind with removable legs. Check the joints and clips regularly. A wrapping of black cloth tape will strengthen the tubing and the clips can be filleted with hot glue for support. Two tables end to end make a 15"x42" x25" or so playing area. Make a three fold top--plywood wall paneling is best--with cloth hinges. A light drape can be permanently attached to this floor. Secure it to the tables with four nylon clamps along the back edge. A piece of stiff wire bent in a "C" dropped over the inside pivots of the tables will keep them from moving apart. (See endnotes for an alternative "stage.")

 4) The backdrop cloth is held up by a "goal post" assembled from three lengths of 1/2" aluminum gas pipe slightly shorter than the diagonal of the trunk--about three feet. The nicest way to fasten them together and to the stool is to use chem lab support clamps. (See endnote for alternatives.) The slant of the stool back has enough forward angle so knees and feet won't hit the cloth. The actual height of the backdrop depends on the height of the puppeteer and the puppets but should be at least above the operator's waistline. It should drop below the back of the stage and tie onto the table legs. Don't consider the top curtain bar a leaning rail.

 5) Stand the empty trunk right behind the stool open at right angles, with the opening facing it. Mount a hanging rack for the puppets made from more 1/2 aluminum pipe. This can go through holes in one end of the trunk into wooden blocks glued and screwed on inside. Hang the puppets on this rack in performance order.

 6) If possible, hang a lightweight dark backdrop behind the setup. See the Rolling Racks Technote (08/19/02) and the Stands Technote (12/01/2002) for support ideas. If possible, use clips or drapery hooks to fasten your backdrop to the back of the stage.

 7) A small tape or CD player goes on the larger side of the trunk end and should be fastened down. A remote control that can be fastened onto one end of the hanging rack makes for a smoother show. Remote speakers placed under the stage are also nice. Small lights on stands or mounts to either side of the stage will improve focus on the puppets; real darkness is seldom an option. A single dimmer can be hung on one end of the backdrop bar if control is desired.

 8) The backdrop is only a yard wide. The stage is a bit wider. To fill more stage, consider using folding music stands with a dowel extensions to hang 1'+ wings outboard of stage about six inches upstage. These need to be as tall as the puppets but not as high as the backdrop. They should go below the stage but don't have to reach the floor. Subdued decoration is possible. Spray the stands black.

 9) The following packing order is a start.

  a.Put the sound, lights, & a small toolbox at the end of the trunk which will rest on the handtruck. Put wingstands here too. Call this the "bottom end."

  b.Tape a piece of bubble wrap to the bottom of the trunk. Lay out bagged performance clothes, then pack the puppets in their bags long ways. A string through the hanging loops anchored in the "top end"corners of the trunk bottom keeps them from sliding down. Cover with stage backdrop.

  c. Lay the rack pipes diagonally across the trunk. Put the stage cover with skirt attached on top.

  d. Lay the backdrop pipes on the opposite diagonal. Clamps needed for them should be in a bag at the bottom end. Place folded rear drop curtains at either end.

  e. Put the table tops in last. Foam block glued to the lid should press on them--not too hard-- to keep things in place.

  f. Strap the stool and the table legs to the top of the trunk and stand it on its bottom end. Bungee the trunk to the hand truck. If carrying in a backseat or trunk; handtruck may have to come off.

 10) Packing was planned for this setup order.
  a. Undo bungee and straps; fasten these to truck. Set it aside.Open stool; use to hang rear drop if needed. Place in position.

  b. Set up tables; lay poles and clamps on them. Attach backdrop poles to stool. Then cover stage. Lay rack pipes under table. Hang backdrop; secure it.

  c. Lay puppets on tables. Unpack sound, lights & wings to side. Hang up clothes. Stand empty trunk on bottom end behind stool, facing it open at a right angle. Store handtruck, puppetbags, toolbox, etc. inside.

  d. Mount rack and hang puppets in performance order

  e. Set player on wider part of top end of trunk. Fasten it down. Hang remote on end of rack . If using speakers place under stage and tape down wires. Test sound system.

  f. Place front lights. Plug and test. Tape cords down.

  g. Set up side wings on music stands. Use 2 liter plastic bottles full of water to stabilize if necessary.

A scratch illustration of this bridge can be found at


A more elaborate description and plans will appear in "New Stages for Puppetry"--someday.

*A puppet "stage" can be supported by running two short poles forward from under the top step, passing through conduit clamps screwed onto the underside. Hinged legs with locking brackets could be added to either end as well as extension flaps for a wide enough stage.

*The upright pipes could also socket into short sections with the right inside diameter which were U-Bolted to the stool back. The top pipe can rest on U-Bolts at the top of the uprights and be tied or strapped in place. But lab clamps, especially the swivel kind are sturdier and more elegant.

Email:Will Stackman, Master of Motions

posted by will 1:43 PM

Thursday, October 03, 2002


Technote: FuzzyPuppets

Cleaning Fuzzy Puppets

Oct 2002

There are two secrets to cleaning and restoring "fake fur" and other longhaired commercial puppets and stuffed animals; foam carpet cleaner and the vacuum. Check the label before buying the cleaner; watch out for stain-removing claims with usually mean bleach, and for warnings about fumes. Also get a clean smooth sponge, preferably one made from actually foam. Non-abrasive auto wiping sponges are good, if somewhat large.

Use a vacuum with a hose, ideally one that can blow as well as suck. Otherwise get out a airdryer with a cool setting as well. Put on plastic gloves or even grocery bags when working. If hand puppets are being done, set up stands of some sort to dry them on.

Work a small amount of foam with fingers into an area on the figure. Keep doing this until the entire puppet has been coated with as little foam as possible. Check instructions for drying time, but don't let the cleaner turn completely to powder (if it's that type).

Wet the sponge, wring as dry as possible and wipe foam off the puppet following the nap of the "fake fur" or long-pile fabric. Clean as much foam residue off as possible, rinsing and wringing the sponge.
Now blow dry the figure using a cool hair dryer or the vacuum running as a blower. When the figure is more or less dry, and probably very unkempt, use the vacuum to "air comb" it. Don't push the house down onto the surface, but draw the hairs up and seperate them, shaping them to make the figure neat again. This procedure also works on cheap wigs. Be careful using an actual comb or brush.

The dry powder type rug cleaners can be used for emergency cleanup, but moisture must be avoided. There's bleach in them. Just vacuuming will sometimes be sufficient. Cornstarch based baby powder will help pick up the dirt but has to be shaken out.

Email:Will Stackman

posted by will
1:55 PM

Saturday, August 24, 2002


Technote: Larger HandPuppet Booths

Two's a Crowd

Aug 2002

    Handpuppet stages for two or more puppeteers share many of the same specifications as solo fitups. (See Aug 9 2002) Playboards can be reach further side to side, up to eight feet. However, beyond six feet may seem out of scale with the puppets. The height of the playboard is determined by the tallest puppeteer, which may put a significantly shorter performer at a disadvantage. Movable "boxes", very thick soled boots (kothurni), and other solutions have been tried.

     The more usual case has one lead puppeteer performing most of the action using two hands while a partner presents single figures which may require two hands, shifts props and scenery. This can speed up the action and allowing for more flexible staging. A second puppeteer can rehang puppets in different positions, hand props directly to puppets or make costume additions more easily than a solo performer might. It's also possible for a taller lead puppeteer to control the bodies of a pair of puppets while the second shorter person controls the feet, allowing for dance routines. Puppeteers in all such circumstances need careful choreography and rehearsal. There may also be scenes where the other puppeteer takes the lead for a new pair of characters, while the first prepares to work on the upper playboard or at a side stage.

     Such flexibility often requires that the booth have extra wing space to either side so puppeteers can change places and simply get out of each other's way. A back table is more useful for multiple puppeteer shows but has its place for complicated solo shows. There's also use for a "dump box" under the table to quickly shed puppets. Wired microphones used to be the bane of shows with more than one performer, but since wireless mikes have become the standard, the only problem remaining is still avoiding being picked up by the wrong mike. Puppeteers can now keep,the vocal action going while facing any direction and moving about backstage.

     Large booths assembled from folding frames can be heavy and cumbersome to assemble. Many puppeteers have gone to the "tinkertoy" approach, using tubing and connectors. PVC pipe is the cheapest place to start but can crack, changes dimension with the temperature, and sags on long runs. Aluminum connected with awning fittings is a better choice. Ingenious large booths have been constructed using light duty six foot step ladders and running boards between the steps. Long boards may require center supports. Side masking attaches to the front of the ladders. Speakers can be set on top.

Specific technical questions will be addressed in later notes, including working seated or on "wheelies."

Email:Will Stackman

posted by will
1:51 PM

Friday, August 23, 2002


Technote: CurtainOfLight


Late Aug 02

The theatrical illusion known to the magic fraternity as "black art theatre", promoted on the 19th century European stage by Auzinger and others, was adapted for serious puppetry by Czech puppeteers in the '60s and is sometimes refered to as their invention. Contemporary American puppeteers such as Jim Gamble or Roman Paska prefer to call the form "Curtain of Light", a term also used by stage lighting designers. Instruments used these days range from tubular halogen lamps without reflectors framed by a narrow slit surrounded by "barn doors" to very narrow beam Source4 or PAR theatrical instruments fitted with hoods or extended barn doors. Small setups can used small halogen accent lighting with suitable masking. Lights can come entirely from above, but coverage is better when coming from the wings as well.

The effect in any case depends on creating a narrow evenly lit area downstage of a space surrounded by black curtains, preferably deep pile "triple" velour. Manipulators dressed from head to toe in the same quality black material bring light-colored puppets or objects downstage into the light. These can appear to float, vanish or transform, effects which have made this technique part of stage magic routines. Magicians often allow light to dazzle the audience, which makes it less likely that the hidden manipulators can be seen. Puppeteers tend to prefer a subtler approach, but need to be careful since after a while, visual accomodation will reveal the operators. "Curtain of light" is probably best used for short routines, which may be interupted by brightly lit action elsewhere onstage. Light incorporated in the action can also keep viewers from accomodating to the dimness. Marty Robinson's full stage direct contact puppet piece, "Jackstraws in the Wind" seen at the PofA National in Tampa last summer came close using such an effect.

A curtain of light far enough behind a light colored scrim will allow for a "dissolve " with considerable depth--for those sitting right in front of it. Lights need to be brighter behind scrim. Using a black scrim, which can simply be fine bird or deer netting from a garden supplier, creates a different eerie effect.

This notes is a compliation of posts by myself and others on this subject on PuptCrit. References below


Luman Coad "Black Theatre" - PofA Store

"Black Art for the Marionette Stage", Chapter5
H.H. Whanslaw’s “Specialised Puppetry” (1948) Very rare

Don Drake "Black Art Magic" - book and video

Two Czech Websites

Magic articles - including Auzinger

Email:Will Stackman

posted by will
1:15 PM

Monday, August 19, 2002


Technote: RollWings

Rolling Racks into "Wings"

Aug 2002

        A pair of rolling masking units proved invaluable during the NorthEast / Mid-Atlantic Regional PofA Fest in Easton Ma three summers ago, and have since been handy at several evening puppetry events at various locations around Boston. These movable wings or backdrop units were constructed by taking parts from three cheap metal tubing rolling clothes racks, salvaged from various sources and making two six foot high units. This transformation was accomplished simply by cutting two tubes with reduced connections on both ends in half using a standard plumber's tubing cutter. These half tubes added to each side of the two racks make them slightly higher than six feet. It's necessary to cut slowly and carefully so as to maintain the inside diameter of the tubes, and to ream the cut ends to remove the inevitable burr.

        To keep racks from coming apart in use, all joints should be taped with black theatrical "gaff" tape. To make it easier to take them apart for storage, apply tape by taking six inch strips and folding 1/2" in on either end. When wrapped around a joint, these bandages always have a flap to make the tape easier to undo. Tape the casters in as well if they seem loose. All the tubing was sprayed with flat black Krylon prior to assembly. Any flat black spray will do, but Krylon does dry faster. For better adherence, steel wool the enamel on the tubes before spraying.

       Any light weight fabric, preferably black, can be used for curtains in a pinch, but the safest and cheapest black backing is the new nonwoven synthetic designed to go under new furniture. By federal stature, this extruded fabric won't support a flame. This thin stuff, found at large fabric outlets serving the upolstery trade, needs to be doubled. Get enough to drape over both sides of the rack. Secure with sticky back Velcro tabs, which will need replacement from time to time. It can also serve as a dense scrim.

        The mild steel tubing used for such racks, which comes in standard lengths around 30", can be used to create larger non-movable units. Using the parts from several units-- first removing the wheels-- it is possible to create an arch eight feet high and six feet wide. The base will need extra weight for stability, but four gallon water jugs at 8 lbs apiece should do. Such an arch can be hung with curtains slit for a middle entrance, to create a center entrance in a space without one. For transporting tubing, curtains, and accessories, try using a sturdy footlocker with a dedicated handtruck or attached casters. Overlength sections can be bungeed to the outside.

Email:Will Stackman

posted by will
1:14 PM

Friday, August 09, 2002


Technote: HandPuptBooth

Specifications for a Modern Solo HandPuppet Booth

Aug 2002

There are various construction techniques for creating handpuppet stages, ranging from fitups made using two step ladders. a couple of boards, and curtains to elaborate assemblies made from wooden frames loose-pin hinged together, also usually covered with curtains. But many modern handpuppet stages share several features derived from earlier puppet booths. Below is a summary of what seems to work best for current solo puppeteers.

Handpuppeteers in this country tend to tour solo shows to smaller venues, largely for economic reasons. Stages must set up quickly, be large enough to seem professional, and most importantly, have good sightlines for a variety of seating arrangements. The style of booth pictured in some older texts, which resemble miniature proscenium theatres, has a limited puppet stage, poor sightlines except when puppets are stage center and leaning forward, and may dwarf the actual performing area. Some smaller relics, which have puppeteers seated or kneeling, limit the possible action even further.

A good contemporary stage allows the puppeteer to stand upright and perform with the puppets in front of the face. The performer is hidden by a scrim curtain, which may be black or decorated. This natural position allows for unhampered voice projection and eye contact with at least some of the audience. The playboard, a shelf in front of the puppets used for props, is forward of any "proscenium" framing or scenery, forming a shallow 3/4 playing area with good sightlines from either side. Puppets generally enter through slits in curtains on either side of the scrim. These may be framed as doorways. Entrances from "below" are of course possible. A shallow second playboard at the top of the scrim, just over the puppeteer's head, can be used as an upper performance area. On more complicated fit- ups, window stages on either side, as well as slits below the playboard can add even more variety.

The width of the main playboard is determined by the individual puppeteer's reach. It should be possible to bring a puppet in from both entrances at the same time. The height of of this acting area should be two or three inches higher than the performer's elbows. In effect, a good puppet booth is a carefully fitted costume for each puppeteer. The other critical measurement is positioning the propshelf, set several inches below the playboard, which must be just deep enough so that puppets can pick up necessary items. It can be narrower in the center than at the sides. More importantly, this board must be at the correct height so that puppets hanging upside down underneath can be easily put on or hung back up.

Properly designed hand puppets have wide enough bottoms, held open by a hoop of wire or sturdy plastic, so as to slip on and off easily. A metal ring sewn at the back , usually to the hoop, is hung on good grade cuphooks screwed into the underside of the prop shelf. The height of these hooks is critical to changing puppets. They also need to be far enough apart so puppets don't interfere with each other during the process.. Shows with a lot of puppets may require hooks at the right height attached to either side of the booth. Crossbraces should be set at this height when possible. If the propshelf is thin, an extra strip of wood, ideally wide half-round moulding, on the top of the back edge will not only anchor the hooks but help keep props from falling off.

The playboard and the propshelf, which are primary to the action of the show, are also frequently essential in keeping the booth rigid. Saving traveling weight by making these too thin is a bad idea. Use a good straight common board for the playboard and protect it from wear and tear by covering it with muslin glued on and wrapped around well sanded edges. Staple on the underside. A thin propshelf can be stiffened along the bottom of the front edge and at the ends. It may have felt glued on for sound deadening.

A third method for stiffening a booth, which provides considerable stability both indoors and out, is to add a floor, which should reach from side to side and go back several inches past the puppeteer's normal standing position. Blocks on the top edge can be secured to the bottom of the fitup using loose-pin hinges. The old theatrical cliche of fastening these with a bent nail has been replaced by using "hitch pins" gotten from the hardware store or duplicated by hand from stiff wire. The floor can be made from 1/2" ply and covered with thin carpet for comfort and sound deadening. If necessary, fold it , preferably parallel to the playboard, using a piano hinge on top under the rug. Heavy canvas glued and stapled will work as well. Protect the floor underneath by gluing muslin to the underside.

There are various details specific to certain shows used by individual puppeteers, but the specifications discussed above are essential to unimpeded handpuppetry. When constructing a booth, consider creating a full-sized mockup using heavy corrugated cardboard to get critical measurements just right. Transportable pieces, either folding frames or knocked-down units, can then be made right the first time.

Watch for a later discussion of fit-ups for more than one puppeteer; working over one's head, attaching sound and lighting equipment, and other details.

Email:Will Stackman

posted by will
4:46 PM

Thursday, August 08, 2002


A Better Paper Bag

Aug 2002

Many puppeteers have used a large brown-paper grocery bags to present a single hand puppet, often as a walk-around act. The refinements presented here are the result of a decade of experimentation and observation.

If the bag is to be used more than once, use two - one inside the other. If the new smaller bags - paper or plastic? - are all that's available, it may be wise to get two handle bags, and cut off the handles.

The hole in the back of the bag(s) should be between 1/2 and 2/3 the width in diameter, about 3 inches down from the top. Oval holes can be used. Draw the same size hole in the same position on each bag. Also draw a small thumb hole in the lower right or left rear corner at the back of each bag, flush with the bottom . The choice of corners depends on which hand holds the bag.

Cut out the holes on one bag cleanly; use this bag for the inside. The first bag can be used to trace the holes on the other bag. Draw another circle about half the diameter in the center of the uncut circles on the second bag. Divide the larger "hole" into at least 8 sections and cut the diameters. Cut each flap off at the inner circle. This is the outer bag.

Cut a piece of stiff cardboard slightly smaller than the bottom of the bags. Tape its edges. put it in the bottom of the outer bag.

Put the first bag inside the one with the flaps. Fold each flap neatly to the inside of the large hole. Tape these down with brown packing tape on all edges. It easier if you precut strips of tape to length. Reinforce the folded edge with tape as well.

For the small thumb hole, tape right over the hole and trim the tape away with a razor knife. Use extra tape to "pad" the hole. Thumbs do get sore. Some prefer a hole around the corner on the side of the bag. The double bag will still fold for packing providing the original folds are lined up. If the bag doesn't need to be folded, reversing on bag will make it stand up better by itself.

Grip the bag by pinching the reinforced bottom through the small hole between the thumb and fingers of one hand while the puppet goes in through the large hole in the back using the other hand. Work out the most comfortable performing height.

Reinforce the front top edge of the bag - the playboard - by cutting a piece of posterboad that fits between the two bags. Glue it only to the front bag at the top edge if you want to fold the bags.The outside corners can be stapled. Tape over the points of the staples on the inside.

The puppeteer can hide behind the bag, but interaction with the puppet is generally more effective. Such a solo puppets can be used as an MC or a magic act, as a narrator or a comic. They also play great peek-aboo. Decoration of the bag is optional

Email:Will Stackman

posted by will 4:14 PM

Wednesday, August 07, 2002


Technote: QuikStyroHead


Aug 2002 (repost)

1) Start with open cell real styrofoam ball or egg. Bore out neck hole or insert rod.

2) Add carefully trimmed styrofoam nose, cheeks, brows, chin, etc. Glue with waterproof foam glue. Reinforce with toothpicks or bamboo cooking skewers. (See note at bottom about closed cel foam [beadfoam])

3) Get some light-weight latex spackle (the second cousin to ModelMagic). Get a sturdy plastic bag and a foam “paintbrush”

4) Smear gobs of spackle into the styrofoam, protect fingers with bag, which helps achieve a smooth coat. Use small foam brush to smooth off the surface for an even coat.

5) Set in a warm place to dry, perhaps in front of a fan, and clean up. After about 15 minutes when it's well set, finish drying with a hair dryer. Use high heat and continually rotate the foam. Try doing this in front of the fan.

6) Use a fine nylon sanding pad and some scraps of fine sand paper to complete the smooth finish.*

7) Seal the spackle with a thin coat of flat acrylic or latex paint. Either paint can also be heat dried after it sets. When the surface is dry to the touch, you can start the underpainting.

8) Let these coats dry overnight before the final detail painting. Let that stage dry completely and use flat clear spray paint as a sealer.**

*If you want fine detail work, use Model Magic sparingly after sanding. Let the additional work dry over night. It may need to be covered with tissue and white glue for strength after that so plan accordingly.
**For an even better final finish, use SculptOrCoat polymer or Rosco FoamCoat
(Closed cel foam aka beadfoam needs at least one coat of full strength white house paint before trying to use. The rough open surface real styrofoam works much better.)

Email:Will Stackman

posted by will
5:42 PM

Wednesday, July 17, 2002



JULY 2002

Puppeteers have been recycling plastic bottles for puppet heads and bodies for years. After surveying various methods, here's my "system" for making efficient rod puppet bodies from larger plastic bottles.


1)Last summer at the National Puppetry Fest in Tampa, Bill Laurenzin exhibited a set of neutral rod puppets built around flat dishwashing liquid bottles, the kind with a "waist".This kind probably the best ones to start with; they require little cleaning. Cooking oil bottles are the largest size of this type bottle. Degrease these with a strong commercial product. As long as the bottle is flattened rather than cylindical, and not brittle, it will do.

2) Find the right height bottle for the scale of puppet being made; if the figure has legs and needs to sit, use a stubbier bottle. Don't cut off the bottom.

3) Using a bottle allows for creating a puppet that can turn its head while the body stays still. Make a hole in the bottom the same size as the one at the top. Run a tube (plastic, PVC, taped over cardboard, aluminum, etc) from the neck to the bottom and let it protrude enough to reach down to the hand grip point.

4) Mount the head, which can also be bottle-based of course, on a dowel which will fit through the tube. The dowel can reach to the top of the head and may serve to support head-nodding or eye controls. Put a short piece of tubing around the dowel for a neck. Cut a washer from polystyrene, say from a milk jug, to allow the head to pivot.

5) At the bottom of the bottle, put on another washer, glue a short piece of tubing around the dowel just above the hand grip. The distance between the bottom of the bottle and the grip is dependant on how the figure will be used.. Put enough tubing around the dowel for a handgrip after installing a third washer, then add a fourth washer at the bottom, and glue on a small piece of tubing to hold the whole thing together.

6) To turn the head, pivot the small pice of tubing above the hand grip using the thumb. Determine the best position by experimenting and hot-glue on a bump, then wrap the small tube with cloth tape. Add foam and tape to the grip below to fit the operators hand.

7) When done wrap entire bottle with cloth tape for durability.

Mounting rod-puppet Arms begins with the question of Shoulders. These have to be in proportion to the head scale not the body,. which means that the width of the bottle is too small. A shoulder board can be added and indeed can swivel around the neck of the bottle.
A However, a length of stiff wire, probably from a coat hanger, with a loop in each end is sufficient. Heavier fence wire will work, soft iron baling wire may be too flexible.
B Cut a piece of wire the width of the shoulders plus at least an inch to form the loops. Form a loop in one end with needlenose pliers
C Punch two holes in the "shoulders" of the bottle with an ice-pick or an awl big enough for the wire.
D Thread the wire thru from on side to the other. To get around the center tube bow the wire slightly.. Make a loop in the other end.
E Center the wire. Spiral wrap cloth tape on either side to keep the shoulders in place.
F Now cut a piece of venetian blind cord, tie line , or the equivalent several inches longer than the proposed spread of the arms. Thread this thin rope through the shoulder loops running behind the bottle. Center the cord and tie a knot against each wire loop.
G The fastest way to prototype arms is to get several cardboard tubes from dry-cleaning hangers. If these are too sticky, wrap with masking tape. Use a sharp mat knife to cut two identical pieces long enough for the upper arms.
H Thread these short tubes onto the cord on either side of the shoulders. A piece of wire with a small hook in one end will help fish the cord through. Tie a knot - not too tight - at the elbow.
I Cut two more tubes for the forearms. Thread these on and tie knots at the wrist. The arms need to be flexible but not floppy. Adjust the knots.
J Hands vary. One method is to use flat cutouts - wooden ones from the craft store will work. Make a hole at the wrist and another in the center of the palm.
K With the thumb up, thread the wrist cord through from the palm side, up the back of the hand, and through to the palm side. Tie another knot.
L Fasten hand rods to this knot. Fiberglass spokes from golf umbrellas work well. Regular umbrella spokes work for smaller puppets. Thin bamboo tomato stakes look very folksy. Professional rods are usually made from various grades of stiff steel welding rod. How tight the rod is secured to the hand effects its gestures.
M Cardboard tubes may be too flimsy for continued use, though they can be protected by wrapping with wide filament packing tape. Cut a piece of tape the length of the tube and lay it flat on the table. Press the tube onto on edge and wrap the tape around it by rolling. Stronger tubing includes PVC and other plastics, such as rigid poly used in labs, thin aluminum from old TV antennas, etc.

Email: Will Stackman, Master of Motions

posted by will 4:12 PM

Sunday, July 07, 2002


Technote: SokSekrets

Sok Puppet Sekrets


Since Soks, the dot.com puppet is back at work, there's a renewed interest in this type of hand puppet. Most people view them as trivial and even demeaning, but sock puppets can be very versatile for comic creations.

1) Start with washed socks. New out of the package don't stretch well. Holes in the toes can be a problem; worn heels are easier to disguise.

2) There are plans around involving too much cutting and sewing. Don't start with these. Put on the sock with the heel on the back of your wrist. Make a "mouth" with your thumb and fingers and push the toe in to your palm. That's your basic puppet. The next step is to make things more convenient. Mark the spot on the toe in the cener of the mouth.

3) Get a strip of wide elastic (which can come off discarded clean underwear) and make a loop the size of you wrist. Sewing is best; safety pins will work.

4) Turn the sock inside out and locate the mark from step #2. Fasten the loop to this point on the inside of the sock, Sewing works best, etc.

5) Put your wrist through the loop and turn the sock right side out over your hand with the heel on top. The loop pulls the mouth into place.

6) You may want to reinforce the attachment of the loop by sewing an extra scrap of cloth inside the mouth to the loop of elastic. Some people have used "scrunchies" for these loops.

7) Now make a cardboard pattern of the inside of the mouth that will serve to shape it. The lower jaw can be pointed or rounded; the upper follows the curve of the fingers. The center fold goes against the palm of the hand.

8) Transfer the pattern to stiffened fabric; craft store felt, upolstery scrap,
or glue-sized heavy cloth. Cut it out oversized and trim to fit.

9) Baste this fabric to the sock inside the mouth using a running stitch. Acrylic "wool" works well. Fabric glue, such as Sobo, can also be applied sparingly to the side of the mouth against the sock. Stuff the sock with paper before doing so and wait for the glue to dry before sewing the mouth.
Also try using "mendingweb" iron in-adhesive

10) Roll up some cloth - like a really worn sock and stuff it inside in the heel region to support the eyes. Fasten in place from the outside using safety pins - carefully.

11) Take off the puppet again and turn inside out. Baste the cloth roll in place. Embroidery floss works better than thread, incidentally. Turn back, remove pins.

12) Now fasten eyes against the head bump. Craft-store "google" eyes, salvaged stuffed animal peepers, sections from ping-pong balls, even buttons. Sewing's best; hot-glue works. Ears - either flopping down or sticking up - can be fastened to the bump. Or various hair treatments. Collars, bows, ties, etc. will define the neck.

Email:Will Stackman

posted by will
5:32 PM

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