Puppetry Tech Notes


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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

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