Puppetry Tech Notes


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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

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