Basic skills include everything from putting the puppet on, to bringing it up on stage, to proper mouth movement, positioning the puppets on stage, and bringing the puppet off the stage. We’ll look at each of these in some detail.
Putting On a Puppet
Before you can use a puppet to teach or entertain, you first have to put it on. Many puppets made today make that a simple process. But, just in case, here is the proper way to put on and hold a puppet.
Hold the bottom of the puppet between your thumb and index finger of the hand not working the puppet. Place your other hand up inside the puppet with your fingers resting on the top of the mouth and your thumb on the bottom. If your puppet has a hollow head, you may want to stuff the head with foam or cloth so your fingers have a snug fit. If there is space above your fingers, it will be more difficult to work the puppet and your hand will tire quickly.
Once the puppet is on your hand, you need to hold it properly. The puppet needs to be straight up and down. If you tip the puppet to the right or left, it will have an unnatural appearance. Also, bend your wrist so the puppet is looking down. Remember that most often the puppet will be higher than the audience, so if it looks straight out, it’ll look over the heads of the people watching.
Notice how the puppet leans to the side in these two pictures. Instead of hanging down straight, the arms hang at an angle. The lines for the eyes and mouth are not straight across, but tip also. All these factors combine to make either position look unnatural which will hinder the quality of your puppetry.
When the puppet isn’t talking, you need to remember to squeeze your thumb and fingers together so the puppet’s mouth is closed. You don’t have to squeeze tightly, just enough to keep the lips together. The picture on the left shows the puppet looking up with its mouth open. The one on the right has the puppet looking down with its mouth open. The proper position is shown in the bottom left picture.
One thing you’ll discover is that when you hold a puppet properly, your arm will begin to tire. Working a puppet uses your arm muscles in a way that you aren’t used to. It will take some time and practice to strengthen those muscles. We have discovered, though, that piano players adapt quickly because they use the muscles in a similar way.
We’ve found that weekly practices are the best way to develop the arm muscles. As you practice, don’t just work on your strong arm. Make sure you develop the muscles in both arms. You should work to develop both left and right-handed skills. This comes in handy when you have two puppets up at once.
Walking the Puppet on the Stage
Once the puppet is on your hand, the next step is to bring it up on stage where the audience can see it. The basic goal to keep in mind as you work a puppet is that you want it to appear as lifelike as possible—from the moment it comes on stage to the moment it is off the stage. For proper entrances, that means the puppet needs to look as though it is climbing a short set of stairs to get on the stage.
Before we get to the proper way of bringing a puppet on stage, let’s look at some common entrances that fall short of the above goal.
* The Magical, or Toaster Entrance—this is where the puppet just appears, or pops up, on the stage. The only real individuals I know of who use this type of entrance are magicians and they usually have a cloud of smoke surrounding their appearance.
* The Elevator Entrance—this is similar to the Toaster Entrance where the puppet slowly rises up on stage. I don’t know of any stage that uses an elevator to get people on or off.
* The Escalator Entrance—this one is getting closer. Instead of popping straight up, he glides up from the back of the stage.
* The Pogo-Stick Entrance—this is where the puppet bobs up and down as it comes up.
All these entrances get the puppet on stage, but it won’t appear lifelike and will detract from the performance. To do a proper entrance, think about how someone comes on a stage from floor level. They walk up a set of steps. So, in your mind, think about how you would walk up a set of three steps.
First, you move forward slightly while picking up one of your feet and placing it on the step. Then you drop down slightly and push up with your other foot. You move forward slightly, place that foot on the next step, and repeat the process. The motion of your upper body during the process is moving forward and up. Then there is a slight drop as you push off the step and then forward and up again.
Now, let’s move to the puppet. Hold the puppet in the proper position, as stated before, at shoulder level towards the back of the theater. Slowly bring the puppet up and forward and then drop it slightly. Bring it up and forward and drop it slightly. Bring it up and forward and you should be on stage. For walking a puppet on stage, use three steps for a normal appearance and don’t rush the movements.