Working in the Theatre: Puppets on Stage

[opening music] [music] [On loud speakers] Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! I give you the amazing, the uncroakable, Bessie, the cannonball! [applause] [chanting] Bessie! Bessie! [explosion] [Douglas Stritch] We have this half-cow lying in the shop for a long time and we were always wondering what we were gonna do with it, if we were going to finish it, if I was gonna see it to fruition, but Bruce had ideas in his head about… He wanted to do a cabaret-style show for the next performance at the theater. He said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could use that cow in some form or fashion?” and I said, “Yeah, oh yeah, like, a cow joins the circus!” or something to that effect. From that on, we kind of had this idea together of the show we wanted to do, which pretty much involved a cow that wanted to join the circus and what on Earth she could possibly do in the circus. [mooing] [Robin Frodhart] Frank is obsessed with order and cleanliness and is a diligent student of his office safety training manual. For him, the pigeons represent all the filth and chaos of the city and are constantly causing all kinds of problems for him. [onstage sounds] [laughter] Later in the play he discovers that the pigeons are tapping Morse code back and forth to each other and he deciphers the Morse code to find out that it says “THE GREAT FLOOD,” and he realizes that all along they’ve been planning and preparing for the flood and not conspiring against him specifically. So, he himself begins to prepare for the flood. [onstage dialogue] “Safety In The Office: Part 1.” Work is important, but more important than your job is safety at your job! [Frodhart] It’s a little bit about our clinging to safety and control in situations where in which there’s no such thing as safety and control and sort of how man’s clinging to an order is completely futile. “We’re all a part of nature. We can’t separate ourselves from it, no matter how many injury reports we file.” [Stritch] The reason I like to do marionettes is because it’s like reflecting a mirror back at your audience something they get to see on stage that they know is not real, they know isn’t alive, but we get to fool them into thinking that it is. I find that task of fooling them to be extremely rewarding just… because it’s almost like you’re doing magic! They really believe that what they’re watching is alive, when they know for a fact it’s not. [Frodhart] I think people are a little bit more open to puppetry in a way. There’s something that is more engaging about puppetry. Watching a man sit and breathes on stage is one thing, but watching three people together making this one thing come alive, it requires the audience to use their own imagination which engages them in a in a much deeper way. [keyboard music] [Freddie Price] You get to watch the puppeteers, you get to watch the puppet come to life, and that that really seems to affect people in a way that live actors don’t do or do in a different way. There’s a great pleasure in doing it in this very simple way. [Bruce Cannon] Marionettes are a specific form of puppets, puppets that operated by strings. That’s the major difference. All other puppets: you have rod puppets, you have stick puppets, you have hand puppets, but marionettes are specifically string puppets. [Stritch] Well, no two puppets are the same. So, to have one methodology for building all marionettes is pretty much impossible. But, for the most part if you’re just constructing a normal human cast member for a show, you’d start drawing it out, getting a feel for what you want it to look like. But, the character really needs to look like and feel like and how you want them to move. And then, you would start basically… I always start with the head, sculpting a head, and then you move on to the other body parts such as carving out arms and legs. Hands I usually do last because hands are the hardest, in my opinion. And then eventually, you have to joint all those pieces together and string them up and see if they move, and if they don’t move right, you gotta go back to the drawing board and start again in some places. It can be a long, arduous process, but in the end you end up with something that can really captivate an entire audience of people just by itself! It’s really rewarding. [music] [Frodhart] For me, this whole show started by just having Frank sitting at his desk and breathing and thinking, and from there he could reach out and start interacting with things on his desk. But it wasn’t until we figured out how to make him breathe that we could even move on to figure out how to make him do all the many things that he does in the show. [Stritch] The puppet comes to life when it’s finally onstage in front of an audience performing. That’s when it’s alive, that’s when we want it to appear alive, for one thing, especially. You know, the very definition of a puppet is that “an inanimate object that comes to life in front of an audience,” and without the audience there, it’s not so much a puppet as a basically toy. I like to think also that after you paint the eyes on, that’s when they really wake up on their own in a sort of magical sense. But really, it’s when that audience gets there that it can be what it is: a puppet. [onstage dialogue] It’s a cow! [Voice #2] But I thought you said the horse’s name. [Voice #1] No, dunderhead. It’s a cow. [Bessie] Moo? [Cannon] The audiences have changed through the years, but one thing that stays consistent is the magic that children see in marionette theater performances. Most kids see a movie, they see television. In Broadway, we teach them theatre etiquette. We teach them what you need to do in a live theatre in a situation, like applause, and what not to do, what’s rude, not to speak out, things that you they were not normally do if you’re watching television or a movie. [Cannon in background] So, another name for a marionette is a string puppet. So, if you go home today and your parents ask you what kind of puppet show you saw, what are you gonna tell them? You saw what kind of show? [Kids] A marionette show! [Cannon] And if they ask you “what is a marionette,” what are you going to tell them? [Kids] A string puppet! [Cannon] Excellent! Okay? And he has several strings: he has a back string which makes him bow, he has a shoulder string that works along with his head string, and they’re all connected to this thing on the top which we call “the control…” [Stritch] To have a young audience is really rewarding because they’re just captivated the whole time and you know you’ve done your job right if you can listen to the audience and they don’t make a sound. If they’re really watching the show, they’re completely silent. If something funny happens, of course they react and laugh, and you’ll know whether or not you did a good job when those moments happen and they react the way they should. But for the most part, it’s not hearing them at all that I I know something’s being done right because they’re not making a noise. They’re just completely focused on what they’re watching. [Cannon] Well, to make the show successful, puppeteers need to learn how to collaborate. They have to be collaborators. They have to be good artists! They obviously have to know how to work a puppet. I think that’s that’s fundamental, that’s Puppetry 101: you can’t get up there and not know how to work a puppet’s basic walking, basic focusing, basic articulation of specific moves. But, I think at the end of the day you have to be a good team player because you’re up there working with lots of other puppeteers. In our show, we have four puppeteers up there, sometimes we have more, but mostly four puppeteers, and when you see a marionette cross, the puppeteers also have to cross. So, you have to understand the dynamic that goes into that. [Frodhart] What we had to learn for The Pigeoning to make it successful was… we had to learn how to slow down and sort of break each physical movement down into a really specific sort of thing. There’s very little dialogue, only a voiceover in the show, so every emotion and every nuance of this pretty intricate story has to be told by movement. [Voiceover] Incident reporting to your designated safety officer. “Safety In The Office, Part 2!” “Reporting Injuries.” Office employees should rep- [dialogue between puppeteers] -ort every accident… [Frodhart] The coordination between the three puppeteers ends up being more of a dance than anything else. We all have to move together really well and know each other really well so that we don’t stumble all over each other, because we’re all working in a very tight space has a lot of a lot of working together. One person is on his head and his left arm, one person is on his hips and his right arm, and a third person is on the feet. And so, we really do have to coordinate. We are wearing hoods, so you can’t see us and we can’t really see each other, but we can definitely feel each other because we’re packed in really tight and fortunately we’ve been working together for so long and such a tight team that we kind of know each other and I know what they’re going to do. Everything’s really well rehearsed, but if something does go wrong, we’re very good at covering for it or improv-ing, working together to sort of solve the problem. [Voiceover] Supervisors are just as responsible for training their people in safety procedures they are training them for efficiency. [Voiceover spazzes out] The sign is dirty! [heavy breathing] [Frodhart] Because there’s no dialogue in the show, the music completely tells the story. I mean, the music and Frank’s movements tell the story entirely, so the music is absolutely, absolutely key. [percussion sounds from synth] [Price] I am a silent character, so to speak, although I’m the only not-silent thing in the show. There’s no words essentially in the piece, so I narrate and accompany the action with music and live digital Foley sound design. [Price’s music] [Voiceover] “Part 7: Surveillance.” When investigating a conspiracy, proper surveillance is your best friend! It is important to capture the perpetrators in the act if you are to maintain your credibility around the office. [Price] Bunraku-style is a very dance-like type of performance because you get to watch the puppeteers themselves. That certainly informs the music. When we work with new puppeteers, they bring a new kind of movement and vocabulary into it, so we’re always trying to keep the piece dynamic. So in a way, that’s challenging: we can’t just like lock it down and do it the same way every time. [Cannon] Well, the challenges of running a show and being puppeteer is that every day is different. You don’t know what to expect. Marionette puppetry is very, very technical. It’s not unusual for a leg to fall off or something, you’re constantly fixing the puppets… It’s wonderful, but a lot of puppeteers will not touch marionettes for that reason because they’re extremely technical, so you have to really know what you’re doing with them. They’re harder work, it requires a higher level of dexterity, so it’s a great genre, but you better know what you’re doing! [Frodhart] The main challenge is just entropy in general, that things that you put together want to fall apart all the time. There’s about ninety-eight different props on our prop list, including sets, props, and puppets. I made…all of them! Some with help from Jesse Roadkill and I maintain all of them. So, that is the main challenge for me, is just upkeep of everything because we play with them pretty hard and things get thrown around and tossed in the heat of the moment onstage. Things can get broken, and so the main challenge is keeping everything in order and working. [Cannon] If you want to be a puppeteer, I would say dancers make good puppeteers, musicians make good puppeteers, actors and actresses make good puppeteers, really good writing and reading skills, if you’re a good artist. The analogy on a puppetry is like a marriage of performing arts and the fine arts. [Speaker #1] You don’t need a theater to do it! You can do it at home, you can pick up toys that you have and and move them around. It’s really about bringing life to an object, and that’s one of the nice things about it. As a dancer or an actor, you often have to join a theater company or have a big theater to be a part of the production, but puppetry is something you do on your own at home: build your own puppets and put on your own shows really easily. [Price] I would say puppetry is a wide open frontier and you can really bring anything to life. Anything can be a puppet, and there are certainly a lot of workshops. The Puppet Lab program over at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn is an excellent place to explore that. But yeah, just do it and start playing with a napkin. [Stritch] Marionette shows still resonate with audiences despite the fact that they’re almost ancient form of theater. Because they are so rare nowadays, it’s almost as if you have to really look for it in order to find it, and once you do it’s like finding a diamond in the rough. But, it’s never lost any of its effectiveness. [Frodhart] I definitely think that in the digital age and people staring at screens and CGI all day that people are hungry for this sort of thing. To be able to see something come to life on stage in this way, audiences have been tremendously receptive. I think that it reminds them of their childhood, before we had all this stuff. It’s just exciting. It’s got more heart, it’s more real. [closing music]


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