Live in the Twilight Zone: Thoughts on Directing Puppets

Peter Glanville directing The Fabulous Flutterbys
Peter Glanville directing The Fabulous Flutterbys

LIVE IN THE TWILIGHT ZONE: Thoughts on directing puppets
By Peter Glanville, Artistic Director of Little Angel Theatre

A common question I’m asked is how directing puppets is different from directing actors. Well, the number of approaches is probably as varied for puppets as it is for actors. I remember Phelim McDermott from Improbable once saying that he had applied Michael Chekhov’s acting exercises to bringing puppets alive, so the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. However, there are a number of considerations which may have some impact on bringing the inanimate alive.

Here are my top ten tips which may (or may not) help:


1/ What kind of puppets/s do you want to use?  A more grotesque or anarchic kind of show might be well suited to glove /hand puppet or rod marionette. More poetic, string marionette.  Shadow theatre can work well for dreamscapes, objects for irrational worlds etc. See a range of puppetry work, learn about the different forms of puppet that are available to you and find the right ones to tell your story. Puppetry: A reader in theatre practice by Penny Francis 2012 is a good resource


2/ However  you apply the use of puppetry in your work, ensure that that they are designed to be part of the overall aesthetic of the piece.


3/ Communicate clearly to your designer what  your puppet needs to do.  It’s not just a case of what it looks like, the design of the puppet needs to enable the movement qualities you are looking for.  When creating Gerda for my production of The Snow Queen, puppet designer John Roberts had to create a specific hip joint to allow her to ride a reindeer, slightly angle the feet to accommodate a gentle stage rake, create a way of quickly removing /replacing a hat over pigtails and place an extra marionette string to allow her to ice-skate.


4/ TIME #1 : Make sure you have plenty of time to fully explore the puppet before they are integrated into your production. Puppets are dead, you need to give them life. Breathing and a sense of weight /gravity / natural rhythm are essential.  Experienced puppeteers will work hard to ensure they get this right and will be frustrated if they are being directed around the stage before they’ve learnt to walk/run/fly properly. The War Horse puppeteers spent many months exploring the weight and rhythms of the horses .  As a Director make sure you support the puppeteers to get the basics right.


5/ TIME #2 : Like many puppetry enthusiasts, I’m a little ambivalent about the use of the word ‘manipulation’ , the suggestion that the process is controlled and one-way.  I have never worked with a puppet that ended up being as I (or the puppeteers) first imagined it would be. You need to be open to the suggestions it makes to you. Make sure you have time to improvise and play with your puppet. Explore all the movement qualities and possibilities of the puppet.


6/ Discover how little you need to do. Less is often more in puppetry. Which gestures/movements are enough to entice the audience’s imagination?  Be continually conscious of this imaginative space. Live in The Twilight Zone


7/ For me, the joy of puppetry is in the art of the movement. Discover how different rhythms/breathing patterns can portray different emotional responses or how subtle shifts of balance/focus /head angle can propose different thoughts.  A lot of dancers or physical theatre/Lecoq trained actors have discovered they’re pretty good at puppetry because of this sensitivity to gestural signifiers.


8/ Give clear directions to the puppeteers and be fastidious when finalising the choreography of the work. Be conscious of the relationship of the puppeteer to the puppet and the level of their visibility. Help the puppeteer to not draw attention to themselves facially/physically (unless that is your intention).


9/ Collaborate as fully as possible with the other members of the production team (writer/puppet designer/set designer/lighting designer/composer/film–maker etc) as early as possible. A visual storyboard can be extremely useful as a starting point alongside any text you are working with/from)


10/ Ok this one is bloody obvious but as I’ve recently seen so many major productions that have   ignored it, I’ll say it out loud – MAKE SURE THE PUPPET CAN BE FULLY SEEN.  Move around the theatre, check your sightlines. Working in traverse might seem like a good idea at the time but it’s no fun for the audience if they spend more time observing the puppeteer than the puppet.


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