An Apprenticeship in Puppeteering

Maybe “method-writing” would be the best word for what I learned in London during the next stage of my writing project. I chose to be in London for the audience experience—of theatre, of the London underground mill, of the Olympic crowds—but I found that in fact London taught me to act. I thought that writing in the city and training to be a marionettist for the Little Angel Puppet Theatre in North London would give me practical tricks, crafts, and theories that I could apply to my dramatic writing. As it turned out, that too was yet another experience in acting.

At the theatre, I trained for the summer show. Our lessons were rehearsals, and though it was considered both practice and play there was a serious side to it—in a couple of weeks, paying visitors would watch us perform.

There is something pure and simple about the puppet tutors’ of puppetry. Even though the material is often reused and sometimes outdated, the puppeteers still feel the same distinct pleasure at every performance. It is a joy that is almost outside of the writing, directing, or any other part of the production. It is a pleasure derived from simply acting the puppet; moving a hand up to the face, walking quickly or slowly, happily or angrily. Each motion is independently magical regardless of the larger plot the movement takes place in.

In moving the puppets and forgetting plot and design, the vision of the characters for my own writing has become more tangible. I am now able to say that my project will be a drama in three short episodes, following a couple, Margot and Emilio, through their discontents. There will also, as the plot thickens, be a corresponding thickening in stage media. The first dimension will be the closest and most directly reflective, containing the live actors and the foreground of the stage. The last will be the landscape, consisting of projected images, both animated and still, reminding us of artsy movies and commercials. This will be the sky, the history, and the memories. In between, there will be an awkward middle place that comingles the media of the fore- and back-ground. Here, the projected images interweaves with the actors motions. The animated and the live interact—and this is what I’m calling puppetry. I have to constantly assess my need for such thick stage media. Something the puppet theatre has shown me is that you don’t need to be flashy to tell the story.

Being at the Little Angel Puppet Theatre has turned out to be very useful for my writing project. It is a world in miniature: I may move this girl puppet closer to the boy puppet and put its head gently down, and there, is a situation. In puppeteering, everything can be tested out.

My first puppeteering exercise, after learning to manipulate the puppet’s arms and legs, was to make the puppet perform to a song—“Somebody Loves Me” sung by Peggy Lee. At first I tried to follow the words with the puppet’s chin, but looking out from the stage, I began to adopt a puppet’s-eye-view. Seeing from the puppet’s perspective, and not mine, I realized that when the puppet sang the lines “who he can be worries me,” she needed to glance to the audience, then down at her own hands, as she lifted them from her skirt and quickly set them down again. Working through these actions through puppeteering has allowed me as a writer to realize that my character Margot will not look at Emilio at her moment of confession, she will instead look at the fuse that she is trying to fix.

Georgina Parfitt writes from London, UK, tracing her artistic process as she works on her summer Artist Development Fellowship

Tags