“Puppetry is physically hard work,” the puppeteer Joshua Holden said at the outset of a workshop for Harvard students in the Loeb Drama Center on March 12. “We need to warm up before we start.” It didn’t take long for me to understand why the full-body exercises were necessary. Holding up a puppet and maintaining my arm at a right angle for long stretches of time took more energy than I expected. After the warm-up, we each picked up a stuffed toy of our choice from Holden’s personal collection. I ended up with a creepy-looking rag doll with red braids and a plaid dress. Seeing six Harvard students sternly sitting with dolls in our laps, I couldn’t help but laugh.
Holden, a Massachusetts native with gelled jet-black hair, thick eyeliner, and a quiet personality, “never knew he was going to be a puppeteer.” He strayed from his initial dream of becoming an actor after stumbling into a puppeteering audition and getting the position. As his puppeteering career took off, Holden worked as a performer on the national tour of the “Sesame Street”-inspired musical “Avenue Q,” as well as being the lead puppeteer in Boston’s “Peter Pan 360” in 2010.
After picking our dolls, we brought them to life. The simple motion of slightly compressing the shoulders and the neck then releasing them rhythmically gave the impression that the doll was breathing in and out. They went from inanimate to animate objects; from things to beings. Holden also taught us the importance of slight variations in breathing. When it sped up, the breathing portrayed elation and excitement; when it slowed down, sadness. It was staggered to show that a character was crying but otherwise maintained a steady beat. For puppets, which are limited to few facial expressions, breath can be a crucial indication of their feelings.
Digging deeper into the physical lessons of puppetry, Holden told us to examine the shape of our jaws as we spoke. We held up our hands as if they were part of a puppet; as we counted numbers, if our jaw was open, we would open our hands and if our jaw was closed, we closed our hands too. When we said a word like “seventeen,” the hand would open and close three times once on each syllable. After this step, we received “eyeballs” (ping-pong balls on a circular elastic strap), which Holden told us to attach to our knuckles as we continued to practice. “This is how people rehearse for ‘Sesame Street,’ because they can’t take the puppets home,” Holden remarked. With the eyeballs creating the impression of a face, we practiced turning our wrists right and left to imitate the gaze of the puppet. For the finale, we finally moved on from dolls and fake eyeballs to real puppets. From a blonde, accessory-draped mistress to a French waiter with a blue mustache to a friendly, toothless lion, we witnessed an eclectic assortment of puppets from Holden’s collection come to life.
After requests for a demonstration, Holden gently pulled out a sock puppet from a bright orange suitcase: his “soulmate,” Mr. Nicholas. Lacking any accessories, Mr. Nicholas was the simplest of all the puppets in Holden’s collection. However, he was also one of the most visually alluring, stretched in just the right places to form wrinkles, a line of black hair, and skeletal hands made of plastic. With Mr. Nicholas in hand, Holden launched into a monologue, playing the sock puppet as a lonely man sick of his retirement home, growing old, and ugliness. Holden’s short performance was captivating, featuring the sad yearnings of a grump interspersed between precisely timed pauses to allow for the deep, slow inhales of an old man.
Today, few people dream of becoming a professional puppeteer. Puppetry still remains an industry geared towards a certain fandom, and something that not many children are very familiar with. But just two and a half hours with Joshua Holden was enough to teach me about the beauty of this old-fashioned practice and about the intimacy created between a person and a puppet that cannot be shared with a digital character.
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