Is it enough to make a pretty puppet?

Huge amounts of stuff have been happening this week.

Among other things, I have been preparing for my primary school workshop at the Bay Primary in Bridlington.

This largely involved cutting circles out of plastic bags, (both good for the environment and cheap for the school).  I have been doing prototypes as well, to check that what the kids will be doing works.

I’ll be working with two classes of Year 1s and they’ll be making a puppet each to the theme of “Lost in the Toy Museum”.  Half will make hand and the other string, but everyone will learn to make both.

In order to make it value for money for the school and to fit as much in as possible, the emphasis is going to be on learning about puppets and how to use them and how they differ from toys, (amongst other things).  The making part will be relatively simple.

I’ve often felt when doing puppet making workshops that while the children have made excellent puppets, that there was no time for them to learn how to use them properly.  It has seemed like it was just a fun activity for them to do with no thought about what happens to the puppet once you’ve made it.

I remember when I was a Brownie, our well meaning Brownie leaders thought that drawing a face on a paper bag, (for a hand puppet) was a good activity for us to do.  But I don’t think a single thought was given to whether or how we would use these puppets to act a story.  I doubt any of them was used to perform with at all.

The point of a puppet is to perform and make theatre.  If a puppet does not get used in this way, it is just a toy, or even a sad useless decoration that hangs on the wall.  I don’t have a problem with decorations or toys but I do not think a puppet is ever truly a puppet unless it is used to put on a show of some kind.

One of the major differences between a puppet and an actor is that an actor will always be themself.  They may be themself dressed differently and acting a character, but they are “acting” and they go back to being themselves afterwards.

A puppet IS the character, it doesn’t take off it’s wig and make-up after the show and then go off for a cup of tea.  It does not have any purpose or life outside of the show.  This may seem sad, but actually it means that puppets are better at totally being the character than a human actor.  They can do things that are physically impossible for a human to do.  They can look like humans cannot too, even with the very best costume or make-up.  Imagine a person trying to do what a dissecting skeleton marionette does.  However thin, a person could never “be” a skeleton that moves, they could just try to look like one.

For this reason, although it is nice to give children complete imaginative free rein, I shall be teaching them to think about what the character of the puppet will be before they fully create its appearance.  In my experience, children left to themselves will often be extremely dull and unimaginative and all copy each others ideas.  If you narrow the options available this can actually increase the creativity of the result.

Consider, who would use their imagination to create a puppet out of rubbish if other “nice” materials are available?  Being creatively selective is what puppet making is all about.  Out of all these things, what looks like an eye?  Narrow it down further; I’ve decided to make an evil character, so I won’t pick something that looks like a cute or friendly eye, but something that could look angry, sinister or supernatural.  Then you have to consider how you want the puppet to move.  If you want a character to move with sharp spiky movements, you might not use a light floaty costume.

So, you can see how, if you wish to make a puppet for performance, you have to think first, then make, then perform.  If you just make and perform, the puppet might not be able to do all the things your story requires.  Just making is a fun educational exercise, but what is it teaching them to do?  To make something that is largely useless and will be quickly abandoned and forgotten.  To make a puppet for performance and to perform a show will be giving a child confidence and pride in their achievements and often brings shy children out of themselves, as it is not them, but the puppet who speaks.  And of course to perform is a puppet’s function, a puppet performing fulfils its reason to be.  Why bother otherwise?

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