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Designing for movement:

Notes on a puppetry/performance project for B.A (Hons) students of Technical Arts and Special Effects (T.A.S.E), Wimbledon School of Art, Summer Term 2005.


By David Neat, Visiting Lecturer

Puppets are most often designed and made in the footsteps of preceding puppets. That is, the puppet-maker repeats or modifies tried and tested methods, proven to be effective in previous performance. Take, for example, the bunraku-style puppets of Japan as an extreme case. These appear to have changed little, although subject to subtle evolutionary mutation, over more than three centuries. Puppet families, just like bats or cheetahs, are developed according to their own special form of natural selection.
But consider the student faced, rather as Victor Frankenstein was, with the task of creating a living, moving being from scratch, without progenitors, without a long evolutionary line. One might as well ask someone to come up with a bat, where no bats had existed before!
Many of the 1st year Wimbledon T.A.S.E students I teach have a passion and ambition to match that of young Frankenstein, but few have so far ever made a puppet, let alone been required to animate one. Many have both the imagination and drawing skills necessary to create and develop a character on paper and the ability to realise these designs in static sculptural form. But creating a moving, interactive, performing being is quite another matter!
Just to explain at this point, the T.A.S.E course at Wimbledon trains people in fabrication techniques relevant for both theatre
and film, with the emphasis on film. One can be forgiven for interpreting 'special effects' in terms of pyrotechnical stunts and lightning flashes but it is much more to do with prop-making, modelling imaginary spaces or fabricating believable 'creatures'. The course was established in 1990 and remains one of the very few of its kind. Both the course and its students benefit from the direct involvement of top professionals, leading to valuable work-experience with some of the leading companies. For example, a recent collaboration with Jim Henson's London Creature Shop led to the students designing, making and manipulating a number of puppets for the recently released 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'.
Throughout their three years, students receive a solid grounding in modelling from life, mould-making and casting, together with scenic model-making, construction and painting, film animation and techniques of digital visualisation. A great many processes and individual crafts are involved in each of these, even before one considers the breadth contained within the word 'puppetry'. But an understanding of the possibilities, and also the limits of puppetry forms a crucial component of the course.
My initial task as a tutor, therefore, was deciding what on earth to tell them first! How to condense evolution into a few short sessions so that they could at least get started along the right lines. Of course, natural evolution begins and ends with the environment that conditions it, and in this context that environment is the script.
So our first words had to be about the scripts, or rather 'scenarios' I was offering them - how to interpret a script, how to read between the lines, how to visualise possibilities. What movements does the script call for and how might character inform them? But possibilities, particularly in terms of performance, can't be visualised unless one is acquainted with at least some of them, so in parallel I've had to bombard their senses with images of puppets, traditional and modern forms, and film excerpts showing different styles of performance.
As if that wasn't enough to take in almost all at once, there's the third parallel - which also can't be started too soon - how to make and what to make it from? In this area we've been fortunate in being able to enlist the help of Vicky Linnett, an experienced puppet-fabricator and an ex-Wimbledon student. It is Vicky's remit to take them through various fabrication techniques and materials, her speciality being the use of soft foams and coverings (whether these are intended to flesh-out an articulated armature or whether they provide the whole support and substance of a puppet in themselves) for the type of large-scale puppet created in Jim Henson's Creature Shop. As well as introducing the students to the sculptural possibilities, and how to construct and upholster various body-parts, Vicky will be dealing with such things as weight, flexibility and durability.
In our initial talks with the students we have both (Vicky from the practical/ technical side, myself from the performance/historical) spoken with one voice about the prime considerations when designing for performance. In this, I have found the advice of Chris Sommerville particularly valuable. In his Five Secrets of Marionette Manipulation, he lists: knowing firstly exactly what you want the puppet to do; designing the puppet so that it is capable of doing this and preferably little else; establishing an efficient means of control; learning what is possible from seeing the work of others; and lastly, lots of practice. To these we have added the general principal of 'movement before looks': designing for 'distance reading'; use of 'movement enhancers' such as floppy hair, feathered eyebrows or free-falling limbs; the degree of anthropomorphism or 'human-like-ness' and how that conditions what one can get away with in terms of 'puppety' movement. The list goes on…
I had planned from the outset to put the students into groups of three/four and give them the choice of three scenarios to work from. They have roughly six weeks to develop these scenarios as a group, each person designing and making one puppet character. Once these puppets, together with performance intentions, are ready and presented in class, the groups have the remaining few weeks of the term to rehearse and stage their performances… We wait with baited breath!

In the next issue of Animations Online, David Neat will be back with a detailed look at the T.A.S.E puppetry project’s development, enactment and outcome.
David Neat has trained and worked as a writer/performer, theatre designer, exhibiting sculptor, scenic model-maker and teacher. His teaching remit at Wimbledon includes theatre set design, film production design, scenic model-making, technical drawing, sfx modelling, design and fabrication.
Those interested in the course will find information at www.wimbledon.ac.uk and examples of students' work at www.sfxdesign.co.uk



Central School of Speech and Drama – Short Course Provision.
A report by Cath Connolly.
Puppetry and Object Manipulation


This is a new course offered by the School, which concentrates its study upon the history and performance of puppetry. It is one of the freestanding modules which may be taken independently or progressively to form a unified programme of practical study. The course runs over eight weeks and consists of two evenings twice a week, with one intensive study day of five hours on a Saturday. The total number of contact hours is 45. I was approached to design and run the course, which is aimed at those who are adult beginners who have an interest in puppetry and wish to develop their performance skills and knowledge of the history of puppetry.
The course encompasses manipulation techniques in glove, rod, table-top, shadows and objects, both individual and group exercises. Work is improvised or devised, both textually and non-textually. There are lectures and videos of performances. Penny Francis delivered her lecture and slideshow on the history of puppetry and we watched video performances from puppeteers around the world. We also attended a performance at the Little Angel Theatre and a B.A student show at Central which used puppetry. Our agreed aim at the start of the course was to work towards a showing of work and the students did this on the last evening before a select audience.
Evaluation is through group sharing and critique, with a final evaluation at the end of the course. This was very positive and the students’ progression is very impressive. One student is going on to become a trainee on the Puppet Theatre Barge this summer and two students who are actors are using puppetry in a new piece of work, The Heartsnatchers. Another student has decided that she is definitely interested in pursuing puppetry and is actively seeking experience with companies and theatres.
The course will run again in the autumn term 2005.
Those interested in finding out more should contact Emily Pollit, Short Courses Administrator, at the Central School of Speech and Drama: Tel 020 7559 3960.
See also: www.cssd.ac.uk


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