Puppets and Words:
An Unholy Matrimony
Raven Kaliana attends a masterclass on creating puppet-theatre texts,
led by Steve Tiplady
Steve Tiplady has been in the thick of the puppet world for about twenty years as a performer, director, devisor, script editor and writer. Former director/artistic producer of The Little Angel Theatre, and puppetry director of the acclaimed RSC production Venus and Adonis, he has worked on more than a hundred puppet projects, and felt (quite justifiably) that he had something to impart about the process of making a show. This he did, at a masterclass held at Norwich Puppet Theatre, which was produced in association with the Puppet Centre Trust.
Steve’s all-day workshop looked at the creation of texts for puppet-theatre – focusing on structuring a show along timelines to prepare it for scripting and/or a devising process; and communicating text to the audience through puppet, puppeteer, and other performers. A mix of practitioners at various stages of their development attended, including Puppet Centre Trust Graduate Residency companies/artists Unpacked and Annie Brooks.
I had just presented a work-in-progress showing of my show Hooray for Hollywood at the Student Puppet Festival the day before the workshop, so the trip to beautiful Norwich provided a refreshing change of pace and inspired lots of ideas for future work.
Initially, Steve introduced the concept of jo-ha-ky?, a schematic for organizing dramatic work, originating from Japan. This theory ‘…states that all things should be done at a certain pace, one which starts out slow, speeds up, and ends quickly.’ (Wikipedia)
Steve begins planning for a show by first deciding how long it will be. If a show is 45 minutes long, then the ha pinnacle of action/emotion is pretty near the end – at about the 38 minute mark. Proportionally, the jo is longer than one might expect, and theky?is quite short.
He laid a long sheet of paper out on the floor and drew a timeline, marking the 45- and 38-minute marks. Steve then divided the timeline into three sections to represent the jo-ha-ky?. He said that if we think of these sections as acts, the first act would be quite long. Puppetry should move slower than real life, and a longer jo would allow time for the audience to develop interest in the story, begin to care about the characters and their backstories, and get used to the conventions of the storytelling.
For instance, in Little Red Riding Hood, the first act might involve a scene with Little Red Riding Hood at home with her mother, where we might hear the mother warning her child that the woods are dangerous, so she should not veer from the path while carrying the goodie basket to her sick grandmother. The second act may begin when Little Red Riding Hood steps out the cottage door, and this act might continue as she makes her way towards her grandmother’s house, meeting the woodcutter and also the wolf. The third act would begin when Little Red has reached her grandmother’s house.
There should be a dramatic arc within each of these acts, increasing the tension each time to build towards the critical moment near the end. In the first act, the highest point of the arc could come with the mother’s warning about what could happen if Little Red Riding Hood should veer off the path. The high part in the second act may come when Little Red Riding Hood meets the wolf, and the final scene would come with the wolf being chopped open by the woodcutter to free Little Red Riding Hood and the grandmother from his stomach.
From this point in the schematic, one could then go on to break each act down into scenes and estimate timings for each scene. Individual actions could be indicated within the scenes.
Steve invited the group to discuss how to explore the relationship of the characters. For instance, how does the woodcutter know that the grandmother is ill? Why does he know the family? (And where is the dad?) Is the woodcutter having an affair with Little Red Riding Hood’s mum? How does he know her grandmother? What is the relationship between the three women?
Steve then asked us to consider some concrete details, which could become themes throughout the piece. For instance, what sort of food is Little Red Riding Hood bringing to her grandmother? Many versions of the tale mention cakes and wine – but is this really a wise choice, when she’s ill? Sara Ekenger from Unpacked suggested that vegetable soup might be a healthier option. The soup could become a unifying factor in the story – the mother and Little Red Riding Hood could start off the play by cooking the soup together, while discussing poor Grandma. When Red encounters the Wolf, perhaps he decides to trick her into becoming his entrée because he’s a little put off by the vegetarian fare that she’s packed. One version of Little Red Riding Hood tells that after she and Grandma are cut out of the stomach of the wolf, Red sews stones into his stomach so that he can only eat soup for the rest of his days.
Participant Annie Brooks asked at what point one might decide which age range the piece would be appropriate for. Steve advised that there is a logical process: he starts out with the material, which will then suggest the story, and the story itself then determines the audience. (He cited his new show, Chalk Giants, as an example.)
Steve offered some advice and rough guidelines on time required for devising material: 30 minutes to generate each 1 minute of material for the play; five hours to work through ten minutes of the play. If the play is 45 minutes long, then estimate 22 hours (three days) in rehearsal to generate material. When devising around a written script, Steve suggested that it be credited thus: ‘Written by […], with additional material devised by the company.’
Also in regards to devising time, Steve referred to the pressure from artistic directors at venues to get companies to create a new show every year. Steve advised using ten weeks spread out over six months as a devising period. The puppets used in rehearsals can be cardboard mock-ups rather than the real puppets, to allow for changes in the story and what is required of the character. It is possible to build a mini-shadow-puppet theatre to try out different effects.
After lunch (workshop participants – having taken a note from Red Riding Hood – enjoying bowls of vegetarian soup at the picturesque Adam & Eve pub), Steve set out long sheets of paper on which he asked us to draw our own stories on a timeline.
I’ve been working on a tale called Fragile/Sacred that is drawn from some events in my life. I will write a script over the summer, but the company members of Puppet (R)Evolution will also devise some of the content. Over the past year or so of thinking about this piece, many different metaphors and visual themes have floated up. The first version of my timeline involved references to these visuals.
Steve had me draw a second timeline, which showed the events only. It was good to see both. This helped me work through the plot line a little better, and also decide how to show the significance of the symbolic elements. I plan to incorporate different metaphorical manifestations of the main character – who is associated with birds, rabbits, and other animals – at different points in the piece. Steve suggested that I indicate that the main character takes different forms by keeping the head of the puppets human, and using animal bodies.
I listed the metaphors and visual themes on a different page, and tried to group them by meaning, and tried to clarify what purpose they might serve in the story. I also wrote out some of the premises, questions, and explorations behind the piece.
It was interesting to hear other people’s stories and to see how we all responded differently to the exercise. Annie Brooks had completely filled her two-metre-long sheet with notes. Just seeing the attention and vision she had poured into the paper made me want to see that show!
In the last section of the workshop, Steve introduced the group to some ideas for presenting text through puppetry – be it through the puppeteer, the narrator, or the other performers. He borrowed a handsome wooden tabletop puppet from the Norwich Puppet Theatre and leaned against a table next to the puppet.
He stated that any text for puppetry should be kept as minimal as possible because the audience can lose interest in a static face delivering a big block of text. I had brought up the point earlier that while puppets are excellent at visually conveying emotion, it’s harder for them to convey specific information. Steve offered quite a few ideas and techniques on how to deliver information to an audience:
Ventriloquism: Steve advised that if the puppeteer is visible as a performer alongside the puppet to use ventriloquism for the first few lines to direct attention to the puppet and present the two characters as more convincingly separate.
Avenue Q-style: He suggested that for some productions where the puppeteer is visible, the puppeteer projects the emotion and facial expressions for the character through the puppet. He warned that sometimes this produces a split focus, where the audience begins to watch the puppeteer’s face instead of the puppet. When training actors to puppeteer, sometimes it can be challenging to get them to project the character into the puppet.
Commedia Del Arte: In this form, the Zanni character is permitted to lift his mask, and speak directly to the audience, then put the mask back on and become the character again. Steve suggested that a puppeteer might communicate directly to the audience, then turn to the puppet and perform a different character through the puppet.
Narrator: Steve appreciates the aesthetic of visible puppeteers and maintained that if the puppeteers are completely hidden, there should be a reason within the story to do so. The Black Theatre style creates the effect of invisible puppeteers, so sometimes a narrator is required.
Singer or actor speaks/sings for the puppet: In this case, the performer focuses on the puppet and moves with it onstage. They put their voice and emotion into the character, while another person is free to puppeteer. (I thought this was rather intriguing.)
Steve advised that in incorporating these ideas, we should avoid split focus between the puppet and performer. It’s helpful to arrange any other performers onstage so that everyone is turned towards the action. It’s good to take into consideration that the audience will gauge the eyeline of the puppet by the direction the nose is pointing, rather than the eyes.
I felt I got a lot of useful information out of the day, and Steve Tiplady is completely lovely to work with. It helped to work out a possible timeline for Fragile/Sacred, which would create a structure for the script but also allow room for devised content. I appreciated the suggestions about exploring the character relationships and themes within the work, estimating devising time, and the many different techniques available to convey text to an audience.