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Puppets in the Classroom

Making and Performing with Puppets (overview)
Tips for Making
Performing
Selecting Materials for Puppet Plays
Puppetry and the National Curriculum

Puppetry is a very old, traditional art, still active in almost every culture. It has been and still is, used in many different contexts, for spiritual, cultural and educational teaching. Being primarily a visual art, it can communicate to people who are not literate and has been used in such a way for thousands of years. For example, in some parts of Asia, shadow theatre is a major cultural event which everyone, young and old, attends and it will go on all through the night telling great epic stories which combine traditions of ancestor worship with contemporary and historic political, cultural and religious influences.

The puppet is a visual metaphor, it represents real life but at the same time it is one step removed from the real world. It is therefore useful in communicating sensitive issues. Puppetry is being used in third world countries today, to enable people to understand important issues which affect the quality of their lives. One puppeteer, Gary Friedman from South Africa set up a Puppet Educational programme in his country after working with Jim Henson, the late creator of The Muppets. Their first programme was 'Puppets Against Aids', which travelled to townships all over the country, was seen on T.V. and toured abroad. It was highly effective in putting across a message which had so far not reached people. Previous awareness campaigns had been through leaflets and posters which many people could not read.

What is a Puppet?  Puppetry begins with the first breath of life into an inanimate object. Any object can be given this life by a puppeteer. Puppetry holds a strong appeal for the young. Children love to both lose themselves in the world of make-believe, and model their play on adult life and behaviour. Among it's many qualities Puppetry provides an outlet for this expression and provides the teacher with a happy medium for educating children.

It is important to distinguish drama from play and perform for an audience. Using games and exercises encourages a focus on the puppet and helps one to find the puppet's movement and expression. Although animation does not depend on the puppet having a visible face, children often want to put one on. The puppet should have qualities that they can identify with. e.g. I move, the puppet moves, it can feel happy or sad just like me.  As soon as eyes are added to an object they give it intelligence and direction.

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Making and Performing with Puppets

Methods should be simple and quick or there is never enough time to get on with the real job of working with the puppets. Puppetry is not just a craft activity, it is a performing art.

What is a puppet made from? Almost anything. They can be carved from wood or foam, cast in rubber or plastic, modelled in papier-mache, cut out of paper or leather or stitched out of cloth and stuffed with rags. Ordinary, everyday objects can also be brought to life in object theatre - umbrellas, dish mops, kitchenware and so on.
The simplest kind of puppet to construct and manipulate is a rod puppet, basically a shape, two or three dimensional, fixed to a stick. It can be a cut out from a child's picture, a decorated paper plate, a stuffed paper bag, or stuffed ball of material. These puppets require simple staging, just held over the top of a cloth or board, although a backcloth will always add interest and focus. It is good to give lots of room backstage, and standing height is better so the puppeteers can move freely, dancing with their puppets. Rod puppets are good for dancing to music. Often they do not have working legs, but they may have arms and heads that move with secondary rods. They are often proud and graceful.

Table-top puppets are a variation of rod puppets.  These are operated in full view of the audience usually by a rod at the back, and short rods to the hands. An audience will watch where the movement is, so it is very important that the puppeteer focuses all energy into the puppet. These kinds of puppets are good to use in therapy because they are easy to handle and can be used in an intimate way.

Shadow puppets have a magic like no other puppets. However rough the puppet may look, when seen through the shadow screen it is transformed and children's art is often exaggerated which is just what is wanted for the puppet form.  A very simple cut-out shape, or more intricate through the introduction of colour and jointing, they are therefore useful throughout the whole school age range and for community workshops. Shadow puppet theatre can link into many topics, such as light, levers, other cultures and history etc. For older students it is more approachable being very different from the forms of puppetry associated with younger children.
A screen can be made easily with 4 pieces of 2" x1" wood, 4 corner brackets and white cotton sheeting. Staple the sheet tightly to the frame and fix to a desk with G clamps. Put it in front of a window for a light source, or into a dark corner to use with an angle-poise lamp or over-head projector.

Glove puppets, without the complication of rods or strings can be very expressive, having three bsic movements:  arm – locomotion; wrist – turning from the waist, bowing;  fingers - smaller movements of head and arms such as waving and nodding. Puppetry is primarily concerned with animation, words are secondary and there should be a reason for every movement, telling the story through actions.  Working without speech encourages manipulation skills. One way to do this is to make cards which contain instructions for a mime skit - 'Puppet pops up, bows, pops down.' 'Puppet walks on looking for something, finds it, looks happy and leaves' 'Puppet is tired, walks on slowly, yawns, stretches, lies down and goes to sleep, snoring and gradually dropping out of sight.'
Props are useful where they are an important part of the plot. Don’t scale them to the puppet, big is best, easier to handle and be seen.

Marionettes can be made simply with just one or two strings. (Look at traditional Indian marionettes). Strings give a softness to the movement. They are poetical and cannot perform slapstick like gloves. If you do choose this method you will need a raised platform for performance. Weight, balance and where to attach the strings will dictatate how the puppet moves.

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Tips for Making

If you have a project or play in mind, decide on the purpose of the puppet, its function and required movement. This will tell you what kind of puppet you need. Look at the size and dimensions - think of the final performance context and its relation to other puppets. If the puppet has joints, the main body must be strong and the joints very flexible. Features should be well defined and exaggerated, clothes made of loose, light material which does not impede movement. When made, find the qualities of the puppet - possible movements etc.

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Performance

  1. Find a story, make the characters, then rehearse from a prepared script or improvise to create the final script.
  2. Make puppets and develop plays or short scenarios through improvisation in small groups.

The basis of all good theatre is conflict, where two forces are in opposition to each other. (This does not mean fighting and it is a good starting point that puppets do not touch each other).     Choose familiar examples i.e. heroine versus villain, dragon versus prince, then later extend - shy v. bold, young v. old. Puppets can easily represent an idea rather than a person, an archetype rather than an individual. (Dr. Faustus is one of the most well-produced plays for the puppet theatre.)
Choose a theme with plenty of action. - fantasy, legend, fairy tale, a journey etc.  Think in pictures not words.  Play with scale - a dominating character could be large, a humble character could grow in size as it gets more confident.  Puppets can do things actors cannot eg. Fly.
People often assume a squeaky, high voice for their puppet which can be hard to understand. Encourage a voice appropriate to the character i.e. a caterpillar could be slow, steady, trailing off. A spider - quick, stopping and starting suddenly. Contrast provides interest. Practising can be fun. Divide into two groups, one high the other low, for example. Group one says hello in a high voice, group two replies in a low voice, etc.

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Selecting material for puppet plays

Plot - to develop in a manner which will hold audience attention.
Characters - strong and varied. How many can be operated and be on stage at any one time?  Imagine them, how they will look, their size, make drawings. Imagine their movements.  
Dialogue – used sparingly and kept to the point.  Puppet theatre is first and foremost about movement.  A narrator might be used to flesh out the story. Do not tell the audience things that they can see happening.
Staging - Simple set and props, pared down to what is necessary. Themes and their presentation will vary as to the type of puppet.

Glove 
Simple, familiar stories or situations work well.  Include stories from other countries, there are always pop