When we started receiving puppets-in-progress images from our incredible puppetry designer and director Shawna Reiter, we knew that there was pure magic coming out of CLUNK Puppet Lab. We asked her to write a few words describing the process, and she sent us this beautiful heart-felt piece on the hidden life of an inanimate object. Enjoy reading!
I consider the primary characteristic of puppetry to be a belief in the hidden life of the inanimate object; revealed through the design of a character which is then animated with movement and gesture, becoming infused with human-like yet otherworldly qualities. The puppet is an extension of its operator who must see through its eyes, hear through its ears, breath and speak through its mouth bringing it to life as an ‘other being’ in the moment of performance. This process creates images infused with feeling and tension, used to develop a reciprocal relationship between the performing object and the audience. The audience’s investment in the performance becomes more active as the puppet acting as an empty vessel begs the commitment of the observer’s ego. It places them in closer proximity to the action of the story, engaging them on a visceral and empathetic level, causing the resonance and impact of the experience to be more personal.
When Sarah Joy approached me about creating a baby puppet for Night Feed, I was excited by the prospect of both designing and building something that I felt so close to – being a first time parent I immediately connected with the script. I had also recently celebrated 2 years raising my daughter and I felt that the first hand experience would give me some insight into the design. I don’t take on puppet design projects lightly. Because I consider the primary characteristic of puppetry to be a belief in the hidden life of the inanimate object; revealed through the design of a character which is then animated with movement and gesture, becoming infused with human-like yet otherworldly qualities. When I take on a project it is important the the collaborators understand that puppet performance goes hand in hand with puppet construction and design, as it contains an organic intuitive process of discovering a character through exploratory improvisation, and by channeling the natural rhythms of movement and physical traits of the puppet itself. As an art form puppetry defies the boundaries of a single discipline, and thus demands that artists, designers, writers, and performers move beyond traditional collaborative methods and work toward an understanding of the life of that puppet.
In the practical sense I approach puppet design with the 5 Signs of Life in mind: Breath, Focus, Fixed Point, Animation and Soul, which means that I am always keeping in mind the performance of the puppet while designing the aesthetic and mechanism. The puppet was designed based on a need to have a life like infant able to nurse, cry turn her head, and sleep. My process includes building a prototype to test out the puppet, to explore the possibilities and limitations, and to troubleshoot any issues with the mechanism. For the prototype, I sculpted a head out of clay, covered it in Vaseline, and then added a layer of plastic cellophane wrap. Next came five layers of paper mache. Once dry the paper mache head was cut in half and the clay removed leaving two paper mache shells which I put back together with more paper mache. The mechanism was built by making two straight cuts down from the corner of the mouth. That piece is then reattached via a hinge mechanism that is then attached to the thumb of a glove that the puppeteer wears to open and close the mouth. The body of the puppet is made of a foam sleeve with an infant’s shape and then wrapped in a blanket.
The Final Puppet was sculpted out of Plasticine. I made a mold out of silicone covered in a plaster shell. Once set, the Plasticine was removed from the mold and a layer of paper mache pulp was packed into the puppet mold. Once dry I removed the plaster and silicone mold and pulled out a perfectly cast head of the original. The mouth mechanism was then built in the same way as the prototype, and the puppet was painted. Finally the body was built with foam and a sandbag to add some weight.