Bringing Marionettes to Life

How do you translate acting to a puppet? How do you endow the puppet with expression? Does the puppet become an extension of your body?

Throughout the process of The Dragon, I have received varying forms of the basic question: How do we bring these puppets to life? And my answer has changed and evolved almost daily.

I, along with many others in the cast, consider myself an actor first. This is my very first time working on stage with puppets of any kind. And even those on stage who have significant puppetry experience, had never used marionettes before in a performance capacity, all save John Lewandowski. The rest of us were learning a new art form.

During the first workshops in September, it was just about learning how each puppet works. Every single marionette is built a little differently and has different functions. For example, my main character, Charlemagne, does not have hands. Many of the puppeteers use their character’s hands to gesticulate as one of their main forms of expression. I, however, have the ability to fluidly move Charlemagne’s head. This is a unique form of expression that is specific to this singular puppet. This is one of many examples of how the puppets are built differently and vary in function.

After we learned to adapt to each puppet and their individual “bodies,” the second thing that really came into play was the vocal work. I found myself having to dig even deeper into acting tools such as subtext and inner monologue to keep these puppets from becoming nothing more than objects on stage. We all were working hard to develop dialects, vocal patterns, and pitch ranges that were specific to one character alone. It sounds silly, but many times I also found myself, as the actor, over compensating with my own facial expression. This was something we really had to fight against.

Additionally, there is the problem of eye contact. As actors, one of the first things we are taught is to listen and connect with the eyes to one’s partner on stage. Dylan Shelton, who plays Lancelot, would comment on noticing actors trying to look at him from time to time and how bizarre that felt. We did not even realize we were doing this. It just comes naturally. We had to re-teach ourselves, in a way, to connect with the puppet and then let the puppet make the eye contact for us. Let me tell you, this was and is still one of the hardest things for me as a puppeteer on stage.

So, when it comes to bringing these puppets to life, it really comes down to those three things: learning each individual puppet, vocal work, and eye contact. But here is the real trick we have pulled on all of you…I don’t actually endow the puppet with expression, you do. After each show, when all the work is done, I never once made those papier-mâché faces move. My characters did not frown or smile and their eyes never once even blinked. So who actually brings them to life? I think the audience does. If you are a willing person and you come into the theatre to do nothing more than sit there and be present, you will in fact, bring these puppets to life on your own with your imagination. And that, to me, is the most beautiful thing about working with puppets.

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