By Amy Harder
Think about your favorite meal. In our house, anything Mexican trumps… although I’m partial to a good Chicago pizza. Now think about what goes into that meal. What ingredients are necessary? If you leave out one or more of those important elements, would it still be your favorite? Where I’m from, it’s just not a hot dog if you forget your dill pickle spear!
You see, things just aren’t right if you neglect the necessary elements. The same is true with our puppetry performances. If you have exquisitely crafted puppets performing the most well-written lines displaying proper puppetry techniques inside a beautiful proscenium, you’re still missing an aspect of performance that is extraordinarily important: acting. Without it, you’re just not giving your audience the whole enchilada–it might be somewhat satisfying, but it’s not going to call them back for seconds.
I’ve recently been studying acting, but my sources have not included Hollywood acting coaches or Broadway agencies. Instead, I have found wonderful treasures from the world of animation.
My journey began last summer when I realized that puppeteers could learn a lot from watching VeggieTales. I mean, think about it–the VeggieTales characters are essentially just heads–elongated orbs that have to move, dance, interact, and display emotion with just, well, their heads! (…or is it their bodies?) Most hand-and-rod puppets are glorified heads–they may have stumpy bodies and floppy arms, but they have many of the same limitations as the limbless talking vegetables whose DVDs grace the shelves at Wal-Mart. So I started watching VT vids for specific elements of movement like the body language of emotions and how a character’s personality will dictate his posture, poses, motions, and the speed at which they’re all put into action.
This was fun stuff! I really enjoyed framing through segments of these familiar videos and discovering how the artists could make an asparagus so contemplative and remorseful as he sat in the belly of a whale. (Name that Bible story.) As I watched, my hunger grew for more movement theory and acting basics. I wondered if I could find more gems by studying animation.
That’s when I found acting coach Ed Hooks and his articles and books on acting for animators. I’m currently working through his book, Acting for Animators, and loving every juicy minute. Mr Hooks begins by describing seven essential acting concepts. While I won’t divulge them all here (you can snag your own copy of the book) I would like to share a few ideas that are particularly applicable to puppeteers.
Objectives. Acting requires an objective–a reason, a target, a purpose. Hooks says, “an action without an objective is just a mechanical thing, moving body parts. It isn’t theatrical.” (5) How many puppet plays have you endured where the puppet characters are mindlessly flopping around the stage for no apparent reason? That is not acting. That is not engaging. That is not believable. “Theatrical movement is purposeful and significant.” (4) Purposeful. Significant. Hmm.
What is your puppet’s objective? What is driving him? Why is he there? The actions he plays should be in pursuit of that objective. Think about Toy Story. Buzz had an objective: to destroy the evil Emporer Zurg. His actions and posture reflected his mission. Take away the objective and he’s just a toy.
Empathy & Emotion. In their book, The Illusion of Life, legendary Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston say, “Our goal . . . is to make the audience feel the emotions of the characters, rather than appreciate them intellectually. We want our viewers not merely to enjoy the situation with a murmured, ‘Isn’t he cu-ute?’ but really to feel something of what the character is feeling. If we succeed in this, the audience will now care about the character and about what happens to him, and that is audience involvement. Without it, a cartoon feature will never hold the attention of its viewers.”
Think for a minute about Kermit the Frog. Did you just crack a little smile? I love telling my classes to think about Kermit, because within about two seconds the room is filled with slight grins and twinkling eyes. Why do we like him so much? Is it just because most of us grew up with his familiar face? Is it because Jim exhibited fabulous puppetry technique in his performance of the character? Do we just like green things? I think we like him because we all find something in Kermit with which we can relate–we empathize with his struggles, we feel his frustrations, we understand his weaknesses and rejoice in his triumphs. Hooks says, “The basic theatrical transaction is between the actor and the audience, and the glue that holds it all together is emotion.” (9) Kermit works because he connects with people on an emotional level. Do your characters do that?
Well, this article could go on and on. There’s so much more to uncover and discuss. Acting basics are foundational to solid, believable, engaging performance. I’ve not even begun to scratch the surface here, but I hope I’ve encouraged you to take a serious look at your own performance and dig a little deeper. I’ll be back with more thoughts on acting soon.