By Amy Harder
A previous post got me thinking more about puppet movements. So puppeteers are actors. Sure, I can buy that. We take on roles, assume characters, and use them to tell and illustrate stories. Yeah. We’re actors. But that’s not all. (Hmm… Suddenly I want to muster up my best cheesy announcer voice and say, “But wait - there’s more!”) You see, as puppeteers we have to be masters of body movement much like a dancer or a mime, we have to be more animated and exaggerated like clowns or cartoons, and we have to be skilled in the basics of puppet movement! So, we’re really puppeteer-actor-mime-dancer-clowns. Sure. That’s easy. (rolling eyes)
One element of puppet acting that I particularly enjoy is exaggeration. Puppets don’t have to be forced to fit into the box called “realism”. They can step out into the world of fantasy much like cartoon animations do. Audiences have no trouble playing along with the concept that the Flintstones’ car is powered by feet, or that Kermit the Frog is really tap dancing even though we see no feet. Puppets are allowed — and expected — to exaggerate and define their own reality.
Even a great artist like David Simpich, who has mastered amazing realism in puppetry, still relies on some elements of fantasy for his true-to-life performances. Think about it: the audiences must suspend disbelief to enter the time and place of the story, to imagine the puppet characters as real, and to look past the strings or control rods that dictate the puppets’ movements. And as for those movements themselves, there still is an aspect of exaggeration even when performing lifelike, realistic movement.
Appropriate exaggeration in puppet movement exists somewhere between real life and cartoons. OK, I know. That’s a pretty long continuum. The level of exaggeration will depend on the character and situation. Most of the Simpich marionettes use more subtle gestures and actions than an enthusiastic young monster like Elmo.
Think about your character. Think about who he is, what he’s doing, what he’s feeling, where he is and where he is going. All these elements will blend together to help you determine the most appropriate level of exaggeration for that character in that instance. Then get some feedback on your performance from people that are not going to just give you the smile-and-nod “that was great…” answer. Really look for somebody who’s not afraid to tell you that your puppet looked like a spaz.
Think. Explore. Try.
Oh yeah, and have fun.