By Amy Harder
Before acting theorist Konstantin Stanislavsky challenged the traditional approach to theater, actors of the nineteenth century practiced prescribed poses that were supposed to illustrate certain emotions. (Much like my four-year-old standing in front of the mirror trying to discover his best “poor me” face in hopes of weaseling out of cleaning his room.) If someone tried to convince a contemporary audience with such outdated methods, he’d be laughed off the stage. We don’t want to think, Golly, what a nice pose! That person can really show how an angry person stands. NO! Today’s audiences don’t want to think about the actors as actors… we’d rather forget that we’re watching a movie or a play, being so captivated by the believability of the characters and situation that we can remove ourselves from reality and experience the story. THAT won’t happen with 19th century acting. (Or with a 4-year-old’s scheming.)
Modern actors need to have an emotional connection to what they’re saying, thinking, feeling, and doing. And they need to develop an emotional connection to the audience. Ed Hooks says, “When we speak of creating the illusion of life in animation, it boils down not to mannerisms and naturalistic movement, but to emotion. The audience empathizes with emotion. Actors are athletes of the heart.” (Acting for Animators p 36)
OK. Let me pause a moment for a bit of application and ask: how’s your performance? Are you actually thinking about what your character is saying? …singing? …thinking? Remember that what we do with puppets - - whether it’s a one-time bit in front of six kids at the local library, or it’s a headlining spot in a hit musical on Broadway - - is acting. Please, please, please don’t forget that you are an actor.
(climbing down off soap box) Now, before I go on, let me say that puppeteers will approach acting differently than stage or screen actors. We are more like animators or illustrators when it comes to body movements. Actors let movements come out of their expression of emotion, they do not need to analyze and plan each nuance. Animators on the other hand, have to know how bodies move and express emotions so that they can accurately illustrate a character doing those things. Puppeteers should utilize a hybrid of these two approaches: we should have a good mechanical knowledge of bodies (anatomy) and movement (general body language) that is specific to our character (the limitations and abilities of that particular puppet), but we have to be comfortable enough with acting our character so we can be free to let go and flow with the natural motions that come from thoughts and emotions.
When we look at the theory of movement, we can get into very detailed analysis and interpretation by studying systems like Laban’s. But we can also find some user-friendly resources for the average Joe performer who has little or no formal theatrical training. For example, the book Expressions, Attitudes, and Actions was written for ventriloquists and serves as an invaluable encyclopedia detailing puppet movements and poses that express emotions. Now, I’m not a proponent of cookie-cutter, 19th century posing as a substitute for good acting… however, there is something to be said for layman’s guides like these. The book In Character: Actors Acting is another great resource for animators and actors alike.
I have recently discovered several helpful animation blogs to which I’m sure I’ll be referring in future posts. (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we can learn a lot from the world of animation!) Tim Hodge has a nice article called The Archery Lesson in which he discusses how to make poses stronger. He says, “we can get caught up in individual details of parts and not see the whole. We try and create an interesting thing for the left hand to be doing, when in fact, all it has to do is support the action of the entire body. We can get all caught up in making sure that the anatomy is correct, but the energy is all wrong.” Tim’s illustrations and descriptions are fabulous and quite applicable to our little puppet world. This one is worth the bookmark.
If these resources are not enough and you still want some other great insights into posing from an artist’s perspective, check out Chapter 5: Elements of the Pose from the online book Gesture Drawing for Animation, a collection instructional materials by the legendary Walt Stanchfield.
The truth is, puppeteers can glean information and inspiration from a variety of disciplines. Is puppetry acting? Yes. But puppetry has its own rules; it strays from traditional acting practices because it involves many more skills and requires the actor/puppeteer to be in control of so much more than just his body. So yes, take some time to learn the fundamentals of acting. But also take some time to study anatomy and body movement. Then see what you can learn from animators and illustrators. But do it all with an eye to adapt what you’re learning to fit into the realm of puppetry. You’ll be amazed at what you find.
But most of all, keep learning. Life’s boring if you don’t.