By Amy Harder
Why use monitors? Generally speaking, most puppeteers I know are not omnipresent. For those of us who cannot see our performance through the eyes of our audience members, monitors are a great tool that can give us that instant feedback that we so desperately need. Have you ever videotaped your puppetry for the purpose of improving your techniques? Isn’t it hard to remember what you saw and what, exactly, you’re supposed to change the next time around? Wouldn’t it be nice to skip that step and fix things on the fly? Enter the monitor.
Let me just say that monitors are most often used in filming, TV puppetry, or other times where you’re recording for a product. But monitors can be quite handy in live performance, too, especially when your puppet has to interact with things that are happening in front of the stage or in the audience.
Set-up basics. When setting up your camera/monitor for practice purposes, use a tripod for your camera and zoom in on your puppet. A 1- or 2-shot is perfect for practice. This allows you to focus on the expressions and really see the details of your performance. Don’t be terribly concerned about your background during your practice phases unless, of course, the activity/shadows/whatever back there will be a distraction to you.
Now a word about puppeteer position. I realize that many stage puppeteers find themselves performing from a kneeling position. If this is comfortable for you (or if the restraints of your practice area dictate kneeling), then by all means, do so. However, the beauty of television puppetry is that we can raise our sets and cameras so puppeteers can comfortably perform standing below and no one in the audience is the wiser. But since this is practice, do whatever works for you.
Limitations/Possibilities. If you’ve ever watched yourself on a television monitor you’ve probably noticed that the image on the screen appears reversed to the performer. Monitors do not work like mirrors!!! What do we do about this? Simple. We practice. We play silly games to learn how to work with it. If it seems at the beginning like you’ll never get it… Trust me… It’ll get easier. And actually, you’ll get to the place where it’s second nature if you’re willing to work at it.
Another thing to consider is that the screen frame is your stage. There are no traditional puppet theater stages necessary. (And there was much rejoicing.) What is now off-screen is like being off-stage in live performance. We now have boundaries on all four sides. And there is no need for traditional puppet “staircase” entrances or exits; characters can simply walk into the scene.
Practice. Practice. Practice. Just as a musician must practice scales or an athlete must run drills, puppeteers can use simple practice exercises to develop new performance skills. You have to train your brain! Working with monitors does not come naturally. It is a whole new type of eye-hand coordination that will take time to master. Practice to learn your parameters and range of movement.
With all that said, it’s time to jump right in and play some games! Go on to Practice 01 - Reversed Image: Crossing the Street.