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How to… work with puppets for the first time

Karina Garnett. Photo: Monstro Theatre Karina Garnett. Photo: Monstro Theatre
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1. Puppets are just like people*

When an audience watches a puppet, we want them to suspend their disbelief in the same way they do when watching an actor. To believe the puppet is real, it must seem alive – it must have its own thoughts, ideas and emotions. The emotions of a living thing are very complex and we rarely have just one, so the puppet must have a heartbeat and an individual character. Start out by making the puppet breathe and slowly wake up. Using a mirror or filming it to watch back can be helpful. (*unless they’re animals – then they’re just like animals.)

2. Be less interesting

Puppeteers are often visible on stage, but we don’t want to focus on them. As actors, we know how to be present, engaging and exciting to watch. As puppeteers, we need to give this energy to the puppet – the puppet who should be more present, engaging and exciting than the performer. Try not to be too animated in your own body and face. The puppet must have the focus. People and animals are never still for more than a few seconds, so constant movement keeps a puppet alive. Great puppeteers give puppets amazing emotional range while staying neutral themselves.

3. Warm up physically and vocally

It’s always important to warm up before a performance of any kind. Playing different characters, possibly several in the same show, we use our voices in unusual ways, so warming up and down afterwards is key. A physical warm-up is also very important, as it is often the case that you may have to hold the same position for a long time. After a while this can hurt. Try putting your hand right up in the air, after a few minutes you’ll really feel it. A puppet is often manipulated by more than one person at a time. As a result, puppeteers can end up in awkward positions. There can be a strange weaving together of performers to make the magic happen, so our bodies need to be supple and strong (and smell nice).

Karina Garnett is in Bookstory at Little Angel Theatre, London, from September 27 to October 1, and around the UK until November 4. She was talking to John Byrne

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