Pretty much from the first second Sarah Wallendjack became president of CMA I have been bugging her to get a workshop on how to puppeteer. She’s come close in the past – we did do a few puppet building workshops but it wasn’t quite the same. For one thing, I am downright lethal with a hot glue gun and I believe there is a court order somewhere banning me from using scissors. And though I wouldn’t give up my beloved Lowell for anything, what I really want to do is learn about being a puppeteer. Because I’m shy but for some reason I think in another life (or in this one – It’s never too late) I would be an awesome puppeteer.
So you can imagine my utter child-like joy when I heard that John Tartaglia was going to host a Puppetry 101 workshop. John and I go way back and I can’t even begin to describe how wonderfully talented this guy is. He’s been puppeteering pretty much since he could crawl. He’s worked on Sesame Street, starred in Avenue Q, created the wonderful show Imaginocean and is, of course, the Johnny in Johnny and the Sprites. And he’s the nicest guy in show biz to boot.
Okay, okay on to the workshop. So the three basics that puppeteers need to get down are: lip sync, eye focus and position. First, we got our own set of Peepers and set up to explore the world of lip sync. It’s important not to flap around too much, that’ll make your puppet look like a maniac and it’s important not to merely just open and close. Think about how your own mouth makes the sound and do your best to approximate it. So we went to the mirror and practiced making our peepers look right, left and center and then we went through Lady Smith Mambazo’s African Alphabet until we were all feeling pretty good or pretty goofy about ourselves (Like a fitness guru Johnny kept repeating “No Judgements” in response to our nervous giggles and frustrated sighs).
Just when we thought we had it nailed, Johnny brought out (DUN DUN DUN) the camera and monitor. And I still don’t know which way is left and which way is right but we practiced moving the puppet around, taking into account the mirror image that the screen provides. Puppeteers use the monitors simply so they can see what’s going on in a scene since they are usually down below working their magic. This is the only way they can keep track of the puppet’s eyeline and performance. If you are working with puppets, monitors for them are a must.
After we got over our initial trauma of the dreaded monitor we got to take some puppets for a spin and do some improv. There are many different kinds of puppets but on a show like Sesame Street you’re dealing with rod and full hand puppets. Rod puppets (like Bert) have hands that move around because there are rods attached to them. They can’t pick things up unless you stop camera and attach something to their hands. Full hand puppets (like Ernie) use the puppeteer’s left hand (if the puppeteer is right-handed) as the puppet’s right hand and often requite another puppeteer to manipulate the left hand. These puppets usually have only three fingers. That makes them look smaller even though there’s an adult-sized hand in there. What happens in puppet workshop stays in puppet workshop so I won’t say any more about the improv but just know that we rocked it.
Main Takeaway: John said that puppeteers come from all different backgrounds. Dave Goelz (Gonzo) was a software casing engineer. There’s no set path and it’s one art form that you can practice yourself with a set of peepers. So hook a camera up to your TV and let the hilarity and creativity ensue!
Personal Takeaway: Puppeteers are a friendly lot. They like when people take interest in their work and with the proliferation of animation on TV, puppetry could be a dying art form. Support your puppeteers! Join Puppeteers of America. Build your own puppet (www.projectpuppet.com). Hug a puppet! Do your part!
Inappropriate Takeaway: So I just looked at my notes and noticed I wrote, “John says Fraggle Rock changed his wife.” There’s a W.C. Fields joke in there. I’ll leave it up to you to figure it out. And to google W.C. Fields if you need to.