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The Craft of Puppetry—Creating Characters and Performing

Updated on September 16, 2017
Tricia Deed profile image

As an arts and crafts person I have had my hands in many projects. One of the most fun was making puppets and acting out the story.

Punchinello —A Famous Puppet

This is a picture of Punchinello from the Punch and Judy Show
This is a picture of Punchinello from the Punch and Judy Show | Source

Childhood Memories Become a Hobby

Do you remember playing with hand puppets when you were a child? Did your parents buy you a puppet or did your mother show you how to make one?

There are two simple methods of making these fun characters. One favored method is to make one out of an old sock or one sock from a missing pair. Others choose to make their puppet out of paper mache.

How To Make and Use a Sock Puppet

Stitch onto the sock two buttons to represent the eyes, one button for the nose, and cut a lip shape or a mouth insert from a small piece of fabric and stitch it into place. The lips or the mouth will dictate if the sock will represent a person or an animal.

The puppeteer places their hand into the sock to give form to the head and creates movement by forming a fist and bending the wrists in different directions. The hand may also open and shut to produce a moving mouth which makes the puppet appear to be speaking. Our creativity and imagination through storytelling bring the character to life.

Put a group of children together, and they will create a story with handmade puppets performing the scenes that will generate laughter and fun for all.

Rod Burnett's Punch & Judy Show

How To Make A Paper Mache Hand Puppet

Puppets have been around for thousands of years. They can be made simple or very complex depending on how they will be used.

What is a puppet? It is an object made from wood, paper, cloth, sawdust, straw, cotton, and other materials which can be shaped to represent a person, an animal, or an object.

The puppeteer brings it to life using his fingers, hands, strings, or rods. A puppet is often times referred to as a doll especially when movements are operated by mechanical or electronic gadgets.

Second in popularity to the sock puppet is making a character from paper mache.

DIY Hand Puppet:

  1. Make the head portion using a round object or a balloon.
  2. Mix one cup of flour with two cups of water. Mix until smooth and no lumps.
  3. Tear any paper into soft strips. (We always used newspapers.)
  4. Dip one strip of paper into the flour paste and apply to the round chosen object building up the layers until you are satisfied with the thickness. If you wish, form ears, nose, eye, and lips.
  5. Let dry overnight or longer.
  6. Cut the paper portion in half in order to release the object. Combine the two halves and reapply paper and glue to make the two halves permanent. If working with a balloon, pop it with a needle.
  7. The neck can be constructed by forming a hole where the neck would be located. While the paper Mache is wet, adjust the size of the hole to fit one or two fingers into the head making a permanent hole in order to be able to move the head for gestures.
  8. Paint the head and face. Apply yarn for hair or add other adornments.
  9. Sew a piece of cloth which will serve as the puppet’s clothing and cover the hand of the operator. One or two fingers will move the head, and the other finger and thumb will move the arms. The sleeves of the garment may represent both the arms and the hands, or wooden spoons can be inserted at the end of the sleeves to represent the puppet’s hands.

Full-Body Puppets

Universal Studios, Singapore, with a group shot of characters at Sesame Street Theme Park.
Universal Studios, Singapore, with a group shot of characters at Sesame Street Theme Park. | Source

9 Popular Styles of Puppets in America

  1. Finger Puppets: Paint the finger with a face. Adorn fingertip with a hat or yarn for hair. This is a project for young children.
  2. Sock Puppets: These are made from new or old socks. Early television pioneers of these puppets for public performances were made famous by Barr Tillstrom who introduced puppets Kukla, Fran, and Ollie…Then Shari Lewis with Lamb Chop.
  3. Marionettes: These are operated with strings attached to a wooden holder. There are many strings to manage which requires skill and experience from advanced puppeteers. Ronnie Burkett and his marionettes, and Howdy Doody created by Buffalo Bob Smith were and continue to be popular for the American public.
  4. Ventriloquists: These dolls are usually placed on the lap of the puppeteer, and their character is brought to life by the operator speaking on its behalf. The skilled artist never shows his lips moving as he speaks. This is called "throwing your voice." The movements of the dummy are controlled by the ventriloquist's hand through an opening located in the back of the dummy. Edgar Bergen and character Charlie McCarthy were one of the early television pioneers who introduced the art of ventriloquism. Today, Jeff Dunham, with his latest dummy called Achmed the Terrorist, area world famous.
  5. Body Puppets: Human actors are in character costumes operating and activating the mechanisms into action. These puppets are taller and wider than human beings to make sure that they are noticed. The Lion King by Julie Taymor, is a great example of this art form. Many of the characters seen on Sesame Street, like Big Bird, are other examples of body puppets.
  6. Mechanical puppets: The use of small or miniature machines to operate individual parts of the puppet or doll.
  7. Pull string puppets: Dolls and puppets which work by pulling a string. The most popular version of a pull string is baby dolls which speak when the string is pulled. Words like “I love you” are spoken, or it could be an animal making sounds or speaking. Pulling strings Moves the mouth, arms, and head.
  8. Rod puppets: A singular rod holds the head or body of the puppet upright or rods may be attached to hands or arms to create movement. The Muppet Show introduced Kermit the frog and Miss Piggy. Sesame Street introduced Cookie Monster.
  9. Shadow puppets: These are shadow images of objects which are created by shining a light onto a clear screen. Shaping a hand or two creates silhouettes of people, animals, or objects on a blank wall. This is a common activity which children engage in before going to sleep.

Puppeteer At Work

A street puppeteer working his marionette.
A street puppeteer working his marionette. | Source

Becoming A Puppeteer

Do you enjoy performing? Do you have a desire to be an actor? Puppetry is theater.

Start your theater project with a sock or another puppet style which interests you. This form of theater has been around for thousands of years and today it is more popular and widespread than ever before. This art form is in every media outlet.

Most puppeteers are shy. They prefer to be hidden and operate behind the scenes. They are confident telling a story, while the puppets are exposed and receive attention from the public. Puppeteers have excellent eye and hand coordination abilities as well as timing.

You may choose to start with a home theater for your children or weekend performances for a neighborhood audience, or comedy shows for an adult audience. Depending on the number of characters in the play assistants may be needed.

My introduction to puppetry included making puppets, props, scenery, and stage construction. Puppet Theater is a smaller version of creating a movie. There is much to learn and a need for creativity, imagination, and arts and crafts skills. Typical of entertainment it will demand commitment and time. But it is great fun!

Example of my puppet introduction:

The director of the group wanted to do the Cinderella story. The construction of the puppets and the stage was not a problem. However, designing and making Cinderella’s mice-drawn carriage and turning the mice into men became a challenge. The most difficult item was making her crystal clear shoe. There was also a need for miniature lighting.

Some scenes were solved with shadow puppetry. If a physical productt could not be made or if there was a transition problem the shadow puppets came to the rescue.

Amazing Hand Shadow Performance

Arts and Skills Requirements

My learning was on-the-job training and my trainer was my mentor. An apprenticeship with an experienced puppeteer is one form of education.

There are books available for self-study, as well as online courses, or local workshops. Many universities offer classes.

What do you need to learn?

  1. The craft of acting to prepare for work in television, movies, festivals and events, theater, and parties.
  2. Arts and crafts skills for making stages, props, clothing, and textile accessories.
  3. Writing skills for scripts, story telling, advertising, and marketing.
  4. Learn general business practices.
  5. Learn the art voice production, speech, and sound for stage and performances.
  6. The art of ventriloquism and handling different types of puppets.
  7. Puppet construction, operation, storage, repair, and maintenance.

The craft of puppetry can satisfy creativity and imagination for designing, constructing, and managing man-made replicas of people, animals, or objects to perform amusing feats for entertainment. Puppetry is a part of the entertainment industry and you will spend many hours practicing and rehearsing.

Ventriloquist With His Partner

A ventriloquist preparing for his night gig by removing his Superhero dummy from his trunk.
A ventriloquist preparing for his night gig by removing his Superhero dummy from his trunk. | Source

5 Show Outlets

Puppet Shows:

  1. Schools hire professional puppeteers to present plays to children. Punch and Judy is a popular favorite with children.
  2. Public libraries will have puppet shows to stimulate children to have an interest in reading.
  3. Museums have been known to portray historical events with this ancient form of theater.
  4. Television introduced Shari Lewis and her character Lamb Chop. Jim Henson made Sesame Street and Kermit the frog and Miss Piggy household names for both children and adults. These three characters are known as hand puppets.
  5. Movies and television use puppets in many ways. Animation is puppet art and the most popular puppet entertainment in our modern history was created by Frank Oz in the Star Wars Series. Puppetry and animation coexist together.

Puppeteers

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    • profile image

      Tricia Deed 4 months ago

      Pat,

      You are so correct. Making the puppets and engaging in a show presentation are memories that will stay with all the participants. It is absolutely amazing how many objects around us are puppets. Children's creativity and imagination will flourish. Did any of your son's become involved with puppetry later in life?

    • PaisleeGal profile image

      Pat Materna 4 months ago from Memphis, Tennessee, USA

      This is an interesting topic. Enjoyed the read. I have wonderful memories involving puppetry.

      When my sons (only 19 mos. dif. in age) were young 6-10, we would often make puppets for various reasons. It's a great way to spend creative time when housebound. We would have BD party sleepovers and the all the boys would get involved with putting together a "big production" to entertain me. Without one digital device. They would use puppets, stuffed animals and all kinds of things for props to relay their original story. Everyone would have a part in some way, from working the puppets to staging. They especially liked doing sound effects. Great fun and they looked forward to it each time. When the production was over and things were but away we would make homemade onion rings they helped to make. Fun times !!

      In 1990 I became involved with a creative arts ministry of clowning, drama and puppet. Endless stories fill my mind and heart involving bringing God's word alive through these mediums.