The Craft of Puppetry: How to Create Characters and Perform
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
How to Make a Sock Puppet
- Select a sock. It could be an old sock or a sock that's missing its pair.
- Stitch on two buttons to represent the eyes.
- Stitch one button for the nose.
- Cut a lip shape for a mouth. Insert a small piece of fabric and stitch it into place. The lips or mouth will dictate if the sock will represent a person or an animal.
How to Use a Sock Puppet
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.
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 that 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 oftentimes 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.
How to Make a Paper-Mache Puppet
- Make the head portion using a round object or a balloon.
- Mix one cup of flour with two cups of water. Mix until smooth.
- Tear any paper into soft strips (we always used newspapers).
- Dip one strip of paper into the flour paste and apply it 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.
- Let dry overnight or longer.
- Cut the paper portion in half in order to release the support 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.
- 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. A cardboard tube may also be used for the neck.
- Paint the head and face. Apply yarn for hair or add other adornments.
- Sew a piece of cloth that will serve as the puppet’s clothing and cover the hand of the operator. One or two center fingers will move the head, and the other finger and thumb will move the arms. The fabric 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.
You can make puppets and just have fun with them. Or your puppets can be part of a story and perform for your self or for an audience.
There are two options for getting started. The first one is using commercially made puppets or making handcrafted puppets. Regardless of the puppet types, the principles are the same.
- Option 1: The first puppets are pigs and they have been named. Read the story directly from a book that tells about these three pigs. Puppets may ad-lib to make the characters come to life or move about as the reading continues.
- Option 2: The second option requires that you have a script that you purchased or wrote and the puppets have to be made to fit the characters in the script.
How to Write a Script: The Beginning, Middle, and End
There are five issues to think about before starting your script.
- Who: The characters are essential. The puppets need to have names, expected physical appearance and costuming of their character, their language, and personality traits.
- Setting: Where and when is this event? The scenery needs to be designed and correlate with the timeline of the story.
- Plot: What obstacles, life’s lessons, or educational material do the characters need to conquer or overcome.
- Theme: Will the story be told by the narrator’s point of view or by the characters' point of view.
- How: The story's ending or conclusion.
An original story with its script calls for creativity and imagination by the author.
9 Popular Styles of Puppets in America
- Finger Puppets: Paint the finger with a face. Adorn fingertip with a hat or yarn for hair. This is a project for young children.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Mechanical Puppets: The use of small or miniature machines to operate individual parts of the puppet or doll.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
How to Become 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. 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 product could not be made or if there was a transition problem, the shadow puppets came to the rescue.
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?
- The craft of acting to prepare for work in television, movies, festivals and events, theater, and parties.
- Arts and crafts skills for making stages, props, clothing, and textile accessories.
- Writing skills for scripts, story telling, advertising, and marketing.
- Learn general business practices.
- Learn the art voice production, speech, and sound for stage and performances.
- The art of ventriloquism and handling different types of puppets.
- 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.
5 Puppet Show Outlets
- Schools hire professional puppeteers to present plays to children. Punch and Judy is a popular favorite with children.
- Public libraries will have puppet shows to stimulate children to have an interest in reading.
- Museums have been known to portray historical events with this ancient form of theater.
- 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.
- 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.