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Puppet Kaos - where Kelvin Kao plays with puppets and tell random stories

TV Puppetry Workshop: Week 1

I’ve always wanted to get some real training in puppeteering (some stuff simply is hard to be self-taught), so when I heard that Muppeteer Michael Earl will be teaching a class in the Los Angeles area, I did the only logical thing – sign up (right away). I heard good things about it from both April and Gaston too, so that’s another plus. I would’ve signed up anyway, but that certainly made me look forward to the class more.

So yesterday was the first class. We started with a little warm-up and then briefly introduced ourselves. There were eight students enrolled and all seem to be really nice people. Michael then started covering the basics, such as breath, focus, and weight. I didn’t know if these concepts were defined by some old puppeteers back in the days or derived from acting and/or dance. I was already aware of these terms and why they were important. However, it was one thing to be told that something was important, but another to watch a master do it right there in front of me, and make me realize “Holy crap! Those things do make a huge difference!”

Pretty much the whole class involved Michael demonstrating an exercise, and each of us taking turns doing it on camera. We ran through many exercises (which were all lots of fun, by the way) and he threw in a little something new into every single one. Some of these were with puppets and some of these were with just our hands. Some of these were set to music and some of them weren’t. And they all seemed to be well designed to help us improve our skills.

He also pointed out that he did not want us to just copy a bunch of techniques. Instead he wanted each individual student to develop what would work for him/herself. I found that one of the best thing about this class was that I got to watch a master perform right in front of me. When I saw something great on the monitor, I could just turn my head and see how he was doing it. Being able to observe that was even better than simply being told what to do.

One of my favorite idea from the class today was that the puppet was the star, whatever below your chest was the staff, and the staff shouldn’t be doing the star’s job. I liked that idea a lot. People that weren’t used to puppeteering tend to do things like performing with their face rather than their arm. They would be happy or angry on their face instead of showing it with the puppet, or they ran with their legs while they could’ve just planted their feet and bounce the puppet up and down. I really like this star vs. staff idea.

I also noticed a few things that I could work on. I had a hard time making my arm vertical right away. It tended to be tilted and I had to take time to adjust it. Also, I couldn’t focus the puppet’s eyes on the camera right away and also the head wasn’t level without conscious adjustments for a few seconds. Of course, those would get better with practice. It might also have to do with the way I normally practice. I tend to have the puppet on my side instead of over my head. This makes my arm bend in different ways and the puppet lean backward instead of forward. Also I tend to look right at it (turned towards me) than using a camera. This made the eye line incorrect when I need to put it over my head. Again, more adjustments to make.

It was a fun class and I felt like I learned a lot just from the very first class. (How much of that will stay in my head long term, of course, is still unknown.) But I felt like the whole class improved a lot in those three hours. We were definitely a lot better (or at least, a lot more comfortable) at the end of the class than when we walked into the classroom three hours earlier. Of course, that didn’t mean we were good, but the easiest leap was the initial leap from zero to… something not zero. I am glad I am taking the class, and will look forward to the next few Saturdays. :-)


  1. September 7th, 2009 | 4:29 pm

    Your enthusiasm is really inspiring!

  2. September 8th, 2009 | 2:28 am

    Hehe, It’s certainly one of the things that I am the most enthusiastic about. :-)

  3. September 10th, 2009 | 2:35 pm

    In no time, you’ll be a master offering these classes as taught by you 😉 I love your passion.

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..How to Master the Creative Writing Process

  4. September 10th, 2009 | 7:38 pm

    Dude have I told you how unique what you do? You might be the only one puppeteer I know and reading how you become a better one made me smile. I’d like to see the videos!:)

    andhari’s last blog post..TMI Thursday : Blonds, Beware!

  5. September 11th, 2009 | 2:23 am

    @Melissa: Hah, that’d be nice, but that’s a lot more practice later. :-)

    @andhari: Yay, I made someone smile. That’s all that matters. 😉

  6. September 22nd, 2009 | 1:57 am

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  8. Na
    October 1st, 2009 | 3:30 am

    “breath, focus, and weight”

    Oh, most definitely these are used in acting classes (having done about 10 years of them, you get to know these things by heart). Breath is obvious, not just for better vocal quality, but to pace yourself throughout a performance. Focus too is obvious, even for improvisation where your focus can be drawn many places and character isn’t as in depth. Weight is good for having a better understanding of what your body does and when, and learning more control. All things would work just as well for puppeteers.

    Sounds like a great class: and some good tips here for teaching puppetry for my own classes.

  9. October 1st, 2009 | 11:34 pm

    You’ve done about 10 years of acting classes? Well, you need to move to Hollywood. 😀

  10. Na
    October 2nd, 2009 | 11:53 pm

    Well see, in Australia studying drama is compulsory up until your last two years of school (at which point you can choose which subjects you study, and I chose drama in those last two years too). That plus my university course adds up to 10 years… 😛

    Hollywood – nah, too glamourous for me 😉

  11. October 4th, 2009 | 2:08 am

    Oh, that’s interesting. I grew up in Taiwan and attended school there until 10th grade, and then I started as a 10th grader and finished high school and college in the U.S. (Yes, I did 10th grade twice.) In Taiwan, drama is not taught in K-12. In high school, you can pick a club to join. You can only be officially enrolled in one (no more, no less) club each school year, because two hours on the schedule every week are allocated for club activities. Of course, some people spend a lot of time after class with the clubs, but since there are actually school hours allocated, you can only be officially enrolled in one club at a time. I did consider joining the drama club, but I decided to do debate in my first year of high school in Taiwan (10th grade) instead. I was thinking about doing drama club in my second year of high school (11th grade) so that was put on hold again cuz I moved to the U.S.

    In the U.S., there are drama classes offered in high school, if you choose to take one. However, I had very limited time to learn English and finish college application requirements, I didn’t have time for that. I was in a college theatre company for a few years though. That was fun. And that was my first time actually studying drama. Seems to me that the curriculum is set up quite differently in Australia. I wonder what it’s like to go to school in there!

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