subscribe to rss feed
subscribe by email

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

Theatre Puppetry Workshop (Beginning): Week 3

After watching a very awesome Taiwanese puppet show in the morning (more on that in the next post after I go through the videos), I went to my theatre puppetry class in the afternoon. Yes, my Saturday was indeed full of puppets.

In this class, we worked on this short musical number some more. In the last two weeks we were only doing lip-sync, but this week we were playing the karaoke track. That meant we all had to sing (or find some other way to make it interesting if we couldn’t sing). We also did some other singing exercises in different voices. It was fun to hear everyone’s non-talking voice.

I also learned this little trick of following the notes on sheet music. This means when your puppet is singing a high note, its head will point upwards and when it’s singing a low note, the head will point down more. Of course, this rule is not something that’s set in stone, but it definitely helped making the performance more expressive.

And we learned another piece of choreography that’s focused on rod manipulation. Speaking of rods, we also got to play with some Wayang golek (Indonesian rod puppets). These has some pretty unique movements and it wasn’t something that I immediately got a hang of. And I had no idea that those heads just sit on the main rod, and it wasn’t really attached so you could remove it quite easily. Who knew?

We also played with a Bunraku-style puppet (the simplified kind, not the Japanese kind). We had been working with these Muppet/Avenue Q style puppets that has no legs, so people really jumped on the chance to play with a puppet that has legs. We made it dance. We made it run. We made it leap through hurdles. And once again, although it took three people to control one puppet, somehow we all worked pretty well together.

I really enjoyed the fact that we are covering a wide range of topics. But one of the things that I enjoyed the most was when the whole class let out an enthusiastic “Yayyyyyyyyy!” after every little performance. It made the whole environment very encouraging and welcoming. Perhaps we should all do this yay thing more often.

Related post:
Theatre Puppetry Workshop (Beginning): Weeks 1, 2

Theatre Puppetry Workshop (Beginning): Weeks 1, 2

Once again, I am back to Puppet School to learn more about puppetry. So you will once again see a bunch of notes here like when I took the TV puppetry classes back in 2009.

The class is taught by Michael Earl, who worked on Sesame Street and various Muppet projects and Christian Anderson, who was on the original US tour of Avenue Q. As far as I know, we all took the TV puppetry classes from Michael so we all knew him already. As for Christian, after looking at the cast list for the tour he was on, I think I probably saw him perform when Avenue Q came to LA.

Week 1

When I walked into the classroom, the first person I saw was Paddy, and we exchanged the “hey, good to see you again”. I said hi to Michael the teacher. And we went around introducing ourselves. I actually recognized many of these people from the It’s a Monster World show. And then Allison walked in, and I thought “cool, another person I know”. It’s getting to the point that I’ll usually run into someone I know at these things nowadays.

Like the TV puppetry class, we discussed and did some exercises about weight, gravity, breath, and eye focus. This is a review for, I think, all of us, but then the biggest difference is that we are no longer performing for a camera. This has very important implications.

First of all, the feedback is different. In TV, we are always looking at the monitor, so we know exactly what we are performing. In theater, we don’t get to watch ourselves perform. Sure, we can use a mirror. But that can only be used during practice and isn’t completely useful when we are not facing the front. And it’s totally useless if you are facing your audience instead of facing the wall, where the mirror is. (There is also an unintended use for the mirrors: since my posture isn’t always good, it serves as a good reminder to avoid slouching.)

Also, the space is different. In TV, the character is always in a rectangular frame. We lift the puppets over hour heads and keep our heads out of the shot. In theatre, we are doing it the Avenue Q style, where the puppet and the puppeteer are at the same eye level. The entire stage space is utilized, and the movements of the puppeteer and puppet shall be perfectly in sync.

This is actually one major challenge. I have performed on stage numerous time, and I have trained for TV puppetry where I just make sure the puppet looks right on camera while ignoring whatever that’s not in frame. I can do them separately, but I really haven’t done both at the same time. For TV puppetry, I am often only moving my arm, while the rest of my body stays relatively still – not for theatre puppetry though, where you want to have your whole body move in sync with the puppet. It takes some getting used to.

We also did some specifics exercises, story-telling and improv scenes.

Week 2

We reviewed and practiced more of what was taught last week, but this week, we also got to play with shadow puppets! We had a dinosaur manipulated by two people and a butterfly controlled by another person. We took turns and had three people behind the screen at a time. We were just goofing around with it, but then Michael started narrating stories and we were acting it out and adding our own twists to it. It was a lot of fun.

I also found it interesting that we all had the instinct to work with one another to make the scene look good. Though none of the pairs manipulating the dinosaur talked about who should do what beforehand, it felt like the pair had been practicing together. They totally know who should lead and who should follow at a certain moment, and when they worked together flawlessly as one to bring a dinosaur to life, that was a beautiful thing to watch, and certainly amusing too.

The first two classes had been fun. We will be playing with other kinds of puppets as well in the next few weeks. Looking forward to it.

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas

It is a little late for Christmas specials now, but recently I came across this video of bloopers from Jim Henson’s 1977 special Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. The video was takes after takes of the same shot to get the rolling of the drum right. It amused me to no end because the drum keep rolling in different fashions and the puppeteers kept commenting on it. And yes, I watched it many many many times.

To give you a little bit of background information, Emmet Otter and Ma Otter were walking by a music store, where the local River Bottom gang was creating havoc. Things got tossed around and a drum rolled out of the shop.

Emmet was performed by Jerry Nelson (Count von Count, Robin the Frog, Herry Monster, etc.) and Ma was performed by Frank Oz (Cookie Monster, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Yoda, etc.). I love how life-like they looked when they reacted to their surroundings and each other. And I guess it’s just very difficult for two puppets to stand next to each other without making silly comments.

After watching the video, I decided to find and watch the entire TV special. And guess what, I liked it a lot. The songs were beautifully written and I was really impressed by how they rigged all the set pieces and puppets, since they were not just seen from waist up. There were cars, boats, characters sliding and skating. There were many different kinds of puppets used too, and the whole thing just came together very well.

I loved the story and the characters too. I liked how the main characters are faced with real hardships but still stay nice and optimistic. And it didn’t get cheesy or preachy like some other Christmas specials. Some bad deeds went unpunished. Some of the characters took a chance on things. You could call them gutsy but you could also potentially call them stupid or irrational for taking a risk. I think that’s something I appreciate. They didn’t try to make the characters perfect in every way or have everything wrapped up perfectly in the end, but that made everything so much more believable. And I liked that.

And yes, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas has become one of my favorite Christmas specials, right up there with A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (the 1964 claymation one), and Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983).