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Posts from the ‘blog’ Category

Emotional Space and the Puppet

April 4, 2018


Earlier this year I collaborated in an extraordinary research project called The Emotional Space and The Puppet. Here is a short article about the work written by Joy Haynes, organiser of the project.

The Emotional Space and The Puppet – by Joy Haynes 

Why tell a story using puppets? For me, they provide a truly different perspective – a puppet evokes emotion yet does not have memory or  feelings of its  own. A puppet is entirely present and it is through action that an audience  empathises  with the character. 

Earlier this year, I organised a five day research project in which a team of theatre professionals worked with master puppeteer and director Luca Ronga, whose background and passion is the simplicity and directness of glove puppetry. His unique approach is to create emotional and physical spaces in an audience’s mind’s eye through physical gesture. 

 In an extraordinary process, we learned not to make the glove puppet mimic human actions or to charge them with enormous emotions but rather to translate the  grand  scale of the human experience into the poetic language of the glove puppet, which is delicate and playful.  

P1190635I discovered the power of starting from one clear point of reference, in which a single movement/gesture is expanded and through  its  repetition is taken away from the personal and transformed into something different and universal.  It was fascinating to see how character and situations were generated from single words, such as ‘ family’, ‘terror’, restlessness’, ‘solitude’.

With the absence of the traditional glove puppet booth, I observed the energy and focus of the  ‘actor’  presence becoming the emotional counterpoint or providing a context/playboard and, most interestingly, playfully embodying landscapes and architecture.  

Looking back on the research, I  realise  what a wonderful and instructive week this had been in developing my personal approach to puppet theatre and the devising process. 

If you’d like to have your expectations of puppetry challenged and your theatre-making skills developed through exploration of physical space as a means to translate inner emotional landscapes, Luca Ronga will be running a masterclass entitled The ‘Emotional Space’ at Norwich Puppet Theatre on the 15th & 16th April. Booking on Tel: 01603 629921.  Hope to see you there. 



Bringing the Metaphor to Life

February 9, 2018


Metaphor is as much a part of our functioning as our sense of touch, and as precious.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnsen (Metaphors We Live By)

Metaphors help us make sense of our lives and by describing one kind of experience in terms of another we make connections and achieve understanding. Metaphors both encapsulate meaning and make meaning accessible.

Our language is full of metaphor – we talk of being caught between a rock and a hard place, bottling up emotions, pushing the boat out – but a whole new dimension of meaning-making becomes possible when we use objects to give these metaphors physical presence and then manipulate them.

Imagine a letter being written. It is folded into a paper boat and launched. It returns as a bird, then changes into a hunched figure. With each back and forth the letter transforms and is eventually torn to pieces. The fragments become fish that swim back to the letter writer and place little kisses on their cheek. The writer blows the letter fragments away and they disappear.

This scenario is theatrical but it is actually an enactment, a personal ritual. What was written in the letter is known only to the writer and each transformation has personal meaning. It is their conscious choice as to whether the tearing of the letter is deliberate or accidental, resigned or furious, whether the ending is a decisive blowing away of the fish or whether the fish simply swim on by as the writer impassively looks on.

The course Bringing the Metaphor to Life is about creating meaningful play: part visual poetry, part personal ritual, part performance in as far as the scenarios are witnessed. This course is not so much about sharpening performance skills, although it will certainly hone our theatre-making craft, but is more about life skills. As we sensitise ourselves to the language of objects, materials, space, symbolic movement and use it to give presence to identities, relationships and situations, we bring experience into focus and gain tools with which to navigate difficult times or celebrate our realisations and achievements.

broken-teacup.jpgBringing the Metaphor to Life  with Rene Baker

Norwich Puppet Theatre, 24/25 February 2018

Box office: Tel 01603 629921

Making puppets from found materials

October 30, 2017


I will be teaching the course Construir títeres de materials encontrados  in Barcelona, 8-10 December 2017.   To book contact:

The course will be taught in Spanish.

Making puppets from found materials is about drawing inspiration from the object’s intrinsic qualities to create a character. Participants will explore a variety of “stuff” to discover what different materials have to offer and will learn to use form, texture and movement to inform the puppet’s character. Everyone will make at least two puppets and in the process will answer essential questions such as should the material be altered or left as it is? What type of joint will create the right kind of movement? Do I need a control mechanism and where should it be located? The course is suitable for all levels and no previous puppet-building experience is needed.

Animating Sounds

January 15, 2014


Behind the Scenes

Even the sound effects for the production have been animated. This is puppetry too! This clip is from a morning’s work at composer Jonathan Lambert’s studio, where he with performers Aya Nakamura and Gilbert Taylor and director Rene Baker worked on the nature sounds for the Princess’ journey.

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Rehearsals Day One: Play

January 9, 2014


Behind the Scenes

First day of rehearsals for puppeteers Aya Nakamura and Gilbert Taylor. In this little snippet they get to know the puppets, playing around with movement. There were many lovely moments as the puppets began to come to life, some that provoked tenderness and some that provoked laughter

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The Making of a Frog

December 23, 2013


Another wonderful glimpse into a puppet-maker’s process as Jan Zalud introduces his mock-up of The Frog for my forthcoming production of The Frog & The Princess.  I just love how he uses proportion and the resistance of the joints to capture the frogginess of a frog.

In the final puppet – not seen in this video – Jan also incorporated resisting blocks into the shoulders which not only prevent the puppet’s front legs from twisting but also allow it to squat on its own without being manipulated.

And how The Frog loves to squat … at the moment he is peeping up at me from inside a bucket beside my chair.  Just like the real frog I once found in a watering can.

The Princess: a puppet and her inner workings

December 13, 2013


A rare opportunity to see inside a puppet as Jan Zalud talks about the process of making The Princess for my forthcoming show The Frog & The Princess (premiere 15 February 2014, Norwich Puppet Theatre, uk).

See how this wonderful puppet maker gives shape to ideas and solves some challenging technical problems.  Essential viewing for anyone interested in Hans Jürgen Fettig’s mechanisms for stand-alone table-top puppets.

Can a house be a puppet?

July 9, 2013


While preparing the courses I will be running at the Norwich Puppet Theatre Professional Development Summer School 2013, I have rediscovered Satu’s Smoke Puppet.

This snippet of film shows the first experiments by Satu Kivistö – then a first year puppetry student at the Turku Arts Academy – to animate smoke by using her breath as the control mechanism.

Watching the video brought back fond memories of that particular course on Making Puppets From Found Materials.

The challenge – or was it a provocation? – was there from the very beginning when someone asked “can a house be a puppet?”  Immediately the group was thrown into a discussion about what might make the difference between imbuing a house with life scenographically – be it realistically or symbolically – and bringing a building to life as a character.

A house can’t get up, look around, walk two steps and look around again – the (stereo)typical actions commonly used to show that an object has come alive – but nevertheless it can become a puppet. Well, it can as long as we agree that the term ‘puppet’ may include any object that gives the impression of being alive and not only a specially made figure or recognised puppetry technique (see wikipedia’s definition of object-puppet).

So when does a door slamming or water trickling down a window become the expression of a house-puppet-character and when does it simply create a scenographic mood or atmosphere? The same action can be interpreted either way. People seen through the window may be the inhabitants going about their lives or they could be imagined to be thoughts running round the house’s mind.

We eventually came to the conclusion that we would believe a house to be a character if the closing door was understood to be its reaction, decision or some other emotional response and that an object becomes a puppet if it is believed to have thoughts, feelings and a will of its own.

In the video, Satu’s smoke puppet had only just been invented and was still being tested to see what kind of movements it could it make and how these movements might be interpreted in emotional terms. The next step would be to create a situation in which it could act and react. As far as I know, Satu’s smoke-fire project is still waiting to come fully to life.

If you are interested in giving life to puppets and objects – be they a crafted figure or a found material – you might be interested the masterclasses being held at Norwich Puppet Theatre Professional Development Summer School 2013 (Norwich, UK).

Manipulate and Play with Liz Walker (3-4 August) will develop technique, expression and play by using two person puppets, materials and objects to create short improvisations based on character and movement.

plastic_princessWhen Objects Come to Life with Rene Baker (12-13 August) shows different ways to convey the impression that a puppet has its own thoughts and feelings.

Making Puppets From Found Materials with Rene Baker (15-16 August) draws inspiration from the object’s intrinsic qualities to develop a character.

For further information or to book a place, please visit Norwich Puppet Theatre’s website or call on 00 44 (0)1603 629921.

What people had to say about a previous When Objects Come To Life masterclass:

“Rene’s love and passion of puppets is very inspirational (And infectious!) Great deal of inspiration – and very useful tools to take home and use!”

“This masterclass has really helped me develop my understanding of the puppet and how its movements and intentions can be read, which I feel will be very beneficial to me as I progress in my learning of all things puppet!”

“What a wonderful gentle way Rene has of guiding us through the techniques of animating puppets. There was no tension, just caring encouragement”

Who do we see? Puppet or puppeteer?

February 28, 2013


Photo: Anna Brashinskaya


Today’s post is an excerpt from my article Shifting Focus, soon to be published in British Unima’s Puppet Notebook special edition on object theatre.

And if you would like to learn how to shift focus in practice, there are still a few places left on the masterclass to be held at Norwich Puppet Theatre, 9-10 March 2013.

Shifting Focus: examining the performer’s task in a theatre of objects

Do we see a petticoat leaping onto a woman or is the woman covering herself with a petticoat? In both cases the basic action is the same – the performer throws an undergarment against herself – but it reads differently according to the level of energy in both human and object and where the impulse to move is located. Transforming the object also means transforming the performer.

Not only individual actions but the whole meaning of the play can be affected if the performer doesn’t modulate their own presence as well as the activity of the object. 

In Raspall, Teatre Nu‘s stage adaptation of a story by Pere Calders about how everyday objects live in a child’s imagination, the crux of the drama depends on the actors being able to convey the difference between imaginative play and fantasy becoming reality.

In the story a boy finds an old brush that reminds him of the family dog that had been given away and he makes believe the brush is a dog, making it sniff around, bark and lick his face.  His parents tease him for playing with a dirty brush and the mother throws it away as a useless object.  At night, the brush comes alive as a real dog and saves the family from a burglar. 

Performing this story requires clearly articulating the transformation of the brush from everyday object to having imagined life and then really coming to life.

The key factor – and the most tricky for the actor – is to manage the difference between playing with the brush as a make-believe dog in a child’s hands and animating it as a real dog in a puppeteer’s hands, i.e. to switch from moving the brush “as if” it were a dog to manipulating it “as” a dog.  

The whole point of the story is missed if the actor-manipulator cannot fade out of the picture when the brush comes alive because he will still seem to be the boy playing with an object.

The performer in object theatre is responsible for guiding the audience’s attention through the different permutations in the human-object relationship.  

Like focusing a camera lens to make a subject in the foreground stand out against the background, then refocusing to sharpen the background and blur the foreground or bringing the whole panorama into view, in object theatre the audience’s attention can be trained on the object, the actor or on both.

About the Shifting Focus masterclass, 9-10 March 2013:

Shifting Focus is a practical workshop for actors, directors, puppeteers and storytellers which examines the task of the visible manipulator of objects.

Participants will discover how varying levels of presence and neutrality can be used for dramatic purpose, develop techniques for guiding the spectator’s attention between the performer and object/puppet, and work with multiple puppets as a solo performer.

Performers will learn how to use their eyes, touch, body and even their feet to transform the way the audience engages with the puppet/object. Directors will learn to manage the relationship between human and object and discover how to draw attention to/from their performers within a narrative performance context.

Shifting Focus is suitable for all levels of experience; beginners will get a solid foundation for performing with objects and experienced puppeteers will learn to consciously manipulate their relationship with the puppet as well as cure any habits that they or their puppet might have picked up over time.

The Frog Prince Project

January 12, 2013


A new year, a new country, a new project. This year I will be working on the Frog Prince Project, a collaboration with Norwich Puppet Theatre to create a performance for young children that will help them think about otherness, prejudice and discrimination. The first phase is a period of research, funded by the Arts Council of England and supported by Norfolk County Council, in which a team of professionals from the fields of visual theatre, education and university interns will be exploring how puppets can be used symbolically and metaphorically to articulate and challenge notions of otherness. We are also collaborating with Recreation Road Infant School to find out how children engage with puppets as symbolic communication and observe how the children themselves might use objects to talk about difference.



The Smile

December 29, 2012


The Smile happens when a puppet comes alive for the first time. It happens to new puppeteers and to experienced puppeteers getting to know a new puppet.

The Smile comes at the precise moment you lose the sense that you are moving an object with your hands and it suddenly feels that the puppet is acting by itself and all you can do is go along with what it wants.

Bringing objects to life is a wonderful sensation and when the puppet takes off you often can’t help but smile.

These clips are from my classes teaching puppeteers and actors at the Institut del Teatre (Barcelona) and Turku Arts Academy (Finland).

Eloquent objects

December 9, 2012


My writing brain isn’t working this week – my head and heart are too occupied with closing my Finnish life chapter and moving back to England – so this is a reworking of a post I wrote for the MIMO project blog about a workshop I gave during the first MIMO seminar on social arts and wellbeing.


I always look forward to the moment in the workshop when we choose objects to represent people.

“This is me” a woman said, opening an umbrella. “I like to shield people, protect them. But sometimes I close up.” She folded the umbrella and began jabbing with it. “And I can be sharp and poky. Not nice.”

“I am this vase. My life is empty at the moment. But I’ll soon be filled again.”

“I am a pair of glasses. I like to see but I also like to hide behind them. My mother is also a pair of glasses but she is more decorative. I have a plainer frame.”

“My mother is this plastic bag. She holds me and keeps me safe. But…” and the woman squeezed the bag shut, trapping a balloon of air inside, “… sometimes she doesn’t let me breathe.”

When the circle ended we were all surprised by how accurately objects had described people and how easy it had been to choose them. Above all, we were impressed by the honesty the objects permitted and how sensitive information had been shared so simply. No-one would have been so open if I had asked “now tell me about your relationship with your mother”.

Expressing oneself through intermediary objects protects the self and disarms the ego defence mechanisms because the person is not directly addressed or exposed; the focus is on the object, not the person moving it.  Both puppets and objects provide this psychological distance but they are different.

To bring a puppet to life I create its character by imagining what it is like to be, for example, an elderly lady suffering from Alzheimers or the personification of war. A puppet is empty until I give it thoughts, feelings and actions.

Objects, however, already have a language. They speak of culture and context.  And because objects have cultural associations they can be used symbolically and metaphorically to create characters that are recognisable by their social values.

During the MIMO workshop we explored a random selection of everyday things – scissors, sponge, screwdriver, plastic bag, cup, etc. – to find out what objects have to say about ourselves and society.

One technique is the interview. Participants were asked to each choose an object to be displayed in a museum 100 years from now and to present it as a curator would: “This is a chair, people used to sit on it, this one is small so it probably belonged to a child.”

The group then asked the curator questions: “Did every home have one? Were chairs only used for sitting? This chair is red, was colour important?”, and the curator’s responses helped make a bigger picture of the object and its social function.

Then the participants asked the object questions, speaking directly to the object rather than to the curator. It works best if the curator doesn’t try to animate the object or pretend it is a character, they simply hold the object in their hand, look at it, and say whatever comes to mind.

A can of coca cola was asked: “We have heard you make people happy” (the curator had given this information in their museum presentation), “How do you do this?” and the coke replied: “I alter the chemicals in their brain”.

Humans tell one side of the cultural story and objects tell another. Objects are often worried about cleanliness and being handled correctly. They are quick to point out the difference in a man’s and woman’s touch. They talk about society and its codes.

There was once a toilet brush who was at the bottom of the hierarchy in the bathroom but maintained its dignity because it became the most important when guests were expected. Often there is a pain in the object. I remember a fish scraper who was allergic to fish and hid at the back of the drawer so it couldn’t be found.

We can’t access this information unless we talk directly to the object and let it speak. Human beings tend to censor information but objects are honest.

We don’t have to be intellectual to understand objects, we simply need to look at them. During the MIMO workshop, three bottles of soft drink – a pepsi, a fanta and a water – stood side by side with a coca cola can between them. “What do we see?” I asked and the reply came without hesitation: “A short fat man and three models. They are beautiful women from different countries”.

Everyone nodded, recognising these characters from the fact that the bottles were curvaceous and the juices were different colours. Someone added: “the women are open about their feelings but the man is closed, he doesn’t show what he is thinking.”

That such interesting and potentially complex characters can be discovered in transparent plastic bottles and an impenetrable aluminium can!  This is why I love working with objects.

What is a puppeteer?

November 24, 2012


When I met the fourth year puppetry students of the Turku Arts Academy in spring 2011 I asked them what they would still like to know before graduating in the summer.

One response was rather surprising: “What is a puppeteer?” someone asked, “it seemed so obvious in the first year, a puppeteer animates puppets, but now I’m not so sure”. And the rest of the group agreed.

You might wonder (as I first did) why graduating puppetry students would ask such a simple thing – have they learned nothing? – but it is in fact an excellent question that shows how they have expanded their vision of puppet theatre. These artists know there is no one way to be a puppeteer.

We decided to examine the question “What is a puppeteer?” by creating a shared online document where the students could post their views and read what others had written.  And it soon became clear that the question was not as simple as it seemed.

English dictionaries define a puppeteer in more or less the same way as “a person who manipulates puppets ” or who “entertains with and operates puppets” “by the use of strings, wires or their hands”.

So here we are at the beginning again: a puppeteer animates puppets.  Yet while most of today’s puppeteers do use puppets, there are quite a few who don’t.  And of those who do they don’t always manipulate them “by means of strings, rods or by inserting one’s hand into the puppet”.

Until not very long ago in England (and in many countries it is still so) you became a puppeteer by learning the traditional puppetry techniques of rod, string and glove puppets, sometimes specialising in one technique to become a ‘glove puppeteer’ or a ‘string marionettist’.

But the contemporary puppeteer is not bound by the traditional techniques and today’s puppets come in all shapes and sizes, with or without control mechanisms.  A puppet might not even be constructed as such and a found object or material may become a puppet – kitchen utensils, a scrap of paper, clothes, parts of the human body, sticks and stones.

It is now understood that any object can be considered a puppet if it appears to be alive.  And this expanded notion of the puppet has also changed the notion of the puppeteer so that, according to the latest Wikipedia definition, a puppeteer is “a person who manipulates an inanimate object, such as a puppet, in real time to create the illusion of life”.

Here the key to being a puppeteer isn’t the object-puppet itself or its manipulation technique but the fact that the object is brought to life.  And ‘life’ doesn’t necessarily mean imitating human beings or animals.  A puppeteer might make books fall like leaves or animate a rope to become the waves of the sea or create an atmosphere of suspense through the rhythm of swaying chains.

The identity of the puppeteer has become further complicated since the boundaries between puppetry and other forms of theatre have become blurred.  Nowadays we are just as likely to find animated figures and manipulated objects in actor’s theatre, performance art, opera and dance, which raises the question to what extent can the manipulation of objects on stage be called puppetry and the manipulator a puppeteer?

A bag of flour bursts, screens slide into place, a black plastic bag swooshes as it opens and the way these materials are handled, brought into focus and given meaning certainly involves puppetry sensitivity even if it is not actual puppeteering in its purest sense of bringing an object to life.

Performers who wouldn’t call themselves puppeteers are using puppeteering approaches, often without realising it, and those that do call themselves puppeteers frequently take on an actor’s role besides animating puppets.

Even the mere fact of manipulating a puppet on stage doesn’t automatically make someone a puppeteer, as is evident when actors are required to move puppets; whilst some actors manage to animate their figure so that the audience sees an independently alive character, others quite obviously remain the centre of attention and the puppet is merely an object in their hands, a figure that is ‘being used’ by the actor.

More than knowing how to tweak a rod or pull a string to make a puppet move, being a puppeteer is a mindset.  It is a willingness and ability to tune oneself out of the picture and let the object have agency.  A puppeteer guides the spectator to ‘look at this’ rather than ‘look at me’. And look at what it does.

In a puppeteer’s hands, objects are transformed.  A sculpture breathes. A knife becomes a fish. A white dress is the river in which a bride drowns herself.  And to create these new meanings the puppeteer becomes not only a manipulator of objects but a manipulator of associations, signs, symbols and codes.

So to come back to the beginning again: being a puppeteer is not just about animating puppets.  It is not about strings and rods and wires and gloves and moving mouths.  All these things are a part of puppetry but they are not what defines the puppeteer.

In essence, being a puppeteer is an approach to materials.  It is a way of handling them. Of transforming them. Of giving them new meanings.  And, ultimately, of bringing them to life.


TIP-Fest 2012

November 15, 2012


The Turku International Puppetry Festival starts 15th November, the third edition of an intimate annual festival of visual theatre whose aim it is to brighten up the dark Finnish November days. Click here to see the programme.

An international festival not only brings something new to a town’s audiences but is also a valuable experience for the artists, especially if – like at the TIP-Fest – they are given a free pass to see each other’s shows.

It was performing in international festivals (as part of Norwich Puppet Theatre in the 90s) that opened my eyes to the possibilities of my own art form.  It was so interesting to meet puppeteers from other countries and discover people with different aesthetics and ways of performing.

And it made me realise that there is no one way to be a puppeteer.

What Is A Puppeteer? will be the subject of the next few posts but in the meantime, for those of you who can get to Turku, I wish you a good TIP-Fest. I’m sorry to miss it this year.

Exercise in anthropomorphism

November 8, 2012


As a continuation of yesterday’s post about anthropomorphism and puppetry, here is an exercise in interpreting nature. The leaves were filmed from my balcony in Turku (Finland) yesterday lunchtime.

The best is to first watch and see what occurs to you. The imagination works better without being told what to do.

And if you would then like to analyse the “performance”, here some focuses that may be useful for puppeteers:

  • Watching the leaves as a group or following an individual leaf gives different information.
  • How does the wind cause the leaves to move and how does their shape affect the movement?
  • Interpret the leaves imaginatively: find atmospheres, characters, stories, feelings.
  • What creates these impressions? What role do rhythm and space play?
  • What attracts your attention?  Why?
  • How could you re-create one movement or the whole atmosphere as live puppetry animation? (not necessarily with wind and leaves).

Please feel free to comment or share what you see in the leaves.

Anthropomorphism and puppetry

November 7, 2012


This morning I encountered a seductive blinking light at some roadworks … hmm, what is it that made that light so flirtatious?

Anthropomorphism is a dirty word in some puppetry circles because it is considered that humanising an object limits it, a puppet is more than an imitation human being.  And I agree whole-heartedly but it all depends on what you understand by anthropomorphising and how you use it.

To me, anthropomorphising doesn’t necessarily mean giving objects a head, eyes, arms and legs or making puppets gesticulate like a person.  If I see a car going by and imagine it to be sneaky, it is not gesturing but is probably moving in a stealthy rhythm.

Which reminds me of three cars I saw driving along the river bank.  Their steady speed made them “determined” and “concentrated” and the even distance between them made them a team.  They were three agents on an important mission.

I believe that exercising our anthropomorphic sensibilities teaches us a lot about expressive movement and actually helps to not over-humanise puppets.  

By playfully interpreting our surroundings in emotional terms we become familiar with how form, rhythm, space, grouping, colour and texture communicate and we gain more tools for bringing objects to life, even the human-looking ones with head, arms and legs.

And next time we turn a piece of paper into a puppet we won’t feel obliged to twist a head and arms into it to make it seductive.  Now what was it again that made that light so flirtatious?

Animating Altered Realities

November 4, 2012


These video clips are from a course on Objects For Actors that I recently taught at the Kultuuriakadeemia, Viljandi, Estonia.

This session explored how to stage altered realities – wind, water and low gravity – by animating props.  The task involved analysing how materials are affected by natural forces and re-creating the movement through object manipulation.

In the discussion afterwards one of the actors said “so to be a puppeteer you need to know the laws of physics”.  It was a bit shocking to hear the word “physics” linked to puppetry – it makes me think of science labs and numerical equations – but then I realised he meant the same as what I call the “laws of nature”.

Bringing objects and puppets to life involves knowing how things move.  It means being able to show the difference between floating in the air or floating underwater or floating on the water.  Four sticks can become a cat, a dog or a horse just by changing the rhythm of how they walk.  Change the rhythm again and the sticks may be curious, proud or depressed.

To understand what makes wind wind, water water and a cat a cat we eventually arrive at the essences of movement and the effects of impulse, weight, force, flow, resistance …

All movement is governed by these natural laws but fortunately we don’t need to know any physics before becoming a puppeteer.  We can learn it from observing falling leaves and watching a beer bottle floating down the river.

just started

November 2, 2012


announcing my new blog with articles, thoughts, questions and tips about the art of puppeteering.