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Posts tagged ‘objects’

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”

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.

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.