Jennifer Jordan talks about her obsession with Improvised Puppetry and her top 5 tips to help bring your puppet to life.
I’ve been trying to work out why I love puppets so much, and honestly, I still can’t put my finger on it. It must be the same reasons I love silent comedy, BSL poetry, and why I tend to be a fairly physical player, which leads me to believe it’s linked to the fact I’m a very visual person. In word association games I usually see something in my head and then try to name what I’m seeing, which can lead to very fragmented or confused suggestions coming out of my mouth… ’moving stone round grindy thing’, ‘pointy front tooth’, ‘wobbling woman’ etc. So there’s something in the fact that with puppetry, whatever needs to be communicated needs to be done visually for it to have an effect, and that’s something my brain can process much more instantly.
There’s also the fact that puppets are not human. They are something else, and that holds endless possibility. They can do things physically that we cannot, and can do/say things that we would feel more inhibitions around if we were playing it with our own body and voice. There’s a detachment which allows for a huge amount of freedom, and that is very empowering. Any puppet I’ve ever played has been far more assertive and taken up far more space/attention in a room than I generally do as myself. This has been becoming increasingly apparent in my improv puppet classes – as the weeks have gone on, the puppets have started taking over and there are more & more moments of joyful pandemonium when the improvisers have disappeared and the puppets are very much in control of the screen and the lesson. It’s wonderful (and just a tiny bit scary).
For anyone who might be interested in some improvised puppetry action, here are my top tips for bringing a puppet to life, all of which can be tried with a simple finger if you don’t have a puppet nearby:
1. Know your puppet’s range of movement.
One thing I like to do a lot is pair up one human and one puppet, where the human is leading different types of movement and the puppet has to follow. If your puppet has no arms – how does it wave? You can also do this alone with a mirror. Do a simple movement and then see how your puppet can copy it. Really look at what YOU do when you do it and which simple element of what you do can be translated to your puppet. Be aware of all the joints your puppet has, as it may have more or less than you do, which will alter how it moves.
2. Show over tell.
Very few puppets have a fully moving face in the same way humans do. Faces are incredibly complicated with a lot of moving parts (eyes, eyebrows, nose, lips, tongue, chin…) so it’s rare to find puppets with all these elements which can move. For humans, a significant portion of how we convey emotion is in our face – so we need to do something else for puppets. We need movement elsewhere to show emotion. Shaking with fear, jumping for joy, swinging about whilst singing, slowly looking down at the floor when sad etc. Try out different emotions and how your puppet can show them. Here’s a great example of a very complicated face being puppeteered.
3. Connect to breath.
To believe that the voice we hear is not yours, the puppet’s mouth should move in time with when you speak, and breathe when you breathe. That’s if it has a mouth of course. If not, how else does your puppet move when speaking or breathing? How does the breathing change with different emotions? This is a fabulous 12 minute tutorial on just that from clown Peta Lily if you want to try it out.
4. Keep your puppet alive.
Few of us stay completely and utterly still when we aren’t talking, and that should be the same for a puppet. When it is not speaking, how does it listen? Does it fidget? Is it breathing? Does it react to particular things being said or done? One of the most satisfying things about puppets for me is seeing their thought process through changes in movement. Have a go at putting on a short Youtube video for your puppet to ‘watch, listen and react’ to. No words, just keep your puppet alive for the full video (go for just a 1-2min vid).
5. Play with your screen!
Having to move to online improv has been a tricky transition for many of us, and has restricted what’s possible in some ways whilst opening up possibilities in other ways. For puppetry, having a screen is wonderful. We have a frame to play around with, and your puppet can zip in & out quickly, appear from different angles, climb the frame, hang upside down, get very very close & big or very very far away and tiny. Have a little play around just reciting a nursery rhyme or song lyrics or even an improvised monologue and playing with the screen as you go. Alternatively, you could just take a wordless tour of the screen with your puppet ‘And here we have some fabulous climbing walls….excuse me, I left the oven on (zip exit)…. ’Don’t. Go. To. The. Shed!’ (getting closer to the screen on each word).
I hope you have fun trying some of those out, I’m already enjoying the visual of people puppeteering in their lunch break 🙂
I’ll leave you with this short video of when the puppets from my most recent class took over and all called each other.