Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Tips on using handpuppets with young children

I often give workshops on how to use puppets with children. I teach these tips to participants, with the help of Trixie, the baby and many of my other mouthy handpuppets. 

Tips for using puppets
Puppetry is the art of bringing inanimate objects alive. Children do this instinctively, when they pick up an action figure—or a spoon, or a piece of broccoli—and give it voice and movement. 

A large part of making puppets believable comes down to focus: where your puppet is focusing, where the puppeteer is focusing, and where the audience is focusing. Whether you are using a stage or a lap, be sure that your puppet’s eyes look at the audience, not at the ceiling or elsewhere. Have a friend check to see if you are facing the eyes at the audience.  

Even if the puppet is speaking to you, have it look at the audience. It will speak, then look at you. If you’re doing a stage show, one puppet speaking to another will still face the audience, then turn to the other puppet. Have the other puppet stay almost still, so it doesn’t distract from the speaking puppet.

If you are in full view of the audience, not behind a stage, when your puppet is speaking, do not make eye contact with the audience. Look at the puppet, draw attention to the character—the audience will not even see the puppeteer, believing totally in the puppet. 

Puppet movement
If you’re using a “mouth” puppet, open the mouth on the important words or syllables. Otherwise it looks like your puppet is eating the words. This is counterintuitive so practice until it comes naturally. 

Puppet mouths are similar to human mouths: the lower jaw moves down—the head doesn’t move up while speaking. Move your thumb downwards inside the lower jaw of the puppet. This looks more natural. Use your whole hand, wrist and arm to make the movements. Speaking of movement, have your puppet move slightly when it’s on your hand to keep it looking alive. When you remove the puppet, put it down gently. You have created a character: treat it with respect.

Be consistent when creating characters. Keep the same voice, the same kind of actions for each character. Personality traits and habits are magnified in puppets. For example, if you have a crying puppet, don’t be afraid to have it weep and wail. A sneaky puppet can be extra sneaky, a goofy one can be extra goofy.

Children and puppets
It can be tricky letting kids use puppets for whom you have already created a character. I recommend having puppets for kids to use, but if you let kids use your puppet, it may lose its personality on somebody else’s hand. If you have puppets for children to use, ask them questions about the characters, to encourage them to move through the instinctive hitting and biting stage quickly.

Puppets are powerful. Children may feel more comfortable talking with puppets than with people and may even confide secrets to a puppet. Respect the child’s privacy in this case. Approach children gently with puppets. If a child is scared or shy, move the puppet’s focus away. Never insist that the child engage with a puppet. To make the puppet more approachable, have it mirror a child’s shyness. 

Have fun!
© 2009 Priscilla Howe

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Last month Gilgamesh, this month Inanna

As I've written, last month at the Going Deep Long Traditional Story Retreat, I heard David Novak tell his version of Gilgamesh. Wonderful stuff. This month, I heard Diane Wolkstein tell her version of Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, accompanied by Geoffrey Gordon. Also wonderful, told in a very different way. Both were powerful, both were well-told, both took me deep into the world of ancient Sumeria.

Diane was one of the first storytellers I heard, back in the mid-80s. I hadn't heard her since, and somehow without realizing it, I'd made a less than favorable judgment about her telling. I take it all back! I thoroughly enjoyed the performance last Friday.

She began with a very short introduction, explaining a couple of unfamiliar terms we would hear. She gave us the excellent advice to put our programs down and let the story wash over us, not worrying about understanding everything.  

Diane's telling was simple and compelling, with surprising bits of comic relief. She used a piece of gold fabric as a prop--it became a bed, a shawl, even a corpse. 

This epic reminds me that stories remain the same throughout the millennia. In this 4000-year-old story we heard the same elements of trickery, faithfulness, loyalty, love, lust, death and grief that are present in books, movies and television today. Geoffrey Gordon accompanied Diane on a range of instruments--flute, harp, drums--as he sat quietly on a small platform next to her. They've been performing this story together for many years and have a clear rapport.

If you get a chance to hear either of these stories by these tellers, don't pass it up! 

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Belgian surprise

I love Belgium, despite the rain, the mist, the drizzle, the grayness of the winter. I spent my junior year of university there and now go every two years to tell stories. I know the people, the food, the landscape. I've never seen anything like this event when I've been in Belgium--what a complete and delightful surprise:

I know it's a publicity stunt for a reality show, but I don't care. I'm planning to watch this when the gray weather here gets to me.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

New publicity sheet for schools

Here's the first draft of the replacement for my brochure, an item called a "one sheet" in the biz world. Click the image to see the whole enchilada. A printable version is also on my regular website.