Revealing the Art of Puppetry | How do puppets work?

Posted by on Jun 17, 2011 in Featured, Puppet Shows | 0 comments

Revealing the Art of Puppetry | How do puppets work?

roppets revealing the art of puppetry


Why do puppet works?


If puppetry isn’t magic, how then does it work? Why are puppets so effective in creating an atmosphere for learning? How can lifeless pieces of foam and material capture the attention of people regardless of age?

roppetsThe answer is multi-faceted. Many dimensions of the successful chemistry of puppetry can be seen in the experience of displaying professional-quality hand puppets at various education and church conventions. In the hand of a skilled puppeteer, puppets assume life-like qualities. This puppet personality attracts a great deal of attention by those present. Observers of this scene will notice that the puppet generally gains the attention of its audience immediately. He will also note that the audience is actively enjoying the entertainment value of the performance. A very important but intangible factor is the involvement of the audience with the puppet itself. The spectator finds himself caught up in the performance and often identities in some fashion with the puppet characters; this suggests the closeness of the elements of fantasy which is present in puppet shows, these characters must be believable.

These factors are considered individually to more fully explain the unique chemistry of puppets.

ATTENTION- The ability of puppets to gain the full and undivided attention of an audience is perhaps the greatest reason why puppets are so successful in relating instructional or purely entertaining material. The other factors mentioned above would be impossible to attain if the puppets did not have the audience’s attention. At the same time, elements such as entertainment, fantasy, and involvement all contribute to the ability of the puppet to gain and maintain undivided attention.

Novelty is certainly one element in this ability. Quality puppet performances are not commonplace occurances and this variation from everyday experience is a decided advantage for the puppet. The Filipino public has been oversaturated with media campaigns of all description. Students are thoroughly familiar with typical teacher-student interaction which generally defines contemporary education. We have become a culture which knows what to expect next; we are often familiar to the point of immunity.

But we are not familiar with puppets. We are not acquainted with their abilities and personalities. And because they are different, we notice them. We attend to them in a way in which we are not accustomed. We are immediately ready to listen to what they say. And because we listen more carefully to what they say, we are more open for learning to take place.

This does not mean, however, once the novelty of puppets wears off, that they will no longer serve as useful teachers; because the reasons listed above explain only why the audience initially pays attention to the puppets. The uniqueness of puppets lies in the fact that they have been seen hundreds of times.

Convention registrants will venture back to the puppet displays each day the exhibit is open. They return to be entertained, to enjoy themselves. For puppets, worked by experienced and capable puppeteers, are among the most entertaining characters in the world today. Later chapters will more fully develop the ability of puppets to provide entertainment but brief treatment can be provided here. Comedy, drama, musical numbers, pantomime- all are included in the repertoire of puppets, and the entertainment aspect of puppet performances is capable of being individually tailored to the specific audience. Parody and nature are two particularly effective humorous uses for puppets and there is never any want of material for scripts. Famous persons, news events, television programs, and many more sources are available for script material. Using material with which the audience is vaguely familiar, but which is presented in a new and different format, allow the puppets added believability as they imitate their more famous human personalities.

FANTASY is also a big factor in the ability of puppets to successfully relate to their audiences. The motion picture industry tapped this formula in thepuppeteer from roppetsnumerous disaster pictures of the early and mid 70’s. Puppets allow a healthier fantasizing in a humorous vein. Not only does the audience identify with a particular puppet or puppets, and become involved in the performance, but they also relate to the unseen puppeteer back stage. The ability of the puppeteer to turn a lifeless dummy into an entertaining personality is an ability which is almost universally envied. Watching someone else create a new life through puppetry is like watching another person sit down to your favorite dessert: you feel a tremendous urge to join in. And so the captivating personality on stage, with its clever quirks and mannerisms, soon becomes manipulated not by the real puppeteer, but by the spectator. “I can do that”, is the thought, and there is vicarious enjoyment from performer to audience. Convention participants invariably want to “hold” the puppets and make them work. And, for a few brief moments, they leave the particular realities of their world as they “play” with their puppets. The attraction of the puppet is graphically illustrated, and few people exsist who can resist their magnetism.

This fantasizing and identification with both puppet and puppeteer is an excellent example of the active involvement which exists for the spectator during a thousands of hours in front of their television sets with little or no involvement whatever. You can watch television while eating, conversing, or reading the evening paper. Because the show commands your attention. You become involved. And it is in this environment of total attention that quality learning can best occur.

Another factor which must be present in quality puppet productions is the element of REALITY. The puppet play, while enabling the audience to fantasize, must contain a spark of believability. The puppet must be seen as more than the sum of its inanimate parts. It must present a character or personality which is believable. A good example of this is the success of the Sesame St. characters. Although their conversations are highly humorous and entertaining. They often reflect incidents which are familiar to the lives of most people. If puppet showswere nothing more than cute nonsense, they would not be effective vehicles of instruction because they would lack this important link in maintaining audience attention; believably is important.

Puppets are also useful in other areas of learning besides formal instruction. For individuals with learning or emotional difficulties, puppets is always an interesting experience: they become actively involved in the performance. But one puppet activity can create opposite reactions in individual members of the audience. If the puppet suddenly turns and stars to converse with a particular person, their response will be one or two: either they will shy away in embarrassment, or they will eagerly enter into conversation.

The puppet in this picture is engaged in a conversation with the facilitator. Such talks can present useful information to class and discussions in a unique way

The puppet in this picture is engaged in a conversation with the facilitator. Such talks can present useful information to class and discussions in a unique way

Why these responses? The first person becomes self conscious at being so involved in the puppet show that the puppet would notice and turn to him. The individual, then, is not fully aware if this involvement is “adult” as seen by himself and his peers, and because of this uncertainty he retreats into a more detached position. It is not unlike a father getting “caught” playing with his son’s new electric train. The second individual is not threatened by dialog with a puppet. On the contrary, the situation is completely relaxed and open, and candid comments may result. It is this second individual who reflects the use of puppets as a theatrical tool. Because the circumstances are completely non-threatening for these individuals, they can speak through puppets without feeling inadequacies which they may have placed upon themselves. Psychologists and Psychiatrists use the technique of psychodrama to create a non-threatening environment in which individuals can relate without fear; providing these persons with puppets may produce the same result. Although the person provides the voice, it is the puppet in a very real sense who is speaking.

Stuttering is a case in point. This speech impediment is sometimes related to poor self image or an inferiority complex. A person who stutters for this reason may be able to speak perfectly if he is speaking for or through a puppet. Because the puppet becomes the visible personality, and because the puppet has no personality conflicts, there is no reason to feel threatened when speaking for the puppet.

Persons speaking through puppets may also tend to assert themselves more than if they were speaking for themselves. And individuals listening to puppet may also tend to accept more from a puppet than they would from another human being, even though they realize that a human is, in fact, speaking. These responses to puppets are all possible because puppets are not as frightening as people. And because they don’t threaten, it is often much easier for puppets to achieve an atmosphere conducive for quality education and therapy.

Why do puppets work? In the final analysis, it is probably an intangible blend of all of these things. Certainly their novelty is greatly responsible for initially gaining the attention of an audience. From this point, it is up to the puppet to establish its character with the audience. They turn the charm, they entertain, they are lovable; and; puppets are fun.

But there is another reason why puppets work, and it is the most important reason. Puppets are only as successful as the puppeteer. Professional puppetry requires hard work by the puppeteer. In this regard, puppetry is no different than any other field of human endeavor. The time tested formula of hard work equaling success holds true. The grace of the ballerina or Olympic gymnast was not achieved overnight. Professional athletes dedicate themselves to long hours in the solace of the practice field in order to excel before millions of spectators in the real competition. Similarly, the puppeteer must diligently apply himself in rehearsals if his performance is to be judged acceptable. There is no immediate reward for repeatedly practicing the mechanics and fundamentals of puppetry. But the puppeteer who truly desires to give the best possible puppet show will find much satisfaction in the audience response at actual performances.

Yet mastering the techniques of puppetry is not enough. The puppeteer must involve himself in his work. He must be able to create his own personality, or new ones, inside the foam body of his puppet. And that is where the fun begins. The secret world of Walter Mitty can come alive in anyone when they put on their puppet and start performing. This is a necessity! The puppeteer must develop a special relationship with the puppet that results in the puppet appearing to be a natural, expressive, loveable personality. And when this happens puppet work.

Attention, involvement, entertainment, believability, fantasy: all contribute to the successful technique involved in professional quality puppetry. Coupled with a creative puppeteer who brings the puppet to life in stimulating and entertaining fashion, these qualities form the chemistry which makes puppet work.

Sound complicated? It isn’t really. Anyone can do it with practice. So keep reading, learning and practicing what you learn. And come further into the puppet world.

A Description of Puppets


The word puppet means different things to different people. This is because the term encompasses several different objects, all of which are called puppets.

Tali Galaw marionette group performing a marionette show in a morning television show umagang kay ganda

Tali Galaw marionette group performing a marionette show in a morning television show umagang kay ganda

Few people, for example, are aware that the first puppets were actually shadows.

Shadow puppets, although not popular in this country at the present time, are believed to be the oldest form of puppetry with their early beginnings in

China. The exact age of this art is unknown. In shadow puppetry, the stage is darkened except for one light source which serves to cast shadows on the screen. Obviously, these primitive beginnings had several limitations for performing when contrasted to today’s methods.

With the shifting of cultural centers to the Greek and Roman Empires, references is also found to puppets as part of the performing arts. The existence of

marionettes as early as 300 B.C. is indicated in remarks by Horace. He speaks of one who moves like a wooden puppet pulled by wires. Of course, marionettes are still quite popular today and represent the only form of puppetry for many serious puppeteers. Unlike hand puppets, marionettes are manipulated from above the stage through the use of guide wires connected to the various bodt parts. The full body of a marionette allows it to actually walk during the performance instead of making the audience imagine that the puppet is walking on its own legs, as is the case with hand-held puppets.

The ancestors of the present day hand-held puppet were the glove puppets. These were an extremely popular form of puppet and variations of this form are still found today. Many schools have the students construct socks puppets in craft activities; this is an outgrowth of the basic glove puppet. However, in its endeavor to give evermore natural and realistic performances, puppetry has become quite sophisticated. In so doing, the glove puppet has given way to the life sized hand puppet. The popularity of this type of puppet in schools and churches has increased dramatically since its introduction.

table puppetry from roppetsThe hand-held puppet presently appears in distinct styles: the rod puppet, the rod-arm puppet, and the human hand and arm puppet. In operation, the heads and mouth of these puppets are identical. The basic difference is in the method of manipulating the arms, onto which a metal rod is attached. The rod itself is approximately 24 inches long with small loop at the end. A vinyl wristlet is attached to the arm of the puppet, just above the hand. This wristlet has a small opening through which metal rods extends, and it is secured by re closing loop. With both rods securely attached to the arms, the puppeteer manipulates the arms of the puppet simply by moving the rods for whatever gestures are desired.

The human hand and arm puppet does not utilize rods. Instead, the puppeteer actually inserts his arm and hand into the puppet and his arm and hand become the arm and hand of the puppet. Gloves the color of the puppet’s skin are used to create the correct color for the hands. This puppet is a tremendous addition to the art of puppetry; it allows gestures and manipulations which significantly affect the realism of the puppet production.

The history of puppetry has generally been a history of entertainment. Only recently have the instructional advantages of puppetry been recognized.

Only one puppet description  is missing: the description of your puppet as you bring it to life – its temperament, personality, gestures, voice and all the rest. Providing this description is what makes puppetry fun!

The Puppet Director


In athletics, planning for success begins long before the start of actual competition. Coaches map strategy and organize how they expect to accomplish their goals. Similarly, successful businessmen extensively research a project and carefully plan each component in order to ensure operating efficiency. Puppetry is no different.

Good direction is essential for professional quality puppetry. And the central person involved, obviously, is the director. Puppetry is more than one individual

with his puppet; to perform quality puppet productions, it is necessary for a team of people to work together just as in most other forms of entertainment. The director must provide the proper amount of guidance to ensure that the puppet team works well together. This is not always an easy task.

The director is combination of manager, teacher, promoter, drill sergeant, mother, coach, administrator, psychologist, and referee, all wrapped up in a

Mr. Danny Liwanag, Director of Roppets Edutainment Production Inc. Philippines

Mr. Danny Liwanag, Director of Roppets Edutainment Production Inc. Philippines

Major personality, with patience of Job and the endurance of a distance runner. Because many people who are attracted to puppetry are teenagers and young adults, the director must be able to work well with this age group. He must be knowledgeable in the art of puppetry and be able either to think creatively or to assemble a group of creative individuals to provide material for performance. The puppet director, being in charge of the entire operation, must be a responsible individual; one who can delegate responsibility, and one who can exercise sound judgement.

Determining the scope of the director’s job is easier if an examination is made of the various functions which must be accomplished by the director. Central to these duties is the scheduling of rehearsal time. Rehearsals must be well-planned and executed if they are to accomplish their purpose of preparing puppeteers to perform high-quality puppet production. The ability of a puppet team to perform well in puppet shows is directly related to the effort applied during rehearsals. Athletics team often stress the basics or fundamentals of their sport during practice sessions. The emphasis on these fundamentals, and the repetition of them until they are well-learned, reflects the non-glamorous side of athletics (or puppetry). But the teams which excel in the basics are those which perform well when “the chips are down.”

Manipulation: The Mouth


The puppet Director is the central force in the organization and smooth functioning of the puppet team. But the puppeteer is the central factor in the performance itself. The puppeteer is, after all, the one whose abilities are required to animate the puppet and entertain the audience. Several different functions of the puppeteer will be discussed but the most important is manipulating the mouth properly. Because mouth manipulation is one of the most basic aspects of puppetry, improper manipulation is quickly noticed by the audience and detracts seriously from their enjoyment.

An elementary, yet often over-looked principle of correct mouth manipulation is holding the puppet properly. Many beginning puppeteers are unable to accomplish good lip sync and mouth manipulation because they do not know exactly where their hands should be placed inside the puppet head. The accompanying drawings help illustrate the correct position for the hand. You will notice from the drawings that the four fingers should be in the roof of the mouth and the thumb should be below, in the jaw. Both the fingers and the thumb should rest on the cloth-covered mouth, not the foam covering it. If the hand of the puppeteer is small; it may be necessary to insert a piece of polyfoam in the upper or lower mouth cavities to make a snuggly fitting puppet. Once the puppet has been properly fitted, the puppeteer can begin manipulating it.

Opening and closing a puppet mouth involves the use of arm and hand muscles which are not ordinarily used. This will cause fatigue, even in shorter performances, until the puppeteer gets used to manipulating puppets. Practicing lip sync with the arm straight up will help build these muscles and this practicing should be done with both hands since the good puppeteer must be able to work puppets with either hand.

roppets hand manipulation

The key to good mouth manipulation is accurate synchronization of the spoken work and the opening of the mouth. Particular care should be made to opening the mouth on the first syllable of the first word of each sentences. This helps create a good impression for the rest of the sentence. Missing the synchronization at this crucial point is clearly noticeable to the audience and dramatically reduces the quality of the show. When opening the mouth, keep in mind that it is the lower jaw which drops during speech- the upper lip does not go up. This is a serious weakness in beginning puppeteers. Begin to practice this movement without the puppet so you can make sure your thumb drops while the fingers remain parallel to the ground. This is not a natural tendency and will require a great deal of patience and practice. But that practice will pay off in a puppet which looks natural when it speaks. A good exercise to help the beginning puppeteer master this technique is simply to put the hand under a table top or some other stationary object and repeat the dropped thumb motion. Intersperse this exercise with another where the puppeteer does not use any stationary objects but has his hand and arm extended above his head. This is necessary to more closely simulate actual performance conditions.

Another mistake commonly made by beginning puppeteers is biting word, closing the mouth with each word instead of opening it. This tendency must be watched closely by both puppeteers and director to ensure that only correct manipulation is performed. Quality puppet teams should never be troubles by this mistake. Both of these technical points, the dropped thumb and mouth opening instead of closing, are important considerationsfor manipulating the puppet in a natural manner.

When people talk, they do not open their mouths as wide as possible for every word. Neither should puppets. Since the goal of the puppeteer is to create a “natural” personality in his puppet, the mouth should be open wide only if the scripts calls for it, such as yawns, yells, or exaggerated expressions. This gives the puppet a special impact when the mouth is opened wide.

Some beginning puppeteers have a tendency to move their puppets around too much during performances. This detracts from the puppet that is “speaking” and confuses the audience. Only the puppet that is actually speaking should be moving its mouth. While the other puppets need to be responsive to the speaker, they cannot be so animated in mouth or body that they take the audience’s attention away from the speaker.

Another aspect related to manipulating the mouth is maintaining eye contact with the audience. This is imperative if the puppet that is speaking is going to appear believable to the audience.

Lip sync is the key to quality puppetry, but it involves more than just moving the hand in a particular fashion. It takes practice and familiarity with the script being presented. No puppeteer can lip sync well if he is not acquainted with the script and able to anticipate upcoming words. The tape must be listened to repeatedly to learn both the dialog and the pauses. As an additional help, the puppeteers should have the script directly in front of them during the actual performance. The scripts can be attached to the stage and in this way they serve the same function as cue cards for an actor. But no puppeteer should ever attempt to read the scripts without being thoroughly familiar with the tape itself.

Mouth manipulation is lip sync, and lip sync is practice. Puppeteers who take pride in their work will accept nothing less than perfection in lip sync for their puppet productions.

Manipulation: Rod Arms


The importance of accurate lip sync by the puppeteer cannot be overstressed. But lip sync by itself is not enough to bring the puppet to life. Human speakers have particular mannerisms and make various gestures when speaking. Puppets should be the same way; they should develop arm movements which complement personality to the audience. This is possible with the use of rods attached to the puppet arms.

The rods are narrow metal strips, approximately two feet long and the thickness of a clothes hanger. They have small grip on one end and a loop on the other. The loop end is attached to a vinyl wristlet, so it is concealed by a long sleeved shirt or blouse. The diagram illustrates how this is done. Once the rods are properly connected, the puppeteers can begin practicing various arm and hand movements.

roppets puppet showroppets puppet show

Beginning puppeteers should never attempt to operate both arms at the same time; good puppetry comes in stage! With one hand operating the mouth, the second hand should be used to operate one arm until the puppeteer has reached the level of proficiency required to use both arms simultaneously. When using just one arm, let the other arm and rod hang down at the puppets side. The puppets are manufactured in such a way that the arms hang naturally. The puppeteer can then concentrate on operating the other arm and should strive to develop and perfect as many movements as possible. When this is done, he should practice alternating the arm used in the performance.

In other words, if the puppeteer used his right hand inside the puppet, his left will be free to operate both rod arms, one at a time. By having the puppet scratch his head with one hand and point with the other one, the performance appears more realistic and the audience enjoyment is greater. All the puppeteer needs to do is gently drop one of the rods and pick up the other. Switching from one arm to the other allows both the beginning and experienced puppeteer to give puppets a human-like quality through the use of gestures. As in all phases of puppetry, this maneuver requires practice before the puppeteer becomes comfortable and the transition from one arm to the other is a smooth one.

roppets puppet sampleroppets

roppets sample puppet

After the puppeteer has mastered the art of manipulating one rod arm at a time, he may begin practice on working both rod arms with his free hand. This is not a difficult as it might first appear, but must follow the proficient use of the two rods should be held in the hand. Notice that the rods are held above the handles and rest in the fingers, not the palm of the hand. Specific movements resulting from manipulating both rods can only be learned by experimentation and practice. One basic gesture which can be done rather easily is that puppet clapping his hands, the result of pressing the thumb and index finger together.

Manipulation: Human Hand and Arm


Human hand and arm puppets provide a new dimension in realistic puppetry. These puppets allow the puppeteer to insert his arms into the puppet and provide the opportunities for human movement which do not exist with rod arm puppets. For the most complete operation of the human hand arm puppet, two puppeteers are necessary. Discussion of human hand and arm puppets will be divided into usage by one and two puppeteers.

SINGLE PUPPETEER. One puppeteer is capable of operating the human hand to manipulate the puppet and inserts the free arm into the puppet to become the puppet’s arm. The puppeteer wears a glove which matches the skin color of the puppet and this glove hand extends out of an especially sewn shirt or blouse. The gloved hand goes through the elasticized sleeve and extends out the non elasticized opening. The elasticized sleeve is then pulled up the puppeteer’s arm toward the shoulder. The regular sleeve has two Velcro patches which allow the sleeve to be cuffed tightly at the wrist. The foam arm of the puppet is designed to join the puppeteer’s forearm and usually rests on or near the puppeteer’s elbow. Human hand and arms puppets, like their rod arm counterparts, are designed in such a way that arms not being used or manipulated hang naturally to the side of the puppets.

sample puppetsample puppet

The Puppet Personality


How often have you heard the phrase “ It’s so unlike him to do that? “ Have you ever stopped to realize why such statements are made? Essentially, they are made because a person says or does something which is inconsistent with the pattern of behavior which, through experience, has become expected of him. People develop personalities, patterns of behavior, by which they are identified. Puppets should do the same.

Puppets need to have their own distinct personalities; they need to develop a consistency of character so their audiences know basically what to expect. It is confusing to audience, particularly younger ones, to have a puppet character perform in different roles.

One important aspect of the personality, often overlooked, is the individual mannerisms of the puppeteer. Each puppeteer has a particular style which is different from that of other puppeteers and this style is reflected in the operation of the puppet. Ideally, the same puppeteer will always operate the same puppet character so the character develops a consistent style and identity with the audience. Head movements, arm gestures, mannerisms, lip sync techniques; all these functions need to remain essentially the same as the puppet develops its identity with the audience.

A second function of personality is that of the voice. Inexperienced puppeteers and puppet teams often think nothing of using three or four voices for one puppet. This should not be done. A determination about voice should be made when the puppet personality is being developed; once a puppeteer or other person has been selected to speak for the puppet, the role should be made permanent. It is sometimes amusing to watch voice tracks dubbed into performances of well-known performers – its novel – but only because the real voice is firmly established in the minds of the audience. Do not allow your puppets to have different voices speaking for them. It only makes the puppet’s job of relating to the audience that much more difficult. Related to this function of personality is the puppet’s vocabulary. If a puppet character is being developed to represent a college professor, the vocabulary of his scripts should be more extensive than that of an uneducated laborer puppet. This is a subtle point, but one which good puppet teams will want to follow.

The puppet personality is a critical factor in the success of the puppet production. It is through these personalities that the audience will relate to the production and what is being said. Often, the ability of the audience to identify a particular personality characteristic will allow learning to occur without regard to what is being said. A viewer can see in the selfish personality of a puppet traits similar to his own – and resolve to change them. Such an impact is possible from the development of the puppet personality alone. The puppet with widely divergent character traits to allow maximum flexibility in programming.

For some, the development of a new personality within a puppet is not an easy thing. Others excel at it. But it is certain that all puppeteers must accomplish this at least to a minimum extent if they are to be successful. This is one of the truly “fun” parts of puppetry. Although it will require practice to perfect the personality, the dull routine of rehearsals is not an active factor. The development of the personality lies in the creative reaches of the mind; in the imagination of the puppeteer. At first it may not be easy- you may feel somewhat inhibited. But as you develop this particular skill, you will find it to be one of the most satisfying in puppetry…


Antonio Liwanag

Tonc is currently working as an Assistant Director in Roppets Edutainment Production Inc. He's offering the most unique and quality educational entertainment for birthday parties and events for more than 25 years.

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