Puppetry 101

I work with a dear friend who was a professional puppeteer in Chicago for 40 years.  He is my Yoda and I’m his Padawan Learner.  Today was spent working on puppets.

To make a puppet-a marionette-we begin with a sculpture of the puppet we want to make.  We use Plastelina clay, which does not harden.  We sculpt the piece from the clay and then we make molds of each piece.  We have to divide the sculpt into pieces, as you cannot pour an entire mold at one time.  For some more complicated pieces we may have four or five different molds.  I think Bill said the most complicated piece he ever made had 14 different molded pieces to assemble.

This is a hugely complicated process, you almost need to be an engineer to make some of these intricate pieces work.  You make the outside part a square using more clay.  You need to have something to pour your plaster into.

The clay also allows you to divide your piece in a way that does not cause it to get stuck in the mold.  You do not want what is called undercuts on your molded piece.  An undercut will not release from the mold.  No sense pouring something that won’t come out.  After the tedium of making the mold, the fun begins.

Place the pieces of your newly created plaster mold together, seal the edges where they meet with more clay and strap them closed with the inner tubes of bike tires.  You mix the polymer and pour it into the mold, checking carefully for leaks.  The polymer will need to be topped off several times.  When that process is complete and your polymer has been in the mold for about 5 hours, you flip the mold upside down, draining out the remaining liquid.  What’s left is the “shell” of your puppet piece within the mold.  5 days after pouring, you release the mold and out pops the poured piece.  Now it must sit and cure for several more days.  Your puppet head will shrink about 10% during this time.  This is something you are aware of as you sculpt the puppet and plan for it accordingly.

Once all your sculptures’ pieces are cured, you trim off the excess flash and sand the pieces smooth.  You assemble the pieces, making sure they work together properly.  The jaw moves easily, the eyebrows go up and down, the eyes move from side to side and up and down, the eyelids blink, etc.  If there is a problem, here is where you fix it.  If there is no problem with the mechanics of the puppets head, you take it all apart again and paint it.

If your marionette is only a molded head and your making the rest from another type of material, you make the rest of your puppet.  You’re always thinking about where you’ll attach the strings.  Stringing puppets can be a painstaking process and there are many different types of controls which can be used.

Then comes the really terrific part-meeting your marionette for the first time!  It is truly like that.  You feel you finally get to meet this thing you’ve worked so hard to build.

You work the strings and controls of the marionette in front of a mirror.  You play with the controls to see exactly what the puppet will do.  You adjust the strings.  Then you do it again.  Each time investigating what the marionette is capable of.  Before you know it you have a good handle on this marionettes “personality”, for lack of a better word.  The marionette will reveal all kinds of hidden movements you never expected.  The marionette’s actions may be hindered by the clothing, so you make the necessary adjustments to accommodate them.  By the time you’re finished with a marionette, it could have been three or four months of work.  Some take longer than that.

A puppeteer Bill knows has a marionette with 44 strings.  The man is astonishing.  How anyone keeps track of 44 strings is beyond me…Strings are a lot like learning a musical instrument, but the 44 stringer would be more like learning the entire brass section in the orchestra.

Here is my first marionette, Vogel.  She’s my first sculpt ever.


Vogel, complete. Head painted, body attached, fully strung. Both were sold at Potlatch, the Puppetry Convention.

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