The last post talked about the first of three things to avoid during your puppet presentation. This one covers the second and third.
A ventriloquist is someone who speaks without moving his lips to give the illusion that the voice is coming from somewhere else. A ventriloquist puppet is one that doesn’t move his mouth, but the words still come out anyway. Puppets shouldn’t work on their ventriloquism skills during a puppet play.
This happens for a couple of reasons. Most often it’s from a lack of focus. If you’re doing a pre-recorded play and let your mind wander, you can miss lines. It can also happen if you’re focused on helping someone else with their lines and miss your own. If you’re doing a live play, it can happen from too much concentration. If you don’t know the script well enough, you have to concentrate even more on the page so you don’t miss a line. Sometimes, in that instance, you may say the words with your mouth, but forget to move the puppet’s mouth.
The Human Arm and Hands
Human arm puppets are good to use and see, but the audience shouldn’t see an actual human arm or hand. If you raise your puppet too high, the audience can see its bottom edge and your arm which ruins the illusion of lifelikeness that you want to maintain. When using the arm rods, be careful that you don’t raise your hand over the top of the theater. When adult members of the audience see an arm or hand, they’ll politely overlook it, but you can’t count on that with children. If one sees it, you can safely assume that they’ll point it out to their friends next to them and will miss out on what the puppet is saying at that point.
During practices continue to focus on what each puppeteer should do to maintain quality in your programs, but don’t overlook these three things they shouldn’t do.
To have a quality puppet presentation, there are many things you should do; proper entrances and exits, good lip synchronization, maintain good eye contact, and others. There are also some things you should try to avoid. This post presents the first of three of them.
The Dreaded Quicksand Patches
We recently began training some new puppeteers and one of the first things they realized was that it takes work to keep a puppet up in the air for 3 or 4 minutes. Their arms were sore after their first 3 minute routine and even more so after the second and third. One of the keys during your practice time is to work on conditioning the puppeteer’s arms so they can hold them at a consistent height for several minutes at a time. The second key is to make sure they concentrate on their puppet as much as possible. If these two keys are missing, you’ll run into quicksand patches in your theater where the puppet slowly sinks until just the top of the head is showing.
If the puppeteer’s arm tires quickly they’ll begin to lose focus on the puppet and just try to make it through the presentation. Without the right concentration, they begin to relax their arm which causes the puppet to sink. When that happens, the audience begins to wonder how far down it’ll go or they’ll silently urge it to come back up. Either way, they’re focused on a puppet and not the message.
If you find yourself in this situation, don’t just pop the puppet up because that’ll draw attention to it. Slowly raise it up to the proper height and continue the play.
Puppet plays are effective because they allow the children to see and hear the truths you want to impart and it’s all done is story fashion. A play by itself will convey important truths, but the impact is even stronger when those truths are reinforced with an object lesson. This post will show how you can use your scripts to develop an additional teaching opportunity.
Start by determining what main teaching is for the play you want to use. You may want to write it out so it’s visible during the process. Then read through the script and make a list of any objects that are mentioned. In one of our plays, a puppet is trying to start a dead battery by pushing a button. All you see is the button, but they talk about the battery. You could then present an object lesson using a rechargeable battery from a cordless drill. Some of the objects our plays mention are: a road map, lightning rod, hoe handle, eggs, marble, a tin can, and a stop sign. Those came to mind without even looking at the scripts.
Besides looking for things that are mentioned, look for objects that aren’t specifically talked about, but would be in the picture if it was a real life story. Someone may ask what time it is. Even though a clock or watch may not be mentioned, you would need one to share what time it is. If the puppet talks about walking on a path through a forest you can picture objects such as trees, rocks, mud or dirt, forest animals, ferns or other plants, or insects.
Once you get a list of objects, think about them in terms of the main truth you want to teach. Ask God to show you how to use one or more of them to reinforce the teaching of the play. In one of our plays, the owner of a soda shop is worried because he can’t pay his bills. During the play he asks another puppet if they know the time. Once the play is over, you can use a clock or watch as an object lesson. Talk about how time keeps on day after day, week after week, and so on. It is faithful. You can always depend on it. It doesn’t change. Those are all attributes of God. He is faithful and dependable and unchanging. You can trust him to meet your need.
When you add a related object lesson to your play, you reinforce the truths presented and make it easier for the children to learn them. Why not give it a try and see what happens?
Puppet stages come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, but it seems that most puppeteers tend to gravitate to the front and don’t move around much. I’ve also seen times when puppets bunched together on one side of the theater and left the other side wide open. While some plays may call for puppets to huddle together, it’s the exception more than the rule. This post takes a look at how you can use more of the stage to help give a better presentation.
Entrances and Exits
When coming onstage don’t bring the puppet straight up, but use the depth of the theater. Start with your puppet below the back curtain and bring it up and forward three times. That makes it look like it’s walking up a set of stairs instead of climbing a ladder. Do the same thing with your exits.
When you watch a play in a theater, the actors use the depth of the stage and rarely come all the way out to the edge. In many puppet plays I’ve watched, it’s just the opposite. The puppets come straight up and spend the entire time at the front and even lean on the stage. It’s important to learn to use the full range of your theater if you want to perform with excellence.
If you have a deep theater, when using a puppet at the back near the curtain, you’ll need to raise it up a little higher than normal so the audience can still see it. During practice, have someone sit in a chair to watch and give suggestions for the proper height. You may want your taller puppeteers to be the ones working the puppet near the curtain.
Positioning While Talking
When two puppets are talking, they should face each other and stand at least 3-4 inches away from the front of the theater. If you press against the theater, it looks uncomfortable from the audience’s perspective and lowers the quality of your performance. It will take more work because you can’t lean on the stage to rest your arm, but it’s worth it.
When three puppets are talking, it doesn’t look natural to stand them in a line across the front of the stage. How often in a TV show do you see actors lined up in a row talking with each other? It does happen some, but is not the norm and your puppets should follow that pattern. When three puppets are talking together, have the two outside puppets face each other and position them near the front of the theater. The middle one should stand back toward the curtain to form a triangle. That way each puppet can make eye contact with either of the others with a simple turn of their head.
If four or more puppets are talking, as much as possible, spread them out in a manner that allows them to make eye contact with anyone in the group.
When you learn to take advantage of the entire stage and become intentional about positioning, you’ll improve the quality of your presentation and give your audience a better experience.
A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the importance of developing the skill of using 2 rods at a time. With this post, I’ll cover how to do it.
Using two rods at once is not a difficult skill to learn, but does take time and practice to accomplish properly. In this article, I’ll walk you through the steps of two arm movements while you’re using the puppet on your right arm.
Step 1: Hold the puppet in front of you below stage level and tipped slightly forward so the rods hang freely.
Step 2: Cross the rods so they form an X near the bottom of the rods and slide the pinky finger of your left hand into the bottom of the X.
Step 3: Wrap your pinky and ring finger around the rods and press them toward the palm of your hand. This gives stability and helps hold the rods in place.
Step 4: Use the thumb of your left hand to work the left rod and your index finger to work the right rod. By squeezing your thumb and index finger together, you make the puppet clap its hands. When you release the thumb and finger and push up a bit with your pinky finger, the arms will spread apart. With practice you can have a puppet clap along during a song or help give a rousing round of applause for someone.
Along with clapping its hands, you can lift both hands to the puppet’s mouth to have the puppet yell out. Raise the hands to the puppets mouth and move them forward and back, forward and back, and you can have the puppet blow kisses.
If you have a small, lightweight box sitting on the corner of the theater, with practice you can have the puppet pick it up and move it. When you practice it enough, it’s fun to have that puppet hand it to another and have them carry it off. It takes a lot of practice but gives a bit of a “wow” factor to your presentation.
Using two rods at once is another effective tool that adds quality and variety to your programs; just make sure you don’t overdo it. Too many two-arm motions can detract from the performance instead of enhancing it. Moderation is the key.
The last 2 posts have been about my Top Ten List of things to work on to develop your puppet skills. Today we look at numbers 9 and 10.
Number 9: Moving Around the Stage
Most plays don’t require a lot of movement once the puppets are up; they can just stand in one place. But there are times when a puppet needs to walk across the stage or move forward or backward. The normal tendency when walking a puppet is to bob it up and down while moving it forward. The problem with that is people don’t bob up and down when they walk. What they do is swing their arms and that motion causes their shoulders to move back and forth.
To make a puppet look lifelike when walking is easy to do and adds quality of your presentation.
1. For the first step, move your puppet forward and twist your hand and arm about 10 degrees (a small amount) to the right.
2. For the second step, move forward again, but this time twist your hand and arm slightly to the left.
3. Continue the process for any additional steps. You can give a very slight bob up and down while doing the steps but don’t overdo it. It’s helpful to watch people walk and study their movements and transfer that to your puppet.
4. Make sure that you keep your puppet upright and don’t lean it forward while you walk.
5. To make a puppet run, do the same process, but speed it up and give a little bigger bob up and down.
Number 10: Proper Exits
Since the exit is the last thing the audience sees, it should be done properly to leave a good impression. As in the entrances, think of a set of three stairs and walk the puppet down them.
1. Turn the puppet toward you. If you turn it away and try to exit, it forces you to lean your arm to the side and gives an unnatural appearance.
2. Raise it slightly, bring it forward and down.
3. Raise it slightly, bring it forward and down.
4. Raise it slightly one more time, bring it forward and down and you’ve finished.
The last 2 posts have been about my Top Ten List of things to work on to develop your puppet skills. Today we look at numbers 7 and 8.
Number 7: Develop Motions with One Arm
Puppet arms are designed to hang naturally, so if you don’t use them they still look ok. That allows beginning puppeteers to focus on developing the basics. Once you have the basics down, adding motions helps make your puppet appear even more lifelike, if done properly. The normal tendency when starting to use the arm rods is to go overboard and use them too much or make a motion and leave the arm hanging out for the rest of the play. At that point they become more of a distraction than a help.
The goal in making arm motions is to make the puppet appear lifelike so you can add quality to the play. The key to make that happen is moderation. If you’re constantly using the arms during the play just for effect, it can become a distraction as people focus on your puppet and miss some of the dialogue. But when you use a few pre-planned and well-practiced motions it adds to the quality. The motions reinforce what’s being said and make the puppet appear lifelike. You can still add in a couple of unplanned motions if they will benefit the play, but again, don’t go overboard.
Number 8: Develop Motions with Two Arms
The majority of motions a puppet does are usually done with one hand, such as pointing, scratching the head, or touching the chin; but there are some that require the use of two. For instance, it’s hard to clap your hands using one hand. Two arm motions a puppet can do include: clapping hands, bowing, hugging, blowing kisses, yawning, picking up objects, and raising both arms in the air in excitement. You can do some of these with only one arm and for those motions, it’s good to be able to do them either with one or two arms. It gives you more options and variety in your plays.
The last 2 posts have been about my Top Ten List of things to work on to develop your puppet skills. Today we look at numbers 5 and 6.
Number 5: Proper Puppet Positioning and Eye Contact
When puppets are talking together, they should face each other, not the audience. I’ve seen entire plays where two or three puppets were talking to each other, but faced the audience the entire time. I can’t think of any recent conversations I’ve had with someone where I didn’t face them or look at them while talking. How do you feel when someone is talking with you, but looking all over the place and not at you? When it happens to me, I want to end the conversation or do something to get their attention. When puppets look at each other when talking, it adds a touch of realism that improves the professionalism of your plays.
There are times when puppets should look at the audience: when they are addressing the audience. You may want to glance at them occasionally to show that you recognize they are there, but your focus should be on the puppet you are talking to. Next time you watch your favorite sitcom, pay attention to their eye contact. How often do they look at the audience? Now, transfer that to your puppet plays.
Number 6: Develop Left and Right Handed Skills
Most puppeteers that I’ve come across use their strong arm for the majority of the plays and only use the weaker arm when asked to. If you’re performing on the left side of the stage using your right arm, it’s difficult to face and make eye contact with the puppets on your right. You either have to twist your puppet in an unnatural manner or face toward the right. If you use your left hand every time you’re on the left side of the theater, you’re puppet will naturally face the others.
If you have a long performance, you can alternate between your right and left arm which will give you more stamina and endurance. Also, there will be times when you need to work two puppets at once. If both arms are developed properly, both puppets will maintain consistent height, posture, lip sync, etc.
The last post started my Top Ten List of things to work on to develop your puppet skills and covered the first two. This post continues the list.
Number 3: Proper Lip Synchronization
If the mouth movement is off from the words, it’s distracting and makes it difficult to concentrate on the message. The basic rule is to open and close the mouth for each syllable the puppet speaks. The key is to open the mouth at the beginning of the syllable and close it at the end. Most beginning puppeteers tend to bite the words; they snap the mouth closed rather than smoothly opening and closing it.
Sometimes when doing a recorded play, the puppet speaks so fast you can’t get every syllable, especially if you’re a beginner. What do you do then? The key is to get the first and the last syllables right and as many in between as possible, and it will look ok. It takes work initially to develop proper lip sync, but once you have it, it becomes automatic.
Number 4: Dropping the Lower Jaw
When people talk, their lower jaw moves up and down, not their heads and your puppet should do the same. It’s easier to lift the puppet’s head instead of dropping the jaw, so you have to work to develop the muscles needed to do it properly. When you’re first learning, you need to concentrate on dropping the lower jaw and work at it even when your arm gets tired. If you will take the time up front to do it properly, it will become a habit. When I put a puppet on and start working it, I don’t think about dropping the lower jaw, I’ve programmed myself to do it.
I’ve heard many times that practice makes perfect. A better statement is that practice makes permanent. What you do over and over becomes habit, whether you are doing it correctly or incorrectly. Put the work up front to develop the proper habit, then later on you can focus on other things.
There are a number of Top 10 lists being created, so I thought I’d chime in with my own. In this and the next couple of posts, I’ll cover my Top Ten List of things to work on to develop your puppet skills. The list is written in the order the things occur, not in order of priority.
Number 1: Proper Entrances
First impressions are important in life and in puppetry. When I’m watching a team for the first time and the puppets enter properly, that’s an indication the performance is going to be a good one. The truth is, in the hundreds of plays I’ve seen from a number of teams, this is one of the most overlooked skills.
When bringing your puppet on stage, think of a set of three stairs and what it takes to go up them and have your puppet copy the motion. Bring your puppet up and forward and drop it down just a bit, up and forward and drop it just a bit, up and forward and you’re onstage. Don’t just bob the puppet up and down.
Number 2: Proper Height
Once a puppet is on stage, you need to think about a real stage: the floor is flat and level. That means your puppet needs to maintain a consistent height while performing unless doing some motion that requires a change. I’ve seen many puppets weave back and forth, sway from side to side, slowly sink and then pop back up again. You don’t see that with actors and you shouldn’t see it with puppets.
To maintain consistent height, you need proper arm strength which comes from solid practice. To keep the puppets from swaying or weaving, you need to concentrate on the puppet. Last year, I watched a Junior High puppet team perform, and every puppet came up and maintained a consistent height without bobbing or weaving during a play that was at least 5 minutes long. If they can do it, just about any puppet team can.
This post concludes the steps to giving a specific application to your puppet programs. We’ve talked about the first two application times, now we’ll focus on the third and final one.
The third time you present the application should be as close to the end of the program as possible so it will be fresh on the minds of the audience members as they leave. Give the audience a brief summary statement of the play or program item and link into your teaching. For the teaching choose the final two questions and present their answers to the group. Remind the audience of the verse you gave earlier and then give them the application activity statement as a final challenge to end your program.
Summary: Mr. Jones knew it would be hard to keep his promise. He made it without thinking of the consequences, but knew his son was counting on him.
Link: What did he do? He remembered that God would give him the power to keep his promise no matter how hard it would be.
Application Teaching: He focused his attention on God. He didn’t wait, but did it right where he was. When you face a problem and remember the need to focus on God, do it right where you are. (Where.) Don’t wait or look for a better place; do it right away. (When.) As you begin to focus on God, he will help you remember that he has the power to handle any problem you face. He may even remind you of Philippians 4:13 (quote the verse). Remember to stop focusing on your problem and start focusing on God. To help you remember that our challenge to you is this: think about five things you know to be true about God and then ask his help. (Application activity statement.)
Closing: As you close the program, it helps if you can hand out a reminder slip to each individual. Have it state the application activity statement, the verse you used, and anything else you think is important.
The last post talked about the first time to introduce your application teaching. This one emphasizes the second time.
The second time you present the application will be in a similar manner, but this time, answer two different questions from your study.
Give the audience a brief summary statement of the play or program item then link into your teaching. For this teaching choose two different questions and present their answers to the group and share a verse that reinforces the teaching. Give them the application activity statement and link into the next part of your program.
Summary: Joe knew he should forgive Susie, but it was hard. He almost didn’t until he remembered all the times God had forgiven him for even bigger things. With that in mind, God helped him to forgive her.
Link: Forgiving Susie was a problem for Joe. That’s one type of problem.
Application Teaching: There are many other types of problems and maybe you are facing one today. Did you see how Joe solved his problem? He thought of all the times God had forgiven him. In other words, he focused on God and not his problem. When you face a problem, you need to do the same thing; focus your attention on God. The quicker you do it the better. (How often.) Until you start focusing on God, you’ll try to solve the problem yourself and will find you don’t have the power to handle it yourself. When you focus on God, he reminds you that with his help, you can handle it. The Bible says in Philippians 4:13 that you can do all things through Jesus who gives you the strength. The key is to stop focusing on your problem and start focusing on God. (Why.) To help you remember to focus on God, from now on when you face a difficult problem, I want to challenge you to think about five things you know to be true about God and then ask for his help to handle the problem. (Application activity statement.)
Link: You may think that this only applies to big problems. Can it apply to small ones as well? Our puppet Bill has a small problem…
We’ve looked at what an application is and how to develop one, now on to part 3.
How Do I Teach the Application in the Program?
Once you have a specific application set, plan to teach it at least three times during the entire program. Each time, you’ll give the specific application, but approach it from a slightly different angle.
The first time you present the application should be early in the program, after a play or other program part. Give the audience a brief summary statement of the play or program item then link into your teaching. For the teaching choose two of the questions you answered in part 1 of this series and present their answers to the group. (You do not have to answer them in the order listed. Choose the questions that best fit each teaching situation.) Give the application activity statement and link into the next part of your program.
Summary: David knew that he could trust God to give him the victory over Goliath.
Link: That story happened a long time ago. Can you and I trust God to give victory over our problems today?
Application Teaching: Yes, you can trust God to give you victory over problems if you know the Lord Jesus as your Savior from sin. If you have done that, you are God’s child and have the promise of his power to help you with any problem. (Who.) But in order to get that help, you need to start focusing your attention on God instead of your problem. When you focus your attention on God and think about how big and powerful he is, you’ll be reminded that he is the one who has the power to help you with any problem. (What.) When you face a difficult problem, focus your attention on God by thinking about five things you know to be true about God and ask for his help. (Application activity statement.)
Link: One of our puppets, Norman, is having a rough day. Nothing seems to be going right…
We’ll continue this in the next blog post.
The last post focused on what is an application and this one moves on to developing one.
How Do I Develop an Application?
Think about the basic questions: who, what, how, why, where, and when. When developing your application, ask these questions about the main theme.
- Who should the application be toward? (Believers? Those who don’t know Christ?)
- What specific activities could this group do to carry out the main truth teaching?
- How often should they seek to carry out this activity?
- Why should they even consider carrying out this activity? What benefit will they receive as a result of doing it?
- Where should they carry out the activity? (In their home, school, marketplace, workplace, etc.)
- When should they carry out the activity? (Once a day, first thing in the morning, after school, on the way to or from school or work, before going to bed, etc.)
In answering the questions, look for applicable Bible passages and verses to support your answers. As you answer these questions, one or more activity ideas should present themselves. Then it is a matter of choosing which one is the most appropriate for the program you are presenting. Write an application activity statement that gives a specific and measurable way to apply the truth such as; “Our challenge to you is this: each day this week say thank you to at least 5 people that you normally wouldn’t thank.”
NOTE: Rather than choosing an application for each play, choose one application for the audience to work on and have each play or program activity reinforce that application.
What is an Application?
The application is where you take the truth presented in the play and give the audience a specific way to use that truth in their own lives. In the introduction and during the play, you helped them learn the truth. In other words, you imparted knowledge. Knowledge is good and important, but according to the Bible, knowledge by itself puffs up. Just knowing facts alone can lead to pride which is not what you’re looking for. You’re audience needs to go beyond the facts and discover how to use those facts in their own lives in a beneficial way.
The key word in the above definition is “specific.” If you give a broad application, most audience members won’t follow through on it. For instance, if your application is “God wants you to win over problems,” people are going to have a hard time doing it. What do you mean by win? How do I win over problems? What if I face an overwhelming problem? An application that is too general can create more questions than activity and can be overwhelming. If someone attempts to win over a problem and fails because they are doing it in their own strength, they can become discouraged and quit.
It’s better to give a specific activity they can accomplish fairly easily and often. Instead of saying God wants you win over problems, make it more specific. “When you face a difficult problem, think about five things you know to be true about God and ask him for his help.” That is something anyone can do and is easy enough to encourage many in the audience to give it a try.