Rod Arm Puppetry 101 (Part 2)

Beginning puppeteers should focus on mastering the basic skills before worrying about moving the puppet’s arms and hands. The reason is simple: if you have to concentrate on the puppet’s mouth to make sure you are doing it properly, it is easy to forget about the puppet’s arms.

I’ve seen many puppet plays where a puppet had its arm stretched out to the side the whole time it was on stage. The puppeteer started to make a motion, got focused on maintaining proper mouth movement, and left the arm sticking out. In conversations with people, I’ve never seen someone hold their arm out for the entire conversation. If they did, I’m sure I’d ask them if something was wrong. When a puppet does it, it becomes distracting.

Moving the Puppet’s Arms and Hands—One at a Time
A basic rule of thumb when working a puppet one rod at a time is to let the arms hang naturally until it comes time to move one. Gently grab hold of the rod, make the motion, return the arm to its natural position, and let go of the rod. Work to develop a mindset to let the arms hang naturally, pick up the rod, perform the motion, return the arm to its normal position, and let go of the rod. With that habit, you’ll find that you won’t leave a puppet’s arm stretched out in an unnatural manner.

The steps involved in making various movements with the puppet’s hand are simple and straightforward. First, grab hold of the rod near the bottom. (If you grab the rod too high, your hand will rise above the theater when making the motion, exposing it to the audience.) Turn the puppet towards you a bit so you have a clear view of both the left and right sides of the puppet. Lift the rod and perform the motion and, once done, lower the rod and let go.

Here’s a trick I learned a while ago. After using some of our puppets for a few years, when I went to move an arm, it bent the wrong way. It had moved back and forth so much that the seam was worn and allowed it to easily swing both ways. The problem is elbows don’t bend backwards and if it happens to a puppet, younger children may think it’s been hurt. To stop that from happening, as I pick up the rod, I twist it slightly toward the puppet’s body. That way, as the motion is starting, the arm is already bending in the right manner.

In the next post, we’ll take a look at some motions you can make using one rod at a time.

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