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Principled Puppetry (Stuff you probably know)


This is a draft I used today in a workshop I assisted with. It’s quite bit rough, but I thought I’d share some of it.

A lot of it is based on observations of other kinds of puppetry, as well as what I’ve found works for me The general concept is heavily inspired by animation principles, as I regard puppetry as a form of animation.

Here goes…


Simply speaking, your arm is now a backbone, and characters need good back health. Avoid slouching and leaning; these will turn your character into a doll. Most of your focus as a puppeteer will be on your own puppet, and it’s your responsibility to ensure that your puppet remains your character. In most of what you’re about to read, I avoid using the word puppet because as long as your puppet is on, they’re your character.

Eye Focus

Eye focus helps to define your character’s consciousness and emotion. Having physically consistent eye focus between characters also promotes the idea that they’re attentive and engaged. As a general rule, the only time eye focus should be different is if a character is taller or shorter than other characters (to create a different height), or if the character is performing a motion that requires them to change focus, such as when bending over to look at or pick something up.

Make sure that your character acknowledges the other characters around them. You can do this by maintaining some eye contact with other puppets. As a performer, keep your focus on your character, periodically looking at the other characters around you. It also helps to look at the other performer.

The only time I ever look into the audience is when I need to make sure my character’s focus is on someone from the audience is speaking to the character. I admit, I also look for feedback from the audience in the form of smiles, but that’s not required.


Lip-synch creates the illusion that a character is speaking.

There is no single “proper” way of moving your hand, but your puppet’s mouth should open and close on every syllable, and the upper part of their head should not bob back (or “flap”). If you find that you can’t hit every beat, try speaking slower. Once you’re able to synch up at a slower rate, you can begin experimenting with faster speech.


                You need to build stamina, strength, and skill. The only way to do this is with a puppet on and some way to see what you’re doing. Start singing your favourite karaoke hits, and if not that, then simply mouth-synching to your favourite songs. Experiment with arm movements, and try new inflections with your voice. It’s not too hard to create a character with any one of these actions, but pulling them together can be hard work, and it’s up to you to co-ordinate them.

                Make your first audience a mirror, and focus on your character. Remember that the audience can be distracting, so avoid looking at yourself and for crying out loud, look at your puppet!


Our new team did our new premier. After several weeks of training, we went to our first show and we performed what I thought was an amazing first show! One of the group directors reviewed our performance and offered some feedback.

Of all the first-time shows I’ve been a part of, I think this was the strongest one yet. And the best part is knowing that this new team is going to get better. I am so proud of my team!

My own role is “Eddie”.

Hi Team,
Let me begin by saying that my overall comment is a very strong - BRAVO!!  A well-executed, engaging performance by all and, most importantly, as a team.
Here are some observances noted:
Scene: 1
Mel: Good intro and good acknowledgement of interest before the show.
You were right not to take the questions that you had prompted prior to the presentation.
Clare:  good turning the profiling around and use of hand movement
MultiBaller:  Good active listening to Claire when she talked about her being bullied.
Clare: You need to stay in character and behind your puppet during Q&A
All need to watch entrances and more so - exits. [Ugh… This is one of those things I thought about after the fact!]
Scene: 2
Clare: Seems to be one line that Melody has to pick up about Callie at recess
All: Excellent report and positioning when Eddie comes in uniform and all three on stage
Q&A: Great listening and good answers (especially MultiBaller [*grin*])

Scene: 3
Mel: Great entry and characterization of “sad”.
Mel and MultiBaller: Excellent on both sides with bully role play/Mel good sharing with the audience. [Note: This is one of those scenes I cartoon up quite a bit. It gets grins, but most importantly it keeps people focused and watching!]
All:  Offer different question or approach than “an adult you can trust” (did this twice)
Mel: Good inclusion of presentation content when suggesting “walking home with a friend”.

Puppeteer Intro and Closing:
Articulate and repeat all questions.
Try to keep them relevant to [our troupe’s parent] and puppeteering but if questions on the “Bullies” subject you may want to present them as subjects for discussion or suggest that the characters you played may suggest an answer.
State the questions and your answers loud and clear.
Good work to all and good luck going forward.

You should be proud. I know we are!
— [Group Director]

All Puppetry is Shadow Puppetry: Using Silhouettes (Draft)

This is a draft on some puppetry theory I’ve been working on. It’s not really perfect, nor is it complete, but I’m open to feedback. What I’m trying to do is find ways of adapting different art forms, from animation and cartooning to stage acting, and apply it to puppetry to simplify training and to find terminology.

Lets try an experiment.

Complete a line of dialogue. Now stop the play, and take a snapshot of the stage. Imagine that the background objects are pure white, and the actors are solid black. Can you still tell who’s who and what they’re doing? If so, you’ve got a solid silhouette.

A Silhouette, for the purposes of this discussion, is when everything contained inside an outline is devoid of defining features and characteristics and exists in a single, solid colour. Shadow puppetry is entirely reliant on effective silhouettes, but it’s also a principle in cartoon character design. Spongebob Squarepants took this a step further by having the way objects were held become defined in their silhouette. In other words their shadow should make it easy for the viewer to see what’s going on.

You can see this principle in a lot of successful TV puppetry, too. Elmo, Cookie Monster, Telly and Oscar the Grouch are all monsters, but you’d know them in a snap from their profiles alone. Costumed characters such as Barney the Dinosaur, Baby Bop, B. J. and Riff are also compatible with this theory. The Teletubbies appeared and acted the same as their co-stars, but drain the colour from them and you’d still have their unique horns to help tell them apart.

It’s more important for live performances to define our characters clearly, since we need to reach viewers who are sitting in the back grow. Projecting voices is one thing, but we also need to project our actions, or else we’re just performing a radio play that they didn’t really come to listen to. My troupe performs with human-styled puppets, and so there is very little variety to their profiles. Even so, their silhouettes vary and define the characters: One wears glasses, while another is scrawny. In another act, there’s a third character who would look like the scrawny one, except the scrawny one is wearing protective sports gear that makes him stand out.

All of our favourite cartoon characters have stand-out silhouettes

Daffy Duck vs. Donald Duck vs. Scrooge McDuck

Bugs Bunny vs. Roger Rabbit

Mickey Mouse vs. Minnie Mouse vs. Mighty Mouse

Popeye vs. Bluto vs. Wimpy

Calvin vs. Hobbes vs. Susie

Charlie Brown vs. Linus

Fred Flintstone vs. Barney Rubble vs. Mr. Slate

Yakko, Wacko & Dot; Babs and Buster Bunny; Pinky and The Brain

The characters from Woody’s Roundup (points if you know what I’m talking about!)

In Closing…

In life, everyone’s got a unique shape, whether it’s their body form or the hat they wear or accessories they use. Puppets and cartoons have a lot of extra room to play with. Although we want to suspend the disbelief of the audience, we can still be creative with our characters.

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