PUPPETRY — one of the earliest art forms — has been integrated beautifully into plays, ballets, operas, and other live performances for centuries, delighting audiences and forging innovative artistic relationships among a variety of theatrical disciplines. Cincinnati-based Madcap Puppets jumped at the chance to collaborate with Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra on a new piece of puppet theatre featuring original puppets that could move to the music of Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite.

Practice makes puppets

Pulcinella’s puppet needed a lively and engaging face that was somewhat mischievous.

Pulcinella’s puppet needed a lively and engaging face that was somewhat mischievous. Photo by Dylan Shelton.

When an actor approaches a role, she uses her human self — her facial expressions, voice, and body — to pretend to be someone else. We naturally have a powerful framework for watching acting, because people see other people express themselves every day. Contemporary audiences, in particular, are less accustomed to relating to puppets. In puppetry, the puppet — a lifeless, inanimate object — carries the performance, telling the story by emitting joy, sorrow, anger, and all the emotions audiences expect to see onstage.

Operating a puppet is like playing a musical instrument: through practice, the puppeteer learns how to make the puppet come to life. Puppetry requires not only creativity but also a great deal of physical strength. If a puppeteer’s hand or arm gets tired from holding up a head or operating an arm, then the puppet starts to wilt. The puppet “instruments” for Pulcinella had to be larger-than-life, and the ability to isolate movements for specific gestures was essential, as the 24-minute show contained no dialogue — all of the storytelling needed to be done through puppetry, music, and movement.

WHO IS PULCINELLA?

Pulcinella is a clown character from the highly influential 16th-century Italian theatrical form of commedia dell’arte. Commedia performers were physically and verbally dynamic in their shows, wearing masks and improvising scenes based on stock characters like Pulcinella. Durable and entertaining across centuries, cultures, and art forms, stories about Pulcinella’s adventures originally manifested as commedia dell’arte street theatre and later as opera, symphonic music, and ballet. Stravinsky scored a Pulcinella ballet that premiered in 1920, with sets and costumes designed by Pablo Picasso.

The Madcap rendering of Pulcinella called for five puppets: two pairs of lovers and Dottore, the old man who would disrupt the romantic plotlines, creating endless comedic possibilities. Though there are many different kinds of puppets — shadow puppets, rod puppets, string puppets, and hand puppets, for example — to make Pulcinella come alive, the team decided on large, expressive body puppets topped with quirky faces inspired by the masks of Pulcinella’s commedia roots.

MOVING WITH A BODY PUPPET

Mel Hatch and Darnell Pierre Benjamin in Madcap Puppets' Pulcinella.

 Mel Hatch and Darnell Pierre Benjamin in Madcap Puppets’ Pulcinella. Photo by Dylan Shelton.

To function properly, a body puppet requires the use of the entire puppeteer. A body puppet can walk, dance, sit, skip, jump, fall, climb, and spin, because the puppeteer’s legs are the legs of the puppet. The puppeteer occupies the puppet’s torso. One of the puppeteer’s hands articulates the puppet’s head, while their other hand goes into a sleeved glove to serve as one of the puppet’s hands — giving the illusion of the puppet as a living being and conveying the large personality of the puppet.

Puppets should appear effortless to maneuver, despite their weight and proportions. The puppet’s costume is often its heaviest part, so Madcap crafted its puppet torsos out of a lightweight, high-density foam that holds its shape well when costumed. The puppet arms were made from soft, bendable half-inch polyfoam. Yet, no matter how lightweight a puppet is, holding your arm above your head for 24 minutes can be draining. Madcap cast the Pulcinella piece with performers who had trained in dance, counting on their strength and experience with communicating through physicality and movement.

“It was quite tiresome to hold up the heads, and all of our arms were sore,” said Kim Popa, a dancer and Pulcinella cast member who is executive director of Pones Inc., a Cincinnati dance company that specializes in collaborative performance art pieces. “None of us dancers at Pones had done puppetry work before. It was a great challenge to learn what gestures looked good, made sense, read well, and could be actualized.”

SCULPTING THE FACES

To convey the big emotions and desires of the characters in the story, the team decided to make the faces of the puppets colorful and emotionally expressive. The head of each puppet was designed to be large enough to eclipse the face of the puppeteer. Cincinnati-based artist Pam Kravetz sculpted the puppet faces out of clay. “We made what we thought were the correct size and faces for the masks,” Kravetz said. “Boy, were we wrong. I was so excited to take the five finished masks and show them off. I was so proud of going outside my comfort zone and making some amazing pieces. But the faces were too big — twice the size they needed to be. And the faces were not dramatic enough. They were almost pretty, not playfully creepy.”

Kravetz went back to the drawing board. As an art educator, she encourages her students to take feedback and constantly improve their artwork, and she felt determined to do the same. She redrew and resculpted a second round of five faces. This time, the faces were considerably smaller, with a much more manageable size and weight. But the looks on the faces still needed to be finessed. Inspired by Picasso’s original design, Kravetz added bulging eyes and wild, asymmetrical features. A lovely grotesqueness emerged. Viewed from any angle, the faces presented interesting lines and curves that the team deemed enticing for an audience.

FINISHING THE FACES

After sculpting the clay faces, the team used them as molds to create papier-mâché faces that could be sanded, painted, and outfitted with handles for the puppeteers. The faces had to be strong enough to withstand some knocking around — this show would not be a delicate tabletop puppet play. The team developed a papier-mâché recipe that included a bit of plaster and, instead of the traditional newsprint or butcher paper, they used strips of disposable blue towels that stretch, making it easier to apply the pieces to the exaggerated features of the clay faces.

The plaster-based papier-mâché and the ribbons of towel made the faces a little heavier than usual to operate but also durable enough to withstand the rigors of rehearsals and still look beautiful onstage during the performance. After the papier-mâché had set, the clay sculptures were removed and the smoothing process began. The entire process of creating the faces and the heads (clay sculpting, papier-mâché, and sanding) took three months.

The Corbett Theater at Cincinnati’s School for the Creative and Performing Arts hosted the production. The 750-seat hall could have easily diminished even the large puppets if their appearance and performance weren’t scaled accordingly. After all, Pulcinella is a comedy, and the exaggerated, expressive nature of the puppets should be seen clearly by everyone in the audience. The puppets needed colorful faces that would read well from the back of the house. For the “skin” of the puppet faces, the team avoided flesh tones in favor of a more eccentric color palette that would recall the masks worn by commedia actors.

IN CONCERT

Puppetry is meant to be a collaboration among puppet and puppeteer, the musical score and story, the characters and the audience. Each puppet may only require one puppeteer, but creating a piece of puppet theatre requires musicians, fine artists, performers, and ultimately, an audience. Art, music, and movement together gave these puppets the emotional life to animate the classic Pulcinella story for a contemporary audience.

Dylan Shelton contributed to this article. He is artistic director of Madcap Puppets. He studied theatre and communications at Wilmington College and earned an M.F.A. in acting at Ohio University. He has written and directed more than 20 plays for Madcap that tour across the country.

This story appeared in the April/May 2018 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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