A Puppet Intensive: Essential supplemental reading for greater understanding of Broadway West (Think of it as Blogisode 4.5)

If I were writing by hand on this jerky train, this is what my handwriting would look like.

If I were writing by hand on this jerky train, this is what my handwriting would look like.

Hello and happy Tuesday!  As I type I am speeding downtown on an express A train. I have pretty much mastered this iPad/keyboard thing and it makes for much more efficient use of the time. An added bonus is no Internet service on the subway, so I write very quickly. No periodic Facebook surfing. The one downside to all this train typing is trying to keep the iPad and keyboard on my lap is we speed through the bowels of Manhattan. It’s a little bumpy and my keyboard/iPad contraption doesn’t have the best weight distribution (it is very top heavy). All these fascinating facts and more brought to you by the MTA. The other downside (I know I said “one downside” but I remembered another) is that this little gadget tends to attract the attention of young boys who board and are bored on the train. I don’t mean like Ashton Kusher young vs. me as Demi Moore old, I mean little–like two 6-year-old brothers who piled on top of each other yesterday like little lion cubs and fired questions at me.

“Lady. What is that? Is that an iPad? Does it have a keyboard, too? My uncle has an iPad but he doesn’t have a keyboard. What are you typing? Why are you writing about puppets?  Why do you leave spaces between lines? What’s

Me at home trying to blog.  Me on the train trying to blog.

Me at home trying to blog. Me on the train trying to blog.

that keyboard feel like?  Can I touch it?  That’s cool!  Can my brother touch it?  Can my sister?  Do you have games on there? Can I play the games? I just want to look at the games, I won’t play them. Can I just hold it then? Can I touch it? You got Angry Birds?”

Like that.

I remember when I was touring with The Sound of Music I liked to pretend like I hated kids and then they would all climb in my bus seat and pick their nose on me and eat Doritos in my seat and get crumbs everywhere and  do all those things children do. They thought it was hilarious to torture me. They were adorable and now some of them are my Facebook friends and a lot of them have kids of their own. Amazing.

So we are going to do a Puppet Intensive–Essential Supplemental Reading for Broadway West.  This will (hopefully) explain the job of a “second hander” in Avenue Q. I mean…..sometimes people have a hard time explaining jobs, I couldn’t have explained my brother’s job for years (he did something with those giant boxes they put on cargo ships??? I think???? It’s all a blur to me if it doesn’t include a show tune)…..but this job takes the cake. “Oh, well I am in a show called Avenue Q and I am a second hander.” People’s eyes gloss over and they walk away.

Here’s what we are talking about. Puppet 101, A January Intensive Class (3 Credit hours)
The easiest way to think about this is to picture Sesame Street. There are two types of puppets we are going to talk about.

Kevin Clash is Elmo's puppeteer.  See the rods and the way he holds them?  Extremely hard to learn, but a lot of the Avenue Q puppets are this kind of puppet.

Kevin Clash is Elmo's puppeteer. See the rods and the way he holds them? Many of the Avenue Q puppets are this kind of puppet.

1) A “rod” puppet, which is what Elmo is. Elmo is run by one person, who controls his mouth with one hand and both of Elmo’s arms with the other. Got it? Therefore, if the puppeteer in right handed, his right hand controls the mouth and the left hand controls the arms, which are attached to a rod–one rod for each arm. So yes, there are two rods in your hand. Personally, I think rod puppets are the hardest.  It is an ongoing process to learn how to make the arms work, how to drop one rod to do something like wave with one hand (or do choreography) and then pick the rod back up again.  Learning this and getting really good at it is probably the hardest thing about puppeteer (I think, others might disagree).

One thing to know about rod puppets is that they aren’t as hard if one of the arms is pinned up and you only have to work with one arm. Like Kate Monster. Her right arm is pinned up, so you only have to manage one rod. It makes the puppet a little less expressive, but user friendly (especially if you are a new puppeteer!)

2) A “live hand” puppet, which is what Cookie Monster is. Generally speaking (there are exceptions) a live hand

Two hands, one mouth, two puppeteers.

Two hands, one mouth, two puppeteers.

puppet is run by two people. One person (the main puppeteer) runs Cookie Monster’s mouth with one hand, and slides his hand into a sleeve that is blue and furry on the outside, and that is one of Cookie Monster’s hands. The other hand comes from that now-made-infamous-by-my-blog “second hander”. Are you all with me? One hand is run by the person who runs the mouth, and the second hand is run by another actor. My favorite example of this is the Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show, because if you think about it, his real live hands show. Right? They aren’t covered by material. What I think this means is that they had to find two people whose hands look alike to run that puppet. Perhaps that is not thrilling to you, but think about it as you watch this video. Those hands belong to two different people.  Be sure to hit your back browser when you are done to get back to this post.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&v=hLqohiMy_CU&NR=1

Okay, now that you have looked at that, you probably have 50,000 questions. Right? How do they get the hands to

Great picture showing Bert (a rod puppet) and Ernie (a live hand puppet) being run by Jim Henson and Frank Oz and a second hander.  See how they are looking down?  I'm sure they were looking at a TV monitor.

Great picture showing Bert (a rod puppet) and Ernie (a live hand puppet) being run by Jim Henson and Frank Oz and a second hander. See how they are looking down? I'm sure they were looking at a TV monitor.

match movements so exactly? How do they time things? Rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal. Additionally, the TV puppeteers have video monitors they watch as they puppeteer to keep it all clean, although it isn’t THAT much easier if you consider that the movement is a mirror image. What, you say? Right. If they move their hand to the left, but watch it on a TV screen, it appears to go right, so they have to do everything the opposite of what they want.
Capice?

So, if the Muppet puppeteers can watch themselves in a TV monitor, how do you do it on stage? Rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal in front of mirrors. And no TV monitors.

The best way to run a puppet together is for the second hander to put their left hand on the small of the back of the main puppeteer and then run the puppet hand with their other hand.  Basically you have to stand incredibly close to the person, and in the case of Avenue Q, because we could be seen by the audience and we moved and we danced together, the amount of rehearsal was mind bending

But I am ahead of myself.

I just needed you all to understand the different kinds of puppets.  Got it?

Good.

See you tomorrow.

(Blogisode Five appears tomorrow.  Same time, same place.)

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About Sharon Wheatley

I'm a mother, an actress and a writer. I'm glad you're here.
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One Response to A Puppet Intensive: Essential supplemental reading for greater understanding of Broadway West (Think of it as Blogisode 4.5)

  1. Ruth says:

    Excellent post, thanks! I never knew any of this!

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