WRITING AND PERFORMING ONE-PERSON PUPPET PLAYS
There is something stifling yet exhilarating about writing and performing a one-person puppet play. You are very limited, but, at the same time, you draw on your own resources. It can be a creative challenge. Below are some thoughts on what you need to get started.
I prefer the Folkmanis Puppets. They are big enough that the child in the last row can see. They are fun, funky, and furry. They keep the sizes in proportion so you don’t end up with a five-inch elephant and a fifteen-inch fairy. They are moderately priced and last for a long time. I recommend the following puppets as a start-up: Boy, Girl, Old man, Old woman, dog, cat, rabbit, chicken, frog, witch, Santa Claus, a fairy, mouse and a wolf. As you write and perform more animals can be added as needed.
If you use a tabletop stage, be sure to have tablecloths to hide your feet underneath. I prefer a freestanding, foldout stage that allows for 2 puppeteers to stand inside. However, I don’t know where these are marketed. We had ours made by a cabinet-maker. It folds out to a tri-fold. There is a lip at the bottom of the stage opening for simple props. There are ½ strips and dots of Velcro to attach items onto the stage.
I have 2 cheap clip-on lights that I attach to either side of the stage. They are plugged into a multi-holed outlet that allows you to turn the lights on from behind stage. This is an effective way to highlight the puppets and it looks professional. I turn off the room lights to make it even more dramatic. Whenever possible, I add sequined costumes or glittered props to jazz up the presentation.
I never use backdrops. I have a blue curtain and a black curtain. Be careful of windows behind you that let in light from behind the stage and let shadows of the puppeteer show through. The pages for the puppet play can be attached by tape to the curtain rod.
Sometimes I decorate the outside of the stage with holiday cutouts and even some decorative Christmas lights.
Outlet for a CD or tape player
A table for puppets and props
Long black socks with the toes cut out for your fingers to come through.
I try to keep props to a minimum. I prefer to believe that I’m stretching the imaginations of my listeners. But they are necessary at times. I have Velcro pieces on the arms of my puppets to make attachment and detachment quick and easy. Every prop box needs: an American flag, a supply of small Easter eggs, several small baskets, a rainbow, a small pot, a sack, a Santa hat, a witch’s hat, assorted silk flowers and some greenery, a wand, doll-sized straw hats, red handkerchiefs and a cotton blanket of snow. As you do puppet plays keep the props in a large, clear plastic box with the items marked on the outside.
It is important to be able to do several voices for an effective puppet play – especially if there is only one puppeteer – a deep voice, a gravelly voice, a high-pitched or scratchy one. Some dialects are great if they are done properly – Irish, Southern, English, German, etc.
I used to never use a microphone, but now I have a headset with a good amp. I wouldn't do without it. However, it is expensive, so keep in mind that, when you are standing behind the stage, your voice is projecting out toward the audience. If you use good projection, you should be fine for smaller audiences. While I read the puppet play, I remember the basics of good speech – modulation, elocution, pacing, and dramatic pauses. I use a lot of noises like baby cries, snickering, popping, and snoring. Remember a lot can be said without words by using the puppet’s body language. It's also important to keep the posture of the puppet in mind. Make sure it is standing upright not leaning over the edge of the stage. While one puppet is talking have the other one react in some way to what is being said – shaking body, nodding or shaking head, opening mouth, or looking at audience and tilting its head to one side. It’s hard to remember to do that when you are reading the script and the other hand is working the mouth of the speaking puppet.
I keep the puppet plays in folders in the filing cabinet. On the outside of the folder, I write down all the puppets and props I need for that play. The plays are also on a disk for easy access, editing and recopying. I am also working to put my puppet plays on my website for everyone's access. I freely let anyone use my original puppet plays. I would like to know if is going to be used and I like to hear reports back on how it went.
Writing a one-person puppet play, like any good story, requires a good premise, a beginning to set up the problem and to introduce the characters, a middle with a conflict, and an ending with transformation and resolution. Normally, I don’t keep any of that in mind as I am writing. Somehow, it just comes out that way. Remember that only two characters can be on stage at one time. Another character may be able to say something from offstage or one of the characters on stage can tell what another one has said. This is where your creative thinking comes into play. Oftentimes I will have several scenes in my puppet plays simply because only two can be on stage at one time.
One way to keep the young listeners involved is to have the puppets ask them questions during the play. Just be prepared for any answer. Never correct a response – but the puppet can be surprised by what they said and say something like… “Well, you know I never thought of that. I was thinking that…” This will get you off the hook. You can also ask the audience if they have seen “so and so” or “this or that”. They love to yell out “yes”, “no,” “over there!” The problem is reining them in afterwards. With your voice you have to jump back in with something to quiet them back down. There is nothing worse than losing control over your audience. If you are uncomfortable with this, it would better not to try it. At the end of some plays we finish with a simple song.
When I write, I often interject some “adult” humor. After all, they do comprise half your audience and they are the ones who bring your young audience. So I try to keep them involved in the story also. Perhaps it will a current catch phrase or a reference to something in the news or a past event that only adults would understand. I am also a relentless punster. I know they are paying attention because I can hear their moans!
One year I challenged myself to write a one-person puppet play per week for nine weeks. I started with a “value” like “Being Truthful”. Then I set up a situation between two puppets where being truthful was an issue. At some point in the play one of the puppets mentions that a storyteller told them a story about being truthful. Then one puppet says he can remember it word for word. At that point I come out from behind the puppet stage and tell the story. Then I go back behind the puppet stage and finish the play. The situation is partially resolved from the wisdom imparted in the story.
Creative thinking was important not only for the writing of the story, but also for finding a story that I could tell that had something to do with the situation. These puppet plays were a big hit with my listeners. Some other values in my puppet plays are forgiveness, caring, using one’s talents, happiness, kindness, cleanliness, helpfulness, being brave, discipline, giving, being hopeful, and courtesy. I was careful not to slam-bang the listeners with the moral. It begins to sound preachy.
Please feel free to call me if you have any questions. Below is my address, e-mail, and phone.
645 Pleasant Ridge
Fairview Heights, IL 62208