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Puppet Exercises



Puppet Manipulation Clinic

By: Mary Robinette Harrison

This is a manipulation clinic I teach, based on the training I received from Peter Hart at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, GA.

Puppetry is the art of bringing to life an inanimate object. Or, more accurately creating the illusion of life. The basic principles of puppetry can be applied to all types of figures, no matter how different the mechanics are. If I refer to a body part your puppet doesn't have, try to create the illusion that it does. Let's explore how to give a puppet the illusion of life.

The principles to be explored are:
Meaningful movement

Along with the way, we will explore various symbolic poses and how these alterations of the silhouette can express emotion. Perform all exercises with the control of the puppet in the right hand and left hand. This will help reinforce what is 1earned.

Mechanics and introduction of the principles

First things first, examine the puppet, notice how the puppet is constructed. Try to find the most comfortable position to hold it. Explore the flexibility of your puppet. How does its neck and head move? Knees? What about the movement and twist of puppet? How tall can it be? How far over can it bend and roll?

Now, establish the "0" position. Your character returns after each gesture to this neutral posture. For instance, most people stand upright, with hands relaxed at the side.

Introduction of thought

The focus of the head achieves the illusion of thought. Simply put, we know what someone is thinking about by what they are looking at. For instance, when the puppet reaches to the left or right, it should also focus left & right.

Introduction of muscle

We want to create the illusion that the puppet can move under its own power. Muscle is the key to this. Try these exercises with your own body to help understand the illusion that you are going for. Concentrate on "curl" of the puppet to give illusion of backbone. Watch your puppet


a.      roll up and set or "curl" Bend your puppet at the waist, keeping the knees straight, till it touches the floor. Keep the head tucked at the neck, so the chin is as close to the chest as possible. Now, slowly stand your puppet upright, so that the head is the last thing to straighten. This is a curl.

  1. compress/ expand jump Bend the puppet's knees. That is a compress. Straighten them. Now you've expanded. Simple, huh? Try jumping yourself without bending your knees to see how important this simple thing is. Now jump your puppet. Bend at the knees to prepare, curling the head to express muscle. Straighten the knees, expand and focus upward to express thought about jumping. As you come down, focus down to think about landing. Land and do a small compress/expand to show that your puppet is taking its own weight on landing.
  2. pull back / push forward (straight-line focus) This is easier. Lean your puppet forward and backward at the waist, being sure that it doesn't overbalance. If it looks like it would fall over you've gone too far. Put out a foot so it can maintain its balance. Pay attention to the focus so that it moves along a straight line. These moves are very useful in expressing interest and fear.

Repeat exercises with left arm. Concentrate on a loose wrist for crisp movement

More muscle exercises: Experiment with compress/expand by pushing and pulling things.

  1. Push away
  2. Pull towards
  3. Push down
  4. Push up

Routine: Have the puppet focus on an imaginary object that is below its waist. Reach down, pick it up, focus on an imaginary shelf above its head, and then place object on shelf. Repeat routine as if character were on an assembly line that has varying speeds or tempos. Variation may be passing object to another figure. Remember contraction/expansion and thought/focus of the character in the routine. Hands should be together at this point. Do movements clearly and then work into a flow.

Repeat all above with the puppet on the left arm.

Introduction of breath/rhythm:

Just as focus indicates what the puppet is looking at, breath/rhythm indicates how puppet feels. We don't usually notice a person breathing unless they are laughing, crying, tired or something similar, so use that to help show how your puppet feels.


The goal is to create the illusion that the puppet's chest is expanding and contracting, something that puppets are rarely built to do. We have a few tools at our disposal. By sinking very subtly we can try to emulate the fall of shoulders on an exhale. Add to this, a very slight dip of the head as the puppet is raised, and it will seem as if the shoulders are rising, because the neck appears slightly shorter. I can not emphasize enough that subtlety is the key.

Repeat above with the puppet on the left arm.

Identification of silhouettes and movements

Open/close silhouette:

A change in posture can alter the perceived emotion. Here are examples of two emotional qualities:

1. Happiness

  Puppet open, arms stretched out

  Include laughing sound, full body animation of laughter

  No need to bob head - use open mouth and body rhythm for animation of breath and laugh sound

2. Sadness/Depression

  close silhouette

  hands hide face

  sobbing breath sound animation

  full body animation of sobbing/crying

No need to bob head for crying. As in laughter, body will do most of animation.

Regressive/Passive/Aggressive movement: Puppet on Right and Left Arm

1.Exercise "What did you say?"

a.       Aggressive - Lean into (remember the push forward/pull back exercise?)

b.      Passive - cock head

c.       Regressive - Lean back from

Emphasize movement by phrase. Restrict puppet hand movement to single gesture. Use breath (gasp. sharp burst etc.) for motivation and rhythm.

Introduction of separate hand rod use:

With the main puppet control in the right hand, hold the left-hand rod in your left hand and explore all areas of reach.

Routine: "I came from over there, I'm going over there, it was nice talking to you, goodbye."

Use strong focus, and go to "0" after every indication with arm. Enter from Stage right, look right and say "I came from over there" point right. Focus Left "I'm going over there" point left. Focus out "It was nice talking to you." Wave "Goodbye." Focus left and continue off stage.

This is movement by phrase or meaningful movement. Since the puppet uses symbols to communicate it is important that all of the movements have meaning.

Repeat routine holding right hand.

Repeat all above with the puppet on left arm

Exercise: Repeat "I came from..." using both hands for indications. Emphasize movement by phrase.

Repeat with the puppet on left arm.

Combination of Mechanic and Principle: Both Left and Right Arms

Exercise: "I came from over there...."

  1. Routine done happy with laughter
  2. Routine done depressed with sobbing
  3. Routine done angry with aggressive postures

Check for movement by phrase, strong focus, and rhythm/breath.

Movement of the puppet from Location to Location. For right and left arm

One of the common beliefs in puppetry is that it takes two people to walk a tabletop puppet, and while this is very often true it doesn't have to be. With a well-constructed puppet you have the option of the Swing-step. I will attempt to explain it on paper. A word of warning; hold your puppet in the air before starting this. Do the feet hang down or do they extend from the leg at a right angle? If they hang down, the swing step won't work. You'll need to restrict the movement of the ankles first, sorry.

Hold the puppet in your right hand, so that it is facing Stage Left. With your left hand reach down and hold the left ankle between your thumb and forefinger. Tuck the rest of you fingers into your palm. Hold the foot on the playboard and lean the puppet slightly upstage. By rocking the puppet SL and SR see if you can get the right leg to swing. You might need to raise the right foot slight on the toe to do this.

Once you've got it swinging try to swing it forward and set it down in front of the puppet. Now swing it back and set it down behind the puppet. See how little movement (i.e. leaning and standing on tiptoe) you can do and still make this happen. Ideally there will be no noticeable lean or tiptoe.

When you have the swing down, the next thing is to step. So, swing the right leg forward and set it down. Now lift the left leg and put it down in front of the right leg. Congratulations. That's a swing step. To make it look natural the left leg should emulate the right leg's movement. After all, you have direct control over the left leg, so the stride length and how much the knee bends should be similar, otherwise your puppet will limp.

Walk across the table. Now, repeat the exercise with your left hand on the main control.

Exercises: Try some different walks.

  1. Walking
  2. Sneaking
  3. Running
  4. Jumping
  5. Dancing
  6. Flying
  7. Swimming
  8. Floating

Emphasize illusion of muscle, rhythm, and contraction/expansion

  1. Specialties

1998 Mary Robinette Harrison









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