Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Large Puppet Procession


I became interested in making large puppets after seeing the Bread and Puppet Theatre perform at a local college.  For me, it is the under-developed spectacle that appeals to me- so perhaps that can be accomplished without the large puppets. However, they do add a comical twist and get the audience's attention.... and they are fun to make.

Our events have always worked around a theme, but there is no grand rehearsal.  The individual groups practice, but the marching, circling, and banter are on-the-spot.  The order of events is distributed ahead of time and we have no seating. I try to make performance mandatory- The audience and participants are ONE, which eliminates the sense of "us" and "them".  This is a "we" event.  I have found that the teachers who don't get it, never get it.  Ignore them, and do it anyway.  This was a hard lesson for me to learn.  This is an opportunity for groups to perform, and also individuals.  We have had a single roller-blader, a piano soloist, a big first grade group doing yoga, and skits in the mix. As I look back, this is probably the best thing that I have brought to my school.
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I am sharing information that I obtained from Jennifer Murphy's website.  She credits Beth Petersen of Heart of the Beast Theater, and information from various publications, including the Wise Fool Handbook and 68 Ways to Make Really Big Puppets. Please share this freely but do not copy and claim it as your own.

4 or 5 medium size cardboard boxes
packing or masking tape
25 pounds of clay (get the cheapest kind, it doesn't need to be fire-able)
plastic bags or thin plastic drop cloths
pile of newspaper
pile of brown paper bags
scissors
cornstarch paste (see recipe below)
2 paintbrushes (3” or 4” wide)
drop cloths for floor if needed
2 pieces of wood 3' + long
plastic food container lid
8 1” screws, screw driver or drill
primer or white house paint
acrylic paints, house paint, artists brushes
2 poles, 8' and 3'
2 or 3 old bike inner tubes
fabric for costume (about 5 yards)
a work surface you can leave messy
at least 1 other person to help (the more the merrier)


1) Sketch and plan (allow about 3 weeks to make)  2) Create a form: A manageable size head to start with is 3' tall x 2 - 3' wide. Use cardboard boxes - cut, rolled up and taped into the basic shape of your puppet‘s head. Also try balled up old plastic bags, buckets, bubble wrap, anything that will create dimension. Lots of tape helps. This form will not be seen once the clay is on, and will later be discarded. 3) Add clay: cut into 1” thick slices. Lay these over your cardboard foundation smoothing the joins together. Sculpt it into details like the eyebrows and nose. Don't create undercuts in your modeling; these make it difficult to pull the paper mache off. 4) Lay on plastic: Completely cover the clay work with a thin plastic drop cloth or cut-open plastic bags. This keeps the paper mache from sticking to the clay. Use the thinnest layer possible and carefully press it into the details of your sculpture or they will be lost. 5) Make cornstarch paste: Dissolve 1/2 c. cornstarch into 1 c. warm water. Heat one quart of water on the stove. Slowly stir the dissolved cornstarch into one quart of boiling water. Once it thickens, turn off. Let cool before using. You will need 2 or 3 times this amount for a 3' x 3' mask. Make it fresh each time or store it in the fridge - it gets moldy fast. For a large amount at once use 2 cups cornstarch to 1 gallon of water.6) Prep papier mache: Cut a piece of cardboard slightly larger than an open piece of newspaper. Cut the paper bags open so they lay flat and remove handles. Pile up your newspaper near by and get out your wide paintbrushes. You might want to drop cloth the floor.7) It's good to have at least one paste-er and one mache-er. The paste-er brushes a layer of paste over the whole big cardboard sheet. Paste-er lays a whole piece of newspaper open on top of it, smoothing it to get the paste all over that side, then brushes more paste on the top of the newspaper, so it's coated on both sides. Paste-er peels the paper up and hands it off to the mache-er. Mache-er tears the paste covered sheet into strips and starts pressing it and smoothing it on top of your puppet's face. Use small pieces for delicate details, large pieces for wide flattish areas. Cover every inch with an even layer. Put on 2 more layers with the newspaper. As you go, remember which parts you already did, so nothing is left too thin. Moving in only one direction helps with this.  Next, do the same process with a layer of brown paper bags. You want to lay 3 layers of newspaper and 1 layer of paper bags, and then to repeat this pattern 3 times for a strong, long lasting puppet. Pay close attention to the edges, wrapping the paper around it and making it smooth. Reinforce edges and the high points with a few extra layers because they get the most wear and tear.8) Let mache set until it's hard and dry all the way through (slide your fingers under to test). This usually takes about a week. Pull the mask/head off very carefully. This is a 2-person job. Don't worry about destroying the foundation or clay in the process. Pull off the mask and discard/recycle the foundation materials. You can save the clay for next time by bagging it up tightly in plastic. Take a minute to admire your work! If you need to, repair cracks or holes with more paper mache. 9) Paint: Prime the front of the mask with white paint. It may need 2 coats. The underside does not usually need paint unless you plan to march in the rain with it. In that case, prime the underside or give it a coat of clear acrylic. When it's dry, paint your puppet head however you envision it. Brighter colors and higher contrast show up well from a distance. Tiny details can get lost. Use acrylics or latex house paint. Poster paints will fade and run. You can also collage paper on it with a coat of white glue or “Yes” glue (doesn't wrinkle). A final coat of clear acrylic will protect it from bumps and scrapes.10) Put on braces: Cut the 2 pieces of wood to fit across the back of the puppet head, about 1/3 from the top and bottom. Cut 1" washers out of the plastic lid (a hole punch works to make the middle hole). Carefully drill holes through the paper mache to attach the ends of the wooden braces to it. Use the washers to reinforce the screws. Put two or three screws on each end. Make it snug and strong or you will regret it later.11)  Poles: Bamboo is light and strong if you can find it. For a 3' head, an 8 or 9' pole works well (make sure it will fit in your vehicle if it needs to). Cut a 3' pole for the shoulders and tie it about 2 1/2' from the top of the 8' pole, using the inner tube (cut into 1 1/5" wide strips). Tie the head to the part of the pole above the shoulders, one tie per brace. Tie it so it can be untied easily later but it's secure.12) Costume: Drape or sew the puppet's costume. Make sure to use fabric that the puppeteer can see through, or cut an eyehole. To cover the back of the head, poke holes every 6 “ or so, about 1” from the edge, from ear to ear over the top. Tie a piece of fabric over the back of the mask with small pieces of rubber laced through the holes.13) Practice: Practice walking with your puppet before your event. Be careful of low hanging trees, signs and high curbs. It's good to have a puppet helper assigned to walk with the puppeteer because it is very hard to see in there.

IT SOUNDS LIKE A LOT OF WORK, BUT WORK IN GROUPS.  Also- Save them year to year and a collection will build!

1 comment:

Claire said...

Mom you are so cool!! I love your ideas.