- Arts and Design
How to Make Processional Puppets
When I first got interested in community theatre back in the mid-nineties, I tried my hand at many different aspects of the work, including acting, directing, writing, building sets and scenery, as well as creating things: costumes, banners, posters, masks and of course, puppets. But these weren't the usual sort of puppets - the ones that fit onto the average human hand - no, these were big. Massive. These were processional puppets.
While studying Drama at the University of Northumbria, I spent the summer breaks and most weekends travelling to festivals and fetes to run workshops with Headway Theatre (now Headway Arts). These invariably involved creating gigantic dragons, huge butterflies or some other massive creature that would be paraded around the festival at the end of the day, accompanied by much drumming and singing. As part of my uni work, I put together a booklet based on some of the techniques I picked up during this time. Most of the text and illustrations that follow, are taken from that booklet.
Big and Bulky
If you're planning to run a workshop or session making processional puppets, there are a few thigns to take into consideration:
Size and weight of the proposed finished puppets
Ages and technical abilities of the participants
Available space for 'making'
The final destination of the puppets.
Size, as they say , isn't everything, but in this case, it's important to consider both the construction process and the any proposed precession or 'showing' of the puppets. The materials used in construction aren't problematic in themselves, as they are generally fairly light, but the sheer bulk of a processional puppet can be unexpectedly overwhelming.
The cumbersome nature of gigantic puppets can be positively dangerous in the hands of the uninitiated, so consider this in relation to the client group or workers who will be involved. Very young children may well delight in the 'messiness' of the creative process, but are likely to be too small to participate in carrying very large puppet heads. (This is one of the reasons we often made dragons with very long tails, since the tail sections are lightweight and easy to manoeuvre).
Some construction methods demand more use of tools in the initial stages and may be more suitable for older groups. Alternatively, the workshop leader, given enough warning, could construct the basic framework beforehand.
The space to be used as a workshop area should be large enough to accommodate the finished puppets. Ideally, this would be the height/weight of the puppet with its operator(s) in position. If you intend transporting the puppets elsewhere, the size and mode of transport will have to be taken into consideration. You might need the workshop space to be large enough for several groups to work on different puppets at the same time.
Also, don't forget to check the doors: many puppets have been ruined by not observing the old 'square peg into round hole' theory!
If you're running a workshop - particularly with schools or younger community groups, take time to demonstrate the use of any tools you'll be using. The use of canes and withies (willow twigs used in basket-making) are likely to be new to the group, and the novelty aspect may demand some degree of authority to combat the usual urge (at least among boys) to use them as swords!
Care must be taken to ensure the correct and safe use of tools, and appropriate supervision at all times. When working with younger children, it's advisable to have two or three teachers or 'leaders' on hand to assist with facilitation. In the case of running workshops with the general public, a first aid kit is essential, as there are always cuts and bruises.
The number and size of the puppets you're planning, will almost certainly depend on the time-scale allowed for the workshop. In the case of the largest processional puppets, it's worth considering their 'length of service', that is, their processional life - the more they are to be used, the stronger and more rigid they will have to be, which of course, will take longer than a couple of simple giant heads on sticks that will only be used once.
There may also be a need for weather-proofing materials to be used, and this can complicate the creative process, but usually a good coating of PVA will prove durable enough finish for all but the most tempestuous of downpours.
Smaller puppets, say five or six feet in length, can be made in a day, but where specific characters are being created, and a certain standard has to be maintained, the making process must be plotted carefully in order that all work can be finished within the allotted time.
The final resting place for the finished puppets must also be considered - many theatre/arts companies will re-use puppets for different occasions, but if they are intended to be displayed somewhere, you'll need to think about how this can be done. Often, a wire hook in the puppet's head will do the trick.
Pliers (for cutting withies)
Stanley knife, or similar, (for trimming withies/canes)
Bag-ties (the kind used in fastening sacks of potatoes)
Bag-tie puller - used with the above
Wire (old coat hangers are ideal, though can be awkward to fasten)
Gaffer tape (the community artist's best friend)
PVA adhesive (used in its diluted form to soaked strips of cloth, prior to tying around joints)
Hacksaw (don't forget spare blades)
Axe or wide-based chisel (for splitting canes)
Foam blocks (not essential, but ideal for forming nose, ears, hands etc)
Plastic bottles or containers (as a substitute for the above)
Newspapers/scraps of material
Withies (willow twigs basically, but very pliable when pre-soaked in water. Can be bought singly or in bulk from craft suppliers)
Canes (the garden variety will do, but longer ones - up to 12 feet - are great for larger processional puppets)
Withies are willow twigs used in basket-making and other traditional crafts. Their pliability makes them popular with community artists as they can be bent into shape (having first been soaked overnight) and held in place with tape or wire ties.
For angles shapes - cubes, triangles etc it's not necessary to pre-soak the withies, but they will be quite brittle and will break more easily. Pre-soaked withies should be used while still damp, so they can be shaped before they have time to dry out.
Where time is of the essence, 2-dimensional (flat) puppets are the easiest and quickest to produce. A roll of fabric will work wonders, as shapes can be cut out and taped over the frames, provided a ready base for other features to be added.
The larger the head of the puppet, the stronger the central pole has to be. If no canes are available, sometimes two or three withies strapped together will do the job quite well. Larger puppets however, especially those that are intended to be animated (ie with moving parts) will require canes for their main supports.
Withies can be easily fastened together with tape (gaffer is best) or thin wire (bag-ties are good especially when used with a bag-tie puller).
Usually, processional puppets have a large head, or main structure, and smaller 'shoulders' from which hands, paws, tentacles, wings etc can be hung/hinged. Bodies/torsos can easily be suggested by draping then with bright-coloured fabrics.
Bamboo canes are perfect for constructing such puppets because they can withstand a lot of wear and tear. The canes can be used as they are, or by splitting them in half lengthways and formed into circles.
Unlike withies, it's important to secure canes with wire - where a particularly strong joint is required, drill small holes through the canes and loop wire through, twisting the ends together.
Larger puppets also need a shoulder support and two vertical support canes to enable to operator to be strapped into the structure.
When the puppeteer leans one way or the other, his/her body movements will be magnified by the puppet above, so a movement of only a few inches, will result in the same movement by the puppet - only much bigger! This is the reason you need to think about the weight and height of both the puppet and its operator.
The main joints of the central frame can be made more rigid by tying them with strips of cloth soaked in a solution of PVA (approx one third PVA to two-thirds water). Although this will seem extremely messy in process, when dry the binding becomes solid.
Three dimensional puppets are more complex than two-dimensional, as they require a more substantial head shape. Most heads are either conical or spherical, so withies must be added to the main support frame to building up the desired shape.
It might be useful to draw your design first, as it can be difficult to visualise the finished shape. However, working 'blind' can also be an interesting experience, as the impossibility of absolute symmetry can almost allow the puppet to design itself. Sometimes when standing back from my finished work, I'd find the puppet had taken on an entirely different character from the one I'd imagined. As any experienced puppet maker will tell you, if this happens, don't interfere - the puppet must be allowed its own personality, and if you try to change it, the magic pixies will come and take you away!
In building the main frame, whether it's a simple T-bar, or something more complex, think about the height and weight of the operator and the finished puppet. Smaller puppets (3-5 feet in height) can usually be handled quite easily be children as young as 6, but larger ones, especially 3-D puppets will usually require the operator to be strapped into the structure.
In this case it's important to measure the vertical support canes against the wearer's shoulders, A horizontal bar must be added and should fit as snugly as possible on top of the shoulders with the vertical canes protruding down to approximately waist level (any lower and they will interfere with walking). There shouldn't be anything constructed immediately above the shoulder bar, unless the operator is to have their head inside the puppet (in the case of an opening/closing mouth, this would be preferable).
Round heads can be built be making a series of circles from withies or split canes, and attaching them to the support structure. Withies can then be added to build up a cage-like structure.
Features such as ears, eyes, nose etc can be made by cutting them from foam blocks or using plastic bottles or food containers and fastening them onto the main frame with wire or tape.
When the head is finished, it should be covered with papier mache or pieces of cloth soaked in PVA. You can avoid having to cover the whole head by adding streamers to form the 'hair' or mane.
if you're planning a procession, one way of keeping younger children involved is by encouraging them to create their own smaller versions of the main puppet. So, for example, a giant lion might be surrounded by lots of 'cubs'.
If the puppet happens to be a dragon, or some other mythical creature, the children can create a tail that can be fastened onto the head. This could be made from lengths of fabric long enough to 'devour' all the kids, and painted or decorated with streamers made form odd bits of fabric of paper. (If you intend painting fabric, check to see if it's water resistant first - if so, stick it in a washing machine and make sure it's dried out before using).
Other creatures lend themselves to this approach - an octopus would require eight legs or tentacles, each of which will need an operator, and of course these tentacles can be as long as you like.
A rubbish idea...
Finally, it's worth mentioning that a lot of the puppets I've made over the years, have often been constructed from scraps of paper, fabric, bits of rubbish, plastic bottles and general rubbish. When you're planning to create a monster or two, keep a look out for anything that might come in handy. If you can't stretch to withies and canes, you could use cardboard containers or strips of corrugated card to fashion a head. This won't be as sturdy as withies and cane though, and bear in mind that it might be more difficult to manipulate.
Welfare State International
Welfare State International was one of the most original, ground-breaking theatre companies in the world. They produced several books outlining some of the ideas behind their many spectacular large-scale outdoor shows, and I spent many happy hours poring over the diagrams an illustrations of gigantic puppets, massive shadow screens and huge cane and withie structures. Sadly, the company are no more, but before they disbanded in 2006, I was lucky enough to meet the founders - Sue Gill and John Fox - at one of their celebrated lantern processions in Ulverston, Cumbria. They were, and are, two of the most inspirational people I've ever met. The video below shows them at work.