Puppets mean Muppets for most people. But Fozzy and Kermit and Gonzo are only recent additions to an art form that's been around for 30,000 years. Puppetry is a tradition that is found in all societies around the world, where people have used anything from socks on their hands to elaborate life-size constructions to help tell stories and entertain. We here at the Dallas Comedy House have a resident puppeteer, Sarah Nolen, who is conducting a puppet workshop that runs for four Saturdays starting January 7.
Curious about puppets and the workshop? So were we, and Sarah was happy to answer a few questions.
What is your puppeteering history? How did you get interested in it? How long have you been doing it?
I have been fiddling with puppets since I was in grade school. I performed my first show at the age of 9, for my parents. It was a rendition of "Rapunzel" performed by toilet paper rolls…with clothes made of paper. The interest started, I'm sure, from watching and loving puppets on TV shows like The Muppet Show, Beakman's World, Muppets Tonight, Puzzle Place, and others. Moreover, I am fascinated by objects and textures. In high school, I gave up puppets because they weren't very cool at the time. Going through puberty and introducing people to an old sock with buttons for eyes didn't make sense. I picked up videography instead. But senior year, I filmed my first short video with puppets. I filmed two puppets made from soap boxes singing along to "The Magic Flute." It was a soap opera--and it cracked me up. That's when I realized I had to keep doing it. In college, I studied film and all my shorts involved puppetry of some kind. Summer my junior year, I traveled to Connecticut to partake in a three-week long workshop held by Sandglass Theater. They call it "puppet boot camp," and Eric and Ines-Zeller Bass teach you everything from manipulation to breathing to conceptualizing. You learn about the life of objects. It was the most inspiring thing I have ever done artistically, and I've never thought about puppets the same way.
What are some of the most difficult aspects of working with puppets? How do you overcome the difficulties?
One of the most difficult aspects of working with puppets is separating yourself from the puppet. You are lending life to any object you manipulate, so you cannot think of that life as your own. That's kind of hippy-dippy, but as far as Muppet-style puppetry goes, the most difficult thing is giving an emotion to something expressionless, something inanimate. Through that limitation, though, you can learn a lot about what gives something life other than it's face. Technically, a very difficult thing is matching the mouth movements with your own. But the prescription for that is practice!
What are some of the most rewarding aspects of working with puppets?
I think the most rewarding part of puppetry is discovering some sort of alien in the palm of your hand. Getting people to relate and care for these little aliens is really terrific. One of the coolest moments for me was when one of my puppets died on stage suddenly, and the whole audience felt it and panicked a little. After she died, I reached in my pocket and had a bunch of snow (it was a Christmas show), and smiled, throwing it everywhere for the exit. It was a little reminder that--hey, it was never really alive. But it's a lot of fun, when you create something that people care about. That moment where you realize that the audience has forgotten you is pretty fantastic.
How can taking a puppet class help with other forms of improv?
This puppetry workshop will focus on learning Muppet-style puppetry for the improv stage. Taking a puppet class will definitely help with communication, characters, and expanding skills. As a puppeteer, you learn how to make different characters on the fly with just your voice and hand movement. You learn to play different characters in the same puppet. You become finely aware of what changes in gesture, voice and pacing can express. With puppets, as with anything limited, you will also be exercising the idea of "if this, then what?" For example, if my puppet is a monkey, then maybe it has a bad case of fleas. He's got an itching problem. You are literally given the "if" with objects.
What is your favorite puppet (either one you work with or throughout history) and why?
One of my favorite puppets was a marionette puppet I saw performed at a the Puppet Incident puppet slam in Austin. Puppeteer Marta MacRostie had made this thing on strings that laid flat, and you couldn't tell what it was. When it finally got up off the ground, it was a giant human hand marionette! It started walking around like a dog, and flicking things on the ground, and tapping. I don't think I've ever giggled so much. As far as Muppets go, my favorite is Rowlf. I love his floppy ears when he plays the piano. And his puns.
What do you say to people who think that puppets are only for kids?
I stick out my tongue at them! The most amazing thing about puppetry is that it uses our ability to personify anything. We can relate to a drunk trash can, we can still laugh at a dog ballerina, and as adults, we can finally empathize with how hard it must be for Kermit to get all the Muppets to work together. What's amazing about puppetry is that even as an adult, we can forget that there is a puppeteer, and see these inanimate things as alive, like when we were a kid. That is magic.
What do you hope people will walk away with after taking your workshop?
I hope people will walk away with a broader perspective of puppetry. I hope they are reminded of how to imagine, act zany and that playing is not just for kids.
Thank you, Sarah, for taking the time to answers our questions. Remember folks, registration is open until Jan. 6 for the puppet workshop.