Teaching Puppet Making to Drama Teachers

Over 2 days, I had the opportunity to co-lead a Puppetry workshop for Drama Teachers at the Arts Unit NSW. The aim of the workshop was to give Drama Teachers from Primary, Seconday and Special Education settings the opportunity to make a mouth puppet (aka “Muppet” Style) and experience different strategies of teaching puppet performance in the classroom. The Arts Unit is part of the New South Wales Department of Education, and they promote and support all of the Creative and Performing Arts in NSW Public Schools. For me, this was an opportunity to show leadership skills, share how I use Puppetry daily in my school library, as well as showcase my school’s Puppetry class.

There were 15 participants in the workshop from a wide range of primary schools, high schools and special education settings. My role in the workshop was to teach the puppet building part of the workshop, and share the learning I have been doing in monitor puppetry over the last 3 years at Beyond the Sock. One really interesting thing I noticed about how 21st Century Teachers take notes. I cannpot recall any of the teachers taking written notes. Most of the teachers wanted to film my explanations on their phone or tablet. I had to remember to allow a few moments for the teachers to get into a good position to film the explanation.

What went well:

  • All the participants had fun! We could not get them to go home at the end of the first day, and the participants arrived at the workshop early on day 2. All the puppets were unique and special!
  • Having all the kits pre-cut and pre-sewn did save a lot of time and hassle. However, some teachers indicated on their feedback forms that they wanted to see the whole process from the beginning including cutting out the foam and fabric using the patterns. Perhaps I can accommodate that part with a video showing how to cut out the foam and fabric.
  • Using the dome eyes from Out of the Box Puppets worked really well over the traditional Spoon eyes. It does mean that in potential future workshops, I don’t need to take my whole folding crate of eyes.
  • Everyone used my 3D printed nose forms, as well as my plastic easter eggs. A few people also used the small dome eyes as nose forms. The participants also enjoyed using my box of precious Antron Fleece scraps to make the eyelids and noses for their puppet.
  • During the performance side of the workshop, doing a conga line to practise sharing the frame was a great deal of fun. It meant that the participants did not have to worry about their puppet standing straight and maintaining eye focus into the camera. The participants could just have fun with the frame.

What could be improved next time:

  • Give the participants 2 pieces of wire each and use florist wire instead of galvanised wire. Florist wire is easier for inexperienced puppet builders to bend, but the fingers of the puppet will not be as strong.
  • Need to have at least one pair of pliers per person as it was too difficult to have just 5 pairs of pliers for 15 people. Many participants had to wait a long time between steps because there were not enough pliers.
  • Have just the instruction portion only of the pattern from Project Puppet on the Smart TV/ or as printouts for participants to follow
    • if they are running behind the rest of the workshop,
    • didn’t listen to the verbal instructions or missed the demonstration.
    • It would also be helpful for people who have a gift for building to move ahead of the group.
  • The puppets to only have one arm rod. The other hand could be safety pinned/ stitched to the body of the puppet. It would make manipulation easier for beginner puppeteers
  • The neck and body join could be pre-sewn. It would save time during the workshop. It would mean that the only sewing for participants would be the mouth felt and the hand slits.
  • Drama Teachers hand sewing parts of their puppet's "Skin".
    Drama Teachers hand sewing parts of their puppet's "Skin".

Making my First Full Body Puppet: Part 10

Today is Celebration Day! All the work over the last 2 months on Totoro came together today!

The day started by putting on the legs of Totoro. I then had an hour to wait until the opening ceremony of Celebration Day so I read my favourite book- Jim Henson The Works. My colleagues took a photo of me reading because they know that one of my favourite Muppet pictures is of Richard Hunt reading the newspaper while wearing the legs of Sweetums.

Getting ready to be Totoro- reading my favourite book.

I had entered my Totoro puppet in the Costume Parade. We had to wait 30 minutes in the school hall for the parade to start. While waiting, and shortly before the parade was to start, I was showing the students how the whole costume comes together. As soon as the backpack took the full weight of the puppet- a section in the middle broke- one of the struts had come out of the t-joint, and the puppet fell onto me. I could not fix the backpack in the hall, so I had to leave it behind and hold up the whole costume with my left arm during the costume parade.

Walking out of the hall during the costume parade was an amazing experience. As soon as Totoro appeared, the whole school roared and cheered for him! Because the hall door and back part of the stage was in shadow, it was quite easy to see where I was going. As soon as the sunlight hit the mouth, I could barely see where I was going. Fortunately, I did not run into any of the obstacles on stage, or run into the students who were at the front of the stage as part of the parade. A colleague of mine, standing next to me, was dressed as an inflatable Jabba the Hutt. We made a very funny pair.

Our real life Totoro. Well done Teacher Librarian Miss K.Hannaford.

Posted by Macquarie Fields High School on Wednesday, September 20, 2017

After the costume parade was over- I walked back into the hall and took Totoro’s top half off. I had been holding him up for 15 minutes. After the Opening ceremony was over, I put Totoro back on for 10 minutes so that the students could get selfies and hugs from Totoro, and so I could take him over to the Photo Booth to take a few silly pictures. Afterwards, I completely changed out of Totoro so I could run the puppet table during the day. All up, I was in Totoro for 2 hours. It gave me a new understanding and appreciation for what my puppetry teachers go through when they perform costume characters.

Builiding Totoro has been an amaxing experience. I have learnt a great deal about making big puppets, but I still have a lot to learn about joing PVC conduit. Thanks go to my amazing Library assistants who helped with many sections of the build, and thanks are also due to Adam Savage for sharing his build methodology in the original inspirational video. I could not have done it without that original video.

  • Totoro comes out to a roar from the whole school.

 

Making my First Full Body Puppet: Part 9

It’s one day left until Celebration day! Today I was able to finish the feet and legs, attach the arms and try on the top half of the character to see how easy/ difficult it was to see and move inside the puppet.

To finish the legs, I made tubes of fur, sewed the bottom to the fur covering the feet and sewed the top of the tube to the top of a pair of leggings. I discovered one benefit of attaching the legs to just the fur of the feet, it gave me room to be able to get the real shoe inside the foot onto my foot more easily! I did cut the fur tubes 10cm too short because when I tried the whole puppet out, the top of the leggings could be seen, so I stitched on extra pieces of fur.

Legs and feet of Totoro

The arms were made the same way as in Adam Savage’s Totoro video. I used my own arm as a template with a mitten for the hand. All of the claws on my Totoro are made from box cardboard covered in black spandex. The claws were attached by cutting a slit through the fur, then fixed in place using hot glue.

Totoro has arms!

I tried on the top half of the costume with the backpack frame. The mast on the frame was still loose so I could make adjustments, but it rotated too far and the puppet was not being supported properly. It has turned into an overnight or first thing in the morning fix for me.

  • Adjusting the legs of Totoro

While I was in the costume, a student teacher saw me and wanted a selfie with Totoro! He already has fans! Tomorrow is going to be interesting!

Totoro’s first selfie!

Making my First Full Body Puppet: Part 8

Making the facial features of Totoro.

To make Totoro’s ears/ horns, I modeled the ears using 3 modelling and printing. Due to the scale of the piece, I had to try to cut the horn into 3 pieces. I had a great deal of difficulty in splitting the shape in that I am still not familiar with breaking a model up in Creo Parametric 3.0. I was able to make the bottom two pieces quite easily, but making the top pointed part fit proved to be very difficult to make the right size. I ended up achieving a satisfactory result after lots of failed attempts. I definitely need to learn an alternative approach to making a 3D model that breaks up into interlocking pieces.

To cover the ear with fur, I put the ear into a freezer bag, and covered the bag with small pieces of tape. I then used a small pair of embroidery scissors to cut the tape and plastic off and cut lots of small darts to create a flat shape. The flat shape then became the pattern for cutting the fur. I did add a 3mm seam allowance while cutting the fur so I could hand sew the fur together and turn it over the 3D printed form. The ears/ horns were then sewn around the base onto the fur.

Fur covered, 3D printed ear forms with pattern.

I used more butcher’s paper to create the shapes of the eyes, nose and mouth so that I could experiment with sizes and placement.

Planning the facial features of Totoro

To make the nose, I used the butcher’s paper template as a guide to the overall size of the nose and built plasticine up on it. I then used four layers of my own hand made paper to cover the nose form.

Sculpting the nose form from Plasticine.

I created the eye forms by modeling them on the computer and printing them out using the 3D printer. I then used black acrylic paint to create the pupils.

3D printed eyes ready for painting with the painted papier mache nose

Inside of the papier mache nose with the 3D printed eyes.

The mouth of Totoro is how I see out of the puppet. I originally used three layers of curtain netting, but it was too hard to see out of, so I removed one layer.

Totoro’s teeth were drawn onto the mesh using a black Sharpie.

Mouth opening covered with white mesh curtain fabric.

To make Totoro’s whiskers, I used long, black zip ties. To attach them to the face, I cut a small slit into the fur using embroidery scissors. Then, I inserted the square end of the zip tie and glued it in place using hot glue.

Making my First Full Body Puppet: Part 7

Now that the body is starting to come together, my next challenge was to make the feet. I have never made mascot sized feet before, so I went looking for tutorials to help me.

I found a pair of shoes at Kmart for $3, a floor mat from Clark Rubber to make the soles of the feet, and I ended up recycling bits of block foam I had in storage, leftover from previous puppet carving projects.

Using blocks of foam and carving techniques to make Totoro’s feet.

I wore the in-progress feet at school while walking around the school library so I could test how well the glue was holding as well as how it felt to walk in oversized shoes. During the test, the school’s Community Liaison Officer filmed my test for the school’s Facebook page!

Once the feet were finished, I had time to make the tummy of Totoro. I turned the fur covering of the body inside out, drew a circle shape for the tummy, cut it out and used the circle I had cut as the template for cutting the cream tummy fur.

Cutting out the tummy fur of Totoro

What is our talented Teacher Librarian Miss K. Hannaford going to wear on Celebration Day?? Today we had a little test of how the "feet/shoes" are progressing…..

Posted by Macquarie Fields High School on Wednesday, August 30, 2017

 

Making my First Full Body Puppet: Part 5

Covering the Structure

Once the skeleton of Totoro was complete, I noticed that his shape was not symmetrical, and some of the rings were far too large. Fortunately, I had secured the rings with masking tape, which was very easy to remove. It was then a simple matter of pulling each of the problem rings in and wrapping with fresh tape. I also had issues with the gaffer tape supports between the rings giving way, causing the rings to drop and become lopsided. Where tape had given way, I ended up applying a new piece of tape that wrapped around the ring onto itself at both ends.

I did work out a very efficient way to cut the gaffer tape in half to make thin strips. I would tear off the required length and place it sticky side down on a self healing cutting mat. I then used an X-Acto blade to cut down the middle of the tape. It was then very easy to remove the tape from the mat and use the sections of tape on Totoro’s skeleton.

The next step was to start covering the skeleton with thin fabric. I used an old sheet since I am trying to keep costs down, and recycle materials that I already have. All of the darts were sewn using sewing machine, and I hand stitched the final opening closed. So my Totoro has a interior of Ancient Egyptian patterned sheets!

  • Laying the sheet over the frame.

Making my First Full Body Puppet: Part 4

The next phase of the construction was to make the concentric rings that are the skeleton of Totoro. Using the calculations I made with the full size plan, all 16 rings were created by measuring the length of the circumference, adding a palm width of cane for overlap and using masking tape to hold the ring closed.

Trying to flatten the cane rings

I did run into several issues with the cane. When it arrived, the cane was very tightly coiled. When creating the largest rings, the rings would distort and not lie flat. We tried putting the rings under weights overnight, which did help some of the rings to lie flat-ish. Some rings also responded to hand manipulation of forcing the cane to bend in the opposite direction, but we always risked snapping the cane.

The other challenge I had to address was how to suspend the cane rings from the backpack frame. Adam Savage used a wooden ring bolted to his backpack frame. I don’t have access or expertise in using wood to make a ring, but I do have access to 3D design software and a 3D printer. I designed a circular disc with a section that inserts into the pvc mast. By using gaffer tape, the rings are suspended from the main disc.

  • Support disc midway through 3D printing.

Making my first full body puppet part 3

Making the backpack to support the puppet.

While watching Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge, I saw how the contestants used backpack frames to support the creatures/ puppets they made. Most of the time, they used Alice pack frames to which they bolted aluminium flat bar or pvc. Alice pack frames are available on Amazon to buy, but they do not ship to Australia.

Alice pack frame demonstrated on Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge.

After watching various youtube clips on how to make a backpack frame, I decided to use PVC electrical conduit. When the Library computer area was renovated in 2014, I claimed all of the old electrical conduit so that I could use it for building puppet skeletons, so I have lots of conduit for making the backpack.

I started with a sketch using the dimensions and shapes described back in the first post for this project.

Original sketch of the backpack frame dimensions.

Then I started cutting all the pvc parts I needed using a tube cutter that I have had in storage for more than 10 years. It certainly made cutting the pieces less messy.

PVC tubes for the backpack frame.

The part of the backpack that I am most proud of is that I made all the straps myself using a great tutorial I found on youtube.

  • Drawing up the template onto black canvas fabric

Making my First Full Body Puppet: Part 2

After watching the video by Adam Savage, I used sheets of butchers paper to draw a template of a figure my size so that I could plan the size of the cane rings I would need for my Totoro.

Working out the size of the rings

This process took most of the afternoon to work through, but I ended up with 16 ring dimensions. The widest ring is 1m in diameter, which means that the circumference of cane is 3.2 m!

Table of ring dimensions.

Now that I have a plan, it is time to order the cane. I am ordering the cane from http://www.wickerworks.com.au/. I decided to order a 500 gram bundle of 5mm round core cane which will give me about 50 metres of cane to work with.

 

Making my First Full Body Puppet: Part 1

One form of puppetry that I have not yet explored in either building or performing is full body puppets. Basically, the definition of a full body puppet is a puppet which has the puppeteer inside. Famous examples of these puppets are Big Bird, Bear from Bear in the Big, Blue House, and Humphrey B Bear. This year, I have the opportunity to build my first and second full body puppet, but at the time of writing, I can only talk about the first one as the second is for a special event later this year.

Every year, the school I work at holds an event called Celebration Day. It is a day when we celebrate the diverse cultures that make up our school with food, costumes, activities, but we also celebrate the fun culture of our school. Each year, I make a costume based on that year’s theme. in 2012 we celebrated the National Year of Reading, so I went as Professor McGonagall wearing her famous green outfit from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that I made myself. In 2013 we celebrated going to the movies, so I made Maleficent’s costume from Disney’s animated version of Sleeping Beauty. I was on leave in 2014 and dressed up as McGonagall again in 2015 but in 2016, I was Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra.

Me as Cleopatra in 2016

Me as Professor McGonagall in 2012

Me as Maleficent in 2013

For 2017, the theme is Legends and I am planning to dress up as Totoro from the great Japanese animation, My neighbor Totoro (1988) directed by Hayao Miyazaki. I plan to build my costume in the school Library so that the students can see how things are made and maybe inspire them to create their own costume.

I have had the good fortune to be inspired by, and a head start on building my Totoro by watching Adam Savage build his own Totoro!

For me, the first step is working out how I am going to wear my Totoro as the frame Adam’s Totoro sits on, is beyond my skill set. My current thinking is to use a camping/ hiking backpack frame. Since the top of Totoro is above my head and I need a pole from the backpack frame to the top of Totoro, I am currently thinking of building the backpack frame from PVC pipe like this:

Now to order the pipe, the cane, and the fur…