2022 Fellow Journals #1 – Puppet Design and Making

by fingerplayers

This journal entry is part of a series of journals penned by Liew Jia Yi, a Fellow under The Finger Players Fellowship Programme, a year-long leadership development programme for theatre practitioners who have a keen interest in deepening their understanding about the craft of puppetry.

Hello! I am Jia Yi, Fellow of the The Finger Players (TFP) Fellowship Programme for cycle 2022-2023. 

Having been mainly a performer for most part of my career, I felt the need to challenge myself and be more proactive in exploring new territories that are beyond the performance stage. I believe that taking on different roles would allow me to see things from various perspectives, and better contribute to the arts ecosystem. 

Hence during this fellowship, I would be venturing into the realms of directing, as well as puppet designing and making. With minimal prior experiences in these fields, I am slightly nervous but super excited to embark on this journey!

Puppet design and making

Metallic Girl built during Rod Puppet Construction Masterclass

As part of the fellowship, I attended the rod puppetry construction masterclass with Daniel Sim (Core Team Member of TFP). This masterclass gave birth to my first rod puppet, Metallic Girl. During this process, I discovered the amount of thought and time needed to create a puppet from scratch, while buffering time for trial and error, and troubleshooting. 

After completing the rod puppetry construction masterclass, I was curious about the communication between a Director and Designers leading up to a production. Therefore, I had a casual interview with Daniel about his creation process as a Puppet Maker/Designer.

Some questions I had in mind when chatting with Daniel: 

  • What does a Director need to know when speaking to a Puppet Designer/Maker?
  • How to communicate with a Puppet Designer or a Designer in general?
  • Do Designers talk to each other? Or mainly with the Director?

Situating puppet design and making within the creative process

Daniel shared that puppet design is often closely tied to the blocking and how it is used in the show. Hence, the Puppet Designer might step into the sphere of directing sometimes, and similarly, the Director might need to negotiate the puppet mechanisms with the Puppet Designer. 

After my chat with Daniel, I concluded that the following factors might affect the communication between a Director and a Puppet Designer: 

1) Visual clarity and/or clarity of mechanism

How does the director envision the puppet to be used in the performance? The level of clarity can determine the type of puppet and the possible mechanisms right from the beginning. If the Director already knows exactly what is desirable, it is important to communicate the specifics to the Puppet Designer. However, if the Director does not have a clear idea at the beginning, then it would be important to have a clear process to work towards achieving what is desirable. This process should ideally work within the timeline of the production, allowing time to test things out (e.g. workshopping with Puppeteers, making a prototype etc), to make the puppet, and to give Puppeteers sufficient time to practise with the final puppet.  

2) Practical concerns 

Some practical concerns will drastically affect the possibilities. For instance, the number of Puppeteer(s) available in the performance would affect the design complexity of the puppet. In general, more Puppeteers would allow for more varied and intricate movements on stage as they are able to move different parts of the puppet simultaneously. However, if there are only two Puppeteers available for instance, then both the Director and Puppet Designer would need to consider the most important aspects of the puppet to highlight, in order to support the storytelling. In addition, the skills of the Puppeteers would also play a part in the type of puppet to be used. For example, based on my own experience as a Puppeteer, I find that a rod puppet is generally more intuitive to manipulate than a string puppet, which has more moving parts. Thus, a string puppet might require the Puppeteer more time to practise with, especially for a performer new to puppetry. If some of these practical concerns are already present and known, then both the Director and Puppet Designer can negotiate what would work best. 

3) Collective creative meetings vs. Separate creative meetings with individual designers

Typically, there would be an initial creative meeting among the Director, Designers, and Production Manager, where the Director shares his/her directorial vision for the performance. That would then kickstart the creative process and a series of smaller conversations with each of the Designers. The Production Manager would also facilitate the discussion in terms of the technical aspects of the production, while the Director serves more like a ‘creative facilitator’ among the Designers. 

In regard to my question about communication among Designers, Daniel shared that in his area of work, the set design is very important to the puppet design, as some puppets need to be elevated on a platform (e.g. rod puppet). Hence, the Puppet Designer might sometimes meet the Set Designer separately to discuss, so that the designs can complement each other. 

4) Collaborative vs. ‘Functional’ 

The Director can first decide what would drive the design of the production before engaging the different Designers. For instance, a particular production might be puppet-driven and would require the Puppet Designer to come in earlier in the creative process (e.g. brainstorming and generating parameters together to create a new world), while the lighting design might take on a more ‘functional’ role. In this case, the Lighting Designer can then come in slightly later in the production process (e.g. during a full run when casts have finished blocking the show). While it is nice to be collaborative when working in a team, it is also important to set clear expectations so that everyone is on the same page, and time is saved for those who are not required to attend certain meetings.

As I continue to learn the ropes of directing from different ‘masters’ in TFP, I am looking forward to apply some of these knowledge soon. I will be directing two new works next year, do keep a lookout for them on TFP’s social media @fingerplayers !