In 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, we spoke to the Makers and Designers of the puppets we have in The Finger Players (TFP), to create the repository that is the Puppet Origin Stories – a humble effort to highlight the background, and the making and design history of these puppets. We hope that this can be a continued endeavour at TFP, and we hope that you can go on this journey with us.
2021: Little Mournings
Chiam was created by Sim Xin Feng, selected Maker of The Maker’s Lab Cycle 2020/2021. It was featured in the production of Little Mournings in 2021, and then again in The Puppets are Alright – My Father the AI Machine in 2023. The Maker’s Lab is an initiative by The Finger Players (TFP) to nurture and grow builders and designers of puppets and objects, and at the end of each cycle, a puppet will be created to become the starting point of a production’s creative process. Little Mournings was borne out of this. Chiam is a rod puppet with animatronic components.
To quote Xin Feng, “In my encounters with Singapore theatre, the use of technology in puppetry seems to be new territory that has not been explored deeply. Perhaps due to the lack of materials and resources, it is relatively rare to find puppets that incorporate technology in their manipulation. As such, I hope to use The Maker’s Lab to further explore how technology can be incorporated in puppetry, starting with the basics of animatronics.”
This would be the first time Xin Feng is venturing into animatronics, and there were three aspects she wanted to explore: Eyes, breathing and movement. She started the experimentation with an animatronic eye, as to her, the eyes are the soul of the puppet. Xin Feng started prototyping during Singapore’s two-month long circuit breaker. During this period, materials and objects that she could work with became drastically limited, and she had to build from materials and tools she could find in her home.
Chiam is a rod puppet, but with mechanisms in his head and chest. As such, he had to be constructed to house both mechanisms. The skeletal structure for the head was formed with metal strips, and shaped with papier mache. The torso’s skeleton was formed from wood, and shaped with foam. Chiam had an eye mechanism that mimicked a human’s eye, as well as a chest mechanism that stimulated a human’s breathing. Both mechanisms were controlled by a puppeteer via his/her organic movement.
At this stage of her creation, Xin Feng had yet to think of a character for the puppet she was building, but a few incidents led her to eventually settle on Chiam as a character. At that time, due to work and personal commitments, Xin Feng had to cab around quite a bit. Most of the cab drivers / private hire car drivers that she encountered were Uncles, and when she shared about her work with them, a shared memory would come up – that of building wood joints in Design and Technology (D&T) classes in secondary school, and how screws were not necessary to join hems together.
Xin Feng was also the Admin Manager at The Finger Players during that period, and part of her job was managing the assets within TFP premises. When arranging to fix the mirror in the rehearsal room (It cracked during a workshop because of external impact.), an Uncle turned up. This Uncle shared with her about the trick of attaching the mirror onto the wall without having to screw it in (the trick is to use a glue similar to putty mix).
Through conversations with Daniel Sim, Programme Manager of The Maker’s Lab, he shared with her his experience taking up a woodworking class, and a similar philosophy about screw-less joints in another workshop that he conducted, that Xin Feng has also attended.
All these events eventually distilled into the character of Chiam. Xin Feng was intrigued by a common thread that she noticed all these Uncles had – a nostalgia or even pride, that things could be built from scratch, and that repairing is always the more viable option than re-purchasing. She thought it was a beautiful metaphor for the state of how she would like to live, and at the same time, she wanted to dedicate Chiam to all the Uncles out there who are passionate about the spirit of building and repairing.
Xin Feng paid quite a bit of attention to the finer details of the finishing of Chiam, as a homage to all the Uncles she met. It was essential that he had wrinkles, because to her, wrinkles tell a story. She also wanted him to have ageing skin pigmentation, which she painted on. He wore a specific type of glasses, and wore a shirt that she remembers her own Uncle to have worn. Finally, she wanted him to wear slippers, and her inspiration for that was a pair of slippers that belonged to TFP Core Team Member Oliver Chong. To quote Xin Feng, “He’s not an uncle, but reaching soon, hahaha.”
For a more detailed documentation of Chiam’s creation process, you can refer to Xin Feng’s journal entries here.
2023: The Puppets are Alright – My Father the AI Machine
In 2023, Chiam was taken out of storage to be featured in the production of The Puppets are Alright – My Father the AI Machine. The Puppets are Alright is a triple bill production that is a culmination of three cycles of The Maker’s Lab. Chiam was the inspiration for My Father the AI Machine, written by Chong Tze Chien and directed by Liew Jia Yi.
Xin Feng wanted to explore a more collaborative way of working for this production, while at the same time striking a balance to achieve the Director’s vision. She discussed with Yong Huay, the Lighting Designer, about letting Chiam’s eyes light up. For Chiam’s costume, she worked closely with Costume Designer Chin Huat on the fitting of the costume.
Based on the script and the Director’s vision, the chest mechanism was unnecessary, so Xin Feng replaced it with a ticker tape mechanism. Even though it was written in the script that the ticker tape was meant to come out of Chiam’s mouth, there wasn’t sufficient space in the head cavity to house another mechanism, and as such, the ticker tape mechanism was housed in Chiam’s torso, with the tape coming out of his chest instead. As the outer foam layer that made up Chiam’s chest was removable, Xin Feng replaced that with a new foam layer with a slit for the ticker tape.
There were some compromises that had to be made. First, Chiam’s animatronics mechanism was initially designed to be operated via a vest that the puppeteer would be wearing. This vest housed the battery and the power source. However, in My Father the AI Machine, the Director, Jia Yi didn’t want the actor to be wearing this vest, so the operational mechanism had to go into the chest cavity of Chiam. As such, Chiam became heavier. Since this iteration of Chiam had to house more mechanisms, there was insufficient space to house a big enough roll of ticker tape for him to spew out paper constantly, as stated in the script.
During rehearsals, it was observed that there wasn’t much puppeteering of Chiam being done, and the rods behind his elbows were becoming a bit of a hindrance, and so it was suggested that the rods be cut away. Xin Feng spoke to Daniel about possibilities of dressing up the arm rods so it wouldn’t be in the way, but realized soon enough that the weight of the rod was also impinging on other aspects of the piece. As time was not on her side, she chose to cut the rod away first, making a mental note to repair it after the show had ended its run. It was important that Chiam maintain this integrity, as he was built as a rod puppet.
It was an emotional moment for Xin Feng as she put the arm rod through the band saw, and she kept the dowels that she chopped off.
Fixing the Arm Rod
A month after the production ended its run, Xin Feng was back in the workshop looking around for inspiration to fix Chiam’s arm rod. This was the usual approach adopted by the Makers at TFP – to look for scrap pieces in the workshop to do repairs.
Xin Feng actually knew of quick, straightforward approaches to repairing the arm rods. The first approach would be to putty the two arm rods together, and the second – use screws to hold two pieces together. But because the manipulation point remains the same, wear and tear would result in the rod breaking eventually. So to remedy this, Xin Feng thought of re-jointing from somewhere nearer the wrist.
She cut the existing arm rod yet again, this time nearer the wrist, to create a new joint position. She then created a new ‘muscle’ (a thick dowel with a hole of similar diameter as the existing arm rod) to let it hold the two “broken” arm rods together. To reinforce the contact points, Xin Feng coated the ‘bones”’ and ‘muscle’ with wood glue. Here’s a step-by-step guide put together by Xin Feng:
Chiam Repair Log
- Finding the right-sized dowel to replace the cut rod.
2. Carefully detach foam around the hand structure.
3. Cut dowel between the first and second wood plank. Measure and cut a thicker dowel (Dowel B) to size. This will act as the “splint” that will hold the original dowel (Dowel A) in place.
4. Drill hole in the middle of the Dowel B, large enough to hold Dowel A in place.
5. End result of the drilling.
6. Checking to make sure Dowel A fits into the newly drilled Dowel B.
7. Putting the Dowel in place.
8. Measuring a second thick dowel. Repeat same steps for other hand.
9. Removing the wooden planks from original dowel to sand and remove debris. This is to allow the glue to stick onto the surface of the new dowel better.
10. Marking Dowel A to be cut.
11. Fitting the new dowel together onto wooden planks and aligning the parts.
12. Putting wood glue onto the parts.
13. Using duct tape to hold the parts in place as it dries overnight.
As Xin Feng was repairing Chiam, she wondered if Chiam had changed, or if it was still the same puppet. Each time Chiam has been used, it was a new character. Does it also become a new ‘character’ after each repair? While she was repairing Chiam, she felt an uncanny sense that art was imitating life and life imitating art.
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