Puppet Origin Stories: Peng

by fingerplayers

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.

Featured in The World of Our Own, 2021

Peng was a puppet that was a combined effort of Myra Loke and Daniel Sim. Myra wanted the puppet to be quite neutral, for it to not look entirely realistic. As Myra had intended for the set and the puppet to have a contrasting effect, the set took on a colder and more clinical outlook, and so the puppet was built to have flesh, as Myra felt this would allow the audience to be able to relate to this character. The set design employed the use of a modular system, and used aluminium framing modular sections.

The modular set in The World of Our Own

While building in the workshop, Myra shared her ideas with Daniel. Daniel mentioned a puppet that he had made previously, that has not been used in performance before, and Myra thought it would be a good idea to use this puppet as a base.

This puppet that Daniel had built was called Al, and is based on a character called Alphonse Elric (from the Japanese anime series Fullmental Alchemist). It was created under Lazee, a loose collective that The Finger Players (TFP) Co-Founder Tan Beng Tian had formed because she wanted to give something back to the people who were volunteering at TFP. Under Lazee, the members of the collective learnt a bit of performing, puppeteering and also made puppets. Al was made during that time, and Daniel gave himself the restriction of building it out of metal, primarily aluminium. Daniel was also inspired after watching Konfrantasi, a production by Papermoon Puppet Theatre from Indonesia. In the production, the puppeteer moved around while seated on little blocks with wheels, and “walked” the puppets with their feet by gripping the back of the puppet’s feet with their toes. Daniel wanted to give Al a similar function, and used the hollow of the aluminium foot to create space for a human foot to be inserted. The puppeteer’s toes then grips the aluminium on the side. He also gave Al a mouth mechanism. This was also the first time he used springs to create the joints of a puppet, and felt that they worked really well. The springs were flexible enough to manipulate and contained a bounce that gave life to the limbs, but rigid enough to hold them in place without drooping completely. Al then became the foundation for Peng.

In rehearsals for The World of Our Own

During rehearsals, however, the spring-joints would get stretched, and after a while, Peng had legs of uneven length. The springs had to be changed out, and Myra had to strategically wrap foam around it to keep it in place, and allow the stretched spring to be changed out when necessary. It was also important to figure out the most appropriate height of Peng, as the performance space was small, and having a puppeteer rolling around might distract from the performance as he had to navigate the furniture in the space. Eventually, the idea of the puppeteer being on the rollie was scraped, and Myra made the puppet slightly taller so the puppeteer (Hairi Cromo) didn’t have to bend too much.

Emotion Meter in Peng

Peng was written as a character who had an emotion meter. The way this was shown was when the light in his body would change color, signifying changes in mood. Myra had many discussions with the spatial designers about this, as the designers were concerned if the light in Peng’s body could still be seen clearly in an outdoor show under natural light, and were debating how they could support this visual imagery with the space, while making sure there were no compromises. However, due to Covid-19 restrictions, the performance eventually had to happen indoors, which was a blessing in disguise, as it meant that no compromises had to be made.

For Peng’s body, Myra tried using cotton, lycra and plastic cling wrap as his skin, so that the light could come through. She knew she needed a semi-translucent material, and eventually went with sponge, as it gave the impression of real flesh, but was also porous and textured in a not uniformed way. This meant that when light passed through, the flow was soft and natural, and not flat.

As The World of Our Own was initially planned to be an outdoor show, Myra felt that she had to first make Peng’s head bigger. She also envisioned the Peng puppet to have a more human-like face, as compared to AL’s aluminium face that felt a little too machine-like. This was also the first time Myra didn’t sketch a face before she started carving. This was partly due to time constraints, but also because Peng was inspired by a real-life person. Myra could carve intuitively, as the imagery of this person entered her head. When it came to the skin color though, she really struggled. She wanted a “neutral” color, but after trying different color and textures with the paint piling and layering up, she felt that it wasn’t working. In a fit of frustration she wiped away her efforts with wet wipes, and what was left behind were layers of the different colors. To Myra, this effect worked. There was white, brown, layers of papier mache, and yellow. This texture came from wiping away what she wanted to be a perfect color. Many people felt that it looked slightly unfinished, but Myra liked it this way.

A note from the Maker (Myra Loke):

Peng will be the puppet that documents the pandemic for me. The show was created during a time when people were figuring out how to negotiate with the pandemic. There were many difficulties/obstacles in bringing Peng and the work to the community and sometimes it really felt very isolating and that we have to work really hard to create a world of our own, a world that we hope to see, amidst all the chaos, and perhaps now on hindsight, Peng really embodied how I felt at that time, quite transparent and fragile (like the sponge/flesh of the body) and many things rumbling through the body (like the running lights in the body), and I think it was how many people felt too. I’m glad that at the end of the performance, some of the audience came up to Peng to touch his face, and to give him a hug. It is as if they gave me a hug, and of course, gave themselves and the many people who felt the same as Peng a hug. 

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