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Puppets in Space

Dramaturgical Thinking and the Mosaic Scale for Puppetry

There is no one way to create a puppet show. Some people write a script, some devise collaboratively and use notes as aides, others utilize storyboards or improvisation, and yet more adapt an existing story or human script (scripts for performances given solely by human actors or performers). All these routes are correct: if it works, it works. However, as co-founder of Croon Productions, a small-scale UK company specializing in puppet shows for grown-ups, I know that one thing theatremakers must often consider is space.

“Space” is defined by the online Cambridge English Dictionary as “an empty area that is available to be used... the area around everything that exists, continuing in all directions... the distance between.” When it comes to puppetry, this can include:

  1. The space or distance on stage between the puppeteer and the puppet (literal space or air between the two, but also the metaphoric space between the human world and the puppet world).
  2. The space on stage and how it changes in the audience’s perception if theatremakers play with different scales of puppets, sets, and playboards, as well as different frames (as in what the puppetry is framed by—a proscenium arch, humans, a piece of furniture, a large theatre set).
  3. The imaginary and intellectual space or distance between the puppet world and the “real” human world.
  4. The space the show is being performed in (both the type of stage/performance space and the size of that space).

The space a puppet show creates is the puppet world. Space on stage is about balance, rhythm, choreography, and the pictures created for the audience to experience. A visceral and uncanny response to puppetry is the space between what we perform as puppeteers and what the audience perceives. The concept of space in puppetry matters because space is perspective, both literally and figuratively.

Croon’s most recent piece, Spaghetti: a Western, grew from an original idea for a show performed in and on two upright pianos. These pianos would be cut into smaller sections so they could be moved around to create different settings or joined together to both store props and puppets for transportation and to act as playboard (the term “playboard” originates from the board at the front of a puppet booth that the puppets “play” on and can be almost anything a puppet can perform on: a table top, a human body or a shadow screen). This exploration of the space we could use—to create different places within the story, different levels to perform on, and different frames for puppetry performance, and as a useful box for transportation—was for us a game changer.

I believe dramaturging space can help puppetry theatremakers look at their work in new ways. As part of my recent doctoral research in writing and dramaturgy for puppet theatre, I have created an active, practical, five-step dramaturgy system for puppet theatre: the Mosaic Scale. Each step of the Mosaic Scale allows puppet theatremakers, writers, directors, or dramaturgs to ask questions of their process, ideas, and decisions.

The concept of space in puppetry matters because space is perspective, both literally and figuratively.

The Mosaic Scale Five-Step System and Exercise

The Mosaic Scale can be be dipped in and out of, and the steps don’t have to be read in a linear way. It’s akin to a mosaic-building approach, designed to help refine and create the bigger picture of a puppet show and to ask the questions that lead to the decisions, which makes the puppet show the best it can be.

  1. Initial Analysis: Analysis of decisions on style, format, and story.
  2. Repeat and Revisit: Considerations that are revisited throughout the process, including design, puppet type, scale, and size.
  3. The Visceral: Considerations that encourage a visceral response to the puppets and puppetry.
  4. The Uncanny: Considerations to encourage an uncanny response, over and above the sheer uncanniness of puppets.
  5. Phenomenological Overview: Considerations of the experience of and the response to the puppetry for both puppeteer and audience.
Puppet is standing behind a desk made to scale with tiny lamp and white phone. Newspaper clippings compose the backdrop.

Noir: A Dick Privet mystery by Croon productions. Photo Credit: Pod Farlow.

Within the overall system is an exercise also called the mosaic scale—it is this exercise that gave the system it’s umbrella term. The exercise, which can be utilised during all of the five steps, is used by puppetry theatremakers to look at the number of times a character, theme, or motif appears in a scene or show. It allows for an exploration of balance, rhythm, and style, and it indicates if the thing being examined is missing or occurring too soon or too often.

The exercise can be used to explore the use of scale, size, framing, viscerality, the uncanny, effects, design choices, narrative events, and puppet type. It can be used during the devising process, once a draft script is written, or in rehearsal. As an example, it can be used to explore use of scale—whether changing the sizes or types of puppets in a particular scene works. Does that affect the overall look of the show positively or might it feel out of place and confusing to an audience? Seeing the data from every occurrence within a script can highlight whether there is an imbalance or if there is something the theatremaker should be focusing on in performance.

Here's how to use the Mosaic Scale to explore scale and frame in a scene:

  1. Choose icons (or mosaic tiles) that represent each different size or scale of the puppets and each different frame these puppets perform against. The icons only need to make sense to you. For example, a letter can represent a character’s name and a simple picture can represent a puppet type.
  2. In your script or devising notes, mark the icon on each page where it occurs.
  3. Once you have noted the number of occurrences and where the changes happen in the script, record the data. This will allow you to take in the overall effect. Using a table with the key included on the same page for clarity and ease of reference is helpful.
An image of a Mosaic Scale Chart with notes written on it.

Example of the Mosaic Scale exercise exploring scale and frame.

More broadly, the mosaic scale exercise can be used to establish themes and the regularity of specific puppet or character appearances. Questions that might come up are: Are there specific conflicts that keep appearing? Is the puppet that was supposed to be the sidekick always on stage? If so, how does this change the dynamic of the show?

For example, using the Mosaic Scale on an early draft of one of my puppet scripts (see image above), I realized I was introducing between six and nine pages of puppet action to be performed by small-scale puppets, framed by a doll’s house or a shelf, at the beginning of a show. However, the show was predominantly to be performed by tabletop puppets, so I decided this was too much of this scale and far too soon.

[The mosaic scale exercise] allows for an exploration of balance, rhythm, and style, and it indicates if the thing being examined is missing or occurring too soon or too often.

Dramaturgy Decisions: Co-Presence and Visible or Invisible Puppeteers

Space between a puppeteer and performer is one element to explore. A puppeteer can be visible or invisible. This (in)visibility is not necessarily about being absent from view—a puppeteer can be visible on stage and in the same literal space as the puppet but remain somehow invisible. This can be due to the way they’re dressed, the amount of performance they do as themselves, and how much focus they give to the puppet.

Another consideration is co-presence. As defined by Paul Piris, this asks if the audience is “reading” the puppeteer as another character on stage. Many puppet shows have the puppeteer performing a character at the same time as performing/manipulating a puppet, while some puppets, like glove puppets performing in a booth, automatically negate the need to consider co-presence or puppeteer visibility.

Questions from step one of the Mosaic Scale can be used to consider the implications of space between a puppeteer and performer.

  • Are the puppeteers visible or invisible? Why has this been chosen and what is the impact of this choice?
  • Is there co-presence? Why has this been chosen and what is the impact of this choice?
  • What puppet type is being used? Does the visibility of the puppeteer impact that choice?
  • How might the perception of the space and the puppet world change if the puppeteers become visible or invisible?
  • What happens to the space of the puppet world if the puppeteer is completely absent from view?

We played with these questions in the development of Spaghetti. To begin with, we puppeteers were visible and co-present, playing costumed characters alongside the puppets. However, after dramaturging our rehearsals, we decided that our co-presence was a distraction and pulled focus from the puppets and the narrative.

When the puppet theatremaker explores the space on stage by playing with different scales of puppet, set, playboard, or frame, the audience’s perception of the characters and the narrative can change.

Dramaturgy Decisions: Scale and Frame

Audiences today are familiar with comic and cinematic visual language such as framing, scale, wide shots, and close-ups. In comics, for example, the frame of each image can be a different size depending on the flow of the narrative and specific focus or importance, whereas the frame of animation and film is always the same size and shape—the screen on which we watch.

Wide shots and close ups in puppetry are doing something similar to comic frames. This knowledge and system is very easily translated to puppet theatre, and questions from step two of the Mosaic Scale can be used to analyze choices being made here.

  • What size and scale of puppets are being used in each scene? Is the number of times different scales or framing are used across the show working?
  • Does the piece play with scale in a cinematic way, from wide vista with small puppets to large close-ups?
  • Has space been created, within the images the puppets make and the actions they perform, for the imagination of the spectator?
  • How much empty space is there in the puppetry scene? How much closure—the work the brain does to fill in the gaps in information—might the spectator need to employ?
An Image of a puppet moving through saloon swinging doors The doors are on two pianos,.

No Name enters the bar. Image from Spaghetti by Croon productions. Photo Credit: Emily LeQuesne.

Panels in comics can be just an image, or an image with words, and this can be applied to puppetry. There are panels in comics and scenes in puppetry that allow the reader to make a leap in the narrative. In Spaghetti, we changed the scale of the puppets throughout the performance. For example, tiny horses were used to signify traveling across a vast expanse of desert to a jail house and a larger rod marionette was used for a close-up of the jail break.

This is an example of the imaginary and intellectual space or distance between the puppet world and the “real” human world. When the puppet theatremaker explores the space on stage by playing with different scales of puppet, set, playboard, or frame, the audience’s perception of the characters and the narrative can change.

Space Exploration

The above examples are just a few ways of working with the Mosaic Scale, focused on steps one and two. (Steps three, four, and five—the visceral, the uncanny, and phenomenology—will have some crossover into human theatre, but that’s another article for another time.) And while the Mosaic Scale was originally created for puppet theatre, it’s a process that can be utilized by writers, dramaturgs, directors, designers, choreographers, and actors working in all styles of performance—the data collected can inform any artist of repetition, motif, theme, decisions and occurrence.

As a puppet theatremaker, asking how the perception of the space and the puppet world might change if the puppeteers are (in)visible can create new spaces, and applying comic book and cinematic theories to writing and devising can bring focus to considerations of scale and frame. Ultimately, both puppeteers and audiences of puppetry are space travelers, traveling through puppet space and puppet time. And by experimenting with performance space, size, scale and the visibility of the puppeteer, puppet theatremakers are playing with perspective—the very concept of space.

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