v Puppet shows on your own puppet stage are not only great fun for children, but are also rich with developmental benefits that include nurturing creativity, teaching pretend play and allowing positive reinforcement. Puppet shows are also dramatic performances, and some simple rules of thumb will help make performing easier and more rewarding for the children, as well as clearer to understand for their audiences.
CHARACTER VOICES: Encourage each child to make up a character voice they think suits the puppet, or that they can perform well. Remember there’s a great deal of flexibility and creative license in matching the role to the puppets on hand. The child can mimic a specific character from movies or TV that suits the part, such as the Cowardly Lion from “The Wizard of Oz,” Mickey Mouse’s high falsetto, and so on.
WALKING: To simulate a puppet walking or running across the stage, encourage the children to take it beyond merely sliding the puppets across the stage. Rather, have them bounce the puppet slightly up and down to represent each step as they move from one position to the other. These small “step-size” bounces can create more of a sense of excitement on stage and also allow puppeteers some great opportunities for jumping from view and other fun, dramatic moves.
BODY LANGUAGE: Show your children how to use pauses for dramatic or comedic effect, explaining to them how controlling the puppet’s body moves is as important to their acting as their enthusiasm on stage. A pause and a slow turn by the puppet to the audience can pull the viewers into the puppet’s exasperation or its “thought process.” Paul Winchell, the great puppeteer and ventriloquist, was a master of the slow turn. Think of all the other ventriloquists and puppeteers you’ve seen. Sometimes a hesitation plays as well as a spoken line. Slightly vibrating the puppet can communicate fear or can be used to create a double-take of surprise. Holding up the puppet’s arms can communicate glee. A puppet’s hand on its chin shows it’s thinking. Hunching the puppet forward can mean sadness. Help the children develop their own “body language” moves. Most animated cartoons use the same techniques.
TALKING: With moving-mouth puppets, the natural tendency for most is to SHUT the puppet’s mouth in sync with each syllable. But humans do the opposite, and so should puppets. It may take practice, but try to teach each child to OPEN the puppet’s mouth with every syllable. Sid worked with the Muppet puppeteers once, and that’s the first thing they taught him.
GENDER NOTE: In adapting our collection of Aesop’s Fables scripts, we’ve referred to the animal characters in the neuter “it,” because we don’t know if a boy or girl is ultimately going to play the part. (Aesop seemed to assume all animals were male.) When you find a script to adapt, you may have to switch pronouns, too. But the children will usually point that out right away. Don’t let the gender of the original material keep you from performing a script you think works well with your puppet cast.
Puppets aren’t, by construction, as fluid and flexible in communicating the emotions as humans are. As humans, we can roll our eyes, frown, smile and show how we feel in the subtle ways. If a child is having difficulty making the puppet communicate a certain emotion, have him stand in front of a mirror and try to express the emotion without the puppet. Point out if the child has tilted his head, drooped his shoulders or any other natural movements he has drawn upon to express the emotion. Then help him to translate these movements to the puppet. This will help the child become more aware of and comfortable with his emotions, and your puppet show will be richer and more enjoyable.