Eye contact is one of those subjective things because it all depends on what the puppets are doing and, like with the entrances and exits, there are exceptions to every rule as long as there is deliberate intent. Some puppets look at the audience the entire time they are visible on stage while others keep their focus on another puppet or in different locations throughout the performance. Again, it all depends on what they are doing. It is pretty important for puppets to show mutual respect for each other. If one puppet is speaking to another, the puppets generally look at each other. If the puppet is addressing the audience, however, it will be looking at the audience. Just remember that the audience is going to be at a slightly lower level than the stage, so the puppet needs, not only to look in the direction of the audience, but also slightly down to give the impression that the puppet is in eye contact with them.
An eye contact issue that is commonly made is the stargazer look. This is when the head slowly starts looking up toward the sky. This is usually caused by the puppeteer’s wrist getting stiff in a locked position so they unconsciously begin to straighten their wrist. This looks as if the puppet is getting bored with who he or she is talking to and decides to change his or her focus on what’s going on above them.
If you were at a party and someone you were speaking to, all of the sudden, started gazing up, what happens next? You start looking up to see what they are looking at. The same will hold true for the audience, they will think the puppet is looking up for a reason and they will, in turn, start looking up to see what he or she is looking at. This is a distraction that will take away from your performance as it takes attention away from the content.
Character to Character
Now if a puppet is talking with another character in the skit, it is fine (and actually natural a.k.a more realistic) for your puppet to occasionally look around. Pay attention to yourself and others as you converse and take note of how many times your gaze moves elsewhere or how many times you notice the other person look away for a split second. This also allows the wrist to move so that it doesn’t get in that locked position that hurts so much and leads to stargazer syndrome.
Practice Tip: get a dowel rod about 6” to 12”, nothing too thick, just something with a diameter of no more than ¼”. Now hold it in between your middle finger and ring finger so that it is pointing like an extended finger. This becomes a focus line. Use this to practice where your puppet is staring. In no time at all you can visualize without any help as to exactly where your puppet’s eyes are falling.
However, as I stated, there are exceptions to every rule. An example would be if your puppet has a shy disposition; the puppet would then be more likely not to make a lot of eye contact. The opposite would hold true if, for example, you had a puppet that was intense and intimidating such as a drill sergeant or a cranky boss; they would aggressively make long, extended gazes for the sake of intimidation.
Effective eye contact is going to be an attribute that fits into your puppet’s character and demeanor. So know your character and have fun with it.
In my next post, we will go over the last of the five basics to puppetry and then we can move on to more fun stuff.
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