Less than 20 percent of communication is done with words. Body language plays an important role in how we naturally communicate. The same holds true for puppets when they are communicating.
Some puppets, such as vent puppets and animatronics are designed to have multiple functioning parts for the purpose of gesturing, but most of my training primarily works on the premise that the puppeteer will be using a foam style puppet. Unless you spend for the extra quality or you are trained in developing animatronics, then your puppets are not going to have multiple facial features so that means the puppet must exaggerate some movements to give the illusion of expression. Here are some basic gestures and how they can be done for extra effect so that the puppets don’t look as if they are reading from cue cards and your audience lose interest from the lack of expression.
There are a few types of laughs that get used to elicit different responses.
The snicker- this is a small slightly noticed laugh. This can be accomplished by slightly opening the mouth, gently bob the puppet’s head forward and back with each high breath that is forced out. A great example of this is Ernie from Sesame Street. He is known for his snicker.
The silent laugh- this one uses the concept of the snicker, but is much more quiet and generally uses an arm rod in order to make the hand come up over the mouth so as to try and hide that the puppet is laughing.
The boisterous laugh- just like it sounds; this is the loud, very noticed laugh. You are over emphasizing the word “HAA”. By this time, you probably do not have too much of a problem with biting words, so you would do ha as you naturally would, but at the height of the AAAA sound, you will have the mouth opened wide and head slightly going backwards. You can also throw in a few over dramatized slaps on the table, puppet flop, or even a fall behind stage to indicate the puppet was laughing so hard he or she fell out of their chair.
You are basically going to implement the same techniques for laughing with a different sound.
One major difference is that you keep the puppet’s head kind of hanging low and show a level of self-consciousness as if the puppet is trying to hide the fact that they are crying.
A good performance cry is much more than having the puppet go “Boo Hoo” and “WAAAA”. You can also utilize an arm rod to help bring home that the puppet is trying to cover the fact that they are crying.
Sleepy and bored are almost identical. The puppet will have an appearance of moping. An example of this is when the puppet is walking. The walk will be slow and at the end of each bounce step, it will end hard as if the puppet went from walking on a cloud to cement in one step. Of coarse, occasional yawns are important.
Note: To project boredom as opposed to sleepy, the yawn could be replaced with sighs.
This is simple, Use a heavy breath to say your words, lean in close to the ear of the one being whispered to and put your hand up to the side of your mouth as if to conceal what you are saying. An added gesture for real secrecy is to occasionally stop what you are saying and look around to make sure no one is listening. In some cases, not even actually saying anything, but rather using breathy sounds, will give the illusion of a secret without having to script actual lines.
Remember what I have said about no movement is wrong if it has purpose and is intended for that purpose? Well this is one of those times. A really good boisterous yell requires the puppet to slightly flip the lid as if speaking to the sky. Slightly lean in to the one you are addressing and go for it.
The best example of mad that I can give you is from Bert on Sesame Street. This is one of the gestures that he is known for because Ernie is always frustrating him. Depending on how stiff the puppet’s jaw is, try to position the lower jaw forward and clamp the mouth together tight. Add some heavy breathing while moving your body slightly forward on exhales while straightening up on the inhales and this gives the impression that you are trying very hard to keep your mouth shut.
Added note about body movement: The gestures and movements of your puppet will also be determined by the type of puppet he or she is. An example of this is that an older person puppet is not going to be as bouncy and springy as a child puppet. Another example is when you have an animal puppet. Though you want to give all of your puppets a human-type quality to make them more relatable to your audience, animals have different characteristics than humans and these will be important observations to add to the puppet’s character when performing gestures.
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