Get Off Your Duff!
OK, it is impossible to ‘learn’ puppetry and not practice. It’s not like riding a bike; it will not just “come back to you” even if you remember everything. The goal is to create an almost cellular memory of what to do, so that it becomes second nature to do it.
I have been doing puppetry for so long now that when I train others and try to give examples of biting words, flipping the lid, etc. I have to consciously think about it, because I unconsciously do it correctly by nature, but that comes from years and years of practicing non-stop.
What Are Puppet Aerobics?
The first time I heard the phrase “puppet aerobics” I was in a class being taught by Jim Wideman, who at the time was in charge of the elementary education for Church on the Move in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Basically, puppet aerobics are exercises used to condition puppeteers. Just like in fitness aerobics, it’s meant to stretch and create muscle memory.
Along with training the basics, it also builds the muscles most used when operating a puppet. Some performances will go on for a while so it is important to have the physical dexterity needed, as well as a second nature habit of operating the puppet properly.
As a performer, you should be practicing your skills as much as possible, whenever it is convenient for you. As the director of a puppet team, every practice should start with puppet aerobics, to ingrain proper performance techniques and to stretch out before getting into practice.
You never see an athlete or performer just go into their event without first warming up. It is important that you properly warm up all the muscles that you are going to be using in any given performance.
Each aerobics section should be around 30 minutes. If you find yourself in crunch, at least spend 20 minutes on this. It is a good way to create icebreakers in team dynamics as well.
Make it part of your routine so that you get in the habit of doing it first thing every practice and everyone will begin to expect to do it and immediately set up to o it when they first come in.
Spend about 2 to 3 minutes going over each of the basics
Tip: Do them in the same order every time to create a routine that becomes memorized. This way you know what order to follow each time and don’t forget one.
Second I spend another 5 minutes doing “Burpies”. If the them members question why they are doing these, it is because it builds dexterity in the legs, hips and back as puppeteers will oftentimes have to crouch and stand on their knees behind certain stages for long periods of time. Not everyone has the luxury, or th space to have a chair.
Another one is to have the puppeteers stand back to back or back against the wall and work their way down into a sitting position, hold it for a few seconds and then work their way back up. This is harder than it sounds, but great for building up the back muscles.
The one I always try to do last, because it is the one you practice on the most s the arm hold. One of the biggest problems in long performances is quicksand, where the puppeteer’s arm gets tired and the puppet slowly sinks off stage. In some cases, the puppeteer’s arm can literally go numb.
The way I was taught to do this exercise is by taking a full soup can and holding it over my head, arm fully extended, with the wrist angled down as if I had a puppet on that was looking at the audience.
Tip: Make sure to give equal time to both arms. Every puppeteer is going to have a dominant arm they use most of the time, but you want them to be able to use both arms equally should an occasion arise where they will need to control two puppets at once.
What I have done is change the soup can to a can of soda. It’s not as heavy as the soup can, but it is still as effective and, by doing this one last, it gives the team members a treat/reward that they can enjoy as you go into the next portion of the practice, which, hopefully, will be discussion about a performance. Do Not Allow puppeteers to drink the sodas in close proximity to the puppets.
Jazz It Up
Don’t be boring with it. Think of this section of practice as an actual aerobics class; add music, be energetic make it fun. In fact, Jim Wideman (as I discussed earlier) came out with a cd to practice the basics by, so did One Way Street UK. Video tape the practice and use clips in promo videos to get new recruits.