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Creating a Puppet Team

Building Your Team

Now that we have given an overview of the team positions and you can see what it takes to properly put a team together, lets get started building that team. If this book has kept your interest thus far then you know that puppets are powerful communication devices. Therefore a team should present absolutely the best performance possible every time. To be a part of a puppet team is a wonderful way to build a sense of self-esteem, commitment, teamwork, organizational skills, discipline and an overall feeling of accomplishment in being part of something that is larger than one’s self.

One of the benefits of puppetry is that a shy person can perform to the utmost of their ability behind the curtain and not feel the anxiety of being stared at by a large audience. Trust me, this was one of the deciding factors for me getting into puppetry, but it didn’t take long until I was able to transfer that anxiety to the puppet and was able to perform without the curtain between me and the audience. Don’t get me wrong, I still get the butterflies and such, but I am more confident now and that will happen to your puppeteers as well. It will bring out the inner actor in anyone.

There are some basic fundamentals that will insure that your team is successful and will stand the test of time. A problem that most groups see is a fall away season. Especially if most of your group is made up of adolescents and teens; you will notice that there will be times where members will leave your team in a mass exodus, but if you have stability in your guidelines and development, you will also see new members coming in constantly as well as some of the members who quit will come back after taking a break (that is if you want them back).

Be the ultimate leader

This is more than just saying, “I am the director.” You have already made an important step by reading this book. Don’t stop here though! Use this as a stepping-stone to move you to the next level. Attend training seminars; not only on puppetry, but leadership, team building…anything that will have anything to do with your team and it’s development.

You never want to try to lead something that you know little about. This will reflect poorly on you and your team. Don’t expect the team to know, learn or practice something that you do not know yourself. Let your team see that the standards you have set for them are the same standards that you have set for yourself.

Find and develop a core leadership team

You have probably heard the phrase “no man is an island” and this is a very pertinent phrase here because you may be able to start this alone and initially organizes it, but as it grows you will find that it will become overwhelming. Here are a few reasons as to why it is important to have at least two other people in leadership roles.

  • Makes burn out less likely.

  • You can delegate responsibilities.

  • Accountability.

  • You have a sounding board for ideas.

  • Different perspectives.

Definitely have a core leadership in place before going any further with your team development. Trust me, this will save a lot of headaches in the future.

Core values and standards

Now that you have a core leadership developed, you want to get together and work on the core values of your team. This will be your mission statement, your goals, your future aspirations for the group, and the standards (rules) that each member of the team must commit to and follow in order to become and remain a member of the team. This part of the team development may seem unnecessary, but it is vitally important to have all of this carved in stone before taking a team to a professional level. If you are making up rules as you go along, you are more likely to have team members test you on them as well as not everyone will be on the same page when it comes to what is expected of them.

Mission statement. The mission statement is a short overview that will guide the actions of the team, spell out its overall goal, provide a sense of direction, and guide decision-making. It should provide "the framework” or context within which the team's directions are formulated. Generally you will try to keep this no more than two paragraphs if at all possible.

Virtues. Make sure to have a detailed list of how a team member is expected to conduct him/herself, both on and off the stage. It is obvious that team members should act a certain way during a performance, but one thing that gets overlooked is how they are expected to act during practice. Another thing that is overlooked and purposely not addressed because it may cause some friction is the conduct of the team member outside of the puppet team.

Some examples of how this is important would be as follows:

  1. You are trying to get booked at church function, but right as you introduce your team to the pastor, he recognizes one of your team members as the guy that was cussing out another guy in a parking lot just days prior.

  2. A team member misses a performance because he got arrested the night before.

  3. A team member is late to practice or doesn’t show up at all because he/she has detention at school or a hangover from a party the night before.

I can go on and on with real life scenarios that I have seen play out over the years. It is important that your team members know, from the start, what is expected of them on and off the stage. Anything they do can, and usually will, reflect on the team in one-way or another.

Goals. It is important to have set goals. This goes beyond New Year’s resolution type goals. Create goal sets and don’t neglect to set goals due to a fear of possibly having to change them or not achieving them. Goals are there as markers to aim for. I have been told that if you aim for nothing, you will hit it every time.

Sometimes, goals sound daunting, but if created in sets and broken down into smaller goals, then the goal becomes a series of reachable objectives.

Example: Let’s say that one of your goals is to get featured on a television show. This is a very ambitious goal that may seem totally out of reach now, but let's break it down into a goal set.

T.V. feature

Create quality demo video of our performance

Gather professional footage

Videotape performances

Book multiple performances

Become as professional as we can (practice)

Now this is a quick run through and these are only overviews. In order for this goal to be achieved there is a lot more work that needs to go into each set, but this should give you an idea that it isn’t impossible to take any goal and break it down into doable objectives. Don’t concentrate on the goal itself, just the objectives.

Goals will change- Don’t be afraid to change up some of your goals. As you team grows and develops, so will your priorities. Always have goals that the rest of the team can be on board with. Also, encourage each team member to get into the habit of creating their own personal achievement goals for themselves as a team member. One member’s goal may be to become a professional ventriloquist, while another may want to be more organized. Whatever their goals, make yourself available to help them achieve what they want. This will only help the team.

Contract of Commitment- draw up a Commitment Contract that is mandatory for each team member to sign. This puts everyone on the same page as to what their responsibilities are and, should something arise that leads to a disciplinary action to a team member, then it is all in writing with a signature of agreement. Your contract will need to be personalized for your team and will differ from someone else, but there are a few key elements that need to be a part of it.

Puppetry is a learned art. Team members should be prepared to set aside specific time each week to rehearse. I usually incorporate this with a commitment timetable. Always try to get your team members to commit to a year. If they commit to be in the team for a year, then they are agreeing to follow the contract for a year.

Rehearsal attendance is a big one. For me, if you miss practice you miss the performance. There is nothing worse than a team member who doesn’t practice, but then shows up at a performance and ends up detracting from the performance from missed choreography, lines, etc.

Disgruntled whining is a personal pet peeve of mine. If you are part of the team, then there needs to be an understanding that you will perform as a team both in practice and performance. This will mean that there will be times that a team member is going to have to do something they don’t want to do. Whining only prolongs the event.

Performance expectations have a tendency to be overlooked. Directors automatically assume that a team member understands what is expected of them at a performance, but this isn’t always the case, so lay it all out for them. For some team members, this will seem like a question of their intelligence, but for some, it will actually be an eye opener.

Along with the expectations in this contract, make sure to have the consequences as well. By having set consequences, there can be no accusation of unfair discipline when rules are broken. The difference between discipline and punishment is consistency. To set someone out of a practice for an infraction of the rules while kicking another off the team all together for the same infraction is punishment and unfair both professionally and personally.

As with goals, rules will change, but if you do, make sure to add the change to the contract and have new contracts signed. In fact, it is a good idea to annually review the contract and have members renew their commitment to the team whether the contract has changed or not.

Another guideline that I have is that any member under age 16 has to have their parent or guardian sign as well.

In this contract you want to also make known what the leadership’s roles are and the commitment to them as team members. This is a team and not a political theocracy, so it is important to make sure that the team member knows what they can expect and should expect from the leadership.

On this note, you may want to create a leadership contract to detail what the leadership’s obligations are. Make sure that you sign one of these as well.

Team Development Standards- when you are first starting out, you will probably want to have an open door policy with tryouts. Don’t assume that because someone has puppet experience that they are good puppet team members. For new teams it’s always good to get a lot of people in at first and then weed out the ones who will work from those who will not.

However you get the members in the door, whether through open casting or tryouts; you need to develop standards that will keep things orderly and professional for anyone who wishes to be a part of the team. Hold every applicant to the same standards. Nepotism is not a good standard to use, but I see it all too often. People are allowed in, not because they will be beneficial to the team, but because of who they know or who they are related to, etc. This never works out and can often times backfire. Each member gets there on his or her own merits.

Rules- This is important to developing good standards. Have a set of rules that will be set for everyone to follow.

Here is a list of basic rules that should make it into your guide. I have yet to see a strong puppet team that did not implement these rules:

  1. Practice- I cannot stress this enough. If you do not have a steady and consistent practice schedule, your team will never be more than mediocre at best.

  2. Time Management- Whether in practice, performance or daily activities, effective time management is vital to keeping things running smoothly and looking professional.

  3. Respect/Courtesy- I have seen many groups split up and fall apart because of issues created due to lack of respect in the group, especially between team members, but also among leadership.

  4. Puppet Care- Each puppet has a price tag attached to it and every time one needs to be repaired or replaced, that is money that could have went to something more productive.

  5. Dress Code- This just shows professionalism. Not necessary to have all of the team dress exactly alike, but you do not want to have team members showing up for performances dressed like they spent the night at the bus station either.

  6. Communication- Effective communication keeps everyone on the same page as well as addresses situations when they develop as opposed to when they have time to grow into a major problem.

  7. Clean Up- Getting into a habit of cleaning up after every practice and performance will create an environment that harbors organization and tidiness.

And now here are some more specific rules that I usually implement in the teams that I have assisted in developing:

  • Grades- For team members who are in school, it is important that the puppet team not be used as an excuse (whether a just one or not) for that student failing. If grades are not kept up, then that member needs to be benched just as if you were his or her basketball coach. You may try to help with some sort of tutoring program, but if the team is the excuse, then that reflects poorly on you and the team.

  • Other Obligations- To have an effective team, there needs to be a level of commitment. If a team member is having issues with prioritizing the team practice into his or her schedule, then they need to re-evaluate their priorities.

  • Health-If a member is sick, they are to stay out of the group until they are no longer contagious. One member out due to illness before a performance is one thing, but to have most of the team out will hurt you. Reduce the spread of illness the best that you can.

  • Fraternizing- It is impossible to stop members from making connections, but I have seen situations where boyfriends and girlfriends are fighting or even break up and it tears the entire group apart. You have a couple who train together for months on a human arm puppet skit only to break up and not want to have anything to do with each other then that skit can’t be uses.

Dealing with Discipline-Just before my daughter was born, I was a nervous worrywart that read everything about child development and parenting. Many things made me confused more than anything, but one thing that stood out and made a lot of sense to me was in the area of discipline. Disciplinary action is nothing more than punishment if it is missing two things.

The first thing is consistency- if you are not consistent, then your team will not effectively know what standards they are to achieve.

The second factor needed in discipline is fairness- it is not required that the director be the long arm of the law. Remember that this is supposed to be fun for everyone.

You do need consequences for infractions. Have them all laid out; make sure that they are listed in the contract as well as in the puppet playbook so there is no excuse when it comes time to deal out disciplinary action.

In any group situation, especially those in which teens and younger are involved, you are going to have a time where discipline becomes an issue in order to keep the team running smooth.

It goes without saying that if a team member or leader is totally breaking down the congruency of the team that the team member in question should be let go, but most offenses are not going to be termination offenses, so here are some suggestions that I have picked up over the years that seem to minimize potential problems.

Control the flow. Never bring in more team members than you can effectively handle.

Have set rules, make them clear and concise, and do not exempt anyone in the team from these rules.

Make sure to weed out the fly-by-night puppeteers. The ones who come and go as they please, those who are there because they want to hang out with someone else who is a team member, and those who are there for the specific purpose of causing conflict.

Keep them busy. Make sure that every team member has something to do. “Idle hands are the tools of the devil,” as they say. If they are busy, then they are not setting around looking for ways to occupy their time.

Be there first. Always have leadership onsite before any of the other team members arrive so there is no unsupervised time.

Framework only. Don’t set up the full stage when practicing. Only set up the framework or mark off the area that the stage will be. This way you can view how the puppeteers are acting behind stage.

Repeat, repeat, repeat=boredom. Obviously you need to repeat skits, songs, etc. in order to get them down and perfect, but do not meet and only go over one thing the entire practice time. I will discuss this further in a future blog.

Set it in stone. Make your rules, enforce them equally and consistently, and if you have a problem being “the bad guy” then find someone in your leadership group that doesn’t have a problem with administering discipline. Make sure to hand over this authority lightly though. In the hands of the wrong person, your team will become a work camp and your team members will start leaving in droves.

Give Warnings. Always start with a verbal warning, then move to a verbal with a written version of the warning (I usually give two of these and on the third one I move to the next step), then a two-week to a month suspension from all team related activities, then let them go for at least a year and if they do come back, they are required to start back at beginner level and work their way back up. I find that if they are sincere and willing to go through this, they have matured enough and you often find that these are the ones who make some of the best future leaders and trainers.

Give official verbal warnings in a private setting away from the other team members, but never do it one-on-one. Always have at least one other member of the leadership involved. If dealing with a member of the opposite sex, have the other leadership member be of the opposite sex as well.

Minors. When dealing with a minor, it is always a good idea to have a parent or legal guardian present also.

Opposite sex. As the group grows, so do potential liabilities, so to keep the honest…well, honest, it is a good idea to always have accountability; this means that, whenever possible, have a second member of leadership with you when giving out official warnings and, when dealing with a member of the opposite sex, the leader should be of the same gender whenever possible.

Keep records. Even when giving verbal warnings, it is a good idea to keep track and have a note about it on file. If you don’t, there may be times where you end up giving multiple verbal warnings with no further discipline for one member and then lay down the law on another one, which will cause issues in the team with discrimination complaints.

From the beginning, if you have a set plan for discipline and how to deal with any issues that arise, you will not have to enforce it very often.

Advancement Program- the best way to Keep members involved and get them to continue to strive for excellence, as well as giving you top-notch performers, is to have an advancement program.

So that it isn’t too complex, you break the program down into 4 levels with each level having a specific set of goals that must be achieved.

For every level of advancement, the team member should be acknowledged for his or her accomplishments. Certificate, public acknowledgement and some token of esteem for making it to the next level. For the final advancement, my token of esteem was to purchase them their own puppet of choice. Decide this on your own, because if you get five people making final level at the same time, this could get expensive.

Obviously it goes without saying that you should customize these levels to fit your needs, but here is a basic setup that I have followed that seems to work pretty well.

Level 1

This is the beginner level or probationary level. Everyone starts off at this level. This is also the easiest level to advance out of.

  • Must attend all practices without absence for two months.

  • Must know the basic puppetry skills. This is to know them mentally and be able to tell you what they are. Demonstrating them will come with practice.

  • Must perform in one performance (prop handling and group puppet situation such as a pre-recorded lip sync).

There will not be any certificate for this level. Certificates will be given to those who advance. Generic copies of certificates can be found in the appendix.

Entry-level puppeteers will be assigned puppets and props that they will perform with.

If they attend group-training activities, such as those given by One Way Street Productions, they will need to pay for cost of entry.

Level 2

  • In level 2 they will advance to apprentice or tradesman puppeteer.

  • Must be able to perform all basic skills with a knowledgeable level of proficiency.

  • Must have perfect attendance to all practices (excused absence at the discretion of the director) for 6 months. This may or may not include the previous two months for first advancement. Totally up to you.

  • Must demonstrate proper handling, care, and storage of puppets, props, and equipment.

  • Must be able to follow directions of the leadership without backtalk, hassle, or disgruntled behavior.

  • Must display proper respect for leadership and other team members.

  • Must have performed in a minimum of two performances (at least one being true voice).

Level 2 puppeteers can participate in skits, which means that they are able to travel for performances. They have more selection ability when it comes to choosing puppets that they will use, and they get to attend group-training classes, though they do not get to perform in any competitions that may be hosted at these events.

Level 3

I find that this is the level that many puppet teams stop at because they do not advance beyond basic training. There is an assumption that the team is good enough and therefore stops advancing and merely keeps up with the status quo, which eventually leads to burn out.

Level 3 is the journeyman or advanced puppeteer. In order to advance to this level, team members:

  • Must still inject the fundamentals used to advance in the previous levels.

  • Must show continued improvement in puppet use and techniques.

  • Must regularly attend rehearsals for a minimum of 8 months with no more than two excused absences.

  • Must have participated in at least 6 performances with one being part of a tour performance. A performance away from the comfort zone, in front of total strangers always helps advance skills.

  • Must make a puppet. This could be a marionette, a sock puppet, or converting something into a puppet such as a stuffed animal. The reason for this is because it gives them something that they can practice with at home which will allow them to advance to the next level.

Level 3 is generally the level that you start to see who your better performers and your future leaders are.

When the team member gets to this stage, he or she can now perform at competition level as well as do solo parts.

Level 4

This level is your B.P. group (Bachelor of Puppetry). To advance to this stage is to become leaders in the group. Level 4 puppeteers will be the assistants to your assistants.

They have more duties in the operation of the team so they:

  • Must have completed the first 3 levels.

  • Must do a 5-minute or longer solo performance using true voice and arm rod or human arm puppet.

  • Must be able to give an unrehearsed 30 second or more lecture on the fundamentals of puppetry.

  • Must be able to perform advanced puppetry techniques.

  • Must have a written report on something specific in the world of puppetry; this could be anything from ventriloquism (make sure they don’t just copy the section from this book) on up to specialized types of puppetry such as Bun raku. Let them decide.

  • Must attend 12 months of rehearsals with only two excused absences, with the last 4 months being absent free.

  • Must take on a leadership roll in a minimum of two performances.

  • Must create a character (costume, voice, accent, attitudes, history, etc.) to apply to a puppet that they created.

Like I said earlier, most people stop at level 3, so at this level you can adjust it to whatever fits your needs best, but I always recommend at this level, to make the advancement require that they do solo work and advanced learning in a specific area of training.

Level 5

If level 4 is the Bachelor of Puppetry achievement, then level 5 is obviously the Master of Puppetry. This is the group that your leaders and trainers will come from. By the time that you have a Masters level group, you will have newbies coming into your team who will be looking to these people as mentors.

This is the group that will be organizing skits, laying out performances, and wearing many of the hats that you are currently wearing. It is at this time that your jobs will decrease and you can slowly turn over the controls to someone else. The ultimate roll of the director is to create a well-oiled machine that can function with or without you.

This team will go with you to other places to create and train new puppet groups. To reach this level, they:

  • Must complete all other levels.

  • Must be an active member in the team for two years.

  • Must attend every rehearsal with no unexcused absences in 6 months.

  • Must show an ability to perform as well as teach the basic fundamentals and advanced fundamentals of puppetry.

  • Must have a minimum of three characters created. This includes voice, character history, and minimum 30-second skit where the character introduces himself/herself.

  • Must write and perform a solo skit either as a puppet monolog or a duet (extra credit is they practice good ventriloquism techniques).

  • Must show aptitude in a special area. This could be ventriloquism, shadow puppets, etc. by giving a 3 to five minute performance.

As discussed, at the masters’ level you can award the achievers with a puppet of their choice. You may want to reward your level 4 people with a new puppet and reward level 5 achievers with a scholarship or something of greater value. It all depends on what you want to give them as incentive to work toward the goal.

To advance, the puppeteer needs to apply for advancement. This way it is the puppeteer making the first effort to move forward. This gives you an opportunity to see who is really interested in taking on responsibilities and who is there because they have nothing better to do or because someone else is a part of it.

Another thing that I do is with the absences, I think I picked this up from when I was in school, but three tardiness checks in a month is counted as an absence.

As they advance, they are forced to take on more responsibilities and thus becoming better people in and out of the puppet team.

Level 6

Yes there is a level 6 for the most advanced achievers in the group, but to reach this level they must teach what they know. Whether it be in starting their own team, writing scripts for others to use, making and selling puppets, or going to school to advance related skills that will help them advance in the performing arts, ministry, etc.

The reward of this is however you wish to acknowledge this achievement. You will find that to honor someone for this achievement is to really honor yourself, because you helped get him or her to that level.

I am still awestruck when someone from a team that I helped develop and grow comes up to me years later and brings up how I helped them.

Funding your operation. From the beginning you must have a strong idea of cost and work out ways to cover that cost.

Some costs to keep in mind are:

  • Puppets. If you are making your puppets, then break this down into cost of materials and supplies.

  • Props. Again, if you are making them, break it down into materials cost.

  • Presentation material. This could be pre-packaged puppet programs, songs, scripts, etc.

  • Equipment. Sound, lighting, effects, etc.

  • Stage material. Whether pre-assembled or custom designed, your stage is going to be a good chunk of money.

  • Travel expenses.

  • Marketing materials.

  • General office supplies.

Even if you can get something donated, put the cost of it in your budget. Eventually, donated items do need to be replaced and to have an idea of the cost upfront and to possibly have it in your budget, will give you a good rainy day fund to work with as well as a sense of good stewardship. As a boy scout, “be prepared” was ingrained into my psyche, so I always hope for the best and prepare for the worst. A surplus is better than scrambling around last minute to replace something that has given up the ghost right before a major performance or having to do with out because you can’t afford it.

The treasurer or accountant is crucial in this area. Having one person that knows what they are doing, in charge of finances, is a great way to keep your budget on track. Never just assign someone to it; make sure that they know accounting and are pretty organized about it. Also, set up a level of accountability. Even if the director is the one keeping track of the budget, there needs to be someone else aware of the financial situation of the team, so that there is not a temptation for that money to be spent on items not related to the team. Before making any major purchases, it is always good to organize a leadership meeting and discuss, as well as, vote on the purchase.

As your team grows, you may want to branch off and become a not-for profit ministry or go the other route and become a business entity. Either way, you are going to have to start dealing with the IRS on a quarterly basis, so that is why it is good to start good book keeping now when you are just getting started.

This is just scratching the surface of the basics needed in starting your team right. As you develop, there will be other things that will need to be addressed. This will give you the groundwork for the team to be successful.


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