Monday, May 13, 2013

Bringing 'Stellaluna' to Life

Making Puppets for SLT's Production of 'Stellaluna'

by Travis Brisini

As part of Slidell Little Theatre’s efforts to reveal some of the “behind the scenes” labor that goes into mounting our productions, I’ve been asked to write a brief piece about the process of designing and constructing the puppets that we’ll be using in Stellaluna, the spring show in SLT's Theatre for Young Audiences series (May 18, 19, 25 & 26).
The process of creating the puppets has been the most difficult, time-consuming aspect of preparing to stage this piece. The experience might be of interest to other folks who are thinking about putting together a puppet-show, or people are interested in what exactly it took to get these characters from the page to the stage.

Fig. 1 (Stellaluna)

The process of constructing the puppets begins with a pattern. We began with commercially available puppet patterns (see for simple, downloadable patterns), and altered them to resemble the sort of characters we needed for the show. Some of these changes included lengthening the patterns, making them wider, increasing their size, and a number of other alterations. Once we laid out the patterns for the puppets, we also had to improvise patterns for the elements that are unique to our puppets: the wings, feet, beaks, ears and hands. Now, with patterns in hand, we moved on to construction.

Our puppets have a semi-rigid substructure “skeleton” made out of reticulated foam. Reticulated foam is firm, open-cell foam used in industrial applications as a filter, and occasionally as upholstery filler. Our foam came in 6’x3’x1/2” sheets. It holds up really well to the rigors of stage use, and is firm enough that it fills out the fabric bodies of the puppets. Using our patterns, we cut out foam skulls and foam bodies (Fig. 2), and bonded everything together with contact cement (we used a TON of contact cement for this project).

(Fig. 2 – Reticulated Foam Skeleton)

 With the foam skeletons constructed, the next major task is creating the fabric “skin” that will stretch over the foam and make the character look the way we want. For this show, we’ve chosen to acknowledge the materiality of puppets, rather than attempt to make them as realistic as possible. We aren’t trying to hide the puppeteers away from audience view, and we think that it’s important that the audience acknowledge that these are, in fact, puppets. With this in mind, we selected fabrics that are obviously fabric, rather than attempting to find materials that would make the puppets look like real animals. While the majority of the puppets bodies are colorful polyester fleece, their accent colors were chosen to acknowledge the fact that they’re made of material. Stellaluna has patchwork wings, Mother Bat is bandana pattern, the young birds are accented with various colors of seersucker, the Big Fruit Bat is blackwatch plaid, and the Owl is felt. Nobody will mistake these puppets for real animals, and that’s just the way we wanted it!

 Sewing together the fabric into the skin and wings of the puppets is a process of tracing patterns and mirroring those patterns so that we get two sides to every piece. Then we machine stitch the pieces together, and we’ve got a head and body, with a couple of wings sewn into the sides. Most of the puppets require additional hand sewing (the bird’s beaks, in particular, are extremely challenging and time consuming) to secure the custom elements such as ears, beaks and feet. This is done with clear polyester thread, so the stitching is invisible.

Once the fabric bodies are complete, the puppet’s arms and feet are stuffed with polyester fabric fill, to give them some heft, and they’re sewn shut. After the ears and beaks attached, we turn the puppets inside out to attached the foam mouthplate and skull to the inside of the fabric skin The puppets get turned rightside out, and once the foam skeleton is inserted into the body-sleeve, they’re almost done.
Fig.3 (Featureless puppet head w/ foam skull inserted)
The final step in constructing the puppets is giving them the facial details that help define their character, and attaching their control sticks. In the case of the bats, this includes little noses and eyeballs. The noses are stuffed-animal noses we picked up at a craft supply store, while the eyeballs are ping-pong balls that have been halved, with fleece eyelids and foam accents cemented to them (see Fig. 4 for close-up of Stellaluna’s eyeballs). The pupils of these eyeballs are “animal eyes,” also purchased as a craft supply in the doll-making section.  As for the birds, they receive complete ping-pong balls and little beady pupil inserts. The eyeballs for the big puppets (Mother Bird, Mother Bat & the Big Fruit Bat) are larger Styrofoam balls, while the eyes for the tiny Baby Stellaluna puppet are hand-sculpted foam modeling material. We attached the sticks to the puppet’s arms by hand-sewing a piece of elastic to the back of the puppet’s wings and contact cementing dowel rods into these sleeves.

Fig.4 (Stellaluna’s eyeballs w/ pupils & accent foam)

 As I stated earlier, the process of constructing these puppets has been the most labor-intensive element of putting this show together. We’ve been working on the puppets since late February, and are just now coming to the end of the construction process. All told, we have 8 sleeve puppets and one umbrella puppet. The amount of time it takes to create each puppet  is hard to estimate; somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 hours per puppet is probably a good average, with two people working on it. Puppet shows, it turns out, are not for the impatient or the faint of heart!

 Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the immense contributions of my wife & assistant director, Kellie, the chief puppet-maker. Without her creativity, logical-thinking skills, sewing ability, and patience for my bumbling, this puppet show would never have happened. The puppets are really her babies, and she deserves most of the credit for how truly spectacular they’ve turned out to be. With so much of this show resting on the puppets, their construction has been an enormous burden to shoulder, and she’s done so with her usual aplomb.

We hope you’ll come out and see Stellaluna when it opens next weekend; it’s a great little musical number, and is appropriate for all ages (even the very young). You can even come and take a look at the puppets firsthand after the show, and ask any questions you might have about their construction to one of us. We’ll be there…puppets in hand.

Fig. 5 (Flitter & Flap)

About the authors

Kellie and Travis Brisini
Travis and Kellie St. Cyr Brisini live in Slidell, Louisiana.  They met in graduate school at the LSU Department of Communication Studies, where Kellie received an MA in Communication Theory and Travis received a PhD in Performance Studies.  Kellie is from Slidell and a proud product of SLT’s YATS (Young Acotrs Theatre of Slidell) program. She also holds a B.F.A. in Dance Education from the University of Southern Mississippi, and presently teaches speech, broadcasting, and dance at Slidell High School.  Dr. Travis Brisini is originally from Johnstown, Pennsylvania.  While at LSU, Travis wrote, directed, and performed in numerous productions at the Hopkins Black Box Theatre.  Since moving to Slidell, Travis has been seen as Willy Wonka himself and Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest.  Kellie and Travis have previously worked on SLT's Theatre for Young Audiences shows, directing and choreographing Pinkalicious and starring in A Year with Frog and Toad.



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