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 www.projectpuppet.com 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)|
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)|
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.
About the authors
|Kellie and Travis Brisini|