I'm a puppet maker with a degree in theatre. A former lighting techie, stage manager and producer. And I like to think that with puppetry, the only limit is your imagination. More...
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Plenty of people do searches for puppet stages, but the thing is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ stage. (Actually, the term ‘puppet stage’ itself is odd, because in 20 years of doing theatre, I’ve never heard of anyone calling a set a ’stage’. Stage usually refers to the venue floor, not the set. So to me, this article is about set design, not ’stages’ and more than likely the incorrect terminology is from misinformation/uninformed general public.) It entirely depends on how you perform your show, and what your needs are. Since no two shows are alike, no two stages will be alike. Are there any rules to how you design your set and staging for puppet shows? No, not really. But there are some standards out there that you might want to use if you’re just starting out. First, be sure to go back and read the section on staging in the puppet design basics. That will help you figure out what considerations you need to keep in mind when building and designing your set.
You probably want to skip to the free patterns. But hey, you might actually want to read the below info, it’s got useful tips and hints!
Designing a set has a lot to do with: the type of puppet being used; the size of the venue and limitations of the stage; the size of the puppets; the number of puppets being used; the number of puppeteers required; and design itself. (It should be noted that I am discussing theatre/live performance only, not TV or film, which has different requirements. And I’m going to assume that you know a little about stage design already; if not, there are plenty of great books available for the novice set designer)
Before starting, I do want to state one thing: don’t use cardboard for stages. It’s great for the kids’ playtime, but if you’re doing a professional show or need something that can be reused multiple times in classrooms (let’s face it, who has the time or money to keep remaking a set that you want to use for years to come) cardboard simply won’t last the distance. Not only will it crumble easily under bad weather, but will not transport well, stand up to the rigours of puppeteers accidentally bumping elbows into it, or any number of other reasons. …
|Sicilian marionettes performed from above on a typical marionette stage. The design allows for easy access for the puppeteers to work above the stage, whilst hiding themselves, the rods and various mechanisms from audiences’ site. Image by Dan Bock.|
Let’s take a glove puppet; the traditional staging for glove puppets is the ‘puppet booth’, in which the puppeteer kneels/sits, and a window is cut out for viewing the puppets. Marionettes traditionally were performed from above, with a small stage built (think the Lonely Goatherd scene from A Sound of Music); but other puppeteers perform without this stage - if so, and the audience seating does not have a rake (a slant), then the stage needs to be higher than the seating so the audience can see the marionette.
Shadow puppets again have their own traditional staging, as well as table-top puppetry; that is, puppetry performed on a bench, or table, generally modern rod puppets. Bunraku, and other Asian rod puppets (marottes), can often work from below a series of ‘hides’, small walls that create the idea of distance and perspective.
So you can see, already you have a range of staging options, just from the type of puppet you are using. This is not to say that you have to use the traditional staging, just that there are already ideas of what you might want to use. Additionally, there are reasons behind why these methods of staging work well and would work well for you.
Let’s take the last one - the use of hides with marottes. Marottes are rod puppets worked from below; by hiding the puppeteers with these small walls, the rods are also hidden, giving the puppetry a greater sense of mysteriousness. The use of a bench in table-top puppetry may be because the director and/or puppeteers want the audience to see how the puppets work. Generally speaking, the staging and set design will either hide the puppeteers and the puppets’ mechanisms, or leave them visible. And depending on where the mechanisms appear on the puppet (below, behind, above, etc.), that’s where the set design will hide it - puppet booths hide the hands below the puppet, walls hide the rods below… etc.
Glove puppets are quite small, which is why the puppet booth works so well: it complements the size of the object seen inside the window of the booth. But what if it wasn’t in a booth?
I once had the opportunity to visit a fantastic puppet venue in South Korea. It was at least a few thousand seater, the stage was pretty big (at a guess… 10 to 12 metres wide/11 to 13 yards wide, and about half that deep). I was able to see a number of different shows in there, and sat up the back, and down the front. When I was up the back, the performance that was on was an amateur puppetry competition, and each act had a different range of puppets - but they were all too small to be seen from where I was sitting. You see, in a thousand-seat venue, glove puppets and marottes normally used in a local amateur hall are tiny in comparison.
So an important part of set design will be in not only matching the set to the size of your puppets, but matching it to the size of the venue itself. If you’re touring, you will want to take the maximum and the minimum size of venue that you will be expected to perform in, and find the medium - and design your set accordingly. Remember, puppets appear smaller on stage than they actually are.
Some puppets don’t need a set because of their size (Walking with Dinosaurs for example), while others benefit from a minimal one (The Lion King).
Going back to matching size of puppets to size of set: this is where we can consider Gulliver’s Travels. By making the set much bigger than the puppet in terms of scale, the audience may feel as though the puppet is walking in a world that isn’t theirs (hence the Gulliver’s Travels reference); make the set design much smaller, and the same is true. But make the scale match the size of the puppet, and it suddenly belongs to that world.
Additionally, changing the scale of the set according to the size of the puppets can suggest the puppet travelling further away from the audience, or closer to the audience…
(There is more about size of puppets below)
Continuing on above, each venue has a different set of requirements in terms of staging. You may need a certain lighting effect - such as in shadow puppetry - which may require a power source. Does your venue have one, or will you need to install one into your set design? What about other issues, like touring performances, which may have to pack into the smallest classrooms? Or an outdoors show, where electrical equipment may be limited or non-existent?
There are other considerations too, like ensuring there are appropriate exits and entrances for puppeteers, creating different heights or playing areas to perform on, having ‘rest areas’ for when you’re not using certain puppets, and so on. There are any number of things to consider when designing your set for a venue, so if you’re unfamiliar with a particular hall, etc., chat to your local theatre technician or set designer for more help.
|This puppet booth is only big enough for two - at the most - puppeteers. Should you need more performers, the booth would have to grow to accommodate them. Image by passer-by.|
Obviously, the smaller the amount of puppets needed on stage, the smaller the set design can be. Glove puppeteers rarely use more than four or five at the same time, so their puppet booths can get away with being small. Muppets on the other hand, can be numerous, and so a larger space is required - muppets are also larger generally than glove puppets. So here again, size is an issue. Using all muppets on stage, you need a larger space; using all glove puppets, you need a smaller space. But what happens if you combine the two?
Ever seen a really great marionette performance in a space smaller than a breadbox? Of course not - best way to get those strings tangled is to hamper the area allowed to perform. So your set design must accommodate both the size of the puppets, the number used, but also the space required to perform the maximum amount seen on stage at once. This means room enough to swing your puppet, without bashing into either the other puppets, or the other puppeteers. Never underestimate the space needed to perform with your puppets, and always design your sets to accommodate the maximum number on stage during your show.
Continuing on from above, you also need to accommodate the maximum number of puppeteers on stage throughout your performance. Glove puppetry, again, use booths because there are rarely more than two or three puppeteers necessary - put a few more in a booth, you’ll find that it gets very cramped in there.
Bunraku performances, for example, have set designs which allow for the maximum amount of movement. With three puppeteers operating each puppet, there’s a lot of coordination of bodies involved. This is also why table-top puppetry is popular these days - maximum room for maximum numbers of puppeteers.
Have a play with your puppet on your own - do some movements with it. How much space do you take up? Enough to fill a table length, or do you move about the whole room? Now add another person… you’ll see it takes a lot more coordination and space in order to move the puppet convincingly. Keep in mind that accidents do happen, and with coordinating a number of puppeteers, you will also have the occasional elbow flying (will it knock that stage wall over?), puppet dropped (will it go through the bottom of your stage?) or footfall… don’t hem your performers in with big heavy set pieces which may get in their way of properly executing the movements. If you’re unsure, start with the most necessary set piece (ie. a tree for A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and add more as your performers show you just how much space they really do take up.
Naturally, with any design, you will need to consider the usual stuff: transportation and set up (always tie down sets to your vehicle, always measure for doors and entrances, always be prepared for repairs and problems), colours and materials, etc. Mainly, you will want to create a set and staging space that matches the story of the show, the events that take place, the age of the audience (kids shows may have different needs to an adult show), budget, durability, lighting design, and so on.
One big thing is to design your stage to also match the look and feel of your puppets. Going back to the Gulliver’s Travels reference; if your puppet matches the set design, the audience will feel as though the puppet is within its natural world. Mismatch the designs, and suddenly, the puppets are in a world that isn’t theirs.
There are any number of things to also take into account, but they will all depend on your particular needs of your show, your puppets, and your venue. If something else needs to be clarified, or if I’ve missed an important point, please leave a comment. Further discussions on each puppet type’s traditional staging will be added in the future. A how to on building a shadow puppet screen has now been added. [link to be added]send feedback / have a question?
Australians may want to buy locally. Where? I explain here.