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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In my article describing light curtain, I began to discuss some of the details of how you could use one for your own show. Because light curtain may initially confuse the reader, I offer the following not just as a tutorial, but as a way to further understand what light curtain is and how it works.
As explained in the light curtain article, a curtain of light is created by directing two beams of light at each other. Objects that are placed in front of, or within, the light can be seen by the audience. Objects that are placed behind the beam of light can’t be seen. This means that you can have puppeteers wandering around onstage without creating a large set to hide them: but in order to make an effective light curtain, you will need to follow some basic steps. It should be noted that puppeteers behind the curtain of light can see each other, as well as everything in front of them. It’s quite an eerie experience! Video example at the end of the post.
This is the most important part of a light curtain - duh! Without the correct lighting, the light curtain effect will not work. For non-technical people, this explanation may seem confusing, so if you don’t understand stage lighting or are new to it, you will want to ask for assistance from a local techie or venue manager to help you get it set up. You may also want to read the post on lighting design before getting into this stuff…
Here’s a more detailed explanation of the light curtain: On each side of the stage (downstage is the best, since most of your puppetry will more than likely be performed mid- to down- stage) you should place a boom, otherwise known as one big pole (I am simplifying here: don’t just use an average pole. Get something that is actually rated for use in a theatrical setting). Attached to each are profile stage lights. These particular stage lights allow you to focus the beam of the light on a very tight and specific area, and it is important to be able to do that. Other lights, such as parcans or fresnels, will not allow you as much control over the focus, so profile lights are a must.
By focusing the profiles to face each other (ie. across the stage), and by creating a hard-edged beam, the light overlaps each other, creating a long ’single’ beam of light. It is important to get this as precise as possible, as an inch in the wrong direction, and the ‘curtain’ will not be as effective.
|Diagram of lights; from the bird’s eye point of view.|
Because this may be hard to follow, I give you two diagrams. The one on the left shows the stage from a bird’s eye point of view. On either side of the stage are the booms and lights: note the overlapping beams of light that create a single, almost rectangular, area of the stage that is lit. Everything downstage of the dotted blue line will be visible to the audience; everything upstage of the dotted blue line is ‘invisible’.
|Diagram of lights; from the actor’s point of view.|
The second diagram is from the actor’s point of view; that is, if you look straight ahead, you will see the back wall of the theatre and the wings either side of you. Note that again, the beams of light from the opposing lights meet in the middle. Making sure the lights are at the same height as each other is also necessary.
In conjunction with this, you can also have some profiles rigged above stage, directly over the area of performance, that focus directly down. It is extremely important that the beams of these lights exactly overlap the side lights, otherwise there is an ill-defined area of play, and the puppeteers will be seen.
The puppeteers - or any other person onstage who must be ‘invisible’ - must be completely costumed in black. Shoes, socks, pants, long-sleeved tops, gloves, and hoods, are all necessary to do this. It is important to cover every part of the body, as any light areas, like skin, will be clearly visible to the audience, and will ruin the effect of being hidden from view. This also means that jewellry and other shiny items - like belts - should not be worn.
|That’s me, in my puppeteering costume, complete with hood and gloves. (My job was to operate the arms of two puppets, whilst my co-puppeteers operated the opposite arms and the bodies) The only reason you can ’see’ me is that the camera flash interferes with the effect of a light curtain.|
Hoods are especially important, and require a black mesh in the eye area, so that the puppeteers can see. (One Way Street’s black hood is a good example) Even the type of materials used for the costumes are important - black is rarely actually black, but sometimes has hues of blue or red, invisible to the naked eye, but very obvious when under light curtain conditions. The puppeteers should all be wearing the same shade of black, as any differences in their shades might make one person noticeable, and the rest of the cast invisible; it can be quite annoying.
I recommend velveteen, a cheaper version of velvet, to make any costumes and curtains; it is the right shade of black, is cheap, and very light to wear. Because puppeteers are hooded, wearing black, and will be under hot stage lights, any costuming and materials should take into account the heat factor and dress accordingly. Additionally, those wearing glasses will want to place some sort of wide rim inside the top of the hood: this rim will ensure the cloth of the hood does not fall against or scratch their glasses. It also makes it easier to breath!
Gloves should have elastic at the hem, so that they do not fall down during performances, and should be above elbow height. Buying evening gloves is not recommended, since most are made using a shiny material. If you do not use velveteen, it should be remembered that you MUST use a matte material, since any shine will be reflected by the stage lights. The elastic is just helpful because you don’t want to have to be constantly trying to pull your gloves up whilst operating a puppet.
The brilliance of a light curtain is the ability to do magical things, like floating eyes, hands that appear from nowhere, or allowing the puppets to ’swim’ through a pretend ocean, or fly through the air. There’s such a range of things that you can do, that you will really want to experiment with staging space, different levels of play, height, width, depth… you can make things suddenly so much more fantastical.
For this reason, most puppets used with a light curtain are rod puppets, as they are easy to use and allow simple dexterity and a wide range of movement. While marionettes, muppet-type puppets, and glove puppets all require the puppeteer to be quite close to the puppet, rod puppets allow the puppeteer to be distant. This assists in hiding the puppeteer from view, as there needs to be at most an arm’s length between the puppet and the puppeteer (read below about lighting for further explanation).
But it’s no good making just the puppeteers invisible, and have a puppet fly around in the air, only to have the audience see rods or other points of manipulation. So you will need to ensure any rods are black, and that nothing that you want ‘invisible’ is shiny or another colour. This can be quite tricky, but if you buy some black plastic-covered coathangers to use as rods, it should work fine. Alternatively, you can try gluing on some scrap strips of velveteen to any rods and handles. My puppetry lecturer created a sticky-backed velvet for just such uses, but unfortunately, it is made to especially for him, and I have not found any place that sells anything similar. Painting rods can be done, but I recommend avoiding it: even the paint for metals scratches off eventually, and can leave unsightly flecks of paint all over your stage. Gluing on fabric seems to be the best option.
In order to avoid any puppeteer being seen, the backdrop or scenery behind the performers must be black as well. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking you will want any areas behind the puppeteers to be dark. Imagine for a moment, you are watching a person in black walk across a completely white backdrop. Naturally, no matter how dim the lighting is, you will see the person - because they do not camouflage into the background. Now imagine a person in black walk across a black backdrop - even though you may some some slight shadow, it would be almost impossible to tell that the person is there. So you see, it is very important for the ‘invisibility’ of the puppeteers to keep the backdrop and scenery black. You should black out any windows in the venue, if there are any, and ensure that during rehearsals and performances to use only blue lights for backstage areas (no fluoros or other colours!), and keep all doors to the outside world closed. It is imperative that any external light is kept out.
If you are using a light curtain, you can do other things in terms of set design which you might not normally do in other styles. For instance, you can create black ledges, tables, benches, hides (two pieces of upright walls, hinged together), or use flats (a single upright wall), which allow you to hide puppets and then reveal them at necessary times. You can also use these set pieces to create different levels of play, which are both comfortably high enough for the puppeteer to work with, and allow you to create fantastical scenes and movements.
You should also consider creating a set of wings or backstage area, where you can hide puppets and reveal them as needed. Because your puppets won’t be black (because you want the puppets to be seen, duh!), you will have to learn the best way to introduce them onstage in correspondence to your set design and staging needs. For instance, if a puppeteer, dressed in black, walks across the black backdrop, with a blue fish puppet in their black-gloved hands, what do you think would happen?
The audience would see the blue puppet, because it’s not camouflaged into the background. That’s fine if you want the puppet to be visible straight away, but what if you want to introduce the puppet from downstage centre, and the puppeteer needs to bring it from upstage right? In this case, the puppeteer will need to carefully hide the puppet - perhaps behind their back - until they have walked to the appropriate place to introduce the puppet, at which point, they can reveal it. This can be tricky for puppeteers, and it is recommended that a longer tech and dress rehearsal be offered, so that the puppeteers can get used to the staging. Directors too, must watch for this, as it is very easy to make the entrances and exits of puppets jerky, ill-defined, or too quick. A puppet should be introduced and exited as if it is an actor; that is, an actor never drops their character until they are completely off stage. Entering and exiting with the puppet should be performed slowly, surely, with smooth movements and with a clear idea of where the ‘ground’ of the puppet world is.
As you can see, a light curtain also allows the freedom for the puppeteers to move around onstage, without necessarily being seen, and so puppeteers can walk on and offstage with no fear of having to ‘act’ or hide their own personality from the audience. However, that does not mean that there is not a certain style of movements the puppeteer should employ while onstage.
Light curtains can be very easy to use once you know how, but it does mean that you will require a larger budget than normal puppetry shows. It requires a venue that has a good lighting rig, flexibility with staging and curtains, the ability to block out any external light - plus additional costuming. It is very difficult to use this for any touring show, unless you have booked these kinds of venues ahead, or have your own equipment. However, it’s a lot of fun, and does allow you to do so much more with both the puppets and the puppeteers. You may also want to read the post on blacklight puppetry, which complements light curtains very well.
… All of this may sound extremely strange, especially without seeing the actual lights and how it works practically. My company, Sticky Apple Legs, used a light curtain for our debut show. Here’s an excerpt which will help you gain a better idea of what you can do and how it all looks once set up. The video is actually of our preview show, and you can see that we had underestimated the power of good costuming, being aware of where we entered the light curtain, and the shadows created by fat objects in the light curtain. However, you can immediately feel that the light curtain creates a certain magical atmosphere to the performance.
Australians may want to buy locally. Where? I explain here.