Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Words, words, words

You know, I never noticed before. But most of the puppet shows I've seen, whether in a theatre or on a screen, have been incredibly dialogue-heavy.

I mean, I've always known that puppets don't need to speak.  Indeed, that's something I demonstrate in my workshops by manipulating a teddy bear to show various emotions: he can communicate happiness, sadness, and fear purely through gesture.  But it wasn't until I attended Animotion that I realized just how much talking goes on in most puppet shows.

The puppets are constantly talking about how they feel, talking about what they've done, talking about what they're going to do, cracking jokes. Yak, yak, yak.  Even my beloved Fraggle Rock is guilty of this.

Not that it's necessarily a bad thing.  But now that I notice it, I can't un-notice it.

It probably happens because these shows start with a script. All the dialogue is written before anyone actually picks up a puppet. Conversely, Jim Morrow taught us to develop a play with gesture alone, and then layer text on top of it.  Most of the bits we created at Animotion had no talking at all. Those that did only used dialogue to convey things you couldn't with gesture ("Honey, will you water the flowers?"; "Is she there? Put her on!"). Sometimes they'd have dialogue at first, but with further rehearsal the words would drop out as we realized we didn't need them.

(Edited to add: To put it another way, the writing and the rehearsal were the same thing. Writing was a physical action.)

Aaron Diaz, creator of the webcomic Dresden Codak, did a blog post about how he puts a comic page together, and he said something really interesting. He knows what has to be conveyed in a scene, but he doesn't write the actual dialogue until the images are almost done. The text doesn't lead the image, it augments it.

Like comics, puppetry is a visual medium. I'm not saying puppets should never speak -- indeed, it's quite possible that you couldn't sustain a half-hour show with gesture alone.  (Then again, ballet does it!)  But so many puppet web shows consist of puppets talking to the camera, and I can't help but wonder if there are other ways to do it.

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