Making a marionette

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Late last year I was feeling overworked; firstly I was working too hard, but secondly I wasn’t doing anything creative just for myself. Then along came an opportunity to do something different … Spare Parts Puppet Theatre was running a 6 week marionette-making course.

Spare Parts is an incredible company that creates original puppetry productions; they’ve also adapted quite a few children’s books for the stage over the years. They’re based in my hometown of Fremantle, and I remember seeing some of their shows as a kid. I signed up for the course straight away.

Our tutor was Leon Hendroff, a puppet designer and experienced puppeteer. In the first week he introduced us to some of the puppets at Spare Parts. Being a huge fan of  Shaun Tan I was very excited to meet his character Eric in the flesh (fabric?).

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Then we were straight on to designing our own marionettes. We had a basic plan to work from that we could adapt to our own character. I wanted to play around with an ogre character I’ve had in my sketchbooks for a while.

Our next step was to construct the torso for our marionette. It had a fabric outer, with a wooden rod across the shoulders and another across the hips. These rods were important as they gave the torso shape and provided something for the limbs to hang from. The limbs were made from wood with hinges at the elbows and knees, and the head, hands and feet were made from paper clay. As my ogre character was quite short, he had no knees. I also stitched extra stuffing around his waist to make him more portly.

The next step was to paint the head, hands and feet. I took so long that I only got around to painting the head during class. Leon taught us that it’s important to add highlights and shadows to our puppets; it’s just like theatre makeup, exaggerated to help the audience read the actors’ expressions under the stage lights.

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Then we added costume. Originally I planned to make the ogre shirtless, but I decided clothes would be best, to cover up my horrendous stitching of his torso. One of the other participants kindly gave me some pointers on hand stitching and making templates for clothes. She also introduced me to self-threading needles. After that I was off and racing, making a miniature flannelette shirt for my bogan ogre – Bogre for short.

I also added a curved piece of fabric (stuffed with felt) to the back of his neck, to help him look more muscly and help his shirt to sit better.

During this time I was catching up on the tasks at home. Our dog Jasper decided I had been spending too much time with the puppet and came up with a clear way to show me how displeased he was.

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On the left: a healthy puppet leg. On the right: a chewed-up puppet leg.

After making a replacement leg, I had some catching up to do – I had to paint the hands and feet, then varnish them as well as the head. I also had to add some paint to his exposed belly and his neck. During the last class Leon strung my puppet and made the control piece.

If you’d like to make your own puppet too, head to the Spare Parts website for info on upcoming classes.

Author: James Foley

James makes books for courageous kids. His books include 'The Amity Kids Adventures', 'In The Lion', 'The Last Viking'. A couple of these books have won awards. People have also bought copies, and for that he is grateful. His new book 'The Last Viking Returns' is out now. Follow James at www.facebook.com/jamesfoleyillustrations , @James_R_Foley on twitter and instagram or at www.jamesfoley.com.au

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