Here I sit, typing away in the big front room of my apartment, affectionately known as “the studio” along with about 50 drawings of what cows might look like if you were having a dream about them, what cows actually look like, drawings of bird wings, sections of bird wings, pig faces, and pig legs. Its so fun to be here. Working on puppets is always a joy, but after the intellectual and physical challenges of being in rehearsals and working on a script, sitting down and fiddling with the intricacies of how to connect part a to part b is so satisfying. An instant feed back loop. There is also something innately magical about the task of making a puppet. From the beginning of any puppet design process, the basic idea is always totake materials that have no life of their own, and find a way to put them together that will appear to live onstage. A heady, frankenstein-eque project, to be sure, but one of the most exciting and miraculous design processes there is.
As far as puppets in this play are concerned, I’ve got a minor barnyard to re-create: 5 dream cows, some pigs, a crow, a chicken, and even some seedlings. So the question is: how do you get from inanimate materials to a puppet that will live in the world of the play?
Well, heres a little sneak peak into the development of a dream cow:
I like to start with getting to know the animal I’m basing the puppet on really well. Since these dream cows will only exist in a characters dream, I know that they don’t have to be totally realistic, but they do have to read as cows and be believable in the scene.
I pull up some of the photos I took last summer while at Benson Farm and take a good look through, looking specifically for shapes, textures, specific lines- things that make this cow look particularly “cowy”.
I start drawing things out- cow legs, cow ears, cow noses- and start to investigate how the animal moves. Where is it’s center? When it walks, does it lead with it’s head? Shoulders? When it takes a deep breath, what part rises and falls? Is there any part of it that moves when it walks (like a tail? the head? What are the ears doing? How does the breath change when the animal is going fast? Slow? etc.)
Videos like this one go into constant replay, often underscored by whatever loud music is keeping me motivated at the moment (when in doubt, Modest Mouse usually does the trick for me. Try it!):
Sources like this give me access to “cow” gestures that are really useful when looking for authentic movements that communicate cow behavior- in this case, movements that real Holstein cows are apt to do when they are in an uncomfortable situation, such as the dairy show depicted in the video. This video in particular showcases some moves that have become personal favorites- the cow head toss, and the single firm step forward and back. Both of these seem to show the cow’s need to assert itself and evade the person who is trying to lead it- perfect behavioral gestures for cows who are being chased (like some of the cows will be in our play) or are appearing in a dream as menacing reminders of a painful memory.
This kind of discovery often leads to a physical investigation of the movement, (AKA me walking around the room trying to toss my head like a cow) which always proves much more useful than I think it will- really. The sillier, the better, because once I can replicate the movement I’m interested in recreating in the puppet, I can break that movement down, isolating which parts of the body are directly or indirectly involved. Once I have tried out the head toss a couple of times, for example, I can discover that what looks like a single upward motion actually has three parts- down up down- so the head makes roughly the shape of an inverted letter V and also usually requires that the cow’s front feet are firmly planted. Inevitably, this stage of discovery coincides with one of my roommates coming into the studio to ask me, “What are you doing?”, at which point I either choose to sit down and start drawing out different ideas about how to make a puppet do what I just did OR go into the kitchen and make a snack. (Its a toss up.)
Once I have some ideas on paper, I’ll go back to the script to find out what the technical requirements of the puppets are. Will puppeteers be using their puppets for a long time or a short time? Are there any specific movements that the puppet has to accomplish? With these realities of the play in mind, I’ll start to build models of what I think might work. Often they end up being what I take to production meetings- like this model of a dream cow here. (excuse the desk clutter.) See the pig in the middle wearing something? Thats it!
Ok. So I couldn’t find a figurine of a person, so the dream cow is being modeled for us here by a pig finger puppet. What you see here is a skeletal version of what the dream cow will be like- one long pole supporting a semi-realistic head with a head toss line attached to the middle of the face that will allow the puppeteer to complete (my favorite) down-up-down head toss. What you don’t see is the light weight fabric “skin” that I’ll be building around the neck of the cow that will obscure the puppeteer's face, but be transparent enough to allow the puppeteer to see out of it and appear opaque in direct light.
And there you have it folks! I’ll do my best to get some video of one of these guys in motion when they’re ready so you can see it “live” before we get to show time. Till then, don't forget to start making plans to come see the show! We've got tickets for sale- find us on facebook! Tell everyone you know about this! If just for the dream cow puppets alone- (kidding, Jennie. Just kidding!) this is going to be a play you won't want to miss!