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Puppeteering for the screen

beyond the sock workshop

In 2008 James Martin wanted to create a web series. The main characters would be recognizable archetypes of college student- and the students would be puppets.

Martin, a senior lecturer in the media arts department, has professional experience in studio work and field direction, but he didn’t know how to make a show using puppets, so he enlisted the help of a friend who worked on the PBS Kids show Between the Lions to help research on his project. Martin visited the set and met the show’s creator and director, as well as actors Noel MacNeal and Peter Linz, 30-year veterans of the puppeteering industry.

After explaining his idea to the actors, he realized that he could not just audition people for his web series. He needed actors who understood the art and technique of puppeteering in front of the camera. Linz and MacNeal told Martin they could come to Denton and serve as instructors if he hosted a workshop.

At the time, he intended the workshop to be a means of researching how to produce a program with puppets, but the workshop has grown into much more.

The departments of media arts and dance and theatre co-hosted the third Beyond the Sock workshop May 19-23. The workshop focused on puppetry for television and film. Martin said this one differed from other puppet workshops because it exposes participants to puppet building and puppet performance.

“Most workshops have one or the other, we have both,” he said..

Participants at the workshop consisted of professional puppet builders, puppet hobbyists, students, teachers, comedians, puppetry fans, and others who are just curious about the industry. Participants built their puppets from scratch in the dance and theatre scene shop with instruction from master puppet builder Pasha Romanowski, founder of Project Puppet.com, a partner for the workshop.

“To me the best part of the whole thing is both sides — you have the performance and you have the puppets,” said Romanowski. “You have the big character, the actual physical puppet and then it’s brought to life by the puppeteer. It’s really the closest thing you can get to performing professionally on television.”

On the performance side, participants learned how to work with their puppets from Linz and MacNeal, who have worked on shows including Sesame Street, Bear in the Big Blue House, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and The Muppets. Participants worked with their puppets in front of a camera, learned how to lip sync and how to use their hands to convey different emotions in their characters.

At the end of the workshop the participants performed their pieces in the media arts.studio while a live audience watched and the cameras rolled.

Adam Chamberlin, an assistant professor in the dance and theatre department, worked on the lighting for the scenery used during the week. Mario Tooch, a senior lecturer in that department, designed the scenery.

Tooch said that when Martin came to him with the idea of starting the workshop about four years ago, he wanted to learn about puppet building.

“I think we had some really special presenters,” he said. “Their combined experience, talent and passion for the art gave the participants a thorough experience and helped the attendees move their own art forward.”

—Awo Eni, student assistant, URCM

Above, Puppeteers practice manipulating their puppets in front of a green screen during the Beyond the Sock workshop. (Photo by Ahna Hubnik / URCM)

Posted on: Tue 07 July 2015

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