by THFool Dagonell the Juggler
The only medieval illustrations I could find of a period puppet stage come from The Romance of Alexander, a French manuscript started by Flemish illuminator Jehan de Grise during 1338-1344 with additional sections by other authors through the 14th and early 15th centuries. The manuscript is now at the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford University.
Both have tall white fabric draping down to hide the puppeteers with a stage above for rod puppet performances. Both have crenellated towers to either side with a rainbow arch connecting them over the puppets. In the first picture, the towers are on stage with the puppets and the stage between them is flat. In the second picture, the towers jut forward from the stage with puppets on them which would not leave room for a puppeteer beneath and the stage between them is also embattled in front of the central puppets.
I wanted my puppet stage to look as medieval as possible, but more importantly, it had to break down to fit in a compact car. People always ask me where I store the puppets in my house, but never think of my car. I live in a Victorian-era 140-year-old farmhouse, with lots of nooks and crannies (for all the crooks and nannies?). If you’ve seen the first Harry Potter movie, the puppet show lives in Harry’s bedroom under the stairs.
The first version of my stage was simply two uprights with a crossbar. Originally, I drilled a hole in the tops of the uprights and inserted a short wooden dowel. The crossbar had holes drilled in each end which fit over the dowels. After the third time the dowels broke off in setting up or taking down the stage, I filled in the holes and drove a large nail into each upright. Now, I just drop the crossbar holes over the nails.
I folded the edges of a bed sheet over and sewed it down, forming long tubes on three sides of the sheet. The crossbar and uprights slid into the tubes to keep the sheet upright. Instead of a second bed sheet to extend it down to the floor, I sewed on a piece of bedspread material that Duchess Dorinda Courtenay gave me. It was my intention to eventually do a shadow puppet show as well and the heavier fabric would better hide the puppeteers.
The uprights were originally held in place by slipping them into milk crates and weighing the milk crates down with coffee cans full of sand. Lord Coinneach Mac an Leigh is a wood wright and made me a pair of portable holes similar to what we use for indoor list ropes. I weigh them down with sandbags to hold them steadier while making it look more authentic. The sandbags are old canvas bank bags turned inside out to hide the lettering and stuffed with 2-liter bottles full of sand duct taped shut. They look authentic and I don’t have to worry about a small tear leaking sand everywhere.
First undocumented innovation: I ran a strip of masking tape horizontally exactly 24″ below the top of the stage and labeled it “Quicksand”. Scripts were taped to the back of the stage, but the puppeteers had to divide their attention between following the script and looking up to make sure the puppet was at stage level, neither floating above the stage nor sinking below it. With the quicksand marking, the puppeteer only had to glance at the bottom of the puppet’s central control rod. If the rod was on the quicksand line, the puppet was at the correct height above.
Second undocumented innovation: I bought tool clips at the local hardware store and attached them to the crossbar every four inches. The crossbar was now permanently attached to the fabric, but that was not a problem, I simply rolled up the fabric around the crossbar when it came time to transport. This arrangement not only allowed me to set up scenery by snapping it into the clips, but allowed a single puppeteer to handle multiple puppets. The central control rod for each puppet snapped into the clip holding the puppet in place. One puppeteer could operate two puppets and hold a conversation between them simply by moving the arm rods of whichever puppet was supposed to be talking. Much later, I read in the book, Puppets and the Puppet Stage by Cyril W. Beaumont (1938), a historical puppet stage in Germany uses a similar technique with slots to rest the puppets in. “The type of rod-puppet used in the German Hanneschen theatre is mounted on a pole, reaching to the ground, which can be set in slots when the figure is to be stationary.” (pg.17)
You can just see the yellow ‘quicksand’ hardware tool clips every 4″tape crossing underneath the scripts. The strip behind the scripts is the one foot mark. Each puppeteer’s lines are highlighted in a different color.
When we do shows, the script pages are taped to the back of the stage with a font large enough so all the puppeteers can read them. Parts were highlighted, not by puppet, but by puppeteer. If one puppeteer was working two puppets, both sets of lines were highlighted in the same color. Since we usually arranged it so one puppeteer wasn’t working two different puppets in the same scene, it wasn’t a problem. I know highlighters aren’t period, but this was simply too useful and I justified it because it was back stage where no one would see it.
At first, puppets were stuck into the milk crates holding the uprights based on whether they made their appearance from stage left or stage right. In later performances, I arranged for a table to be behind stage with the puppets and props laid out from left to right in the order they made their appearance.
Third undocumented innovation: I asked Lord Coinneach to make a wooden board with holes drilled at intervals, like a standard pegboard, but with the holes larger and farther apart. I drape the board across the backs of two chairs and drop the control rods for the puppets and scenery in the holes from left to right in order of appearance. The arrangement takes up far less room behind stage which gives the puppeteers more room to work in. I looked up the history of folding chairs on Wikipedia to see if they were period. Not only did they have wooden folding chairs in medieval times, they had them on Viking long ships and in the Roman Coliseum!
At this point, I could do two different kinds of puppet shows. For a standard European style rod puppet show, the puppeteers stood behind the stage and the rod puppets performed above them. For an Oriental style shadow puppet show, the puppeteers sat on cushions behind the yellow lower half of the stage. Work lights behind the stage were aimed at the white upper half of the stage and the puppets performed while pressed against the fabric. The first time we performed a shadow puppet show, audience members told us it was like watching stained glass windows perform!
The next modification I made for my stage was to add turrets. I decided that rather than add them on the stage like in folio 54r or in front of the stage as in folio 76r, that I would add them to the sides of the stage so they didn’t make the stage smaller. I cut turrets out of cardboard, painted them white and fastened them together with heavy masking tape. I added fabric to the bottom of each turret to extend them without adding any significant weight. They folded flat with the fabric draped over them for easy storage and transport. Everything had to fit easily in my compact car. I drilled a pair of holes in each upright and the turrets fastened to the upright with long bolts and wingnuts. To keep their square shape during performance, a pair of white shoelaces connected opposite corners inside the turret above the window.
After a few years, the cardboard turrets started to get battered. I replaced them with wooden ones. I cut them out of plywood, using the cardboard turrets as templates and hinged them together. The same pairs of white shoelaces kept them square during performance. I needed stronger towers to support the weight of the archway that would eventually cross from turret to turret.
My first attempt at an archway was cut from sheets of cardboard. I cut two halves of an arch and hinged them together with duct tape so it could fold up for transport. It was too flimsy to hold its shape. When I replace it with a wooden arch, there will be a series of hooks along the bottom edge of the arch in back. Those will be there to hang backdrop scenery from. The puppets will be operated in a gap between the back drop and the stage front.
Fourth undocumented innovation: The first illumination shows the turrets as solid. The second illumination shows the turrets decorated with a design that is either painted on or cut out of the turrets and stage front. I added arched windows to the front of each of my turrets and fastened a piece of drapery fabric behind each window to cover them.
The simple addition of turrets with windows expanded my capabilities enormously. I could have a narrator speed up the plot by appearing in a turret window and explaining scenes that were too complex to act out with puppets. Since the narrator was separate from the main stage, it didn’t even need to be the same kind of puppet, I could use a hand-puppet narrator with rod puppet actors. I could also play out a minor scene on top of the turret or in the window without having to take down the scenery on the main portion of the stage. When we performed “Rapunzel”, the title character was up on top of a turret for most of her lines.
Fifth undocumented innovation: When we performed “The Ogre’s Staircase”, a Japanese folk tale about an ogre ruining village gardens, I cut pieces of felt to represent village houses, gardens, fish ponds and giant footprints and pinned them to the white section of the stage, making the front of the stage, part of the scenery. I expanded on this idea with “Why the Sea is Salt” when I created scenery on long sections of fabric which I then rolled up and taped shut and hung from the outermost tool clips. When it came time to change the scene, I broke the tape and flipped the roll over the stage. It unrolled down the front of the stage to display the new scene. I could do multiple scenes this way provided they were arranged in reverse order so that the first scene was attached last and would be flipped over first. I later converted the scenery for “The Ogre’s Staircase” into a drop down as well as making a ‘theater marquee’ for the puppet theater itself. I am currently designing a ‘movie poster’ drop down for an upcoming play.
You can see the rolled-up scenery above and Thorin sails his ship across the sea in the the scripts for the final act of “Why the Sea is Salt”
The next innovation I intend to build is a projection that extends either forward or backward from the main curtain. By extending it forward and covering it over, puppeteers can be under it and do a hand puppet show. By extending it backward and lifting the bottom of the yellow curtain, puppeteers can do a marionette show.
A few lessons from experience:
Almost none of my puppets are specific, they are generic fairy tale characters; old man, wizard, king, knight, princess, ogre, etc. All my puppets, except for a few specific characters like the witch or ogre, are Caucasian. A puppet is a caricature of a human being. I have not yet been able to make a non-white puppet that didn’t have overtones of being a racist caricature, but I will keep trying. When I did an Oriental folk-tale, I simply put peasant hats on my standard puppets.
My first puppet shows were fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm. They’re blatantly out of period, as the brothers collected fairy tales in the nineteenth century, but they don’t break the medieval ambiance of events, so they’re acceptable. For a while, as a gag for the grown-ups, I made a pair of Brothers Grimm puppets to introduce and narrate their tales. Wilhelm is tall and thin, Jacob is short and fat, and they both wear dark suits, white shirts, narrow ties, dark glasses, and fedoras. They are ‘The Grimm Brothers’ and Jake introduced himself as “Bastille Jake”. The joke went right over kid’s heads. I have also used puppets of myself and William Shakespeare for narrators. In more recent years, I have been producing puppet plays based on period folk tales.
When I first started out, I tried to match the gender of the puppet to the gender of the puppeteer for more realistic voices. The kids simply don’t care and the puppeteers just pitch their voices higher or lower for female or male puppets as needed. We’ve put on several shows ‘in full drag’.
My puppets will interact with humans, I occasionally have a puppet in a discussion with a human narrator. My puppeteers will also do a quick vaudeville gag in front of the curtain to distract the audience while we change from one puppet play to another. One puppeteer walks around the front of the stage holding a sign that reads “See the Man Eating Lion!” A moment later, he’s followed by another puppeteer holding a lion beanie baby and pretending to eat it.
The children love it when anything comes over the stage into the audience. I first discovered this doing “The Frog Prince”. I had Dixie cups with shots of water behind stage. Any time the frog went down the well, I tossed a shot over the stage to simulate the splash. The children all moved up to get wet. I rewrote the skit to send anything and everything down the well; the frog, the princess’ golden ball, her math book, etc. It was very popular. I try to incorporate something going over in almost any performance we do. A wizard trying to pull rabbits out of a hat showered the audience with nearly everything else starting with the letter “R” such as ribbons and rivets. A magic wishing machine produced candy (never had to clean up after that one for some reason.)
If the show is long, it’s a single performance. If the show is short, I may do a second short skit or extend the time with the puppet version of vaudeville jokes such as:
Princess holding her nose: “My nose, my nose, I got stung by a brose.”
Prince: “What’s a brose?”
Princess: “A pretty flower with red petals and thorns.”
Prince: “That’s a rose, there’s no ‘B’ in rose.”
Princess: “Well, there was in this one!”
I try to keep the entire performance under 20 minutes. Longer than that, and the kids start getting restless. The local library had a puppet show about “Jack and the Beanstalk” that went on for a full hour. The production was brilliant, but the kids were fidgety before the first half hour was up.
After a mundane show, the audience will get up and leave. At an SCA event, people want to come backstage. Since the show is usually against a wall, and there’s less than four feet behind the stage, I bring my more robust puppets out for people to examine while I answer questions. I’ve given a couple of classes on doing puppet shows, but I usually end up with small children in the single digit age group. If I say it’s an adult class, people think I’m doing something like “Avenue Q” and I get no one. Adults enjoy puppet performances like MST3K or Dark Crystal, they just don’t want to admit it. In Japan, they treat a night at the puppet theater like we would treat an opera performance. Get a sitter for the kids, wear your best clothes, and if your cell phone goes off, you could get ejected from the theater.
Photos labelled 2012 taken by Lady Helena Lyncoln of Norfolk at 2012 Harvest Raid and used with permission. Remaining photos taken by me at Harvest Raid 2016 and in my garage shortly afterward.
Baird, Bil (1965) The Art of the Puppet. New York: The Macmillan Company.
Bane, Matheus (2006) Marionette.
Beaumont, Cyril W. (1938) Puppets and the Puppet Stage. New York: Studio Publications.
Beaumont, Cyril W. (1958) Puppets and Puppetry New York: Studio Publications.
Mahlmann, Lewis and David Cadwalader Jones (1974) Puppet Plays for Young Players Boston: Plays Inc.
Schreur, David K (2006) Puppets and Puppetry in Period.
Speight, George (1955) The History of the English Puppet Theatre New York: John de Graff