Puppets & Puppeteers

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Introduction

Here is another metaphor I like to use in my workshops: as improv actors, we are both Puppets & Puppeteers.  In this post I’ll explain what I mean by this, and what it implies to our craft.

tom-piano-muppet
Performing an improv show with puppets with Quicksilver productions – Antwerp 2017 – (C) Dirk Den Aantrekker

Puppets & Puppeteers

Look at it this way: as an improv actor/player, we “control” our character.  We improvise, we do not have a script, so unlike in scripted theatre, the whole of the character we play is in our hands.  Like a puppeteer controlling a puppet.   The actors on stage hence have 2 roles: as Puppeteers in control of the characters they play, and as Puppets in the sense of ‘being’ the character.

At this point one may wonder why this is important.  Here’s why:  how one reacts and how one behaves on stage, is very different depending on the viewpoint.  In my experience players often do not realise this.  Here is what happens if they don’t.

Chivalry

From the puppeteer point of view, I expect players to be nice, to be fun to play with, to be respectful of other players.  However, I absolutely do not want this from a Puppet point of view.  I like characters (Puppets) to be nasty, thieving, cheating, lying, conniving, disrespectful,k  you name it.  But I definitely not want to see those qualities in the player (the Puppeteer).   I strongly believe that player’s ignorance of the difference in POV of Puppeteer versus Puppet – or their inability to see/sense the difference – is one of the root causes of Martha Stewart improv: boring scenes, between ordinary characters in ordinary settings.

Accepting

Here is another misconception (in my eyes, YMMV): I fully expect the players to accept the realities being created by other players.  But that does not imply that the characters should be accepting everything that is going on.

Example: player A decides this character is going to stick a gun under player B’s character, demanding the character’s wallet.  I expect player B to accept that there is indeed a gun.  This is the Puppeteering point of view.  But that does not imply that character B should accept the situation and simply hand over the money.  If Puppeteer B accepts the situation, it makes perfect sense for Puppet B to react in the sense: “no I do not want to be held up and no I am not handing over my wallet”.   When Puppet B states “No, please don’t take my wallet, my kids are starving, I am out of a job and the family needs to get by for another month with what I have here”, to me, that is a perfect example of Puppeteer B accepting the reality of the situation, and Puppet B reacting in a “logical” way to that situation.

Certain schools or teachers for improv live by the credo “never say no” – IMHO these credo’s often confuse between Puppeteers and Puppets.  The basic improv rule of “yes-and”  – i.e. accept, do not block – applies to the Puppeteers, not to the Puppets!

As a side note: since I do not believe in absolute rules, I don’t even think that the “yes-and” credo is 100% sacrosanct, but that is subject for a future post.   For now, we can take the point I am making here even further, by means of an example I have stolen from my friend Yann Van Den Branden:

  • A: Honey shall we go to the theatre tonight?
  • B: No
  • A: But the new play we have been talking about for so long opens tonight!
  • B: No
  • A: But it’s with Ingrid Steel, our favorite actress
  • B: I know.  It’s still NO
  • A: But honey
  • B: I know about you and Ingrid

In this example player (Puppeteer) B chose for her character (the Puppet) to block player A’s character’s statement.  Player B knew perfectly well she would come up with a reason – and actually the inspiration for that reason came from player A himself.  In my book, this is not blocking in the destructive sense of the word.

Questions

Another credo, or “rule” certain teachers preach is “do not ask questions”.   As with accepting, the credo applies more to the Puppeteers rather than to the Puppets.  Some examples.

  • A: I will take care of the kids this afternoon
  • B: Are you implying I’m a bad mother?

Here we have character B, replying to A with a question.  But A (as a Puppeteer) is still advancing the scene!  The question either implies that character A is implying (or at least thinking) that character B is a bad mother.  Or the question implies that B is herself having doubt about her parenting skills.   If built upon (i.e. if the implications of the question are not ignored) the question itself does advance the whole.  I see nothing wrong with this question – quite to the contrary.  Puppeteer B is not avoiding anything here, though it might seem at first sight that character (Puppet) B is.

Contrast this with the following (admittedly extreme) exchange:

  • A: What do you want to do tonight?
  • B: I don’t know.  What do you want to do?

In the above, none of the players advance anything; these are 2 wasted lines in a performance.  And when I say “players” in the previous sentence, I mean Puppeteers.

An often-heard variation on the “no questions” rule is something like “do not ask open-ended questions” and I like that version better.  A closed-ended question is a question by a character (a Puppet) but an advancement by the Puppeteer!   There is a fun game handle called Only Questions  in which the only lines of dialog permitted are questions, these questions should be closed-ended, and the players (Puppeteers) always assume the answer is yes.  It is one of my favorite exercises which, with a bit of practice, is great fun to play.  It also teaches players (Puppeteers) to come up with closed-ended questions, that (implicitly) advance the game or the scene.

Conclusion

So there we have it: as improv actors on stage we fulfill 2 roles: one as Puppeteer and ons as Puppet.  Understanding the difference – and  even exploiting the difference – makes us better improvisers.  Feel free to disagree in the comment section!

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