From Construction to production
Geoff Young November 2013
The Cabaret was something I had always wanted to create, and thanks to an opportunity in Germany, it gained the drive and energy it needed to become a reality.
Without going too much into detail about how I ended up in the Austrian bar, drinking Austrian wine and chatting with puppeteers from all over the world, I was asked by Dr. Olaf Bernstengel to create a new variety show, to be ready to perform at the Elbe-Elster festival in 2013, naturally I jumped at the chance.
I knew which puppet characters I wanted to make, in fact there are literally hundreds more waiting to be created, but I had to decide how many and which would I bring to life first.
Armed with a pen and a pad of paper, I started to draw, tongue out with concentration and mumbling to myself (apparently).
I soon decided on the first 7 puppets I would build, which was all well and good, but this time I wanted to try a new construction technique, bigger and more technical than my earlier models, using materials I had not tried.
With my notes on one side I began to sculpt the first face, wrapping modelling clay around a tin-foil ball, scraping and teasing the clay (again tongue out) 2 hours went by before completion, after which time I stood back to admire my work........Awful! I removed the clay from the foil, put it in a box and promptly went to bed! You can't always get it right first time you try something new.
The following day I felt refreshed and ready to try again, somehow and idea had wormed it's way into my head during my nights sleep... in the form of a marble egg.
The egg, which until this point had been an ornament, serving little function other than to collect dust and attract toes in the dark, could be set in such a way that different head shapes could be achieved, and it was heavy enough to stay still during the sculpting process.
After another notable length of time, I had again created a head...at least the front half of a head. I held my creation at arms length to admire my work, expecting to be met by another hideous disaster, but this time was suprised to see a beautiful female face, later to become known as KoKo.
This was quite a moment, as before this point my female faces were, shall we say, not so feminine. The egg and head were placed in the oven for around 45 minutes at a high temperature to bake the clay. I removed the egg from the oven very carefully, due to the fact it was incredibly hot.
Now was the dilemma, having never baked a marble egg, or used this type of clay before, I wasn't sure how to remove the egg from inside the sculpted face.
the way I saw it I had a choice,
1. leave the whole thing to cool down which would allow the face to completely harden, but may also have the risk of shrinkage and cracking,
2. Remove the egg while it is still hot and risk ripping the clay, and burning my fingers on a red hot egg.
3. Run the whole thing under cold water enough to cool it down and take the egg out as soon as it was almost cool enough to touch.
I didn't want to destroy my first ever female face, which actually looks like a female, so I chose 3......it worked perfectly, I was left holding an egg in one hand and a face in the other. With this new style and technique, I continued for a number of nights creating all 7 faces until I had my troupe.
(pictures in the Cabaret Gallery ).
The torsos and back halves of the heads, were made by layering up decreasing slices of MDF, like odd shaped pyramids, which were glued together and left to set overnight. The final shaping of these was done using a band saw to remove the corners and then they were sanded until smooth.
Extra padding made from sponge was added to the chest and buttocks to give a more humanly shape and the ability to squish the squishy bits made the puppets slightly easier to dress.
Using bent loops of wire, screw eyes, sponge and glues the torsos, and heads were assembled, and had good flexibility between the sections and seemed very robust.
The limbs were made from 3 layers of thin wood, staggered to make hinges, glued together, carved and sanded to shape, this is a technique I have used before, however to attach the limbs to the bodies proved another challenge.
I liked the idea of using ball and socket joints, which seems to be how nature deals with this problem.
Using my favourite thermoplastic "Polymorph" and after some trial and error, I was able to sculpt perfect sized sockets on the body parts, to suit the large wooden beads I had already screwed to each of the limbs.
The hands and feet were sculpted from Polymorph, which I always use because it is super strong but also slightly flexible.
The hands were attached to the arms using a length of nylon cord, pushed lengthways into a hole through the wrist, and then pinned into place through the forearm allowing the hands to move in any direction I chose when I got to the point of stringing.
The feet were hinged into a slot in the ankle and pinned into place, allowing movement up and down, at the same time limiting sideways movement.
Once all of the bodies, limbs, hands, and feet were temporarily attatched together, they were whisked off to the costume department for fitting, My partner Katrin was in charge of the sewing machine, and together we trawled through pictures to decide on the correct style for each of the puppet costumes,
After a few days of manic sewing, cutting, measuring, altering, pinning and glueing, the completed bodies were painted, assembled for the last time and then dressed, and could finally be strung.
I won't go into the stringing process, just know this, it was long! Finding the right point to tie the string to, and where on the controller to attach it takes a large amount of patience, epscially when the puppets need to ride unicycles or juggle.
Thankfully due to years of experience with many types of trick marionettes, I had a good Idea as to which string should go where, but it still takes some thought and again trial and error.
So there we have it, 7 trick puppets ready to rehearse.
Once I decided on the music for each of the acts it was a case of rehearsing every spare moment, tweeking and altering strings and learning how the controller should be held to achieve the required movements.
The best part of trying a puppet for the first time, is not so much seeing it do what you planned it to do, but what it does that you didn't plan, and discovering any hidden talents they possess.
Before I knew it the time was here to unleash the cabaret upon the world, and we set off to Bad Liebenwerda with a car packed full of puppets, props and staging.
The drive alone was exhausting, northern England to eastern Germany is a long way, and I have never been happier to see a hotel bed in all of my days.
We arrived a day before the first performance, which was in a kindergarten, for around 30 children, who were a lively audience, and although my German language is not perfect by any means, I got the impression they really enjoyed the show.
Day 3 of the festival we performed again in a puppet museum along with 2 other companies that day, something I hadn't counted on, was taht after each of the shows before me, the puppeteers would address the audience and explain how the puppets were made and how they operate.
I quickly learned that I would also be doing this talk, normally not a problem, but this time I had to do it in German. I performed my show and it went down very well, the audience were laughing at the right bits and it was a very enjoyable experience all round.
Then came the after show talk, I expected to drop down to the floor like a gibbering idiot, but actually I seemed to recall 95% of the correct words, which had somehow worked their way into my head from my previous adventures in Germany, not forgetting of course that Katrin has taught me some important words and phrases.
Day 4. Another perfromance in the museum, but this time it was a more informal affair, more of a showcase of puppets. Wandering through the crowds with a maniac unicycling clown, and swanee whislting my way through the public, again attempting to answer questions in german. It all seemed to go rather well and after the public had left, I had the opportunity to talk to some other puppeteers from Germany and shared ideas and generally finished the festival off on a high note.
All there is to do now is to add more characters to the Cabaret and make it bigger and better every time it is performed.
Thanks for reading, and big thanks to everyone who helped make it all happen.