It takes a human to bring a puppet to life

  • Posted: Saturday, May 25, 2013 1:52 p.m.
Actors share the stage of the Dock Street Theatre with unique puppets they manipulate.

For some, staring at and talking to a puppet is a bit strange. But for actress Naomi Cranston, it was a triumphant experience.

If you go

WHAT: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

WHEN: 3:30 p.m. (preview) and 8 p.m. Sat.; 3:30 p.m. Sun.; 3:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Mon.; 7 p.m. Tues.; 7 p.m. Thurs.; 3:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Fri.; 3:30 p.m. June 1; 3:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. June 2; 7 p.m. June 3, 5, 6; 8 p.m. June 7; 3:30 p.m. June 8; 3:30 p.m. June 9.

WHERE: Dock Street Theatre, 135 Church St.

COST: $25 and up

MORE INFO: spoletousa.org; 579-3100

“I wanted to feel like she wasn’t a burden,” Cranston said of her puppet. “Being a human, the process doesn’t work if you force it.”

Cranston, like the rest of the cast in this production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” had to get used to the idea of acting as both human and puppet. This version of Shakespeare is a collaboration between Bristol Old Vic and Handspring Puppet Company, the same team that created the award-winning “War Horse.” In the new production, everything on the set comes to life, including Cranston’s 2-foot-tall puppet counterpart, Helena.

“It was difficult to manipulate because she was so stiff,” she said. “You, as an actor, just have to say, ‘It’s OK if the puppet doesn’t do what you want it to.’ ”

The actors worked on the text first, using their imaginations to bring stick-figure stand-ins to life before their actual puppet characters were completed, Cranston said. Next, they studied human physiology and spent a lot of time watching people walk, sit, talk and emote.

Once they received the actual wooden puppets, the process became “absolute madness,” she said. Attention turned to working on how the puppets walked and breathed.

“The movements become extremely messy and unclear when putting your body movements along with the puppet’s,” said David Emmings, who plays several characters in this production, including the mischievous Puck. “You must always be active, not passive, because the audience won’t connect with you.”

Cranston explained that the goal is to erase the differences between human actors and puppets.

“We’re asking the audience to do something they haven’t done before,” she said. “We want the audience to believe the puppets are us, not puppets. There’s no competition on stage because the puppets are an extension of us.”

Both actors said is was challenging to speak the poetic and complex language of Shakespeare while simultaneously manipulating the puppets. But, Emmings said, the actors welcomed the unusual opportunity and strived to try most anything director Tom Morris threw their way.

“It’s not an individual process; everyone has done exceptionally well grappling with the challenge,” Emmings said. “It’s extremely experimental, this piece, and it sounds a bit crazy really.”


Briana Prevost is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.

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