the mare’s progress V

One more day should see the new Mari Lwyd completed. Over the weekend I grasped the nettle and set about that most difficult aspect of horse anatomy needing to be reproduced if the puppet is to look plausible in motion, the legs. Thanks to the muslin shroud I’ve only had to make the front ones, but nevertheless the task produced some daunting challenges. Making things even more complicated was the small detail of the ghostly transparency I’d set my heart on with this particular version of the Mari. (See above image.) Of course there are several quite different Mari Lwyd puppets in the production, and maquettes too, operated on-stage with rods, but also appearing in stop-motion sequences.

For this latest puppet I’d acquired some translucent plastic tubing with enough rigidity to hold its shape, but building the legs out of it was something I’d put off while I explored ways to make the joints. Because from the outset I’d envisioned the puppeteers in direct contact with the Mari Lwyd rather than operating it via rods or strings, the leg joints would require flexibility but also offer some resistance under the puppeteer’s hand, or they’d just flop about like broken drinking-straws. My idea was to support the joints with wire-rigs I’d design and make to mimic the effects of the ligaments that hold together the skeleton of a living body, and after much trial and error, I came up with this.

Above: a fetlock in the extended position…

… and in compression.

Above: an extended full-length leg held by two wire ‘ligament’ rigs. The scapular at the top moves back and forth with the puppet’s gait. In the image below the leg is in compression, as it will appear when the Mari is rearing or galloping.

Please excuse the not terribly good photographs. It’s very difficult to hold the leg with one hand and handle the camera with the other. Neither could I hold the leg correctly from above by the operator’s wooden grip (behind the scapular in the image) because when I did I couldn’t extend my arm sufficiently to show the entire leg while taking the photograph. In the operating position the lead puppeteer holds the grips for the front legs and for the neck in one hand, though if that proves too complicated then I can screw the two together. Not a problem, though it might make for a more cumbersome puppet. Right now everything is feeling pleasingly lightweight, flexible and responsive, so I’ll hold off making a final decision until we’ve trialled the puppet.

The control/hand-grip is made of wood, as is the top of the leg, because both elements need be robust. The top of the leg takes a lot of rotation when the Mari walks or gallops, and the plastic tubing felt too insubstantial for the job. I shall have to ensure a carefully equipped maintenance-box travels with the puppet. There’s plenty that could go wrong with it.

Making the puppet has been a bit of a voyage of discovery for me, as I’ve been polishing skills that had become rather dusty with disuse. What started rather crudely as this…

… finally arrived at this.

On Friday I meet up with Ann the lead-puppeteer, and I shall try to take some photographs of the Mari being trialled at that session.

14 responses to “the mare’s progress V

  1. The photos of you with your ingenious puppet parts in this and the last post put me in mind of Geppetto working on his puppet in the workshop, but you are not making a cute wooden boy – instead you are making the stuff of nightmares! :-)

  2. I just don’t understand why the wire ligament things at the knee bend don’t slip down the plastic straw when it is straight. I can’t see what is making it stay put, as it doesn’t seem to pierce the plastic straw at any place. Pretty amazing puppet making skills and thanks for the informative zoomable photos; just wondering, could you have used a bendy straw? I think I have just revealed the limits of my own pretty non-existent puppet making skills.

    • A puppet must fulfil many artistic and technical requirements. It has to:

      a) look good to the audience
      b) function well mechanically
      c) convey an illusion of life
      d) be reliable in rehearsal and in repeated performance

      (Puppets take a lot of punishment at the hands of puppeteers.)

      The material I’ve used for the legs isn’t plastic straw, but a very dense though lightweight plastic hose. It isn’t actually very flexible. If it were, then it would bend in all the wrong places, making the legs look spaghetti-like and silly. I chose it because it was translucent and could be cut with a saw or Stanley knife.

      The wire has a lot of tensile strength in it. It’s not at all soft or bendy. The ‘spring’ that comes from the way I’ve designed the angle of the rig makes the ends push inward toward the ‘joint’, rather than slide down the plastic. Each plastic tube joint is hinged with tightly bound and knotted dental floss, which has enough strength and flexibility to reliably hold the pieces together yet allow them to open and close.

      I’m not a mechanical engineer. When the car goes wrong I make straight for the garage mechanic. But from my early experiences as a puppeteer and later a stage designer, I accrued enough principles of structural design to know which ones can profitably be applied to this kind of work.

  3. oh, how clever! these shows have been such a boon, giving you so many new things to “figure out”–it’s an inspiring charge, isn’t it?? how fantastic to be a puppet-maker!! congratulations!!

    • Figured it out for myself. Tried different configurations, starting complicated and then honing the idea down to the simplest version. It works really well. But it took lots of trial and error.

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