Puppet-making for a new generation

Sarah Elhosary , Tuesday 25 Apr 2023

Puppet-making is becoming more and more attractive to many young people as puppets become more present on TV and in advertising campaigns, reports Sarah Elhosary

Puppet making workshop
Puppet making workshops attract new generations


The popularity of using puppets in various TV programmes and advertising campaigns has generated a growing interest among young people in attending workshops that teach the art of creating these puppets in all their various forms. 

This revival of a traditional art form once seen in many theatrical performances has been spreading for decades and can now be observed in popular advertising campaigns and on television shows such as Abla Fahita.

“The participants come to puppet-making workshops for a variety of reasons. Some learn the skill professionally, while others join the workshop to enjoy designing and making puppets. Others create puppets as handmade gifts,” said Mohamed Fawzi, a puppets arts specialist and instructor.  

Sharing her experience as a workshop participant, Samar Hemdan, a behavioural nutrition specialist, said that “I attended the workshop to find a healthy way to relieve stress, something I often recommend to my patients. Moreover, I use puppets during behaviour-modification sessions with children to convey information and interact better with them.”

“I have been making puppets and hand puppets since 2010. However, I wanted to learn how to make marionettes, so I joined a workshop to learn,” said Michael Magdi, another workshop participant and a puppet designer. 

“We made a marionette puppet from recycled materials, including egg cartons, cork, and wood. I created a marionette resembling the singer Mohamed Mounir in the first few days of my participation in the workshop, which was a surprise for the presenter and participants,” he added. “After finishing the workshop, I held my own private workshop to teach marionette-making.”

Some workshop attendees want puppets that look like them or others, including engaged couples who want marionettes that look like them to use in their celebration. 

“I design these puppets to closely match the requested facial features, paying attention to details such as hair, skin colour, and clothing. It can be challenging to create these puppets because marionettes tend to have somewhat caricature-like designs. However, we try to emphasise the features to achieve the closest possible resemblance to the desired person or character,” said Ebtihal Mustafa, a designer.

Before creating a marionette, Mustafa inquires whether it is for theatrical or personal use. If the marionettes are for the theatre, she makes them stronger, using more wood to avoid their disintegrating with continuous use during theatre shows. “I also coat them with polyester for a scratch-resistant surface. Additionally, I try to determine the approximate height of the puppet user. If he is a child, I do not design the marionette to the usual height of a theatrical puppet, usually 60 to 65 cm tall,” Mustafa said.

Although there are numerous workshops to learn how to make marionettes, there is no formal institution that teaches the art of designing and creating them. “Despite learning marionette-making from my father, I struggled to deepen my knowledge. Many professional designers kept their secrets to themselves, especially before online tutorials became widely available,” Mustafa explained.

WORKS OF ART: A marionette is an entirely handmade work of art and is a highly specialised form that is made upon request. Each marionette is designed according to its role in a play or in the imagination of its creator. 

“As they are only available upon request, there is no market for selling this type of puppet, which makes their prices high. A 25 to 30-cm marionette can range from LE1,000 to LE1,500 depending on the character of the puppet and the complexity of its design and movement. The price of a theatre marionette starts at LE4,000 or LE5,000 and increases according to the details and mechanism,” Mustafa said. 

“On the other hand, regular puppets start at LE2,000 and may vary more in price. They are composed of sponge and fabric and move using different mechanisms. Puppeteers control them from behind or wear them on their heads or hands, similar to the puppets in the US TV series Sesame Street. Despite the simplicity of these puppets, designing their characters is more challenging, since only sponge and fabrics are used to shape the desired facial features.”

There are also variations in the animation method. There are hand puppets or giant puppets worn by puppeteers, stick puppets, and string puppets such as marionettes. “The most popular puppets in the workshops are marionettes, which take a workshop from two to two and a half months to make, and the hand and glove puppets for children, which are done in a one-day workshop,” explained Fawzi. 

Puppets can be made from a variety of materials, including wood, paper, sponge, and fabrics. However, marionette puppet-manufacturing requires diverse materials for each puppet. According to Fawzi, the marionette’s structure is created using a wooden backbone, which is then covered with foam to create the puppet’s body. The head can be made of wood or paper. 

The use of foam and paper materials in the construction reduces its weight, resulting in a finished product that weighs between one and a half to two kg, depending on the size and materials used. This lightweight construction is essential for puppeteers, as it allows them to manipulate the marionette more easily.

Mustafa had to invent her own style, materials, and method of execution to achieve what she wanted. She started out using available materials such as paper and dough, and then she developed them. “I added polyester materials, used clay to sculpt the marionette’s head, and used wood to make the body. After that, I tried to share my technique through workshops to teach marionette-making. I transferred what I had learned to the participants,” she commented.

Some materials are easier to work with than others, according to Mustafa. For example, if a beginner in her workshop breaks a marionette’s wooden nose, that can be problematic. On the other hand, if the marionette is made of paper or clay dough, a broken nose can be easily fixed by shaping more dough.

“The marionette-making workshops include three stages. The first stage starts with generating ideas for the marionette’s design and character. The second stage involves drawing the marionette and all its features and details. The third stage, the longest, includes executing the marionette by carving and shaping the materials and creating its movement mechanism,” Fawzi explained.

The process of creating a marionette begins with sculpting the head and face. Once this is completed, the remaining body parts are meticulously carved, paying close attention to the intricate details of the limbs and fingers. The carving process typically spans seven days, and the final sanding then takes approximately two more days, he added.

Designing and executing the papier mâché for the marionette’s face demands additional time. “The papier mâché is shaped and left to dry for three days before the facial features are sculpted and sanded. Afterwards, the eyes, lips, accessories, and other personal details, such as a moustache or head cover, are carefully coloured and assembled,” Fawzi said.

Following completion, the most challenging stage of the design process begins, which entails designing and executing the puppet’s control mechanism. “The participant must learn how to build an exact control mechanism that allows the marionette to move smoothly. The control mechanism should depend on the specific movements required of the marionette if it is to be used in a play, such as for sitting or dancing. After we design the mechanism, we use it to execute the actions needed for the role,” he added.

Once the marionette is complete, various outfits are created for the theatre character that can be removed and worn again. “We usually use cloth with zippers to avoid interfering with the strings of the marionette,” said Mustafa.

Hemdan enjoyed selecting accessories like a wig and a dance suit to create the marionette she designed as a dancer. She has learned how to make marionettes on her own, how to move them using strings, and how to make puppets using sponge and fabric.

“I have also created a puppet with wool-thread hair and dressed her in one of my baby nephew’s outfits,” she concluded.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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