With a few raw materials, an old coyote skull, some petty cash, a rough idea, and a good dose of faith in hand, off I went to make a puppet!
When I returned to the Berkshires in late June of 2013, Biggs presented me with the top half of a coyote skull that he’d found and a plush coyote, about four feet long, constructed of muslin and stuffing, by the lovely Emily Justice Dunn, creator of our Drape and Baby Noah from “The Dick and The Rose”. We had discussed, while I was still in New York, the upcoming story he was spinning into play and screenplay form, and that in this story we needed a talking Coyote. He told me to take inspiration from Emily’s sweet pup, mix it up with what we learned in Tom’s workshop, and dive boldly into the experiment of making an approximately life-sized Coyote puppet for an upcoming short film and play.
So home I went to do some research on Handspring Puppet company, the amazing South African group that Tom worked with on War Horse, a company that has been producing incredible animal puppets that move in lifelike ways while maintaining a creative, homespun, story telling aesthetic in their overall look. I knew this is what I felt inspired by and envisioned for Coyote. Before I moved back up to the Berkshires, I’d had the good fortune of being invited to puppeteer with HiveMind Theatre Company in their short puppet play at St.Ann’s Warehouse’s Toy Theatre Festival. Over the rehearsal period, I watched puppets be tinkered with and built from wood, fabric, paper, glue, paint, staples, and pretty much anything else you could imagine. Witnessing the work behind Chan Thou’s Tuk Tuk also gave me confidence to dabble in the unknown.
And so several months of experiments began as I started on what I envisioned as a two to three person, Bunraku-style, life-sized Coyote puppet. I started with a rough, wooden skeleton. I used the size and shape of Emily’s plush Coyote, as well as photos of coyote skeletons found online, to create templates out of large sheets of masonite that I had on hand. Then, I planned to connect them with wire, dowels, and backpack strap (a useful, strong material that Tom suggested). The main part of the skeleton consisted of a ribcage with a front and back piece of masonite and wire “ribs” connecting the two. A hole was cut in the front piece to allow for the neck stick of the head to come through and the back piece was designed with a wrist rest so that one hand could manipulate the shoulders and head together. The rib cage then connected to a spine, which would have some hips constructed in a similar fashion to the shoulder piece, with an identical, dowel-sized hole for the tale. The legs were built of masonite, dowel,and backpack strap with appropriate joints and as natural movement as possible ( this inspiration I pulled from Handspring), and the feet were weighted to potentially relieve the puppeteers of excess manipulation.
Then came the head. Building roughly in the format taught by Tom Lee, I created a coyote skull out of crumpled paper and masking tape. Mounted on a short dowel (functioning as the neck, and also as a mechanism to control the head from within or beneath the body), I took the rough skull shape and added finesse with fine, transparent paper (similar to the traditionally-used rice paper) and watered-down wood glue. After completing the moveable top half of the skull, I also made a working jaw. Biggs wanted an active tongue, if possible, so I began to play around with trigger systems and got a little in over my head. I’m no engineer and that’s for sure! But, with a little help and patience, I managed to rig a spring trigger inside the mouth to move the jaw from the hand which would be inside the rib cage, and saw potential to make moving ears/ tongue.
However, my patience began to ware thin. I was struggling with maintaining focus and inspiration as well as solving what felt like challenging physics, and I was reminded of why I chose the artistic path that I did. I’m a collaborator, and find my fuel in the melding of my passion with others. I was having a really hard time working mostly alone, in silence, assembling a creature I couldn’t yet bring to life in a satisfactory way. There were other issues, too. The head I’d worked so hard on, was much to large and long for an actual coyote. The body was becoming too complex to manipulate with ease and we weren’t sure that we’d have more than just myself as a puppeteer, especially for the film, so I needed to get back to the drawing board and work on a simpler, smaller, more accurate puppet for a single puppeteer. The good news is that I could focus on just the top half of the body for the film’s sake. I decided to start from a place of necessity, the bare bones of what the puppet needed to do, and to come from a puppeteer’s functional perspective rather than a design-oriented angle. But this a tale for next time…