Basic Guide to Using Puppets

Choosing a Puppet

 Puppet selection is critical to a successful puppet play. All puppets are not suitable for stage puppetry, and all stories are not suitable for telling with a puppet.

 Choose a puppet:

  •  With a loveable, appealing character: who wants to watch a boring puppet?
  •  That you can give an appropriate voice: you might find it difficult to give a shark a voice that feels comfortable to you.
  •  That fits your hand snugly but comfortably enough to manipulate easily and does not constrict your hand movements. A puppet that is too small or too large for your hand will have awkward movements, or could slide off your hand in performance.
  • That has eyes and other features that can be easily seen by the audience. The puppet’s eye contact with the audience is an important aspect of its interaction with the audience. Be sure the audience can see the puppet’s eyes; modify the eyes if needed. 
  • That is large enough to be seen by the largest audience you intend to use the puppet for. Audiences will quickly become bored and squirmy trying to see a puppet that is too small for its movements to be easily watched. 
  • With a mouth that is easily manipulated (if it has a mouth). Some puppets have “hard” mouths that are difficult to work. Some of my favorite puppets have no mouths at all. But if the puppet has a mouth that you intend to use, it is important for the mouth to move naturally and easily.

 Where to Find Puppets

 Once you start looking, you will find puppets in many places. Some of my favorites were found in such unlikely places as airport stores, doll stores, online, at resale shops and yard sales and at a book sale.

 Try looking in the following places for you puppet:

*New puppets: toy stores, bookstores, mail order catalogs, and craft fairs. There are many excellent commercially made puppets that make great puppet partners. Book character puppets are often sold in bookstores, but you may need copyright permission to use them in a paid performance. Most school and personal use of these puppets is perfectly acceptable, however.

 *Used: yard sales, thrift shops, and consignment shops are great places to find puppets. Most puppets can be washed in a washing machine on delicate cycle. Surface dirt can be wiped away with a window cleaning solution or cleaning wipe. Eyes can be changed as needed with either hot-glued wiggle eyes, or with peel-and-stick felt pieces cut to the shape, size and expression you want.

 *Online: new and used puppets are easily available online, but there are special considerations. You will not b able to try out the puppet, and its size might not be what you expect. A used puppet bought online might not be in the condition you anticipate. Still, some of my best puppets were bought very cheaply on eBay.

 *Stuffed animals: many stuffed animals may be modified for use as puppets by removing the interior stuffing. Check to be sure arms are not sewn shut, that there will be ample room for your hand, and that the stuffed animal is constructed sturdily enough for your purposes.

 *Make them! There are many books on puppet making, from simple stick puppets to finger, glove, marionette and more. Many puppets can be made from easily available materials at home, such as old gloves, socks, wooden spoons, etc. Check your local library or online for resources. The bibliography at the end of this manual includes some recommended titles.

 “On sensitive hands, puppets can live, but they demand more than your hands—you must give them your heart.”—Tom Tichenor

Developing Your Puppet’s Personality

It is important to feel comfortable with the puppet before trying to perform with it. You will also need to read and think about the script for your play to determine the kind of personality your puppet will have in the play. Does the role call for a shy, retiring puppet character or a loud, boisterous puppet? You need to know this when you choose the puppet for the part, and when you begin practicing with the puppet.

 Finding Your Puppet’s Voice

 Now that you have begun to develop your puppet’s personality, you need to think about its voice. How does your puppet sound?    Think about the following when choosing your puppet’s voice:

Can you use the voice easily, without strain? Remember that when this puppet speaks, you will need to use the voice you chose for it. How does your throat feel when you use the voice?

 Can you maintain the voice for the puppet’s parts throughout  the story? This is important to maintaining the puppet’s personality and “real-ness” throughout a performance.

Can you keep the puppet in the correct voice easily, without having to think about it every time the puppet speaks? You’ll have enough to remember—the story, the puppet’s movements, and interaction with your audience.

Can everyone in the audience hear you when you are using the puppet’s voice? (a high squeaky voice or a whispery voice might not be a good choice)

Do you like the voice you’ve chosen? Why use it if you don’t?

Does it “fit” your puppet’s appearance and personality? A tiny voice for a big bear puppet might be funny but might not work well with audiences. A very regal voice for a raggedy wolf puppet might seem out of character as well.

Be wary of using dialects and accents. These can offend or sound affected and “fake.” They can also be difficult to maintain throughout a story.

The Puppet Speaks

Now it’s time to put your puppet, its personality and its voice together.

When the puppet speaks, it does not have to move on each and every spoken word. The puppet’s head should not be the only part of its body that moves when it speaks, either. That becomes boring to watch after a short while!

Think about how you move when you talk. You move your hands, sometimes your arms, sometimes and your shoulders. You might shift from foot to foot. You nod or shake your head, raise your eyebrows.

 Now look at your puppet. How can you make your puppet look more interesting when it is speaking without making it look like it is jumping all over the place?

Generally, you should move only the puppets lower jaw when it speaks, not its upper lip. When you talk does your upper lip move up and down a lot? Chances are it doesn’t—neither should a puppet’s. Your goal is to provide puppet mouth movements that are as natural as possible.

For best effect, puppets should move on every emphasized or important word. Which words those are is up to you, the puppeteer. Think about this sentence:

“I think it might rain today.”

Which words will you emphasize?  When your puppet says those emphasized words, it should “spit” the words out, or “shoot” them out with a slight forward movement of its head.

 An exercise:

Let your puppet introduce itself with this short speech:

“Hello! My name is_______________________________. I’m only_______ years old. On my birthday I hope we have _________________ to eat. I feel ___________ today, but usually I’m_____________________________. I usually act kind of_____________________. When I move I like to ________________. How do you like my voice? Isn’t it very ________________________?

 Try this:

Have you puppet explain to another person in the group why the puppet was late to practice. Watch how your puppet is moving. Are you using its hands/arms to explain the situation? Does your puppet look worried or angry? How can you change its expression? Is your puppet moving too much? Too little?

 The Puppet Moves

Puppets movements should always have a purpose. A puppet moving without reason is distracting and confusing to your audience. At the same time, the puppet should not remain inactive on your hand for long periods of time.

During a puppet show, only the speaking puppet should be moving. If the puppet is speaking directly to another puppet, the second puppet might nod or shakes its head in agreement, but the main movement should be the speaking puppet so the audience can easily follow the stage action.

Practice moving your puppet. Try making your puppet:

  • Hop, jog, run, slide, skate, jump
  • Climb, walk, creep, crawl
  • Limp, bounce, swing, sneak
  • Bow, peek, fly, swing
  • Point, clap, rub hands, wave
  • Yawn, sneeze, cry, cough

Nursery rhymes provide good puppet practice for body movements, expression, voice, timing, and mouth movement.

Try the following rhymes and think about how your puppet is moving and speaking:

 *Is the voice suited to the puppet?

*Can you maintain the voice easily throughout the thyme?

*How is the puppet’s mouth moving?

*Are you holding the puppet upright, or is it leaning forward?

*Is your puppet using its body to add expression and interest? Is it moving too little or too much?

 Nursery Rhymes to Tell With Puppets

 Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick

Little Jack Horner

sat in a corner

Eating his Christmas pie

He stuck in his thumb

And pulled out a plum

And said, “What a good boy am I”

 Little Miss Muffet

Sat on a tuffet

Eating her curds and whey

Along came a spider

And sat down beside her

And frightened

Miss Muffet away!

 Old Mother Hubbard

Went to the cupboard

To get her poor doggie a bone

But when she got there

The cupboard was bare

And so the poor doggie had none.

Mary Had a Little Lamb

Its fleece was white as snow

And everywhere that Mary went

The lamb was sure to go

It followed her to school one day

Which was against the rule

It made the children laugh and play

To see a lamb in school

 Hey diddle diddle,

the cat and the fiddle

The cow jumped over the moon

The little dog laughed

To see such sport

And the dish ran away

With the spoon

 Hickory dickory dock

The mouse ran up the clock

The clock struck one

And down he run

Hickory dickory dock

Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater

Had a wife

And couldn’t keep her

He put her in a pumpkin shell

And there her kept her

Very well

Georgie Porgie puddin’ and pie

Kissed the girls and made them cry

When the boys came out to play

Georgie Porgie ran away

Old King Cole

was a merry old soul

And a merry old soul was he

He called for his pipe

he called for his bowl

he called for his fiddlers three

 Pease porridge hot

Peas porridge cold

Pease porridge in the pot

Nine days old

Some like it hot

Some like it cold

Some like it in the pot

Nine days old

Humpty Dumpty

Sat on a wall

Humpty Dumpty

Had a great fall

All the king’s horses

And all the king’s men

Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty

Together again

Baa Baa Black Sheep

Have you any wool?

Yes sir, yes sir

Three bags full

One for the master

One for the maid

One for the little boy

Who lives in the lane

Jack and Jill

went up the hill

To fetch a pail of water

Jack fell down

And broke his crown

And Jill came tumbling after

Bye, Baby Bunting,

Daddy’s gone a-hunting

To get a little rabbit-skin

to wrap my Baby Bunting in.

Cross patch,

Draw the latch,

Sit by the fire and spin;

Take a  cup,

And drink it up,

Then call your neighbours in.

A diller, a dollar,

A ten o’clock scholar,

What makes you come so soon?

You used to come at ten o’clock,

But now you come at noon.

Round and round the garden,

Like a teddy bear.

One step, two step,

Tickle you under there!

Elsie Marley is grown so fine,

She won’t get up to feed the swine,

But lies in bed till eight or nine.

Lazy Elsie Marley.


Little Boy Blue

Come blow your horn

The sheep’s in the meadow

The cow’s in the corn

Where’s the little boy

Who looks after the sheep?

He’s under the haystack

Fast asleep

One two, buckle my shoe

Three four, shut the door

Five six, pick up sticks

Seven eight, lay them straight

Nine ten, a big fat hen!

Rock-a-bye baby

On the treetop

When the wind blows

The cradle will rock

When the bow breaks

The cradle will fall

Down will come baby

Cradle and all

Little Bo Peep

Has lost her sheep

And can’t tell where

To find them.

Just leave them alone

And they’ll come home

Dragging their tails

Behind them.

Wee Willie Winkie

Runs through the town

Upstairs and downstairs

In his nightgown.

Peeking in the windows

Crying through the locks

Are all the children

In their beds?

For now it’s 8 o’clock

Sing a song of sixpence

A pocket full of rye

4 and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie

When the pie was ready

The birds began to sing

Now wasn’t that a dainty dish

To set before the King!


6 Responses to Basic Guide to Using Puppets

  1. carol kerman says:

    I appreciate you clear, concise tips for using puppets. I am thinking about the improvements I will make as I relate to my puppets. I always assumed that a puppet with a moving mouth was a must. I will rethink that.
    Thanks again,
    Carol kerman

  2. Emad says:

    Thank you
    very complete guide, and useful tips.

  3. Festival Trade says:

    Thank you ! Very interesting info and guidance in this page. I have a jester string puppet wish has a very cheeky face and a pointing finger. I been play with him for a couple of years but unfortunately I dont found a script that can go well with his cheeky character. I have some other string marionettes/puppets and they are all related (more or less) with meddle age. Any script advise ?

  4. joy wright says:

    I work in juvenile corrections. I am interested in using puppets, but don’t know how. Do you know of any resources I can purchase?

    • Gabriela Langholff says:

      Hi Joy. I love puppets and I use them all the time, but I have found that older children don’t respond to puppets anymore, My advice, don’t use them if you audience is more that 8 years old unless you are really good ( professional) with them

  5. Stephin says:

    Thanx really helpful

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