As a full time solo puppeteer for many years, I construct all my puppets and staging using many different materials and tools. Still, my voice has always been my most important tool – aside from my hands. Laryngitis is by far my least favorite common illness.
Post show, audience members often ask if I get the voices of the different characters confused. I have always told them I do not because during the performance, I don’t think about my own voice at all – it is the puppets who are doing the communicating. I know this may sound a little hocus-pocus-y, but during a rehearsed and seasoned show, their voice, along with their life force, flows out my arms into their bodies without conscious thought about each move or sound I am about to make them produce. The characters may come up with spontaneous new lines from time to time, but this is not anything I plan ahead. The sound of their voice, along with what they say, is just a part of their character. I do get better acquainted with them the longer I perform the same show, which deepens the mannerisms of their behavior and speech. Each character is set free to be itself, to react in real time to the action of the story, to other characters in the story, and to the energy and input of the audience. All these elements combined give a specific voice to the performance.
I am working right now with a small group of teen docents at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, leading them to develop stories to present as puppet theater inspired by a work of art of their choice at the museum. Yesterday, one of the young women asked if I had ever performed at a particular local elementary school, and I told her I probably had. She remembered a puppet theater performance she saw as a student there years before, remembering the story, and recognizing that I was the puppeteer because of my voice, she said. So, aside from visual appearance, text and physical action, voice is an element of self in the story that is, apparently, recognizable as identifiable inflection, tone, rhythm, etc.
So I was thinking about this in relation to voice in writing. I’m talking about the writing for children’s books I am doing. I love playing with voice in writing. Strength and evenness is crucial throughout each work: a conscious choice made – or allowed to happen and nurtured – which reflects an element of the writer.
I’ve been experimenting with several re-writes of a particular story – changing it from 3rd to 1st person, and, especially, pushing the character traits to the limit. But, in pushing one character, all the others must keep up – or they don’t appear to belong in the same story – the voice of the entire story must remain consistent. As I’m testing changing the story from a sort of historical fiction narrative, to a tall tale, set in a specific place and time, I find I am actually doing more background research for the tall tale version – to keep a grounded voice. Although I am pushing and exaggerating the characters, I need the overall voice of the story to remain plausible and steady. I must have an even melody that leads from one page to the next, and voice is what carries this melody. It is tricky, and perhaps a bit more conscious than with the puppets, to keep the voice even.
The show I’ve been touring lately includes two different stories, tied together by the theme. One is a completely obscure folktale from Mali of a greedy river spirit, the other an adaptation of a more complex legend of Sir George and the Dragon. My young audiences have no problem following these stories that are new to them, and understanding when verbal assistance is required. They willingly enter into the world of the story with me, as we follow the puppets through the rising and falling action of the story cued by their voices and movements. For example, before Sir George arrives, when the dragon eats the villager’s last sheep (a cute lamb prop) the audience reaction is very apparent, and makes clear the horror the villager also must feel, and express – the audience and puppet are experiencing this together and take cues from each other.
But in writing, the writer must work to guide this emotional connection without the live relationship in real time that theater allows – to allow space inside the story for the reader to also live with the characters.
So, as I re-write (and re-write), I am working to build an unshakable setting foundation and characters I know intimately, then to allow the characters freedom to follow the events of the story through a recognizable and consistent voice to beckon and lead the reader along with them.
photos courtesy of Livingston Parish Library