A Puppeteer with Pluck

Here's a great way to entertain your friends. (And if they aren't interested, your younger brothers and sisters will do.)

Put on a puppet play.

When we did puppet shows, all the grown-ups were invited upstairs. The lights dimmed. A special light was trained on the small theater, with its curtains closed, standing on a table. All around it hung black sheets. Behind these sheets, I clambered onto a chair at the back of the theater, made the sound of an orchestra playing an overture between my teeth, grabbed the controls of one of the marionettes - ''the announcer'' - and with the other hand opened the curtains. The announcer bowed. He held up one hand for silence. He did a little soft-shoe shuffle. And then he spoke:

''Ladles and Jellyspoons.... ''

The play had begun.

It was easier when I had a friend to help operate other puppets. But if not, I would do it myself, wishing all the time that I had at least six hands.

Later, at school, there were more of us, and things got more (a little more) sophisticated.

We even did a whole entertainment one evening in the gym in front of the school. It took weeks to prepare. You just can't make great theater overnight. You have to rehearse. And rehearse. And argue. I think my friend David walked out one time, and had to be coaxed back with flattery and probably enticements, like chocolate or something.

If you use string puppets, there are all sorts of things you can do that you couldn't if you were the actor instead. You can make a puppet's head lift off its shoulders, for instance. I had a skeleton marionette that was ideal for scaring people. I made it do a weird dance to a piece of ghostly music by the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. Of course, it was not meant to be serious.

With puppets rather than actors, it's easy to turn someone into a toad, for instance. You do it with a split-second blackout and two puppets. Out goes the bad person. In comes the toad. (This is even quicker with glove puppets, operated from below with your hand inside, because one character can fall out of sight and another leap into view in no time.)

You can do underwater scenes, with loads of fish and sea horses and submarines and divers all over the place.

Scenes in outer space are just as easy and just as much fun. Puppets don't have to be people or animals: They can be spaceships, cars, planes, anything you like.

You can make birds and insects fly, parachutists appear from the sky and land with a thump, dogs and cats leap high, people climb up the side of a building or rappel down a cliff, and spiders let themselves down suddenly from their webs behind another puppet's back. I wrote one play in which Winnie the Pooh entered hanging by a string attached to a balloon. The string snapped, and Pooh sailed gracefully into a gorse bush covered with prickles. This kind of thing is much trickier to do with real actors.

But you can also, with some practice learning how to manipulate the controls and the strings, make people seem to walk and run, sit down, fall over, look sad or glad, frightened or furious, sleepy or wide awake. All this is done with the movements of the puppets. The less dialogue, the better. The best thing is to experiment (preferably before the show).

There are strings for the puppet's shoulders, its large head, its big hands, its back, and its legs. All these strings are fixed to the wooden bars of the controls. By just moving these controls with one hand in a certain way, without even pulling any separate strings, you can make the puppet look as if it is walking.

With marionettes, the puppeteer always stands above the stage. Marie Kruger, a puppeteer who lives in South Africa, says: ''Keep your eye on the marionette, not on the control bar and strings.'' Good advice from someone who knows.

You can find very good advice, too, in ''Make Your Own Performing Puppets,'' by Teddy Cameron Long (Sterling Publishing Co.), and in ''An Introduction to Puppets & Puppet- Making,'' by David Currell (check your local library). There is lots of information in these books about how to make and use puppets of every kind.

So what are the other sorts of puppets? As well as marionettes and hand (or ''glove'') puppets, there are shadow puppets and rod puppets. A rod puppet is worked from below like a glove puppet. There is a rod up its middle that is held in one hand. Two strong wires, manipulated a bit like chopsticks in the other hand, are used to move the puppet's hands.

While puppets are not always small, the very smallest are finger puppets. These are like glove puppets, but instead of putting your whole hand inside them, you only use one of your fingers.

I have seen other puppets on full-sized stages that are as large as the puppeteers, or even larger.

In this case, the puppeteers are usually dressed from head to foot in black to make them unnoticeable, and the puppets - as all good puppets should be, whatever their size, are simple characters so boldly made and dressed that you can't keep your eyes off them.

I went to a puppet show the other day, and at one point the two puppeteers were in full view as they worked two of their rod puppets. This was rather distracting.

I think the whole point of puppets is to make them look - like Pinocchio - as if they've ''got no strings.'' Or no hand inside. Or no rods or wires. Looking as if they work all by themselves.

You, the puppeteer, are hidden away behind plenty of black sheets, wishing you had at least six hands.

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