NET/TEN Shareback: Serious Play - Exploring the Fusion of Acting & Puppetry

2014 Spring Travel Grant Recipient

Serious Play! Theatre Ensemble (Northampton, MA), Pilgrim Theatre Research and Performance Collaborative, and Sandglass Theater collaborated for approximately 13 work sessions over a two-month period to share and intermingle the defining characteristics of their respective artistic styles and training techniques. The stimulus for the exploration will be Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame.


Serious Play provided NET with three written responses from the participating artists and two video samples from their exploration. Please use the navigation links below to jump to each article. If you have any questions or responses, please add a comment below! 

Exploring the Fusion of Acting & Puppetry Through Experimenting with a Section of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame 

Director’s Approach:  Sheryl Stoodley / Serious Play! Theatre Ensemble

Puppets & Integration Process:  Eric Bass / Sandglass Theater

Actor Developing the Role of Clov & Interacting Onstage with Puppets: Kermit Dunkelberg / Pilgrim Theatre

Endgame Exploration Sharing:




Director’s Approach:  Sheryl Stoodley / Serious Play! Theatre Ensemble

What is best in a collaboration is to find artists with whom you can honestly communicate and who remain flexible enough so that when things change, as they inevitably will, everyone can head in the direction the exploration needs to go. We focused on our three ensembles sharing their unique creative processes to interpret jointly the first quarter of Beckett’s Endgame. We experimented with incorporating puppets as Hamm’s parents, the characters Nell and Nagg.


As a director, I begin with investigating source work with my collaborators. We share background reading, discussion, and viewing DVDs that relate to the work as the foundation for the project. This includes the playwright’s life, historical period, style, language, visual images from his life, the artists that influenced him, and we determine together the process and discipline we would use to approach the acting and in this case the puppetry work. We clipped our source work images to a clothesline hung along one wall of our studio. Thus we began to find a common artistic sensibility.

Then came the ensemble-building and the physical actor encounters to build trust, including physical and vocal warm-up, concentration exercises, singing, partnered stage combat with poles, object exercises, viewpoints and composition work. Next came the focus on scripted scenework, looking at Beckett’s word choices, phrases, rhythms, and word games.  Finally, we began to discover our own physical language for our Endgame exploration.


Serious Play! has included puppets in our work on past projects. At one point in this past work, I realized I was directing the actors and their movement without fully understanding the potential of the puppets themselves. I felt the need to comprehend better the breadth of possibilities and the limitations of the puppet world, and the challenges of blending actors and puppets on stage.

On a tour of Alice Tuan’s Coastline to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I witnessed a production of Imogen that effectively fused puppetry with visual theater. In that piece, a lifelike child puppet was articulated with dramatic sensitivity by black-cloaked puppeteers. I was emotionally moved.

While rereading Endgame, I felt that Hamm’s parents, Nell and Nagg, if embodied as puppets could possibly get to the essence of what Beckett was exploring. For this project’s focus, we decided to concentrate on the first quarter of the script, which incorporates two Nell and Nagg scenes for experimenting with puppets onstage interacting with the characters of Hamm and Clov. I can work well in a “what do you think?” setting. With Sandglass founders and master puppeteers as my guides, and all of the collaborators as my sounding board, I divided the play into beats, we specified the Endgame beats we would interpret, and we began.

Collaboration is hard work. I enjoyed the challenge of looking again and again at a moment. I quickly realized that puppets are beings that develop alongside their creator, the puppeteer.  At first we used old Punch and Judy style puppets Sandglass had on hand. Over the month each puppet character took on a life of its own. A specifically designed Nagg and a specifically designed Nell emerged. When puppets enter a stage, the entire stage world is altered, affecting both puppets and actors alike. Puppets need action, not monologues. We worked for many hours engaged in solving the creative problems at hand.

Puppets & Integration Process:  Eric Bass / Sandglass Theater

Why puppets?

When Sheryl Stoodley approached us to consider using puppets for Nagg and Nell, we were skeptical. Nagg and Nell were in garbage cans. If the puppets were in the garbage cans, they felt like Mr. and Mrs. Oscar the Grouch. On the other hand, if the puppeteers were in the garbage cans with the puppets, then why have the puppets and not just the people? Sheryl seemed to be looking for something more grotesque than human actors, or something more abstract (what could be more abstract than Beckett, anyway?). If we were going to use puppets for this piece, we had to find a reason that lay in the dramaturgy of the piece, which meant finding just the right kind of puppet, just the right stage, and just the right presence of the puppeteer. We went as far as we could with discussions. We had to begin experimenting and see what, if anything, took hold.

What kind of puppets?

There is no generic puppet. Every puppet is tied to a tradition. Indeed, the tradition is part of what the puppet is communicating. Each tradition has its own intrinsic energy, its intrinsic relationship to text, its vocabulary of actions and gestures. And every puppet, no matter its tradition, exists in a world separate from human actors, even if they interact. So the question of what kind of puppets might be appropriate for Nagg and Nell needed to look at the whole of the piece and the whole proposition for staging and interpreting the script. The puppets needed to work within the greater context, and, at the same time, their presence would affect the process and the concept. Sheryl saw Hamm and Clov as having a relationship akin to Laurel and Hardy and other comedy teams of the early days of cinema whose comic (and tragic) existence was defined by both their polarization and their dependency on each other. This led to a consideration of Punch and Judy, that classic pair of English hand puppets who live in both strife and love, whose language is physical action, and who, like Beckett’s Nagg and Nell, play their story in the face of death.  We happened to have a set of Punch and Judy puppets, and we leant them to the exploration process to see what they would bring to the mix.

What stage?

A puppet cannot live without a stage. The stage can be a table, or a booth, or a chest of drawers, or a sandbox. Even the puppeteer can be a stage for the puppet, but the puppet has to live somewhere. Having settled on Punch and Judy for the rehearsal stand-ins for Nagg and Nell, where did they live? Garbage cans did not seem to suit them. In their tradition, their stage is always a booth. Without the booth, they were somehow not Punch and Judy. As an added problem, whatever stage they lived in, there had to be a reason why it was standing in Hamm’s room. We tried to find some object that emerged from the text. At one point, it looked like an old London phone booth might be the right thing. In the end, it seemed only fitting to place them in their P&J booth, old striped fabric and all, and rather broken at that.

What was the booth doing in Hamm’s room? For me, it somehow fit with the Englishness or Irish-ness of the place, and with the other strange objects, like Hamm’s dog. It became a room within the room, with windows that were a microcosm of the windows of Hamm’s room. And it suggested the puppet-like nature of Hamm himself. Could he be the son of puppets? How’s that for abstract humor? At any rate, we saw some potential in this stage within the stage, and decided to give it a try.

How to integrate?

Placing the puppet booth onstage, putting the puppets inside, now required that we see how this world and these objects integrated with the world of the actors and their characters. The puppets were more than characters. They were a separate world, which was a nuisance to Hamm. The question arose as to how to physicalize that nuisance, and, at the same time, how to give the relatively small puppets the power to BE that nuisance. Since Nagg enters his scene in a rage, we decided to try to let that rage be a great wind from the puppet booth and to blow the actors around the room. Ultimately, I think this was one of the most successful integrations of puppets and actors in our exploration. The wind became a variable, but essential aspect of the puppet booth, and also added physical drama (or comedy) to the moments when Clov is commanded to “bottle” Nagg or Nell. The action required actually shutting out the force of the wind.

Influence on actors?

One cannot put puppets onstage with actors without this having an effect on the actors, otherwise the inclusion of the puppets is pointless.  This is an area that still needs further exploration, but some influence was beginning to emerge. Kermit, playing Clov, had, indeed, a “puppet-like” quality in his walk, his speech, his focus. On the one hand, this helped to set the stage for the puppets; on the other hand, the puppets’ world helped to integrate this Clov into the whole world of this exploratory staging. It is Hamm, however, who is most plagued by Nagg and Nell, his parents. By casting these two characters as puppets, the question is opened up as to whether these parents are really in the room, or only in Hamm’s memory. This is an exploratory question, of course, and does not yet address where Clov fits in this memory. Is it his memory, too, or is he, too, a memory? At this point, the raising of these questions gives the actors even more to work with.


Actor Developing the Role of Clov & Interacting Onstage with Puppets: Kermit Dunkelberg / Pilgrim Theatre

For myself, the exciting part was not so much working with puppets as it was working with Eric and Ines. Both Serious Play! (with whom I have worked as an actor before) and Pilgrim begin exploration from physical acting exploration. I expected Eric and Ines’ point of departure would be more, or at least equally, visual/spatial, and I looked forward to learning their theatrical language.

In those early work sessions, I was interested in the continuum of object-puppet-puppeteer-actor, and proposed some work along those lines, as did others. This is a line of exploration that continues to intrigue me in our work, and one for which Beckett’s texts create a challenging and rich field for investigation. The objects in Beckett’s work speak. They speak a language of their own, on a level that has the same value as the spoken word or the actor’s movement. What better material for exploring the integration of puppets, objects, and people? Pilgrim Theatre has always been interested in how each element of the performance (music, movement, text, etc.) can have the same presence and importance as the others (so that music, for instance, is “a character”), and not be subservient to the action, or so that movement is as important as the psychology of character. This latter, I would say, is also a feature of Serious Play!’s work. I have always related this to Brecht’s “separation of the elements.”


In one of the first exercises, proposed by Eric and Ines, we took turns placing objects in the space in relation to one another. Since none of us had memorized any text yet, we also did experiments with one actor reading a text while others improvised with objects. Also, I mimed the opening sequence of Clov while others read the stage directions. This quickly led to a discussion of rhythm, the question of whether we should have a composer for the piece, and what kind of sounds/music Beckett had utilized in his pieces. I found on-line CDs of radio plays of Beckett’s produced for American radio in the 1980s, with music composed especially for them, which we took turns listening to. We also watched together Beckett’s film Film, with Buster Keaton. While the radio plays are works for the ear (and the mind’s eye), Film is a silent film, a work for the eye. Image, shape, rhythm, texture, and gaze are all important elements of Film. In contrast to Film or the radio plays, Endgame, spare as it is, seems positively symphonic in its resources.

The June Intensive held in Serious Play!’s home studio in Easthampton included puppeteer David Regan (well known to Sandglass) and Rand Foerster (well known to Serious Play!), who would explore the role of Hamm. Eric and Ines had proposed that Nagg and Nell be portrayed by one puppeteer, in the tradition of Punch and Judy.

We spent one of our work sessions watching clips from the silent movies Beckett loved: Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy. We had a long-ranging discussion about the various sources of work, and the various elements of Endgame, (image, text, character, object, movement, etc.) and their balance.

The intuition for the Punch and Judy style puppets was not clear to me for a long time, until in one of our many discussions, Eric posed the question of what it might mean to be the legacy of Punch and Judy. This provocative question seemed to me to encompass all of silent film comedy, as well as much of Beckett. That legacy implies a knockabout sensibility, which is rough and tumble, comic and sad, but not sentimental. It implies violence and cruelty, with rare moments of earned tenderness.

In my work on Clov, I had been looking for how Clov could be part puppet, relating this to Beckett’s description of his “stiff-legged walk.” However, I also did not want to settle for solutions which were obvious or overly contrived, so, working with the method of “associations” from Pilgrim’s work with Zbigniew Cynkuts of the Polish Laboratory Theatre, I varied the intensity and level of visibility of various physical responses to the stimulus of the association “person/puppet.”


Throughout this phase of the exploration process, I was reading through Beckett’s novels.
(I had read Deirdre Bair’s biography, finding many points of stimulus in Beckett’s relation to film and theatre, episodes from his life – in particular during World War II – his relationship with Suzanne, his love of the coast, or rather, the particular rocky coast near his home in Cooldrinagh, Ireland. The sound of these waves could be heard in the radio broadcast of All That Fall we got from Evergreen Press.) Near the beginning of The Unnameable, Beckett writes: “I shall not be alone, in the beginning. I am of course alone. Alone…. I shall have company. In the beginning. A few puppets.”


“Then I’ll scatter them, to the winds, if I can.” We had said to each other that the main action of the play is casting off, divesting. “And things, what is the correct attitude to adopt toward things?” This had been my question since the first day.

A key discovery from our work together was that when Nagg appears the first time, the entire stage must change. The puppets must disrupt the world of Clov and Hamm.

In this first stage of work, we discovered a way of working together; we found a direction for the puppets, and their place in the world of our exploration. We are still investigating the relationship of the human characters/actors to the puppet characters. We began to discover rhythms, textures, relationships, and the scenic space. For the section of the play we worked on, we found an overall shape, and the smaller movements within it, each having its own rhythms that make up the whole. That discovery of shape was the most promising sign of the wisdom of going forward.

We invited a few friends to see and comment on our first stage of exploration. There was genuine interest. We go on.


Serious Play! Theatre Ensemble
PO Box 148
Northampton, MA  01061


Collaborating Ensembles:


Do you have any advice about integrating puppetry? What works? What doesn't? What projects are you working on right now with puppets? Please include your comments, insight, and feedback below!

Posted by: 
Monday, February 23, 2015

I recently wrote a piece for an actress and a puppet (and puppeteer naturally) and found that allowing for extra time in rehearsals was key in bringing the piece to its full potential. Because you have the extra element of the puppeteer engaging with the actor, interpreting the actor's actions as a person and then reacting through the puppet. It's much more complex than just two actors relating to one another. Our puppeteer often wanted to video tape the rehearsals so she could watch my reactions, memorize them and then have her puppet react to them in the next run because when she's the puppeteer she can't really see what I'm doing. Also, treating the puppet like another actor was important as I found myself avoiding eye-contact with the puppet. In my mind I knew that the puppet couldn't see me, but remembering to create a world on stage where the puppet "can" see me reads better to the audience. Photos of the project can be seen at The play "Flight 212" was performed at Cleveland Public Theatre, The South Asian Theatre Festival in Cincinnati and Beady Little Eyes Puppetry Slam in Portland, OR. Thanks for the great article on the puppet/actor interactions!

Terrific post! How exciting to read about this experimentation and collaboration!

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