Street Parties and Street Theater
Organizing Pageants and Parades
Pageants, parades, and processions are important because they take over public space and transform it into a place in which anything can happen - dragons, giant goldfishes, purple people. A Puppet Procession does that - and not just that. A space people walk through everyday in their daily lives suddenly becomes completely other, and people can see that they can make anything they want of their own home. Puppets can make thoughts real. It's not only imaginary animals which can materialize Faith, Hope, Charity, the redwoods, capitalism, summer, exasperation, the multiplication tables, and the desire for world peace or to dance the Hokie-Pokie can all take form and walk down the street greeting their devoted fans.
Outdoor performances like puppet processions are responsive to the community in a very particular way which has to do with the experience of performing out of doors. Street performance is amazingly intense, not so much for the audience as for the performer. It can be very difficult. In a theater, everything - the seats, the stage, the lights all say sit still and listen' in the street, everything says hey, look around, there might be something more interesting over there'. People find it easy to walk away, and being walked away from on the street is incredibly painful. There is no distance, no stage, no lights, to protect the person who finds themselves giving their all to turned backs. It's rejection in its purest form. On the other hand, when the audience approves, there is also no distance to take the edge off the applause of what appears to be the entire immediate world. To walk down the street as thousands cheer. Everyone deserves to do it once in a while!
The audience learns very quickly how much power it has to direct these events. When we first started videotaping the First Night parades here in Boston, one of the things I noticed was that, for instance, when the dragons (we always have a dragon section) paraded by, the audience waved rolled up magazines in the plain expectation of defending themselves in case of attack - they challenged the dragons with these dragon-wackers and quickly taught even dragons who had never paraded before to fight. When the giant human puppets went by, you could hear the crowd yelling "shake my hand!" all up and down the street. In other words, by organizing your puppet parade, you are training a generation of artists of your city to pay attention to, and to make art for, the people of your city rather than some general theoretical audience, and you are teaching their audience that they can have an immediate effect on at least this kind of art.
But for both groups to learn from the procession takes time. You will need a group of puppeteers and puppet builders, and you will need to establish a good relationship with them, one which has a chance of continuing. You are working with your community, whether with artists or community groups or with a group which you yourself are organizing, creating that group of puppeteers. So the question is, how do you persuade all those other people to want to turn puppeteer and make your parade for you? They have to want to! Making a parade is a lot of work!
Local themes work - natural features of the landscape, the buildings of the city, local legends and local heroes. Large general concepts work well too: the four elements, the five senses, the Marriage of sea and sky, the Triumph of the Arts, or the night, or organic farming. The advantage of large general concepts is that they have enough give in them to include most things that people want to make for their own reasons.
One way to express a theme and to unify a parade is by color. If you have a blue and green section and a yellow and red section, for instance, the majority of puppets and puppet sections will naturally fit into one or the other. Another is by shape or group. A school of fish or jam of traffic will look unified even with great individual variations in the fish or cars. The most important way to unify a parade is by music. A lot of the meaning of an event is carried by the music; think of the end of a movie, one of those meaningful movie sunsets, how a movie-ending sunset can be a sad ending or a happy ending depending on the music played over it. Music is also very important in helping the puppets to move - because their movements are larger than human, they are also slower, and people have trouble finding the right rhythm without music. They need a beat!
So you've gathered your artists, bands, and/or community groups and figured out a theme, and you start to think about the technical aspects of the event - what sort of puppets to make, (a few big ones, many little ones, an army of rowdy tree stump people ? One gorgeous sky goddess?).
There are various types of giant puppet events, and they correspond to various kinds and combinations of artistic and community groups.
The artists' parade: A procession of large multi-person singular personages; the pageant associated with this procession is a modern version of the mediaeval masque, with well-choreographed dances of one giant puppet or a tight group of puppets, with the plot carried by speeches in between the dances. These events are complicated to build, but easy to run in the sense that you are dealing with people who are capable of building big complicated puppets. The advantage of this sort of event is that it has fewer people to deal with. The disadvantage is the same - you are involving less of the community. The advantage of this event visually is that it has large impressive puppets. The disadvantage is that because they are large they are necessarily isolated from each other. This leads to the Parade of Roses sort of situation where you see one large object, then another large object, either interspersed with speeches or not. This can become boring. It also means that there is less possibility of interaction with the audience.
Massed groups of smaller puppets: I think of this as the schools pageant and procession. This type of event corresponds to work with already formed groups - bands, schools, and so on. These events do tend to be groups of children, because children are already herded into convenient groups. This is advantageous in that they are already there. The disadvantage is that they do have so many children - their artistic skills may not be high, and they can't carry the larger puppets, so that your event may be less impressive than it would otherwise be. The fact that all the puppets are small may also give them a certain visual sameness, although the parades I've seen made this way can be very interesting.
The Samba or Carnival procession: sections consisting of large puppets supporting and supported by entourages of smaller puppets. A sort of combination of the other two, it can make an impression with less, because the fact that it's a coherent whole means that none of it is wasted effort. Its advantage and disadvantage both is the mixture of types of groups necessary for this effect. For a performance like this, the most important thing is to have a narrator and musicians who can improvise to cover any gaps or unexpected events.
So now you're finally about to start building your procession. Remember: puppets are physical objects. Whatever you make your procession out of, you'll need a lot of it. Physical materials don't respond to rational argument as well as people. If you have a chance to pick up a lot of ugly cloth cheap, remember that it won't become more attractive no matter how often you point out that it was cheap. If you can't find wire strong enough to support a bird's wing, the bird's wing won't stand up no matter how many times you explain to it that nothing else was available. If you pick up a lot of pastel paint, it won't mix up into primary colors no matter how often you say that paint is paint'. People respond to argument, pressure, and guilt trips. Materials are unreasonable. You, or whoever is doing the buying, should take the time to get to know your local materials. Wander the hardware stores. Look at the cloth stores. Think about what you see a little. This cloth is pretty, but how heavy would 12 yards of it be? In the wind? How much weight would this wire bear? Check out local resources. Are there bamboo groves in the area? Plastic factories or paper mills? Because you or the people making your puppets probably haven't made them before, they are going to come up with unexpected needs - shopping is a constant in puppet building workshops. It will be a lot easier if you know what is available and where to find it.
[Excerpted from "About Organizing Pageants and Parades" by the Puppeteers' Cooperative]
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