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How to Become a Puppeteer

Pam Severns at Dynasty Typewriter
Performing at Dynasty Typewriter in Los Angeles.

If you're just dipping your toes into the world of puppets and want to know more, this is for you.

Here's the TL;DR so you can choose your own adventure -

Welcome to the Puppetverse

The "Puppetverse" is what I call the world of puppetry and all of its adorable inhabitants - who are humans, not puppets.

Like any subculture, it operates like a small village with politicians, bureaucracies, minor celebs, gossip queens, meanies, and the strange lady who lives alone in the woods (it me).

The Puppetverse is even ruled over by a puppet dynasty and the children of the Puppet King. Can you guess who they are?

Puppet gossip can wait. Let's talk about getting into puppetry.

So, You Want to Be A Puppeteer

Well well well.

Congrats on this self-realization. This is a very exciting time!

It can also be a very confusing time. It's your puppet puberty. Let me be your guide. Right this way ➡️

I'm guessing you have questions? Doubts? Maybe even feel...shame?

I was there too, and we'll get to that.

If you are drawn to puppetry, you are likely one or more of the following:

  • an artist

  • an actor

  • a visual person

  • have a background in movement, like dance or clown

  • are involved in the theater

  • like to use your hands

  • are fairly crafty

  • are the "weird" one among friends or family

  • put googly eyes on things

  • do weird accents or voices

Yes? Then you might be a puppeteer.

I'm going to assume something about you, aspiring puppeteer, since we probably haven't met. I'm going to assume that you're mostly interested in Muppet style puppets and/or hand puppets.

I also started from this place, but there are a lot of styles of puppetry I didn't know about when I started. I even made a massive list of all the types of puppetry that is frankly a bit exhausting.

Once you open the door to the Puppetverse, you will realize how vast it really is and how hand puppets are just one solar system in an entire galaxy. I'm just trying to prepare you for what you are about to encounter in your puppetry journey so your brain doesn't explode. The more you learn, the less you realize you know.

You might stumble into another style of puppetry that is even more exciting to you. For me it was shadow puppetry.

Congrats. You found your tribe!

But wait...

Are You Hesitant to go Whole Hog on this Puppet Thing?

Puppets? Really? It feels weird and no one else you know is doing it. Is

Should you become a puppeteer?

(If this is not you, good for you and your healthy self-esteem. You can skip to the next section.)

Yes, there's a weird stigma and a lot of assumptions made about puppetry and puppeteers, and some are even true, but...who cares.

People will find out you're a puppeteer and say obnoxious things to you about how you like sticking your hand up the butts of things, but that's because they don't know anything about it and think they are being funny.

They don't know you've already heard that a hundred times. If you haven't heard it yet, JUST YOU WAIT.

The scope of most people's knowledge of puppets and puppetry is Jim Henson's Muppets or Labyrinth. That's where it begins and ends for them.

And there will be that one guy will have a vague memory of the time he saw some marionettes.

You might be hesitant to lean into puppetry because it's "weird," but it's also unique and will set you apart. As a puppeteer, you will always be the most interesting person at a party. People's eyes will light up when they talk to you because of your puppetry.

Hesitation is only holding you back from something that can – and probably will – bring you joy.

Did Puppetry Choose You?!

Someone once said to me,

"You didn't choose puppetry, it chose YOU."

While it did seem a bit WOO, it struck me because it felt that way. Puppetry had chased me down like a freshly dumped bad boyfriend.

Before I started to really embrace my love of puppetry, I suffered from puppet shame.

I attempted to disguise my puppet interest inside of other interests like writing, filmmaking, performing and comedy. I don't think I was successful in hiding anything because puppets burst from the seams of these other things.

I was making films and videos...with puppets. Writing scripts and sketches...with puppets. Doing comedy...with puppets.

Yet I still wanted to reject it, thinking it might be stupid or childish or just too weird.

I'll just do comedy or make films, I thought. Without puppets though, that stuff just seemed...flat.

It was moving to LA – a city of artists and creatives - that changed it for me. I started to talk about puppetry more. People were interested and could see my enthusiasm.

It brought opportunities and new friends that I wouldn't have had otherwise.

Jobs in Puppetry - they DO exist!

You might be wondering: can I get a job doing puppetry? Or something puppetry adjacent?

Yes! Yes you can!

Will I make money doing puppetry? Or something puppetry adjacent? depends.

It depends on what you want to do. Write, perform, produce, direct, build, wrangle? You might know already, but until I had dabbled in a little of everything I didn't know that I was a solo performer and comedian who doesn't want to be told what to do. I like to be in charge of the vision. But not everyone does.

The potential for an actual income is up to you, your work style and preferences and personality, and so many other factors.

Here are the jobs I know of in puppetry, with income potentials in dollar signs.

So $=trickle, and $$$=big bux. This is all based on what I hear and my own experience. Nothing is absolute.

  • puppeteer for TV/Film ($$$)

  • traveling solo act (schools, cruises, events) ($-$$)

  • theater puppeteer ($)

  • administrator for a puppetry company ($-$$)

  • puppetry educator ($)

  • puppet fabricator/puppet builder ($$)

  • special effects puppeteer ($$)

  • stop motion puppeteer ($$)

If you want to try it out before committing to anything, I made a list of tried-and-true puppetry side hustles you can start and you can grab it over here.

How to Get to Sesame Street

If you want to end up on Sesame Street or become a puppeteer for the Muppets or for TV, you totally can!

But first, you need to practice and get monitor training and probably move to NY or LA.

Work on your voices, your puppetry technique, your monitor skills and your people skills. You will be working 12 hour days on set and spending a lot of time in cramped spaces with other puppeteers. Those people need to like you because they will be spending time with their head in your armpits, and you theirs.

You also need to be agile because of these cramped spaces. Can you fit yourself into a barrel that is under water, like Jim Henson did for the opening of The Muppet Movie? Or inside a garbage can like Carrol Spinney did to play Oscar the Grouch?

Any claustrophobia will be a dealbreaker.

I once puppeteered from inside of a grave in Atlanta. It was an unoccupied grave, but it was in a real graveyard with real dead people.

The crew covered the hole with a piece of plywood and then covered that with a layer of dirt. It was just me and a puppet in the dark, waiting in the underworld to hear "action!"

If I had been claustrophobic I would have had a panic attack. But I liked it. I liked being buried alive.

Pam Severns puppeteering Stan Against Evil
Puppeteering in a grave for Stan Against Evil

Keep an eye out for professional puppet workshops with the Jim Henson Company in Hollywood and with Sesame Workshop in New York. The workshops come around every few years and they post on social media about it. You usually have to send in a video audition.

It is likely that it will take a number of years before you get that big break as a puppeteer, and you will have to work a lot of puppet assist gigs first, so don't give up.

How and Where to Learn Puppetry

I took a few puppetry classes when I started doing puppetry, but it was the O'Neill Puppetry Conference that really impacted me. It exposed me to the many styles of puppetry, ways of thinking about puppetry, music composition for puppetry and all the puppet people.

I always recommend people try to go to the O'Neill if they can. There are lots of scholarships available.

There are many puppetry workshops, intensives, graduate schools, and festivals where you can learn puppetry and puppet making. Luckily I wrote an entire blog post devoted to puppetry workshops.

If you just want to dip your toes in, I teach online courses on Intro to Puppetry and Writing for Puppetry.

Further Research + Puppetry Books to Read

If you want to go deeper and read more about puppetry or people that made a career out of it, you should read these books!

I know everything is online now, but I love the way a book feels and that I can hold knowledge in my hands and display it on a shelf, and I bet you do too.

Here are my recommendations for puppetry books:

  • The Works is the puppet book that got me super inspired and is a buffet of visual delights.

  • For puppet making, I started my journey with The Foam Book and you should too!

You can also check out my list of essential books on puppetry on Amazon.

I earn the tiniest puppet-prop-sized commission on those Amazon links, but I wouldn't recommend anything I don't believe in.

Big Finale

If you made it to the end of this article and you feel that fire in your tummy, you are a puppeteer! Welcome!

Got questions? I have answers. Feel free comment below and share this with your friends. And don't foret to check out these puppetry side hustles.

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