Under the Scenes
By Janet Bougie
The mouse screams in pain as a woman, rippling with laughter, staples the rodent’s hands to a wooden box. His little foam hands succumb easily under the pressure.
Nina Keogh, an accomplished puppeteer and puppet builder, shows off behind the scenes clips of the now defunct TV series Bookmice. The third generation puppeteer created all the characters for Bookmice and was the human hand behind Norbert on the show. In the clip, she rigs up Leon – part of the starring trio of mice siblings – for a scene.
Keogh admits most television puppeteers have an R-rated sense of humour.
Puppeteers who work in television watch monitors so they can see what the camera is seeing. When filming is on hold, those monitors are often tempting.
“Puppeteers cannot leave an empty monitor alone. We’ve got to put a puppet in it. Sometimes the cameramen will run tape if they think something funny is going to happen. Sometimes we’ll do the most outrageous things.”
“You know,” says Keogh leaning in, her eyes narrow and a sly smirk plays at the corner of her mouth, “like really naughty stuff. Very naughty stuff.” Her emphasized whisper has a dirtiness to it that evokes images of puppet sex, debauchery and salacious acts. This from the woman who played and voiced innocent Muffy the Mouse on Today’s Special. Apparently even puppets have dirty little secrets.
There is a certain repartee among most puppeteers that Keogh says is a trait common in the trade. These dark yet vibrant actors are part of what makes a puppet so colourful. It takes a strong personality to project character through foam.
“People think your puppet’s got 143 moveable muscles in the face. They don’t; they’re expressionless. It’s in the way you move the body and the way you deliver your lines that creates the illusion.”
“When a puppeteer’s working, whatever the puppet is doing above the stage the actor is doing below. So if the puppet is running,” she says as she starts to run on the spot, “the actor is doing this. It isn’t just your arm doing everything. It’s translated all the way through your body.”
Whatever the puppet is supposed to emote – laughter, sadness, anger – that expression should be on your own face, says Keogh as her own face vividly contorts with each new emotion mentioned.
“It’s not a glamorous business. Half the time we look as ugly as sin because we’re making all these faces (the puppet should be making) trying to project the character through.”
Keogh, semi-retired from television but more animated than her puppets, says you need to be uninhibited to be a puppeteer. Between the physical demands, getting yourself into character and the opportunity to start a little mischief, it’s definitely not a job for the bashful.
Leon and the fresh holes in his hands can attest to that.