Daniel Sim
Courtesy of The Finger Players

The Maker’s Project: What does it take to sustain the puppeteer?

Defying the outcome-driven impulse that dominates our culture, Daniel Sim shares his vision of an ecosystem that supports the maker and the process, rather than only the product. 

What would it look like if makers had the space and time to reflect, research and incubate outside of working on a production? What benefits would it reap for this generation of puppeteers, and for the ones to come?

This was the environment that Singapore theatre company The Finger Players sought to create with The Maker’s Lab, an initiative to nurture makers and designers of puppets and objects which is currently in its second edition. 

To conclude the nine-month-long journey of research and reflection, these discoveries will be presented to the public in The Maker’s Project, which runs from 24 February to 13 March. It comprises a non-verbal production, No Disaster on This Land, running from 24-27 Feb; a forum on sustainability on 26 Feb; an online gathering for makers on 10 Mar, and a hands-on workshop on making modular puppet structures from 12-13 Mar. 

We speak to Daniel Sim, the programme manager of The Maker’s Lab, who designs and makes performance objects such as puppets, props and smaller set pieces, and also works as a props master. As a key figure who helps shape this signature programme of The Finger Players, Daniel shares more about what makers go through and the considerations that went into developing this year’s programmes.

[Responses have been edited for length and clarity.]

First off, could you help us understand the difference between a puppeteer and a maker?

The difference is in how the person brings the puppet to life. A puppeteer brings the puppet to life through manipulation, giving the puppet its behaviour, emotions, quirks and a story. A puppet maker (and designer) brings the puppet to life through the fabrication process. By deciding on the style of puppet, materials, mechanisms, costume, colour, features, the maker gives the puppet its character, look, manner of movement and mode of expression.

What influenced you to work with puppets as a maker rather than as a puppeteer? 

Performance has never really been my thing and I love making. When I discovered how much there is to learn in terms of understanding design, proportion, materials, craft, mechanisms and technologies, I decided that to be a good maker, I had to focus and dive deep into the craft.

What do you enjoy the most about being a maker?

It is hard to boil it down to one thing. I enjoy the process of conceptualising and planning, inventing new puppets and objects, improvising and transforming one thing into another, indulging in craft and sharpening the focus and sensitivity required to work with materials and tools.

How has your practice as a maker evolved in the last few years?

Apart from trying my best to hone my skills, knowledge and experience in practice, I have started to think about the infrastructures surrounding the making of performance objects in Singapore. More often than not, the maker works alone and faces time, budget, space and expertise constraints. More recently, I am interested in working in teams, being clear and transparent of the making process, building the community of makers and the transmission of knowledge.


Courtesy of The Finger Players

Why do you feel it is important for The Maker’s Lab to exist? 

The Maker’s Lab is important because it provides a supportive space where puppet makers are given room to explore and hone their skills. This is quite rare in our local climate. Furthermore, by centring the Lab and eventually the performance on the maker, The Maker’s Lab incorporates the oft estranged maker into the creative process.

Speaking of centring the process on the maker, the theme this year is Puppetry and Sustainability – sustainability not just in terms of the environment, but also for the practitioner. Why was this focus chosen?

This focus emerged as one of the explorations proposed by Loo An Ni, this year’s Maker. When we crafted the thematic frame of Puppetry and Sustainability, we wanted to explore the idea of sustainability from different angles. While the environmental angle remains critical, in artmaking, the practitioner (maker or puppeteer) is central to the process. As such, in the long run, when we think about the puppets and puppetry, we will have to consider sustaining the puppeteer and maker. I believe that the personal and working practices and conditions play a large role in how we eventually make our design choices, including our environmental decisions. 

I noticed that a Physiotherapist Consultant (Choong Li Sann) was roped in this year. Could you share more about this choice? 

This is the first time The Finger Players is bringing a physiotherapist into the puppet creation process. We invited Li Sann on board because An Ni’s exploration involves developing a harness for the puppeteers to support their manipulation of large puppets. We realised that to develop the harness and also work with large puppets, we needed her specialised knowledge of body anatomy and movement to understand the puppeteers’ bodies more effectively. More than just advising on the make, Li Sann also shared with the puppeteers about using different movement strategies to accommodate the large puppets.

Regarding how puppeteers can protect their bodies better, I’m curious: what kind of injuries do they experience?

Depending on the type of puppets that they use more often, puppeteers can experience injuries in their knees, backs, necks and arms. This is because they are sometimes asked to bear heavy puppets, or have to perform in contorted postures for a long period of time.

What were the key highlights/discoveries for you and the team when preparing for The Maker’s Project 2022? 

In this edition, the key discoveries are the harness and modular puppet structures that An Ni developed in the Lab. While still a work-in-progress, the harness and modular system are steps towards conceiving of the making process in a much longer term beyond a single production. Another key highlight is the inclusion of both Puppeteer Consultant (Oliver Chong) and Physiotherapist Consultant sessions into the making process. With constant feedback from various perspectives, the improvements made to the harness and modular puppet structures are well-informed.

Were there any challenges as well?

We had to confront our own practices where often the visual aesthetics of the puppet or creation is placed at the forefront. Thinking about sustainability requires us to sometimes reconsider our habitual impulses and examine new ways of creating something expressive and beautiful. Another challenge emerges when different perspectives start to come together, especially when they differ. The Lab pushes us to pay attention to the motivations and reasons behind each perspective and attempt to discover a balance amongst various needs.

What do you hope audiences will take away from The Maker’s Project this year?

I hope that the audiences will be inspired by the ideas and impulses of An Ni’s exploration and perhaps build upon them to test and develop them further. I also hope that the audiences understand that for there to be sustainability in puppetry, we will have to take into consideration multiple perspectives and aspects that are all intricately interdependent.

The Maker’s Project comprises of:
No Disaster on This Land
(24 – 27 Feb, Drama Centre Black Box)
The Maker’s Forum: Sustainability in Process
(26 Feb, Drama Centre Black Box)
The Maker’s Assembly: Conversations
(10 Mar, Online via Zoom)
The Maker’s Workshop: Messing with Modularity
(12-13 Mar, The Finger Players Workshop and Rehearsal Room)

Tickets/registration here.

About the author(s)

Janice Yap

Janice Yap is an aspiring arts manager currently enrolled in the Arts and Culture Management (ACM) Programme at Singapore Management University.

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