five puppeteers, six opinions

by Andrew Periale 

It had been a long and brutal competition, lasting all summer. But now it was cover, and Ferry Tater won by unanimous acclaim- he was now the Most Talented Performer in America. It was the voice that did it, the ventriloquial pyrotechnics, that gave him the edge over all competitors. It later came out that Tater had studied opera, a fact that ruffled more than a few feathers at one of the annual puppetry powwows.

"Why, when I was first wiggling the dollies," proclaimed Droll LaZoom, "we'd play to millions in a gravel pit no microphone! Trysinging "Nessun Dorma' down in the pit for a few days and see how the judges like your voice!"

"Oh, can it!" snapped Lonnie Corbett Toronto's bad-boy of the short-string set. "I never use a mike, even in the largest venues, and my voice still flows like honey off hotcakes."

*'Good vocal technique is not a crime," chimed in Pam Slurr, "Why, when I studied at Julliard--"

"Juilliard, Schmooliard!" yelled La-Zomm. "Social Justice should not be the whipping boy of' the Conservatory!":

"Now, kids," purred Mme. Kitty-Kat, "Ya'all seem to be missin' the point. Good voices are everywhere- old record albums, nursing homes, mega-churches, Cajun shrimp boats. Why, ya'll just need to open your ears and carry a tape recorder wherever you go."

Mme. Kitty-Kat," said Corbett gently but firmly, "performing to a recorded sound track may work for you because you're a genius, but for the rest of us a great and versatile voice is our stock in trade. Now, Ferry Tater here may have won a national talent competition, but he was competing against breakdancers quick change artists and a man who trained cats -no offense."

"None taken," said Kitty-Kat.

"I'm not sure I can say the same," huffed Tater, or the gremlin perched on his right forearm, it being hard to say who spoke for whom. "You think my golden pipes can't stand up to the likes of your, your nicotine-ravaged rumble chute?"

"Damn straight" yelled LaZoom. "You and me, Tater, mano a mano."

"Name your weapon."

"Old Woman character voice at fifty paces ... on a windy day.."

"I want a piece of that," said Corbett.

Me too! Me, too!" chirruped Slurr and Kitty-Kat with glee.

And so it was that a contest was organized. A panel of critics was assembled to judge round after round of monologs, dialogs and even trialogs by this collection of some of the great voices of the North American puppet scene. The Old Woman character voice was followed by Clever Servant, then Little Girl Peasant, a variety of animals, monsters and even well known B-movie robots. After eight hours of shouting, squeaking, snorting, snarling and harrumphing to beat the band, none of the puppeteers had managed to establish a clear lead.

A young girl showed up with a pitcher of cool pink liquid, that the performers' flagging spirits and overheated voice boxes might be soothed.

"Punch, anyone?"

What happened next is unclear, and witness accounts vary greatly. My own recollection was of a squeaking sound like... like Led Zeppelin played at 45 rpm, like a hundred dentists drilling a hundred teeth simultaneously, like a platoon of' spider monkeys fighting over the last banana.

A red-nosed, humpbacked dwarf rushed into the midst of the exhausted competitors, swinging a great stick like a Shaolin monk hopped up on Red Bull. Tater was the first to fall, but the rest were quickly dispatched. Adults in the audience looked on in horror at the scene- severed puppet limbs were everywhere. It was as if' a brand new show had bombed really badly. All the children laughed.

Someone whispered, "Punchinello!" as the misshapen demon stuck it gloved hand into his mouth and pulled out a strange looking device- a reedy thing of cloth and steel- and said, in a strong, clear and resonant voice: "That's the way to do it!"

One thing we learned in assembling this collection of essays and articles on Puppetry and the Voice is that our world is full of wonderful artists, each of whom has found their own vocal "way to do it. " We hope you find the wide range of opinions and techniques the care and feeding, recording and modification, tradition and transmission of the human voice as satisfying in the reading as we did in the gathering.