Bringing puppets to life with Frankie Yeo
The art of puppetry seems to be on the edge of extinction and is widely considered a dying art by professionals.
The traditional art form is losing out to modern-day entertainment, leading to less and less people – especially the youth – being interested in this ancient form of story-telling.
“We must reinvent puppetry so that it can move in tandem with the world of globalisation today, and draw more of the younger generation into this craft,” said professional puppeteer, Frankie Malachi Yeo after the ‘How to Make Puppets’ workshop organised in conjunction with the Rainforest World Puppet Carnival in Kuching from Nov 2-6.
Based in Singapore, Yeo is the founder and creative director of Mascots and Puppets Specialists (MAPS), a company that produces and choreographs puppets for television, theatre, media, government bodies and many other institutions. He has been in the industry for more than 20 years now.
He added that making a puppet involves a lot of creativity, and a puppeteer needs to acquire knowledge and skills of many different professionals in order to make it work.
“When I first wanted to learn puppetry, I thought that I needed a ‘dalang’ or master, but unfortunately in Singapore I could not find any, so I had to go to the library to find books and go to find performers who came to Singapore to perform. I went and told them that I wanted to learn puppetry and from there I slowly grew into it picking up skills along the way.”
His meeting with other professional puppeteers taught him all the other skills he needed to have besides a flair for performing.
“To make a puppet, for example, you have to be a sculptor or some kind of designer. Once you make a puppet – a human puppet, let’s say – you have to costume it, so fashion design comes in; you have to give it hair, so hairstylist comes in; you have to give it makeup, so makeup artist comes in; you have to make it animated, so choreographer comes in.”
The art of puppetry doesn’t just stop there. Once the puppet is completed, he said, the puppeteer has to learn how to manipulate the puppet and make it life-like so people will be able to see and identify the things being represented by the puppet.
“There, it involves a lot of manipulation skills as well. Thus, puppetry needs a lot of different skills to make it complete,” he explained.
As for Frankie, puppetry is an art that transcends all age groups.
“I have audience members as young as 5 and 100 over years old. Puppets can bring back nostalgia for the old folks and for the young, it can be something new that they can learn about.”
When asked what it takes to become a puppeteer, he said, “You must be crazy. You must have passion that will enable you to find ways to make it work.”
Different countries have their own unique form of puppetry. The Malay community is known for their Wayang Kulit or Wayang Golek while Vietnam is famous for its water puppetry.
“Puppetry itself has many different types; it is the style that makes it different but the art of making it come alive and the art of storytelling is quite similar. Storytelling is the core of puppetry.”
In a year, Frankie conducts over 300 performances and educational programmes around the world. He has travelled with his puppets to Turkey, Vietnam, Thailand, Russia, Poland, Indonesia and Malaysia.
“Puppetry is not just for entertainment, it can helps in saving animals, in education; it is a really powerful tool that has lots of potential,” he said, describing how they have used puppetry to teach special needs children.
Due to the use of psychomotor skills needed to manipulate the puppet, the puppets help in developing the children’s cognitive skills and muscles.
“We have also used puppetry in medical science where we create a puppet with built-in sensors so that when they give it to the old folks or special needs kids, the way they stroke the puppet goes through the sensor and the computer computes the person’s emotional wellbeing which to me is, simply amazing.”
Going farther afield, he has also crafted puppets to be used as surrogate parents for orphaned endangered animals.
“I also have a child psychologist as a client. When the counsellor talks to the child, the child may be scared of the authoritative figure, but when he takes out the puppet, straightaway the child treats it like a friend and tells the puppet everything that is going on,” he said, explaining that including the puppet in therapy sessions serve as a neutral medium to discuss sensitive issues. “It motivates and support children with difficulties in communication and interaction.”
Being a professional, Frankie also build puppets for other puppeteers.
“We also build mascots for various events including the Singapore Youth Olympics,” he said, adding that in a day he has to complete approximately three mascots and a few puppets, depending on their complexity. Most of them are handmade and he has to work up to 18 hours.
His puppets and mascots have been featured at the 28th SEA Games Singapore 2015, various National Day Parades, the Singapore Youth Olympics 2010, as well as numerous theatrical and film productions.
When asked what the most complicated puppet he ever made was, he said it was a giant puppet that stood more than five metres high and had to be very light for the National Day parade.
As the creative director for MAPS, Yeo is responsible for producing, directing, choreographing, and designing the puppets to perform, find suitable music, work on the lighting and put all these components together.
Frankie has won several awards including Best Puppet Design Award at the Wayang World Puppet Carnival 2013 in Indonesia, as well as two Gold Awards for Best Performance, and Best Artist (Individual) at the Second International Marionette Festival 2010 in Vietnam.
Yeo was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor at Life! Theatre Awards 2006, making it to the first time in the history of the awards show that a puppet was nominated.
He advises the younger generation to go with their passion, always be good in what they do, including puppetry.
“Go ahead, experiment with it, do not be afraid of it that when you see some skilful puppeteer; you think it takes years for them to develop the skills, but no, as you begin to try it, sometimes the simplest ones are the ones that works the best.
“You have to be good in it to earn a living, because if you don’t, people will not want you,” he said, adding that apart from developing one’s skills as a performer, they also need to develop their skills as a businessperson to market themselves and their crafts.
“People around the world have to know that puppetry helps in many forms including education, medical science, child psychology, and when people know that they will then be interested. So now the question you need to ask yourself is, how would you as a Malaysian market it to the rest of the world?
“It might not be relevant today as people are more into modern technology, but in tune with the development of children’s minds, it is essential for us to start bringing this back to life and highlight it all over the world.”
Organised by the Ministry of Tourism, Sarawak Tourism Board (STB), Sarawak Convention Bureau and Malaysian Convention Bureau, 30 performers from around the world showcased their puppetry skills at the inaugural Rainforest World Puppet Carnival through performances and puppet workshops.
Countries represented were Argentina, the United States, Singapore, Finland, Australia, China, Kazakhstan, Guatemala, Philippines, Liberia, Turkey, Belgium, Canada, Russia, France, Colombia, Algeria, Japan, Belarus and Poland.
The festival saw many groups of puppeteers from Argentina, Belgium and Japan also conducting their own workshops with different styles of teaching.
The puppets made by more than 300 participants during the workshop were incorporated in a performance called ‘How Sarawak Got Its Name’ in their attempt to enter the Malaysia Book of Records for ‘The Most Puppets at One Show’.
For more information on Yeo and Mascots and Puppets Specialists, log on to www.mascotsandpuppets.com.