Adventures of a Semi-Wild Animal Tamer

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Evolution of a Tarantula

This Halloween season, I debuted a new first of it's kind puppet for me that also has roots going back over ten years: Terrence Tarantula, who is a rather large marionette.

Back in 2005, I created a large costume puppet tarantula that walks on all eights. I performed this character walking on hands and feet using hand stilts to balance myself, much the same as with my triceratops, billy goat, and arctic fox. The costume tarantula was very popular, but after four years of working with him, I had grown tired of lugging the rather large fourteen pound costume around to do performances. So, I retired him and built a flying fox fruit bat to take his place for Halloween events.

A couple years ago, I changed full-time jobs and became a senior web developer, leaving behind the world of application support and the annoyance of being on-call at all odd times of the evenings and weekends. Once I got going in my new job, I couldn't help but think of the animal connection to my job, as arachnids are nature's own web developers in a way. I wanted to make a new tarantula or spider costume just to wear to work on Halloween day, but I didn't get around to making anything for 2015.

As the summer of 2016 rolled around, I started thinking about the idea again, but kept putting it off in favor of other projects that I wanted to work on first. In August, I went to the Great Regional Puppet Festival in St. Louis, and while there had a chance to see Bob Kramer's Marionette theater and workshop. I love these unique experiences available through festivals, as it's not always what you learn right there, but the memories that can bounce around in your head for weeks and months to come that are often the most useful.

One morning about three weeks after the festival, I woke up early and was lying on the bed half awake, half asleep. Ideas bounced around in my head, and I started seeing a large tarantula marionette. It was one of those moments where you slowly but surely realize that you have a great idea in the making, and I began dissecting the image in my head, trying to figure out exactly how I could construct such a thing. I had never made a marionette before, so I was entering uncharted territory, but that just made the project all the more exciting.

I wanted the marionette to be big, much like many of Kramer's characters, but the question was, how big? After a boatload of measurements and calculations, I settled on making him roughly four feet long and just under three feet wide, so that he would (hopefully) fit through a normal commercial door opening, since I wanted to be able to take him for a walk around my office building on Halloween day.

I then had to pick the right fabric. My original tarantula costume had been all black, but over the years I'd learned that large black puppets aren't necessarily that great, especially when it comes to photographing them. I went through the sample book I'd made with swatches from the forty-something different types of fake fur I've amassed over the years, and finally settled on a mousy grey that I'd never used before. I wasn't completely sure about it at first, but after I got it out under good daylight I decided it actually looked pretty good.

The body was set, but I wanted the legs to be made of something thinner, and finally settled on a rather cheap grey short pile furry fleece that I'd picked up at Wal-Mart once upon time when I needed something like that in a pinch. Not the best stuff, but given that the legs might take a lot of abuse and have to be replaced eventually, I didn't want to use an expensive fabric for them.

I cut and hand-sewed the body pods, antennae, jaws, and spinnerets, then cut and machine sewed the eight legs. Getting the legs attached to the body was not easy, as I had to figure out how to get them aligned evenly on both sides. Trust me, it looks like that would be easy to do, but it's really a royal pain in the spinneret!

Next came the controller, which I made from scrap wood in my workshop. I had a glimmer of an idea that a folding controller (where the cross bar could pivot in relation to the long main bar) would be useful, so I assembled it that way, adding T-shaped extensions on the ends of the cross bar to handle the four legs on each side.

After getting an initial stringing of the body in place, I started testing the guy out and quickly realized that the antennae should be strung as well. Pulling out a skeleton-like human marionette from a workshop I attended many moons ago, I studied the stringing on it and decided to string the antenna as if they were arms, which worked out beautifully.

I got the last of this done the the first night of the two day Duluth Fall Festival at which I wanted to test run the marionette (talk about working down to the last moment!) I got him out for the second day of the festival, and he went over pretty well, though I did get some amusing comments about what he was, probably because he didn't have any eyes yet. Among the misidentifications were 'octopus' and 'elephant' (which I still don't quite understand – other than his grey color, he looks nothing like an elephant to me.)

What amazed me was how quickly I took to manipulating the puppet, given that I've never really worked with marionettes in the past either. I guess it's true that once you've mastered the basic principles of puppetry, they will indeed transfer nicely to other puppet forms and styles. I loved this whole discovery process, where I found his personality simply by walking him around the festival and seeing how people reacted to him and then letting my imagination run wild figuring out how he should respond.

The folding controller turned out to be a blessing, because I discovered right away that I needed to keep the cross bar at a slight angle to keep myself from stepping on his legs. I also found that he was just heavy enough that I needed to switch hands periodically to shift the weight on my shoulders, and the folding controller let me quickly adjust that cross bar angle as I switched from right-handed to left-handed performance. It was also very helpful to be able to fold down the controller to an almost straight position when I was getting the marionette in and out of my van.

After that festival was over, I set to work at restringing the tarantula with better cord (I had at least three string breaks over the course of that first performance day!) and making eyes for him. I also decided to put small thin wooden dowels in each of the legs to give them a little more weight and keep the lower portion of each leg straight. With all of that done, I painted the controller black, hoping that would make it less noticeable and more professional looking.

I took the tarantula with me to a very laid back IT conference out at the Rock Eagle 4-H camp, and took him to the evening dance on the last night. They had a Motown band performing for us, and I have to say there's nothing quite like a giant tarantula marionette dancing to Motown music! Needless to say, I had a blast and the tarantula made quite a few fans that evening.

Two days later, I took the tarantula to the Marietta Harvest Square festival and had him out for about ninety minutes straight. I'd never expected to use him such a long set, but people really liked him, and switching arms regularly kept me going through all of that time. Actually, as with several of my other characters, I found that after I got past the first ten to fifteen minutes, my muscles got used to the constant weight and didn't bother me all that much (at least, not until the next morning ...)

Overall, I think this project turned out quite well, and I'm looking forward to prominently promoting Terrance Tarantula for Halloween 2017. I'm hoping he'll become a Halloween staple for me for many years to come, and I know I'll be making more marionettes in the future to add to my ever growing menagerie of animal characters.

Mood: chipper