HANDS IN FRONT OF FACE TECHNIQUE
The chief thing in favour of Hands in front of face is that it is better for the audience in most situations. The lower proscenium is more visible to a seated child.
Punch developed in the streets, and moved to the seaside. In both situations it was quite usual to have had a partially standing audience and therefore a high playboard was pretty necessary. Hands above was the norm.
At one time real punchmen used to sneer at those using hands in front of the face, just as real punchmen sneer at those pathetic non-swazzlers. Their big argument for hands above head was that puppets could dance and chase and run round each other. This is all very true - but what is also true is that such movement is only visible to an audience who's eye level is roughly the same height as the playboard. To a seated audience on the floor, looking up at a five/six foot playboard, only puppets hard against the playboard are visible. Move them 3 or 4 inches back and only head and shoulders are visible. Move them back a foot and they disappear altogether.
Thus when more and more of the Punchman's work was playing to seated audiences, more and more of them realised that the sensible answer was a lower playboard. This meant either working seated, or working hands in front. Most now opt for the hands in front method. And although some retain the hands above for their outdoor shows many, having tasted the advantages of hands in front, work in a high booth when outdoors, but stand on a platform within so that they can still work hands in front.
And for those who say "It isn't traditional" I say "Poppycock!" The Punch tradition has always been to adapt to the prevailing circumstances. Punch the Marionette became Punch the Glove Puppet when it became necessary to move from the big fairground theatres to something that could be dragged round the streets. When the summer crowds streamed to the seaside Punch was quick to follow. When the demand for indoor shows began to increase the heavy wheeled frame of the streets gave way to the more portable and versatile folding frame. It seems to me to be following the pattern when we adapt to a lower playboard as we move from a mainly standing audience to a mainly seated one.
The things that are to be considered are:
1. How much can be seen through the gauze - the puppet of course, but ideally the children seated on the floor so you can establish and eye-line as well as being able to see what is going on. I would say that establishing an eye line is the most important single part of any puppet manipulation. I am not talking about your eye contact - it is the puppet's eye line that matters. It is what brings puppets alive and separates the puppeteers from the jigglers. How often do we see shows where the puppets gaze into space way above the audience heads, and often not even looking at the character they are supposed to be addressing.
The gauze helps you to more accurately establish the eye line, but good over-head operators also are adept. Of course the fact that you can also see what is happening outside the booth, and respond to individual children is also a great additional advantage.
2. Comfortable position.
3. Least restriction of movement of puppets without much disturbance of the see-through backcloth.
4. Height of playboard. One advantage of hands in front is that it gives a lower playboard for seated children at domestic shows.
So look at these drawings:
Fig. 1 shows the most comfortable position which also gives maximum vision. It is however the most restricting in that it brings your face very close to the gauze, it is difficult to move the puppets without disturbing the gauze and it limits the height to which you can extend the puppets.
This gives the lowest possible playboard height for a standing performer. I would suggest that a very tall performer must choose either the position in Fig 1 or Fig 2 to get the advantage of easier viewing in close quarter situations.
Fig.2 with upper arms more or less parallel to ground is my preferred stance. It gives a pretty good eye-line to the children provided they are seated well back. If they come nearer however there is a blind spot for a metre in front of the playboard.
Figs 3 and 4 show positions which many seem to favour. These positions give maximum movement and freedom from fouling the backcloth. They sacrifice the visual advantages which, to my mind, are the chief virtues of the hands-in-front technique.
Three ways to avoid, or limit backcloth movement:
With positions 1 and 2 it helps to have a length of bathplug chain stitched into the bottom hem of the gauze. Anchor each side with an elastic loop.
Alternatively a length of spring curtain wire can be run through this bottom hem, and hooked to screw eyes either side.
With positions three and four it is possible to have a batten at the top and bottom of the gauze, fixed either side of the booth, and thus keeping the backcloth taut. If you use a black background then you have little to worry about if the backing moves - nobody will see it. It is only with the painted cloths that it shows.
If using methods 1 or 2 you do want the backcloth flexible, since with your upper arm horizontal it will lift the cloth when you lift the puppets (eg when raising a puppet behind a prop or flicking Punch's legs over the playboard.) Don't worry about it. The audience don't. A third way which I have used is a length of white flexible plastic rod used for hanging net curtains. Use this in place of the curtain spring.
As for distance from playboard to backcloth - You don't have a choice. With a puppet upright against the playboard and your arm horizontal the only place for the backcloth is in front of your face. It is a position fixed by the length of your upper arm. If you increase the distance too much then the puppets cannot stand upright at the playboard.
Because of the site lines of a seated audience the backcloth doesn't really need to hang to playboard level - but because there are always situations were people stand quite close to the booth you really need the backcloth hanging lower than playboard level. But the longer the cloth, the more restricting it is, and the more it moves.
Two ways I have used to help are, if using black then use a very thin velveteen which is adequately see-through even when hung in small folds. If well weighted with chain in the hem this allows you to to move quite freely, and the black shows no disturbing movement from the front.
The other way I have used with a painted cloth is to have this hang only to playboard level, and then to stitch along the bottom of this a length of black deep silky fringe. This serves to block the view of standing adults while offering no resistance to arms or props.
I forgot to mention that on two of my booths I hook the bottom of the backcloth further back than the top. This isn't really apparent from the front but does seem to give me a bit more space where it is needed.
And now for the most valuable tip of all: Behind your painted scene hang a lining of very thin totally see-through net. Why? As a gunge collector.
Because you are speaking and squawking so close to the backdrop it catches a surprising amount of spittle and mucous that we are normally totally unaware that we are spraying. In a very short time you find that the area in front of your mouth becomes unpleasantly sticky, and discolours a light cloth. By having a separate filter lining you can take this off and regularly sling it in the washing machine whereas it is not as easy to keep a painted cloth clean.
Finally I have also just remembered that we haven't mentioned blackout. I have seen more than one hands-in-front performance where I could clearly see the operator through the gauze.
The see-through material must act as a one way mirror, and this works if there is much more light in front of the backcloth than in the front. This means blocking all light from top, back and sides behind the backcloth and probably means a double lining of your booth cover at those points.
If you are using front lighting - clip on spots for example - then this is not so critical.
I find by far the best position for the microphone is to have it hanging from the bar which carries the backcloth. If it is attached to you then it restricts you. This probably means a second mike if you also use one outside the booth - but they're cheap enough.
NOTES ON PAINTING THE SEE-THROUGH BACKCLOTH
There are many different ways of painting your backcloth. But you don't have to paint one, you can always use a plain cloth, or a pattern. The simple way is to have a black backcloth. Choose a lightweight velveteen or a dress velvet - hold it up in front to your face and see if you can see through it fairly clearly. If it isn't see through then you can't use it. I found a lovely dense black stretch dress velvet that was beautifully see-through.
Similarly you might find a striped material that would make a nice backcloth - hold it up to the light, or better get someone to help, and check that you can clearly see your hand through the cloth.
If you are going to paint it then you want to choose a white material, see-through, and preferably one that will not crease easily. There are many different painting techniques with different fabric painting products on the market. You will have to experiment. There are fabric painting felt tip pens and paint in tubes and bottles. Some only work on man made fabrics, some only work with natural fabrics. The ones that dye the fabric rather than putting a textured layer on top of the fabric are the ones to choose. If you want to use acrylic paints then you mix thinly and stain the fabric rather than putting a layer of pigment on top. If you fill in the weave with pigment then you will not be able to see through.
If painting a backcloth seems beyond you there is a way to cheat. First get some material with a small pattern, maybe floral, which resembles wallpaper. This does not need to be see-through. Cut a square hole to resemble a window in the centre of the cloth. Then get some white net curtaining (which is see-through) and stitch, or fabric glue this to fill in the window. Get some ribbon in a dark colour and stitch or glue this to form a window surround. And there you have a backcloth with a dirty great see-through window in the middle. You might elaborate on this with a felt vase and flowers appliquéd on the windowsill.