The first thing I want to say is that what you are considering doing is important. Because puppets are associated with children in this country, and because parades are associated with fun everywhere, people sometimes assume that they are trivial. This is very far from the truth.
Pageants, parades, and processions are important in the short term because they take over public space and transform it into a place in which anything can happen - dragons, giant goldfishes, purple people. In the last First Night Boston we did a pageant which opened with a Giant Puppet parade through the space and then a sudden appearance of all the animals of the world from the tree of life; someone commented that this beginning was a sort of version of the way the circus traditionally begins, with an elephant parade and the emergence of the clowns from a tiny car, and that what this introduction tells the audience is that in this space things can be impossibly large and impossibly small - here the laws of space and time no longer apply. A Puppet Procession does that - and not just that. With puppets, anything can happen. A space people walk through everyday in their daily lives suddenly becomes completely other, and people can see that they can make anything they want of their own home. Puppets can make thoughts real. It's not only imaginary animals which can materialize - Faith, Hope, Charity, New Haven CT, the redwoods, economic progress, summer, exasperation, the multiplication tables, and the desire for world peace or to dance the Hokie-Pokie can all take form and walk down the street greeting their devoted fans.
In the long term, outdoor and community events like puppet parades and pageants are important because of the situation of the arts in the US. The arts at present seem to be largely divided into Low Arts like the movies and TV which are expensive to make, technical, and centralized, and High Arts which are produced and exhibited in a way which is quite detached from the community. Outdoor performances like the puppet processions, on the other hand, are responsive to the community in a very particular way which has to do with the experience of performing out of doors. Street performance is amazingly intense, not so much for the audience as for the performer. It can be very difficult. In a theater, everything - the seats, the stage, the lights - all say ‘sit still and listen' in the street, everything says ‘hey, look around, there might be something more interesting over there'. People find it easy to walk away, and being walked away from on the street is incredibly painful. There is no distance, no stage, no lights, to protect the person who finds themselves giving their all to turned backs. It's rejection in its purest form. On the other hand, when the audience approves, there is also no distance to take the edge off the applause of what appears to be the entire immediate world. To walk down the street as thousands cheer...... Everyone deserves to do it once in a while! This is why I despise trucks, motorized floats, and taped music in parades. They remove the advantages of street performances by creating a barrier between the performer and audience.
The audience learns very quickly how much power it has to direct these events. When we first started videotaping the First Night parades here in Boston, one of the things I noticed was that, for instance, when the dragons (we always have a dragon section) paraded by, the audience waved rolled up magazines in the plain expectation of defending themselves in case of attack - they challenged the dragons with these dragon-wackers and quickly taught even dragons who had never paraded before to fight. When the giant human puppets went by, you could hear the crowd yelling "shake my hand!" all up and down the street. In other words, by organizing your puppet parade, you are training a generation of artists of your city to pay attention to, and to make art for, the people of your city rather than some general theoretical audience, and you are teaching their audience that they can have an immediate effect on at least this kind of art. This is important for the arts in general.
But for both groups to learn from the procession takes time. You will need a group of puppeteers and puppet builders, and you will need to establish a good relationship with them, one which has a chance of continuing. You are working with your community, whether with artists or community groups or with a group which you yourself are organizing, creating that group of puppeteers. So the question is, how do you persuade all those other people to want to turn puppeteer and make your parade for you? They have to want to! Making a parade is a lot of work, and it's new to most people - it's intimidating! So what do they expect to get out of it?
One way to find out what they want is to ask. When you hope to get some grant from a foundation, you consider what they might like, you study their known tastes, you ask them what would persuade them to help you. The people making your pageant or procession will present the heart of your event to the world. What they do will affect what your audience experiences more than what any grantor does or does not donate to you, and you will have to treat them accordingly if you expect to end up with a good parade. If the people making your parade are a bunch of 10 year olds from the local YMCA, those are the people who will be representing you to the city, and you should pay them as much attention as you pay to any foundation you are courting. Talk to them! This is community arts - commune!
One thing that people might get out of making a puppet procession is puppets. Organizers often try to keep control over their events by taking ownership of the puppets people make, often by taking them away physically. This is rude, and it's also a mistake, in my opinion. People have just made these characters, they are in the first flush of excitement, and they want to play with them, not have them whisked away. Puppets aren't exactly alive (I always have to remind myself of this), but they aren't inanimate objects, either. They each have a personality which resides in the way they move. They are each good at some one thing, and what that thing is isn't always immediately obvious. Puppeteers can't get to know their puppets well enough to use them to their best advantage in the half-hour or hour of a pageant or parade, and likewise puppeteers, if they are going to build more and better puppets for you in the coming years, need to get to know the qualities of the ones they have built. Secondly, by the time the puppets are finished, the puppeteers often have plans for them. They want to use them at various other interim community events. This will be to your advantage in several ways. Your puppeteers and puppet makers will bond to their puppets and become committed to them if they have become publicly known as the maker and performer of those fine puppets. Your puppeteers and puppets will form alliances with other community groups for you. As people show them off, they will talk about you, providing you with continuous free publicity.
Another way to make people want to make your procession is by providing or negotiating a concept which will entice them into it. To ask someone to make and carry a small fish is very different from asking them to form part of the entourage of the great Poseidon, which is very different from asking them to represent the sea as part of a celebration of the glorious trading past of Kingsport. Man's eternal search for meaning....... the urge for order, to fit things into some larger context, is very strong. You can make it work for you.
Local themes work - natural features of the landscape, the buildings of the city, local legends and local heroes. Large general concepts work well too: the four elements, the five senses, the Marriage of sea and sky, the Triumph of the Arts, or industry, or the night, or organic farming. The advantage of large general concepts is that they have enough give in them to include most things that people want to make for their own reasons. The point about the four elements, for instance, is that they were invented by the ancients as a framework to include everything which exists. This also makes it unnecessary to lay down the law to people about what they should make. You can allow them to make whatever they want to and fit it all into your grand design. I've noticed over the years that, given a frame to work on, the audience will fit everything into it for you. In a parade of the four elements (earth, air, fire and water), for instance, if a parade group of the Solar System is in the Earth section people will explain to their neighbors that it is there because, of course, it is a section about the earth - if it is in the air section, they will assure each other that the group is about space, therefore air, if it is in fire, people will figure the out that the sun is a star, hence fire and so on. Approaching the question from the other direction, if you do a Procession of the Triumph of the Arts (inspiration, imagination, aggravation, etc.), if inspiration is a set of flying birds and aggravation is a giant businessman, it will make just as much sense to puppeteers and audience as if inspiration is a giant gentleman and aggravation is a set of flying mosquitoes.
One way to express a theme and to unify a parade is by color. If you have a blue and green section and a yellow and red section, for instance, the majority of puppets and puppet sections will naturally fit into one or the other. Another is by shape or group. A school of fish or jam of traffic will look unified even with great individual variations in the fish or cars. The most important way to unify a parade is by music. A lot of the meaning of an event is carried by the music; think of the end of a movie, one of those meaningful movie sunsets, how a movie-ending sunset can be a sad ending or a happy ending depending on the music played over it. Music is also very important in helping the puppets to move - because their movements are larger than human, they are also slower, and people have trouble finding the right rhythm without music. They need a beat!
So you've gathered your artists, bands, and/or community groups and figured out a theme, and you start to think about the technical aspects of the event - what sort of puppets to make, (a few big ones, many little ones, an army of rowdy tree stump people ? One gorgeous sky goddess?).
There are various types of giant puppet events, and they correspond to various kinds and combinations of artistic and community groups.
First, there is what I think of as the artists' parade, a procession of large multi-person singular personages; the pageant associated with this procession is a modern version of the mideaval masque, with well-choreographed dances of one giant puppet or a tight group of puppets, with the plot carried by speeches in between the dances. These events are complicated to build, but easy to run in the sense that you are dealing with people who are capable of building big complicated puppets. The advantage of this sort of event is that it has fewer people to deal with. The disadvantage is the same - you are involving less of the community. The advantage of this event visually is that it has large impressive puppets. The disadvantage is that because they are large they are necessarily isolated from each other. This leads to the Parade of Roses sort of situation where you see one large object, then another large object, either interpersed with speeches or not. This can become boring. It also means that there is less possibility of interaction with the audience. An example of this sort of parade done by a First Night was in Wilmington, where they did a procession of big puppets representing local ethnic groups made and performed by the various ethnic groups of the community. The pitfalls are obvious (what if some ethnic group isn't represented? What if others in that groups take offence at their portrayal? Etc.) But this one worked well, partly because the various groups started from completely different artistic traditions, so the puppets were very different.
Massed groups of smaller puppets - I think of this as the schools pageant and procession. This type of event corresponds to work with already formed groups - bands, schools, and so on. These events do tend to groups of children, because children are already herded into convenient groups. This is advantageous in that they are already there. The disadvantage is that they do have so many children - their artistic skills may not be high, and they can't carry the larger puppets, so that your event may be less impressive than it would otherwise be. The fact that all the puppets are small may also give them a certain visual sameness, although the parades I've seen made this way can be very interesting. A couple of examples we were involved in: The Atlanta Arts Festival made a rainbow parade, 300 very simple puppets, just painted faces and plastic, arranged into the six colors of the spectrum. Each person involved spent only between fifteen minutes and an hour on their mask, but it was an impressive parade because all the puppets were so similar except in color that the procession became an object in itself. This one was made largely by adults, and the festival gathered them by hiring an organizer who called all the organizations in the phone book and invited them to participate. This made for a truly interesting mix of people. First Night Pensacola made a procession of the five senses - eye banners, ear clowns, and so on, and then did a pageant with them, choreographed by a local dancer. This was very interesting because some of the senses are so hard to illustrate visually that the concept forced it to be strange and odd.
The Samba or Carnival procession: sections consisting of large puppets supporting and supported by entourages of smaller puppets. A sort of combination of the other two, it can make an impression with less, because the fact that it's a coherent whole means that none of it is wasted effort. Its advantage and disadvantage both is the mixture of types of groups necessary for this effect. It also implies a central organization which, if it doesn't design all the puppets, at any rate sets forth the theme for them, and which negotiates with the various groups who create the giant puppets and the massed puppets and banners of the wings. In our processions in Boston, we have been for the last few years creating sections in which giant puppets made by local artists are mingled with massed puppets also made by artists, and massed puppets made by local schools and community organizations, with the sections related by color and theme - for instance, a parade of the seasons in which Spring was a set of green dragons made by small children in a workshop, green insects made by older kids, a giant Animal in brown and greens and tall green and white banners, both made by adult artists. We had four of these signature sections, (the four seasons) placed in the larger procession so as to imply that the groups following them were also part of that season. This works very well visually, but it does mean that a small group of people has to sit down and figure out how to put together the puppets various artists want to make and the community groups working on the procession, their numbers, ages, and interests, and try to conceive of all this a coherent whole. On the other hand, somebody should really be doing this anyway. It forces you to think about the procession as a whole, and that's a valuable thing. It is made easier by the fact that puppets in general are so abstract that they are easy to name. A dragon can be the dragon of spring, or of bad luck, or of nature, or of social unrest, or of anything else you want to identify it as. The pageant version of this procession is created as massed movements of kid/workshop puppets and banners, with the plot carried by scenes with a small number of better-rehearsed actors, by music, and by a narration. For the past five years, we have created a pageant like this each summer, working on building and performance with groups of kids from settlement houses during the days, and rehearsing the adult actors at night, while the musicians rehearse by themselves. The performances have all been put together without any full rehearsals of all the cast. For a performance like this, the most important thing is to have a narrator and musicians who can improvise to cover any gaps or unexpected events.
So now you're finally about to start building your procession. Remember: puppets are physical objects. Whatever you make your procession out of, you'll need a lot of it. Physical materials don't respond to rational argument as well as people. If you have a chance to pick up a lot of ugly cloth cheap, remember that it won't become more attractive no matter how often you point out that it was cheap. If you can't find wire strong enough to support a bird's wing, the bird's wing won't stand up no matter how many times you explain to it that nothing else was available. If you pick up a lot of pastel paint, it won't mix up into primary colors no matter how often you say that ‘paint is paint'. People respond to argument, pressure, and guilt trips. Materials are unreasonable. You, or whoever is doing the buying, should take the time to get to know your local materials. Wander the hardware stores. Look at the cloth stores. Think about what you see a little. This cloth is pretty, but how heavy would 12 yards of it be? In the wind? How much weight would this wire bear? Check out local resources. Are there bamboo groves in the area? Plastic factories or paper mills? Because you or the people making your puppets probably haven't made them before, they are going to come up with unexpected needs - shopping is a constant in puppet building workshops. It will be a lot easier if you know what is available and where to find it.
Over the years, I've slowly come to realize
that the purpose of human interaction is not greater
efficiency in production. In other words, this web
page gives 68 ways of building light and easy to
make puppets, but if you go ahead and build something
hideously complicated and impossibly heavy, don't
worry about it. People will stagger down the street
with it, and will love it the more for the effort
they put into it. The more difficult and time-consuming
a puppet is to make, the heavier and more unwieldy a
puppet is, the faster people become committed to it.
In organizing your procession, too, as you run into
unexpected demands and opinions from your puppet
makers and collaborators, keep in mind that these
aren't obstacles - they are the point of the
procession, in a sense. In this sort of community
arts, the resulting procession is only the visible
sign of the collaboration between yourselves and
the community that these interactions represent.