The Puppet Master: Who is Pulling the Strings?

This story is about what lies beyond a pink door. It is a portal to a world full of magic and fairytales.

The door to the atelier. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

Enter at your own discretion.

A flying doll. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

The door leads us into the atelier of an artist who breathes life into inanimate objects. Miglena Metodieva turns ordinary materials into extraordinary versicoloured puppets who walk on the stage of Blagoevgrad’s Puppet Theatre. 

The Artist

Miglena Metodieva, the puppet master. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

Roughly nineteen years ago Miglena found herself in a colourful atelier with a vibrant spirit to create. On the verge of the new millennium she had already graduated the South-Western University with a degree in Fine Arts and was looking for her place under the Sun. Her trade is one of many wonders and requires precision on top of relentless creativity.

“This is a trade that you steal. I watched how others do it and I started doing it better,” Miglena said.

Puppets. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

Right after graduating she started crafting puppets in her house. She used to go to fairs in the nearby villages where she sold her puppets. Miglena said that the theatre found her unexpectedly and sent her on an exciting journey:

“Maybe it was sheer damn luck, but I got offered the job here in the theatre. The boy that used to work in the atelier had quit and gone to the U.S. They had seen me selling puppets and that was a good enough proof that I could do the job.”

Miglena's atelier. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

Miglena’s first play was “The Sleeping Beauty” and it starred 23 puppets.

“They tossed me in the deep water when I still did not know how to swim.”

Miglena Metodieva and Desislava Paputcharova. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

She says that her craft is not suitable for individualists. This profession is not something that a person can do entirely on their own. There are many small bits that require help. She does some things entirely on her own, but more often than not, the end product is a result of joint efforts.

The colours in the atelier are more than one can count. It feels warm and cosy. Tranquility reigns.

Painting brushes in the atelier. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

“The atmosphere is lovely and maybe that’s why I have stayed so long,” Miglena added.

Miglena at her desk. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

For Miglena time is a relative concept. It may so happen that the director of the play goes to the atelier and says that in one month everything should be ready. This means that thirty days from then all the puppets and the props should be ready for the stage. The actors are also waiting for her because until she creates the puppets, they cannot rehearse properly, they can only read the lines and practise them. 

The Puppet

Drawings of dolls. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

When the scenographer and the director go to the atelier, they need to tell Miglena what everything is made out of.

Drawings of dolls. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

For example, if it is iron, how thin the iron is, how long the doll’s limbs should be, what the doll’s desired weight is, etc.

Drawings of dolls. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

The scenographer creates a technical drawing of the doll.

A technical drawing of a doll. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

A technical drawing means that the material for each part of the doll has been specified: wood, iron, neoprene, polystyrene.

Polysterene pieces. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

“Polystyrene, by the way, is used in our everyday lives for the making of thermal insulation for buildings,” Miglena said.

Miglena holding a polystyrene head. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

The surface of the polystyrene head in her hands looks extremely smooth, no rough edges.

“It must feel as if you are touching marble.”

Miglena explaining the process of masking puppets. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

After the carving comes the hardest work for Miglena. The masking of the puppet. Tiny pieces of paper are stuck all over the doll. The paper is cut into very small bits and cooked on the stove.

“The smell is awful, and I can barely stand it but it’s a crucial part of the process.”

Miglena in her atelier. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

The paper is cooked with bone glue. This glue is made out of the bones of dead animals, hence the stomach-churning smell. Every part of the doll must be stuck all over with this concoction three times. After that, a grind machine is used to burnish the parts of the puppet.

Miglena demonstrating how the grind machine works. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

The most difficult part to craft is any object that resembles a ball. It is the perfect form, and it is extremely difficult to shape it flawlessly.”

The round shape is never perfect. There is always something, no matter how small, that is off the beam. The grind machine makes so much dust that it becomes difficult to breathe in the atelier.

Miglena at her desk. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

The machine is a helpful tool for Miglena’s work, but some details must be crafted manually. For example, when crafting fingers, she cannot use the machine. They can only be shaped by hand. When she is masking the doll, the surface becomes jagged. Even after using the machine, Miglena sometimes needs to correct small details with her own hands. It takes a lot of time. After she is done with the burnishing, she proceeds to applying ground-coat to the doll. She does this until the surface becomes smooth and it starts looking and feeling as if you are touching a tree.

“The studio often looks like a desert.”

Miglena looking at her dolls. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

“Then, surprise-surprise, again it’s time to use the sandpaper. In order to make the head marble-like, I always use the finest sandpaper,” she added.

Miglena talking about the dolls' skeletons. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

Often there is a stick that goes through the head of the puppet and ends in a wooden cube. It must be at the level of the eyes because the actor uses the stick to move the head of the doll. It is essential to have the inside part of the stick at the level of the eyes because if it is not, the puppet will look weird to the audience when moving on stage.

One of the dolls in the atelier. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

That stick is called “a lead” because the actor is using it to lead the doll around.

The wooden lead that goes in the dolls' heads. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

To make it stable, Miglena puts weights inside the puppet's body.

“If I don’t do that, the puppet will literally fly on the stage and will not be stable.”

She uses lead which she gets from fish supplies stores.

Miglena talking about the importance of every small bit. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

To put the “lead” inside the puppet, she needs to use a drilling machine and she has dozens of drills in the atelier.

 Miglena demonstrating where the lead is positioned. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

“There is no room for mistakes! Everything must be executed precisely, and you have only one chance,” she added. 

 Miglena talking about mathematical equations. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

A machine vice in the atelier. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

In order to make the doll solid she uses small wooden blocks which she cuts on the machine vice. She uses wood from old umbrella handles and rolling pins. When the municipality takes down broken umbrellas from the famous main walking street, they give them to the theatre. Miglena and Desislava store them in the atelier and use them when making new puppets.

The Sleeping Beauty doll. Photograph by Georgi Staykov. 

Miglena does the colouring of the puppets and also dresses them.

"That’s why I tell scenographers to be careful when they draw. I will craft it exactly like that. If something was mistaken, there is no going back. It’s a risky little business!”

"I am thankful that I have my colleague, Desislava Papucharova, who helps me all the time. She is responsible for our PR image and for finding the most peculiar materials and items that we work with.”

The Red Riding Hood and The Sleeping Beauty. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

Mathematics, especially geometry, is essential in the trade of puppet making. According to Miglena, there is only thing that is more important than precision:

“That’s the passion and desire I put in my work.”

Making the hair of the puppet is one of the last finishing touches. She knows what it will be in advance. Sometimes the atelier buys the hair ready-made, sometimes it is crafted on the spot.

The inside of a doll in the atelier. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

“The doll that you are seeing now was a very interesting project because if you look inside the puppet from the bottom, you will see the metal construction. Only one blacksmith in town agreed to do that. Everyone else refused. That’s why we love it.”

Materials with which Miglena and Desislava craft puppets. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

Very often Desislava buys stuff that people use in their everyday lives. For example, wooden spoons. She bought more than 20 and the people in the store kept asking her what she was going to cook. One of the weirdest items Miglena used in the making of one puppet was a cardan joint. It is used in the construction of cars. She used it to enable the movement of a puppet.

“We have probably already amazed every store in the city,” Miglena said.

Miglena respecting the importance of adhesive tape. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

The most valuable material in the world of puppet making is the adhesive tape. They use it everywhere, in everything, every day.

“There are many many more secrets, but I will not share them now,” Miglena said.

 A pig doll in the atelier. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

People in the theatre only see the end product. No one knows how the doll came to life. All that people see is the puppet on the stage.

A painting palette Miglena uses when drawing. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

Miglena uses different types of paints to colour the puppets. Most often that’s acrylic paint.

Spray paint cans in the atelier. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

“The entire “Red Riding Hood” play, puppets and props, was coloured with spray paint,” Miglena said.

Every single time they decided to use spray paint there was wind. As soon as they took the spray cans and the puppet outside, the weather changed instantly.

There are only two harmful things in the atelier. The first one is the "Helmetex" glue they are still using to stick some parts together. People use it to glue and repair wooden objects.

“It has a very distinctive unpleasant smell, but it does a fantastic job,” Miglena added.

The second thing is the fine dust particles that they occasionally breathe in when crafting the puppets.

The Favourite Puppet

 Miglena's puppets. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

Miglena's puppets. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

Miglena's puppets - the evil queen. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

Desislava Papucharova showing how big puppets move on stage. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

“No. They are all my favourite. They are like our [Desi’s and mine] children,” Miglena shared.


Miglena carving the eyes of a polystyrene head. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

Sometimes minor accidents with the puppets happen. Someone might step on or kick them. Things get broken but can easily be fixed. The hardest thing they have had to fix was the nose of a puppet. All noses are done manually because the grind machine is not as precise as the human hand. 

“I remember once we had a scenography where we had dolls only made by nylon. It was very hard. Nylon rips quite easy,” Miglena added.

A polystyrene head. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

Once Desislava had to find steel reinforced wire. The only place where this could be found was a construction store. The wire is used in the making of suspended ceilings. She went there and said that she needs 16 wire pieces 80 cm each. The store clerks immediately started asking questions.

Miglena demonstrating that no two heads are ever the same. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

Other items that they use but are difficult to find are water-pipes. Moreover, one of the weirdest items they have used was a sink spout. Miglena and Desislava used it for the head of one puppet they made a while ago.

And they lived happily ever after

Miglena carving a polystyrene head. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

"That’s how we receive and send people out...

Miglena carving a polystyrene head. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

with protective gloves and chaos...

The lobby inside Blagoevgrad's Puppet Theatre. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

Our atelier is always in ordered chaos but...

The staircase that leads to Miglena's atelier. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

Everything will be alright...

The square in front of the theatre. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

When the time comes... 

The monument outside the theatre. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

When the time comes..."

Miglena keeps carving the polystyrene head. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

She picked up one of the heads in one hand and a knife in the other and started working on it.

Blagoevgrad's Puppet Theatre decoration inside the lobby. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

"It’s very important to me everything to be symmetrical. This is not. I need to work on it," Miglena said and disappeared in the fairytale behind the pink door.

Thank you to the Director of the Blagoevgrad's Puppet Theatre, Marina Kungelova.

Thank you to the lovely Miglena Metodieva and Desislava Papucharova.

Thank you to all the people who made this story possible. Imbuing this world with magic is what we are all here for.

Believe in fairytales!

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