Whisker’s First Winter

Whisker’s First Winter just so happens to be my first Christmas show. Aimed at 2-6 year-olds and featuring beautiful puppets, a specially-created score and one impressive fluffy set, the show has been the focus of my life for the past few months.  

I’ve been a professional puppeteer for several years now, but this is the first time I’ve worked with this kind of puppet and been the sole operator. There are a few moments in the show where my co-star Matt Wood comes in to give a hand, literally, but apart from that I am Whisker. Being his conscious, his thoughts, his lifeforce for all this time, I have grown rather attached to the little fella. I can’t promise I won’t shed a tear when this project is over – I’m going to miss him! I’m also going to miss working at the theatre every day, performing with my co-puppeteer Matt, meeting our lovely audiences and just getting to do the job I love.

The show, which we performed at Cast in Doncaster, has been created by Odd Doll Theatre and directed by Kathleen Yore. Although Kathleen started with a structure and overview of the plot, she encouraged us to play and discover the details of each scene in the room during the early days of the rehearsal process. We then tweaked and refined as we went on.

An exercise we did during the refining stage that I’ve found really useful was something we worked on with Rebekah Caputo, a puppeteer and member of Odd Doll who came in for a few weeks of the process. This involved speaking the subtext for the puppet during whatever scene we were rehearsing (including non-verbal characters such as Whisker). This may be common practice for many puppeteers, but for me it was a new exploration, and I’ve spoken it in my head for each show ever since. It has very much helped to make sure Whisker is always thinking and keeps the puppetry fresh and my mind fully present, even after the 37th show! I have learnt that you really can see when a puppet isn’t thinking and the puppeteer is just going through the motions. This can easily happen when you’re working on a show for a while, but the subtext exercise is a good way of countering that.

Many of the joys and challenges of doing Whisker’s First Winter have come from performing to our young audiences. You can rehearse all you like in the studio but bring in a live audience and everything can change. The energy it gives you is amazing – suddenly it all makes sense why you’re doing this and who you’re doing it for. Given the age range of the target audience, it can also throw distractions at you, such as a stage invasion by an enthusiastic toddler who has slipped out of their parent’s grasp, or an audience member screaming when they see Whisker in trouble.

One of the things I’ve really enjoyed during the shows has been hearing children in the audience narrating the action for their family, or asking what the characters are doing at different points in the story. It’s wonderful to hear how engaged they are and how invested they are in Whisker and his adventures.

Performing at Cast has been a delight – the staff have made us feel so welcome, and I’m really going to miss coming into the theatre every day and seeing all their faces. But hopefully there’s more to come for Whisker…!

Photography: David Lindsay

Hijinx puppetry in Cardiff

I recently spent a week working with Wales’ Hijinx Theatre on their show Meet Fred, as an understudy puppeteer. It was a brilliant few days in one of my new favourite cities, Cardiff.

On the first day I rocked up at the Sherman Theatre, my workplace for the week. Ahead of me lay several days of rehearsals in which to learn the show before the company did three performances in the studio theatre, one featuring yours truly on the feet of the puppet. After this the show would set off on a European tour while I headed to Greece for a different job, hoping to re-join the Meet Fred cast on a future tour.

Fred is a simple, cloth table-top puppet operated by three puppeteers. His plain appearance and lack of embellishments is explained during the show, but I like to think it gives him an air of being the ‘everyman’ – we can all see a part of our own life struggles in Fred. The show follows the events of Fred’s life as he faces the prospect of losing his PLA (Puppetry Living Allowance). Cue drama, hilarity tipping over into tragedy and a healthy dose of existential crisis. It’s good fun to watch and great fun to perform.

The level of precision required is what I love about puppeteering the feet on this kind of puppet. From simple movements such as standing up and walking to running on the spot and even dancing, if it’s done well, the puppet moves seamlessly as one being. (If it’s not done well, it’s awful.) With my dance training I feel like this technicality of movement speaks a language I understand.

I first saw Meet Fred several years ago at a theatre in Canada Water, London. I remember thinking at the time, this is a show I would LOVE to be a part of. Well now that dream has come true! The cast and crew at Hijinx are a lovely bunch, and I couldn’t have asked for a more welcoming group of people to work with. Cardiff very quickly felt like home and I hope to come back to the city soon and continue exploring.

Dark Matter by Vertebra Theatre in Sweden

If I don’t leave this country at least once a year I get itchy feet. My latest adventure and itch remedy took me to Gothenburg, Sweden earlier this month to puppeteer the feet of an ageing physicist with dementia called Alfie.

Avid readers of my blog (so, basically you mum) may remember that back in 2017 a lovely company called Vertebra Theatre took me on for my first puppetry job. The show, Dark Matter, followed retired astrophysicist Alfie as the line between memories with a lost love and the present day in a nursing home blurred.

I recently had the opportunity to return to the show, and my role of animating the puppet’s feet (or the head in one scene). This is the first time I have come back to a show several years later, and although there had been a few alterations and developments since our 2017 Edinburgh Fringe run, it was familiar ground. I found there is something comforting about re-acquainting myself with the physical language of a piece, stirring the muscle memory of the body. In the same way, working with the same director several times (I also puppeteered in Vertebra Theatre’s At the Heart of Things last year) you build up a shared language and understanding. Such a relationship can only enrich the work further.

Our venue, Frilagret, on Heurlins Plats, hosted us as part of the Gothenburg Fringe. Our dressing room overlooked the river – definitely one of the nicer dressing rooms I’ve been in! This was my first time in Sweden, and although we didn’t have long in Gothenburg we managed to do a bit of exploring. We were staying on the edge of a neighbourhood called Haga, an area of pretty old buildings and the city’s oldest quarter. We wandered the cobbled streets lined with little cafes, expensive gift shops, vintage boutiques and bakeries, stopping for coffee and huge cinnamon buns called Hagabullen (we shared one between three). On our walk to the venue we passed through several leafy parks and down surprisingly quiet streets for a city, taking in a mixture of older apartment buildings and more industrial looking architecture. If you have longer than a day in the city there’s a great list of things to do in Gothenburg on the hotels.com website.

We had a very warm audience who gave us some great feedback after the show. It was a far more chilled affair than other fringe festivals I’ve been to, with very little hype around the city. After the show a few of us managed to quickly change and pop into the adjoining performance space to watch The Sparkle by De La Schmate Project. It was an intriguing piece involving puppetry, film and photography that used closed-circuit cameras to tell the story of a rat in the city of Jaffa. I love actually seeing how the performers create the world and the story that the audience is presented with, something which reminded me of seeing The Paper Cinema’s brilliant shows.

It was a flying visit but I enjoyed my first taste of Sweden. Puppetry, seeing a show, a spot of exploring and a cinnamon bun the size of my head. What’s not to like?

Kneehigh Kitchen: cooking with creativity

Kneehigh Kitchen group with Mike Shepherd and Nandi Bhebhe

Most theatre makers and performers in this country will have heard of Kneehigh theatre company, originally formed in Cornwall and now performing internationally. Over its nearly 40 years of making theatre the company has built up a repertoire of exciting work that twists and turns traditional storytelling conventions on their head to delight and provoke its audiences. Moving down to Cornwall last year I felt perhaps I had inched a little closer to my dream of working with this company, physically if nothing else. When I gained a place on the first Kneehigh Kitchen workshop back in May and set off to the hallowed ‘Barns’, I couldn’t contain my excitement, and why indeed should I!

The Barns is Kneehigh’s rehearsal space, a National Trust barn near the Cornish coast, above the village of Gorran Haven. It is just as you would imagine it to be, with a woodburner to heat the rehearsal room, a lovely large kitchen, and outside a firepit to gather round of an evening, chatting about the day’s discoveries.

Mike Shepherd, who started Kneehigh in 1980, told us how special The Barns is to him and the company, a sort of sacred space. In that spirit I decided not to take any photos of the building and the spaces within, apart from the firepit. Those three days at The Barns were a special and unique experience shaped by and shared by only those present. What I now hope to share with you is the impact the experience has had on me as an artist.

I moved to Cornwall in April last year. I had been living in London for a few years and grown tired of the noise, pollution, chaos and general franticness of life in the capital. Although I now live in one of the most beautiful parts of the country I have struggled to find creative opportunities down here, the majority of my network being back in London. There has been a lot of travelling up the country for work, networking events and workshops, so when the opportunity arose to do something creative down here, with other people coming down here rather than it being me going up there yet again, it felt extra special. Although I live in Falmouth, about an hour from Gorran Haven, it felt like I was welcoming people to my neck of the woods.

Getting to play and work in The Barns was a rare privilege, and has created memories I will always cherish. It was lovely to work with Mike and the joyful energy that is Nandi Bhebhe, both whom I worked with at Curious. The artists I met and worked with during the workshop came from various different areas of performance, and this variety enriched the experience. I was able to learn from my fellow creatives, from their ideas, their energy, their bravery and their knowledge of how different parts of the industry work. I have been meaning to have a go at the dreaded funding applications for a while but not felt ready, after all I have only started my own theatre company, Muddy Boots Theatre, since finishing the Curious School of Puppetry. However, after talking to one of my lovely housemates during the workshop (Kneehigh put us up in fantastic accommodation nearby), who runs her own circus company and has extensive knowledge of the funding process, I took the plunge and sent off my first ever funding application.

I have a vision for Muddy Boots Theatre as a rural touring company eventually with its own base in Cornwall, an arts centre open to the community, offering workshops, shows, events, a little bookshop and café and a space to think and create. Marching along the cliff path as a group with Mike, singing out to the sea during our vocal warm-up, stretching up to the open sky with Nandi, taking the work out of the rehearsal room and into the open, showed me how I can make the most of my surroundings here in Cornwall when I get to the point of creating my first show down here with a group of performers. We will warm our voices up in the fresh sea air, work our muscles along the coast path, take inspiration from the land, sea and sky around us. There are companies down here already doing this of course, and making wonderful work – Kneehigh, Wildworks and Rogue Theatre just to name a few – but those few days at The Barns has shown me that there is always space for your own creativity, your own ideas.

With each course I do, each job I take, I expand my network of fellow creative souls. I expand my mind with new ideas. The Kneehigh Kitchen gave me the gift of a very special few days exploring, playing and learning with a group of warm, generous and inspiring people. I headed back to Falmouth with new friends, a strengthened vision of my future creative plans, and a smile.

Devising puppetry with Brunskill and Grimes

WShop 9

As a puppeteer I am always looking for ways to develop my skills further. Going to workshops with various companies gives me the opportunity to solidify my technique while experiencing different ways of creating work. I recently had the pleasure of taking part in a Devising for Puppets workshop run by awesome puppetry duo Brunskill and Grimes, and came away reinvigorated and itching to work with the guys again.

Andy Brunskill and Jimmy Grimes create wonderful and often unusual stories with beautiful, original puppet characters. The opportunity to learn from these guys was worth the drive up to London from Cornwall, and they turned out to be damn good teachers as well.

The workshop took place in a building aptly named The Workshop, a temporary community and events space in Lambeth. Home to the London Fire Brigade pop-up museum along with several creative companies and artists, it’s just a short walk from Vauxhall station.

IMG_4507

During the one-day workshop we prepared our bodies for the work, looked at some puppetry technique and devised short scenes in groups. The warm-up and technique work was a great chance for me to check in with my own practice, reminding myself to keep my knees soft and start and end the movement with the puppet, not me. I became more aware of how my own body moves when I’m working with puppets, walking through the whole foot rather than my tendency to tread just on the balls of my feet when trying to move quickly and lightly. I feel I’d become a bit sloppy in my physical discipline, and it was good to work on not distracting from the puppet’s movement with my own.

All of my puppetry work so far has been with human form puppets, so when I saw that we’d get to play with four-legged creatures in the workshop I was excited to try out the different kinds of movement. As with two-legged puppets, each position (the ‘head’, ‘heart’ and ‘hind’, to use War Horse terms) presented us with its own movement vocabulary and challenges, and I loved working on the technicality of the movement of the different body parts.

Wshop 1

We split the 12 of us into two groups of six and devised short scenes, which Andy and Jimmy directed a little and they made suggestions for us to develop the puppet character’s sub-plot. When we were working on the movement of the puppets in threes (three people per puppet), the guys were watching carefully and chipping in with observations and advice. I really felt they were trying to help us improve our technique with the puppets, and I could tell that they were enjoying teaching us, which you don’t always feel in a workshop!

It was a brilliant day of play, creativity and fun. I had a great time meeting and getting to work with all the other actors, puppeteers, writers, directors and creatives. Although I love living in Cornwall, I do miss my clan! If you’re interested in exploring puppetry or want to develop your skills further I highly recommend doing a workshop with Brunskill and Grimes. In fact, I’ve just booked on to their two-day making workshop next February, and I can’t wait!

WShop 2

Thanks to Brunskill and Grimes for the pics

To Moscow! Staging The Emperor’s New Clothes

My first time in Moscow coincided with the world cup in Russia this year. Not much of a football fan, the purpose of my visit was actually to direct a performance of The Emperor’s New Clothes with ENgage Theatre Arts.

The State Historical Museum in Moscow

The State Historical Museum in central Moscow

Working at the New School, Moscow, with 15 Russian students aged 12-16, I arrived at the school with only the plot and a scene breakdown – the students did the rest. In only five days they managed to create a script and devise a show. For each scene we would familiarise ourselves with the main events, then the students would improvise the action before choosing which bits of dialogue to keep.

Each session began with warm-up games to energise the students, followed by a few activities to increase their focus, creativity and teamwork skills, then finally scene work. Although I helped shape the work on stage and gave the students notes on how to improve their presentation and performance skills, and ensured the English was correct, the students did a lot of the work. After exercises where we looked at how each character walked and their physicality, they suggested their own little touches to their characters. For example, the student playing the Emperor’s manservant added haughty flicks of the hair to his officious hands-behind-the-back walk, along with a deep character voice and RP accent.

Colourful scenery created by the students

Colourful scenery created by the students

We didn’t set the play in a specific time period, as our costume options were shaped by what clothes the students could bring in from home. Instead we decided that the townsfolk would all dress in bright colours, thus highlighting the more subdued colours of


the two weavers’ clothes (they come from another town). It also solved the question of how to stage the scenes where the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes – we opted for a white vest and shorts to suggest underwear. This contrasted well with the Emperor’s usual outfit, which included stylish sunglasses and a big animal-print coat the student had borrowed from his grandmother – very 50 Cent!

Although I was only in Moscow for five days and six nights, I managed to fit in a spot of sightseeing amongst the teaching/directing. My first few attempts to visit landmarks or suggested tourist attractions were thwarted by the football. On my first night I took the metro in to the city centre, intending to make my way to the famous Red Square, only to find my route closed by police. On the second night I headed out on foot to a viewpoint over the city 25 minutes’ walk away from where I was staying. I decided to turn back after finding all the connecting roads but one closed, and ending up stuck in the throng of football fans spilling out of the fan zones. I can happily report that I did make it to the Red Square in the end, on my final night in the capital!

Puppetry and Oscar Wilde at the Blue Elephant

My most recent puppetry adventure saw me working with Vertebra Theatre again, with whom I travelled to Edinburgh Fringe last year to perform in ‘Dark Matter’. My puppet this time: Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde head puppet

Oscar Wilde. Well, his head.

I joined the cast of ‘At the Heart of Things’, a dance piece inspired by Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis and featuring puppetry, live music and text, in the final week of production. Having worked before with the director, Mayra Stergiou, we felt confident that I would be able to fit in to the show at this stage, and I think we pulled it off!

We performed at the lovely Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell, whose brilliant staff were so supportive, I can’t sing their praises enough. During the three days of rehearsals I became acquainted with the puppet, explored its movement vocabulary, and stepped in to the shoes of the previous puppeteer (Mayra, now focusing on directing) while bringing something of my own to the role.

Each new puppet brings its own opportunities as well as challenges. With the Oscar puppet, the puppet itself is a head with a handle on the back concealed under a fabric sleeve or hood, and a big heavy coat with one arm tucked into a pocket and the other free for my hand to go through. Animating the puppet involved using my own body for his body, including my left hand, and using my right hand to control the head. I wore a black balaclava over my own head and tried to tuck it back and down so the main focus would be on Oscar’s head – no mean feat when you’ve got a giraffe neck like me!

The director and two dancers sit on the stage in a black studio theatre, while the director gives notes

The director giving notes

The greatest challenge when performing with this kind of puppet seems to be to marry the movement of the right hand (and puppet’s head) with that of the rest of the puppeteer’s body. Keeping my own head still and redirecting all of those movement impulses to my right hand so the puppet’s head moved instead definitely kept me busy! When performing as a puppeteer, I’m used to my own body operating purely in a functional capacity to facilitate the movement of a separate puppet’s body, so this was a whole new ball game for me. During the run I discovered the potential for my free hand (the left one) to communicate how Oscar is feeling to the audience. It provided a sort of subtext to the main story of his movement.

With only four shows animating Oscar I feel my work with him is still very much a work in progress, but then perhaps every piece we create is, whether a role, a play, a story, a painting, whatever. Where would we be if we ever felt we had actually finished? In that instant would we actually kill the thing instead of letting it live and breathe? Either way, I’m looking forward to hopefully spending more time working with Oscar in the future… watch this space!