British UNIMA AGM and puppetry talks at RCSSD

I headed over to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama recently for the AGM of British UNIMA and two talks about puppetry training and performance.

British UNIMA is the UK branch of the Union Internationale de la Marionette (UNIMA), a non-governmental puppetry organisation affiliated to UNESCO.

The event, Between Actors and Objects: Contemporary Puppetry Performance and Training, included a talk by Professor Mario Piragibe and a presentation by a member of the Czech Republic’s famous Drak Theatre. The evening was led by the wonderful Cariad Astles, British UNIMA Chair and course leader for the Puppetry: Design and Performance pathway of the BA (Hons) Theatre Practice Programme at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

Puppetry provides bodies to ideas and gives objects presence.

Mario, from the Universidade Federal de Uberlandia in Brazil, spoke of the definition of a ‘puppet’, contemporary puppetry training, and his interest in the gaze – how could the eyes of the puppeteer manipulate the puppet, without using hand skills? A fascinating question! Mario asked some intriguing questions regarding the possibilities of puppetry training, such as is it possible to train for puppetry without exercising hand skills, and how can actors and puppeteers benefit from shared training?

A beautiful phrase I remember from the talk, but can’t remember if it was from Mario directly or if he was quoting another practitioner, was: ‘Puppetry provides bodies to ideas and gives objects presence.’ Such a wonderful way to articulate what we do.

The Drak Theatre talk looked at previous Drak productions, with images and clips of productions ranging from the 1970s all the way up to recent work. Particularly interesting was how the company explores the relationship between the puppet and puppeteer or actor on stage. In one show in particular, the actors switched fluidly between direct acting and acting through the puppet, and in their contemporary shows the actors all sing, act and puppeteer. The strong sense of collectivity really stands out in the way they make work.

It was a fantastic evening, being amongst fellow puppeteers, both experienced and those just starting out on their journey. Thank you to Cariad and the team at Central for organising and bringing us all together!

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Clod Ensemble movement workshop with osteopath Leon Baugh

As an actor and puppeteer with many years of dance classes behind me, I am greatly interested in how and why my body moves the way it does. This is particularly true when it comes to injuries that impede my movement, and how to both deal with them and prevent future injuries.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to take part in a free workshop on the body and how to keep it moving and performing the way we need it to. The workshop was run by osteopath and former dancer Leon Baugh, and aimed at dancers and other performers for whom movement plays a key part of their work.

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Leon Baugh working with a client

Leon is a qualified osteopath, Anatomy in Motion practitioner, acupuncturist and sports injury massage therapist working in London. Before training as an osteopath he enjoy a career as a professional contemporary dancer, dancing with companies such as the Hofesh Schechter Company, before becoming an Olivier Award winning theatre choreographer.

On a snowy Sunday in early December I made my way into London (the trains were miraculously running), dressed in my usual movement get-up of leggings and baggy top, armed with a water bottle and notebook. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but the following seven hours would turn out to be some of the most useful of my career.

Persistent back pain

About nine years ago I injured my back. I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but over a period of several days a pain started to appear in my lower back and grew worse and worse, until one day I couldn’t move without horrendous painful spasms coursing up my spine. I’ve seen physiotherapists, osteopaths and chiropractors. I’ve tried pilates and swimming. Although each of these things gave me some immediate relief, it never lasted (though I can credit the swimming with improving my mobility and getting me walking again). After two weeks the intense pain had settled down to a persistent dull ache, and I was able to move about more or less as I had done before, with one exception – fear. The pain and immobility had been so terrifying, that ever since then I never made any sort of bending movement without an element of fear that it would happen again.

In more recent years I have injured the cartilage in my left knee playing badminton, and also feel niggles in my right. Perhaps lower back and knee problems are not the best recipe for a life as a puppeteer, but I think it can have some advantages, in that it makes me more aware of how I need to look after and protect my body when I’m working.

I’ve often wondered if the knee issues could be directly related to the original back injury, and through Leon’s workshop I discovered that this could very much be the case. I learnt how, when we suffer an injury, our body adjusts its centre to cope with this. However, long after the injury itself has healed, the body can continue to perceive this off-kilter centre as its true centre. This leaves us with a greatly reduced amount of mobility. Could my body have readjusted its centre when I hurt my back, and when it didn’t revert back to its true centre once my back had healed, could this off-kilter centre have put extra strain on my left knee, making it more susceptible to injury?

Listening to the body

Leon took us through several exercises to tune into our bodies and become aware of any trouble spots. Alongside my work in the theatre I work in communications at a university, which involves sitting at a computer for most of the day. Recently I’ve been very aware of how I’ve almost tuned out my body as I jostle the crowds in the tube, cram onto the train, or sit for hours staring at my computer screen. Leon’s workshop reminded me to listen when my body speaks, and to actively ask it how it’s feeling by taking the time to tune in.

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Leon Baugh

Most of the other participants at the workshop were professional dancers, but the majority of what we covered could be directly applied to working as a puppeteer or other kind of movement practitioner. The warm-ups Leon took us through will be particularly useful, following the basic principle of preparing your body for the work ahead by doing a lower-intensity version of that same activity (for example, if you’re going to be jumping lots in a rehearsal then it makes sense to prepare your knees by doing bends and low-impact jumps). One revelation was to not always bend knees over toes when warming up (shock horror!). You cannot guarantee that in a rehearsal or performance you will land perfectly every time, so you need to prepare your knees for those times when you don’t.

There is so much useful information I took away from the day that I can’t possibly include it all here or I’ll end up writing a book! Suffice to say, that one workshop alone has changed the way I think about my body and its pain, and I can’t thank Leon and the organisers, Clod Ensemble, enough.

This workshop was organised as part of Reboot, Clod Ensemble’s free artist development programme for emerging and established practitioners. The programme provides a space for performers and performance makers, teachers and academics to explore ideas and develop their practice.

 

Images: courtesy of Leon Baugh

Skipton Puppet Festival 2017

Growing up not far from Skipton in Yorkshire, it was great to return there this weekend for Skipton Puppet Festival. This is my first year at the festival, and I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of it until this year. Getting to spend some time with my sister Amie while soaking up the atmosphere and being immersed in my passion made for a pretty special day. I even bumped into several puppetry friends, old and new.

The weather gave us the usual northern welcome – grey skies and drizzle – but it did nothing to dampen the spirits of the crowds in the Festival Hubsite. This area was the beating heart of the festival, and a wonderful nucleus of activity, live music, free performances and food, plus several giant puppets wandering around.

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Marionettes made by Lenka at praguemarionette.com

We just went along for the day on Sunday, so there were several intriguing shows on Friday and Saturday that I missed, but it’s been a busy month of festivals, conferences and workshops so I had to watch the pennies. In the morning we saw Rusty Nails and Other Heroes by TAMTAM Objektentheater, which was marvellous. I suppose you would call it a mixture of puppetry and object manipulation, and it combined live and recorded music, the action moving from a table, to cleverly crafted scenes created to the side of this and projected onto a screen via a live camera, back to the central playing space. From objects you might find in a scrap heap they created little worlds and delightful characters, exploring the creative potential of all these discarded materials.

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Amie playing with one of Lenka’s marionettes

In the Hubsite we came across The Errant Stage, the brilliant little mobile performance venue in a van, brainchild of Kate Powell and Jonna Nummela to provide a sustainable and free performance space for fellow artists. I first met Kate and heard about the van at the festival breakfast with Sarah Wright at Bristol Festival of Puppetry last month, so I was chuffed to be able to see it in action. My sister and I climbed the stairs and parked our bottoms on an array of cushions to watch the ever so talented Emma of Nudge Puppets perform Finger Fatale, a hand striptease. Intriguing indeed, and a stroke of creative genius. What a treat. After that we headed to the scratch tent to check out some new work and leave feedback, then wandered into the main marquee, where we came across Lenka Cain Pavlíčková’s beautiful wooden marionettes. We got to see Lenka at work, carving away, and even had a play with a lovely little marionette. I have a soft spot for marionettes – known as possibly the most difficult form of puppetry to master, marionettes have always filled me with wonder.

In the evening we saw the final show of the festival, Death Puppet Klezma Jam by Mirth and Misery, in Skipton town hall. It was absolutely brilliant. When the dancing zombie came on I laughed til I cried. The live music was phenomenal – accordion, double bass, percussion and either violin or viola playing foot-stomping Eastern European music with gusto and immense skill. The puppets themselves were wonderfully curious-looking creatures, each with a distinctive personality that delighted the audience. With the vibe these guys created the festival ended on an energetic high.

I can’t believe that, despite growing up in this area, this is the first Skipton Puppet Festival I’ve been to. My sister and I had such a brilliant time. Combining the magic and skill of puppetry with a healthy dose of good old northern spirit, it really was a weekend to remember. Long may the festival continue!

The Great War Horse conference – exploring, celebrating and discussing puppetry

The word ‘conference’ used to immediately conjure up a vision of drab discussions about drab things punctuated with mediocre cups of coffee and dry sandwiches. I certainly would never have put the words ‘puppetry’ and ‘conference’ together, yet there I was at the weekend, heading to the lovely city of Canterbury for just that – a puppetry conference.

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Workshop participants with Henry Maynard, Boris and Sergey, and Mikey from Strangeface

The event was hosted by Canterbury Christ Church University in collaboration with The Marlowe Theatre and the University of Kent, and took place over the Friday and Saturday (I chose to attend both days). Friday’s main event was an all-day puppetry masterclass with Henry Maynard, Artistic Director of Flabbergast Theatre. I saw Flabbergast’s puppets Boris and Sergey in action recently at the Edinburgh Fringe, and a puppeteer mate of mine regularly works with them, so I was pretty darn excited about doing a workshop with Henry. I had a brilliant time, exploring, playing, laughing a fair bit. In the group there were performers, academics and theatre-makers at various different stages of their training journey, yet we all worked together wonderfully. In the afternoon we also got to have a play with Boris and Sergey themselves, and one of Strangeface theatre company‘s puppets, Mikey – excited much?! Henry directed us in working on several different types of movement with the puppets, breaking the movement down into stages and reworking it until we’d got it. I’ve not experienced that level of detail when working with a puppet and a director before so I was absolutely loving it.

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Friday evening and Saturday were made up of various talks and discussions about what Handspring and the National Theatre’s production of War Horse did for puppetry as an art form, and how the industry has moved on in the ten years since the show first came to the stage (yep, it really has been ten years!). Most of the speakers were also in the workshop on Friday, so it was lovely getting to work creatively with them as well as hearing about their research.

On Friday, Russell Dean of Strangeface theatre company talked about puppetry and perception, and how puppeteers highjack a part of the brain to give the cognitive illusion of life, lighting up the nervous system. This was followed by Knuckle and Joint’s Rebecca O’Brien discussing puppetry for children and adults in the age of War Horse.

Saturday was a particularly special day because I got to meet two of my puppetry heroes, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring Puppet Company, the geniuses behind the War Horse puppets. They delivered the keynote speech, Geographies of Collaboration: The Legacy of War Horse. There were so many interesting thoughts to take from their speech, but the particularly pertinent ones for me were that yoga is good for puppeteers; that puppets have a fourth dimension, their own metaphysical presence; and the concept of Group Mind, where the three Joey or Topthorn puppeteers work together as one to create the ‘being’ of the horse. It really was something special to meet these guys in the flesh.

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Panel discussion: What next for UK puppetry?

We also got to find out more about the puppetry in the show from Craig Leo and Matt Forbes, two puppeteers working on the current tour, and we saw another project of Handspring’s in a screening of the film Olifantland. The rest of the day was taken up with talks from Laura Vorwerg of Royal Holloway exploring interdisciplinary performance practice and collaborative skill augmentation in War Horse, Dr Valerie Kaneko-Lucas of Regent’s University London discussing War Horse as community metaphor, and Dr Jeremy Bidgood of Canterbury Christ Church University (who organised the event) looking at Erika Fischer-Lichte’s concept of ‘interweaving’ and exploring who does the interweaving in the work of Handspring. The conference ended with a panel discussion about the future of UK puppetry, with Rachel McNally of Bristol’s Puppet Place, Dr Bidgood and puppeteers Ronnie LeDrew, Penny Francis and Joseph Wallace.

So was this conference drab? Most certainly not, and it has prompted me to reevaluate my perception of the word. An event where practitioners and academics with a common passion come together to share knowledge, explore their creativity and discuss the future of an industry they care deeply about is surely as far away from drab as possible. I had a wonderful two days, met some fantastic people, and left with a bucketload more ideas and motivation. My deepest thanks to everyone involved.

Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2017

Today is the last day of one of my favourite events of this year, Bristol Festival of Puppetry. The Festival runs once every two years, organised by Puppet Place, a puppetry and animation hub in Bristol.

I could only make it to the first few days of the Festival, so I fit in as much as I could and soaked up the fantastic atmosphere. It all kicked off on Friday evening, 1 September, with Barnaby Dixon’s ‘Micro-Puppetry’. The little creatures this guy creates are delightful. They fit onto the fingers, both hands being used to operate one puppet. Along with demonstrations and one puppet treating us to a dance or two, it was very interesting listening to Barnaby explain how he made the puppets and where he gets his ideas. We also got to see some of his short animation films, which were pretty dry in their humour and therefore right up my street! It was a brilliant way to start the Festival. Sadly I missed the free Smoking Puppet Cabaret later in the evening as I was meeting a friend in town, but I heard it was great fun.

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Puppet carnival parade

My Saturday began with a Festival Breakfast in the Tobacco Factory Theatre with puppeteer Sarah Wright. Sarah, daughter of Little Angel Theatre’s founders John and Lindie Wright, runs the Curious School of Puppetry, and after corresponding via email and phone it was fantastic to finally meet her in person. She spoke to a group of us about puppetry training, asking what we specifically want from training, and also discussing other options if you don’t get a chance to train, such as learning on the job and making your own work. I was so inspired sitting there amongst all these fellow puppeteers and puppet-makers, theatre-makers and actors, as we chatted about the puppetry industry and how we can shape it for the better. The free coffee and big fluffy croissant and jam went down a treat with this!

At lunchtime I watched a free ‘New Visions’ film in the pop-up cinema, showcasing new talent in the animation world, then headed outside to catch the puppet carnival parade. A colourful crowd of puppets bobbing up and down paraded past me, accompanied by a New Orleans-esque jazz band.

Saturday evening saw me heading back to the Tobacco Factory Theatre (my new favourite place) to watch Stephen Mottram’s ‘The Parachute’ and ‘Watch the Ball’. In the first piece Stephen used white ping pong-sized balls on black wands to create characters that we can recognise and empathise with. With everything else in darkness, using just the balls and what he calls the ‘movement code’ of human movement that we can all recognise, he managed to tell a story and take us through the journey of a character’s life. It was remarkable. The second, shorter piece defies description really, insofar as to say that you really have to see it to get the essence of it. I thoroughly enjoyed watching both pieces, and would highly recommend seeing Stephen’s work – he’s performing at Skipton Puppet Festival at the end of the month.

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Puppets parading past the Tobacco Factory Theatre

My final slice of the puppetry festival was Stephen Mottram’s masterclass, ‘The Logic of Movement’, on Sunday afternoon. For that I’m going to write a separate blog post, as there’s too much to just tag on to the end of this one and it’s already getting pretty long! Suffice to say, it was probably one of the most useful workshops I have ever attended as a puppeteer.

There were so many other events in the Festival that I wanted to attend, had I not been busy: the masterclass with Les Sages Fous, Little Angel facilitator Judith Hope’s suitcase theatre workshop, the Prototype night showcasing new ideas and giving feedback, and two shows by companies based in Quebec, Canada – ‘Tricyckle’ by Les Sages Fous and ‘La Causeuse’ by Equivoc. Plus of course Hijinx’s ‘Meet Fred’, a fantastic show I saw earlier in the year in London. In the three days I was there I met some lovely people, saw inspiring work, learnt a lot and bathed in the warm fuzzy glow that is generated when a large group of creative-minded folk get together. Thank you to Puppet Place and all the artists and volunteers who made this year’s festival possible – I loved it!

My first Edinburgh Fringe

Every year, come August, I’ve had the greatest fear that I was missing out. That’s because every August the whole of theatre land has gone crazy with Fringe fever, while I, stuck in London or Portsmouth or wherever I was at that time, have wished I could be up in Edinburgh where all the fun was.

Well this year, my wish came true. After performances at Brighton Fringe and Little Angel Theatre, (and with a trip to Russia in between), I headed up to Edinburgh with the rest of the cast and crew to perform Vertebra Theatre’s ‘Dark Matter’ during the final week of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. And let me tell you, the experience did not disappoint.

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Our show managed to sell out every night. The first few nights of the week had nearly sold out before we even got to Edinburgh! Don’t ask me how we did it – we’re still not entirely sure – but I think the combination of puppetry and the subject matter of dementia went a long way. The health community did a great job in helping spread the word, as did our producer Eirini, who, when not tweeting like a mad woman, was running around Edinburgh plastering every surface she could find with our posters and flyers.

We had lovely audiences and some great four-star reviews, complimenting the puppetry and storytelling. Sadly the sight lines at the venue weren’t great for our show, as our puppet Alfie is only about three feet tall, and much of the action takes place with him sat on a low chair or standing on the ground. We did what we could to improve this, moving some of the action further upstage. You live and learn!

Dark Matter flyer

As for seeing other shows, I downloaded the Fringe app before I went and proudly announced to the team that I was the keeper of all Fringe knowledge. We got hold of a few copies of the printed guide when we arrived but, to be honest, with so many shows it was a bit overwhelming turning page after page, so I planned what to see and booked most of the shows through the app. It had a schedule function where you could add shows to your planner without buying the tickets, then decide which ones you wanted to book.

I watched nine shows during the week, a healthy number I reckon, considering I wanted to get a good dose of theatre but not empty my bank account. If I had to pick three highlights, they would be Theatre Ad Infinitum’s ‘Translunar Paradise’, ‘Losing It’ by 2theatre and Flabbergast Theatre’s ‘Boris and Sergey’s One Man Extravaganza’. Ok, one more – ‘A Heart at Sea’ by Half a String definitely deserves a mention, as it employed such beautiful and imaginative storytelling. Three of these shows were ones I’d already heard about and desperately wanted to see, but one – Losing It – was a new suggestion. Combining clowning with elements of dance, mime, puppetry and live music, this show turned out to be a very special theatrical experience indeed. It challenged me and made me question my feelings and response to what was happening in front of me.

So I survived my first Edinburgh Fringe, my sanity intact (at least until the overnight coach journey back). If we’d been performing there for the whole month I may have felt a little different by the end. I appreciate that the experience can vary greatly, depending on the quality of your digs, if it’s your own show you’re taking up or if you’ve joined a show like I did, and of course the weather (we were lucky and only had one day of proper rain). I definitely want to ‘do’ the Fringe again, and I’d like to visit the city at another point in the year to get a better feel for the place itself.

Less than a week since we got back I’m now in Bristol, checking out the delights of Bristol Festival of Puppetry. No rest for the wicked! But that’s for the next blog post…

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Half a String’s fantastic set for A Heart at Sea

Teaching my first puppetry workshop… in Russia!

At the English summer camp in Russia with CLASS Study and Training Centre this year we wanted to teach the students some specific theatre skills that they could use in their final devised pieces. Along with a bunch of fun drama games for team-building, firing up imaginations and encouraging creativity, I led my first puppetry workshops with the students.

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The first part of the workshop involved making simple bunraku-style puppets using a method I learnt at a Little Angel Theatre inset workshop – you make simple string ‘skeletons’ (sort of stick men), then the students wrap newspaper around these and fix it in place using masking tape. In the second part of the workshop I went through a puppetry warm-up, then showed the students how to animate their newly-made puppets. We covered the main principles of puppetry, including breath, weight and focus, and I encouraged them to explore different rhythms with their puppet’s movement. In groups of mostly four – three people on the puppet and one directing, though making sure to rotate roles – they then created short sketches to perform.

I wasn’t sure how the students would respond to working with puppets, but both groups really engaged with it, and with the younger group particularly I saw students who were normally a bit disruptive suddenly become engrossed in the activity. It was fantastic to see their enthusiasm and how much they were enjoying themselves.

The short sketches they devised ranged in subject matter from a day in the life of camp to a doll coming to life when its owner’s parents had left the room, to a marriage proposal between two puppets! Kids of all ages can be so creative if just given the space to do so.

These simple puppets were a great idea to make with the students – it felt good to put into practice something I’d learnt in the workshops at Little Angel Theatre. I’m now thinking about how I could improve on the session, and how I can progress on to making slightly more complex puppets the next time I deliver a workshop. With more time, I had wanted to try some object manipulation, with the students each bringing an object of their choice to the session to animate. Maybe that’s one for next time!