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!

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Broken Puppet 2: exploring puppetry and disability

I went along to my second puppetry conference recently, Broken Puppet 2: A Symposium on Puppetry and Disability Performance. Held at Bath Spa University over a weekend, the event gathered together performers, health practitioners, academics and theatre-makers to explore the ways puppetry and disability intersect.

A puppet tablau with red and white cloth surrounding a puppet covering its face with its hands, from a puppetry with trauma victims workshop

Puppetry with trauma victims workshop

This was the second in the ongoing ‘Broken Puppet’ series of symposia, the first being held at Cork Puppetry Festival in Ireland last year. While the Cork event focused mainly on puppetry, disability and therapy, the Bath Spa event focused on puppetry and disability in performance.

It was a wonderful two days of discussion, exploration, inspiration and ideas. With keynote talks by community performance artist and disability culture activist Professor Petra Kuppers and puppetry artist and writer Corina Duyn, we were treated to two very engaging and generous speakers and artists. Panel events presented various artists’ work in the areas of applied puppetry and health, disability and puppetry in performance, and puppetry and other(ed) identities. It was fascinating finding out about the different ways of working for each artist or practitioner, and their work filled my head with ideas that by the end of the weekend were jostling for space.

There was a choice of panel events and ‘labs’ on each day, the latter so named as the idea was to provide a safe space to experiment and put forward provocations to discuss and explore, without requiring a specific outcome. On Saturday my friend and fellow puppeteer Katie Williams and I made puppets in a disabled puppet-building lab led by Green Ginger’s Chris Pirie, and performers Nikki Charlesworth and Emma Fisher (Artistic Director of Beyond the Bark).

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I taped some action man legs on to a small limbless artist’s mannequin. The idea was to create a puppet with these beautiful strong-looking legs that were actually useless to the puppet (I taped them on to the shoulders, so in effect in the ‘wrong’ place). I’ve seen people close to me struggle with terrible arthritis in the hip joint that has left their legs extremely weak and unable to bear weight, and I wanted to explore this through the puppet. I discovered how it moved with this bodily make-up (very slowly, by swinging the legs and using the momentum to rock itself forward little by little). When we shared our puppet with the rest of the group I was aware that my demonstration of its movement was painstakingly slow, but I didn’t want to rush it – this struggle to move and progress physically through space is a very real situation for so many people.

Along with the various labs on offer there was also a workshop exploring the use of puppetry as a dramatherapy medium with trauma victims, with Daniel Stolfi of The Awesome Puppet Company. This was very practical and I relished playing and following ideas to see where they led with a group of creative strangers. Split into three groups, the workshop participants created short explorations to share with everyone. Witnessing the intense focus and a kind of reverence with which everyone treated the work and subject matter was a very special experience.

At the end of the weekend we sat in a circle and shared a little bit about ourselves and any projects we’re working on, so it was fresh in everyone’s minds. It is always very humbling to be amongst so many creative minds and ideas and passion, and I can already see some potential collaborations arising from this gathering.

The symposium was hosted by Bath Spa University’s Arts and Social Change Research Group in conjunction with the UNIMA Research Commission and Puppet Place.

Puppetry in Perth with Flabbergast Theatre

Photo by KLowe Photography

Australia was never on my list of must-see places (recovering arachnophobe here!). Flabbergast Theatre were definitely on my list of must-work-with companies. Recently I found myself performing with Flabbergast at Fringe World in Australia, so I had the chance to experience both.

Fringe World Festival, in Perth, is the third largest Fringe in the world, and struck me as a world apart (literally) from the infamous Edinburgh Fringe. It’s definitely quieter, which may explain why it seems friendlier. Without the equal parts intimidating and exhilarating swarm of people that you find at Edinburgh, you get the chance to get to know people better, including your venue staff. We also received a free artist’s pass that got us into any show, provided there were seats left once the paying punters had gone in, so over two weeks of seeing shows I didn’t pay for a single ticket. The money saved on tickets, however, was offset by the ridiculously expensive beer – around 8 quid for a pint! And we’re not talking Corona here.

Photo by KLowe Photography

We performed Boris and Sergey, a cabaret-style adult puppetry show about two brothers from somewhere in Eastern Europe (the accents tend to wander), at a lovely little venue called The Shambles. The show contains scripted scenes but allows for a healthy dose of improvisation around that, meaning no two shows are ever completely the same. An element of audience participation adds to the fun and keeps us on our toes.

Photo by KLowe PhotographyI animated Boris’ feet (he’s the one with the furry belly) and had a wicked time, from perfecting a tap dance routine, to figuring out the moonwalk with two tiny leather feet, to mastering a fight sequence. The choreographic element appealed to the dancer in me, and I was in my element with the physical demands of the show.

I first saw Flabbergast perform with Boris and Sergey at Edinburgh Fringe last year and I loved the show so much, so every night in Perth I was simmering with excitement as I waited backstage for the music to begin. I’d seen the show as an audience member, and now I was actually in it! Yeaaahhhhhh!!

Photo by KLowe PhotographyThroughout the run my puppetry improvisation skills increased massively. I’d already worked with Douglas Rutter, the puppeteer on Boris’ head, on a previous job, so working with him again felt perfectly natural, even with a very different kind of puppet. The rest of the troupe are all fantastic artists in their own right, and I learnt a great deal working with them. I also made some lovely new friends on the other side of the world, and got to see a lot of theatre that I wouldn’t normally have chosen to see – burlesque, stand-up, cabaret – thus broadening my experience of the possibilities of performance art.

So my adventure down under was twofold: a chance to experience a new country so many miles away from my own, and the opportunity to be part of a truly brilliant show while developing further as a puppeteer. Yet another opportunity to travel and see the world while doing what I love! Amidst the endless loan repayments, the uncertainty and rejection, it’s the precious experiences like this that remind me I made the right decision to forge this path in my life.

Images credit: Karen Lowe

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!

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.