Curious School of Puppetry

Back in Cornwall, I breathe in the fresh sea air. I recently returned from nine weeks in London, six of which were spent at the Curious School of Puppetry, honing my craft, developing further skills, and working and playing with a delightful group of people.

The Curious School of Puppetry is a unique training opportunity for puppeteers at all stages of their career. Our group ranged from those who had worked on War Horse to designers who now wanted to develop as performers. Normally a ten-week course, this year it ran for six, but during those weeks I learnt so much and we grew into a company, led by the wonderful puppeteer Sarah Wright.

We learnt from masters of their craft, including Rene Baker, Ronnie Le Drew, Mervyn Millar, Lyndie Wright, Toby Olié, Anna Murphy, Stan Middleton, Liz Walker, Steve Tiplady, Iestyn Evans, Nandi Bhebhe, Dom Coyote, Marty Langthorne… the list goes on! To be taught by such experienced artists whose work I admire was a great privilege, and I had to give myself a good pinch from time to time to reassure myself it was all real.  

Photographer: Steve Tanner

We explored an impressive range of topics and different kinds of puppetry on the course. Working on impulse with sticks in Rene’s classes was at times extremely frustrating but will probably prove to be the most useful exercise I have ever learnt to improve my technique.

Marionette classes with Ronnie and Stan were a highlight for me as I got to explore a kind of puppetry so different to the bunraku-style work I’m used to. The initial frustration at the comparative lack of control afforded by a stringed puppet gave way to an immense feeling of accomplishment when I achieved even the simplest of movements. It was so rewarding to see how we all progressed even in just two days with the marionettes. Another highlight was working with moving mouth puppets with Iestyn Evans and Andy Heath – challenging but so much fun.

The course was a brilliant mix of solidifying the foundations of my practice while also giving me the opportunity to explore something new. For one of my final projects I chose to work with shadow puppetry. A few days spent playing with different kinds of light and shadow early on in the Curious course ignited my imagination at the creative possibilities of this wonderful art form. My group created a beautiful little piece and I loved how this form of puppetry involved us all working together behind the screen (and at one point in front), each person’s input coming together to create the whole piece.

Working with Liz Walker. Photographer: Steve Tanner

There are many experiences and treasured moments that I will take away from this course, from our marionette disco to a room full of moving mouth puppets rocking out to Bohemian Rhapsody, to the magical moment in a voice class when our voices all suddenly harmonised and rose to the rafters as one. But the most important thing I will carry with me is the feeling of community. With the School Sarah has created a very special community of artists with a shared experience who support one another and share our passion for puppetry in its many forms.

I miss everyone and look forward to the adventures being a part of this family will bring…

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Broken Puppet 3: training for applied puppetry in healthcare

Applied puppetry is an area of work I’ve become increasingly interested in since starting my career as a puppeteer. The benefits of puppetry are being explored in a variety of areas, from healthcare and disability to community projects. I recently went to the Broken Puppet 3 symposium, which looked at training the applied puppetry practitioner.

Taking part in a dramatherapy workshop

This year’s event took place at Newman University in Birmingham, and brought together performers, academics, healthcare practitioners and other professionals working in the field. The programme included research papers and presentations, practical workshops and sharing of professional practice, including a performance of Love vs Trauma by Raven Kaliana, director of Puppet (R)Evolution Theatre Company. Raven also delivered one of the two keynote speeches, the other presented by Professor Ross Prior of the University of Wolverhampton.

The Broken Puppet symposia are a series of events exploring puppetry in relation to disability and health. Last year I attended Broken Puppet 2 at Bath Spa University, which focused on puppetry and disability performance.  

Professor Ross Prior’s keynote speech

It was an interesting two days of sparking new ideas and developing existing ones. At times my brain hurt from trying to grasp various concepts, at others it felt inspired and invigorated. And I co-facilitated my first conference workshop! As Associate Artist of Vertebra Theatre I worked with Artistic Director of Vertebra Theatre and dramatherapist Mayra Stergiou to deliver a workshop on ‘Engaging the unspeakable through intergenerational puppetry’, which included a presentation on our show Dark Matter and a practical session where participants devised memories with puppets.

My highlights of the symposium included:

  • discovering Dr Matt Smith’s (University of Portsmouth) project Puppet City which ‘interrogates the use of play as a participatory tool for urban design’, encouraging members of the community to re-imagine their urban landscape
  • Professor Ross Prior’s thoughts on seeing art as a process, not an end product, and how art can be the mode of enquiry in research and we don’t need to make excuses for it being so
  • Dr Emma Fisher (Bath Spa University) highlighting the need to make puppetry training more inclusive, which will in turn make the industry more inclusive
  • Dramatherapist Amy Franczak’s practical workshop where we made a puppet to resemble a part of our body that hurt or was uncomfortable. I made a sock puppet of my gut (I have IBS), and the feelings of protection towards it that were unearthed took me by surprise
Devising in our Vertebra Theatre workshop
Devising in our Vertebra Theatre workshop

As I left Newman and headed back down to Cornwall, I was tired from two packed days but feeling inspired, and looking forward to giving myself a few days for all the new ideas to sink in!

Brunskill and Grimes puppet-making workshop

Many puppeteers are also puppet-makers, or at least have some skill in making. The more I work with puppets, the more interested I am in how they are put together, what materials they are made from and what considerations have gone into the design.

Hot on the heels of the devising with puppets workshop before Christmas came the chance to learn some puppet-making skills with the same company, Brunskill and Grimes. At the start of February a group of makers, designers, performers, directors, stage managers and various other assorted creatives gathered at the Workshop in Lambeth for the second of three two-day puppet-making workshops run by Jimmy Grimes and Andy Brunskill. The first took place just several days earlier and the third is happening mid-March, so if you happen to have booked on that workshop and don’t want any spoilers, stop reading here!

I cannot express how much I enjoyed the two days. I love my fellow performers but getting to meet so many people from other roles in the world of theatre was pure soul food. Everyone was so open and generous and interested to learn about each other’s work.

Having a play with Jackie the baboon

When we received the equipment list for the workshop I headed out to B&Q and went up and down the aisles clutching my list, excitedly placing my first ever proper saw (ie not a plastic kid’s one) in the basket. I have my own saw! Check me out! Granted, it is a junior hacksaw so I’m not going to be attacking any logs anytime soon. Add to that my first spanners and scalpel handle (I made a trip to Hobbycraft for that) and of course I needed a toolbox! So I rocked up at the workshop swinging my own little B&Q toolbox by my side, feeling convinced I looked every bit the professional handywoman. All the gear, no idea may have been more fitting.

During the workshop we had the opportunity to examine various puppets and puppetry mechanisms that Jimmy has created for this show or that. He explained the pattern-making technique using a sculpt and plastazote, a kind of foam that most puppet-makers I know rave about, and we had the chance to have a brief play with the material.

Bertie Harris, yours truly and Jimmy Grimes demonstrating front and back leg movement on a four-legged puppet. I was cold, hence the hat.

The two days built towards creating a jointed dog’s front leg with a trigger mechanism for the knee. I got to use my new scalpel handle and blades to cut out the various parts of the leg from a thin plastic called styrene, and the little spanners and hex keys came in handy for tightening the bolts on the joints. My thanks to the generous and patient fellow workshop attendees sitting next to me who helped me out here and there, from showing me how to fit the scalpel blade into the handle, to how to use the spanner to hold the bolt still on one side while turning the hex key on the other side to tighten it.

I won’t go into detail here about how we made the legs as I’ll probably end up confusing everyone, not to mention myself! Check out Jimmy’s Instagram page for a bunch of puppet-making clips.

So that’s another brilliant workshop with these guys. Their passion, talent and generosity really are a rare and wonderful thing.

Devising puppetry with Brunskill and Grimes

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Thanks to Brunskill and Grimes for the pics

Devised puppetry project in Russia

Puppetry is powerful. It has the capacity to make people believe in life where there is none, to see a soul in a collection of strings and wooden sticks. And it doesn’t only affect the audience. It can have a profound effect on the puppeteer.

With this in mind, for my third time teaching at the English summer camp in Russia, this time through ENgage Theatre Arts, I focused on puppetry for the whole project. At last year’s camp I ran a puppetry workshop with the students where we made newspaper and string puppets then devised short scenes. With both age groups I worked with these workshops went down really well, so this year the final performances themselves involved puppets.

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My wonderful colleagues at CLASS Study and Training Centre, with whom I work in Russia, had organised a theme for this year’s camp based on virtual reality and communities. We created a world within the camp – Campus – whose ruler, VerLock, delivered regular recorded messages to the students containing instructions, comments and clues to riddles. We realised that puppetry could work really well within this theme, so I asked my students to feature VerLock as a character in their final pieces, then looked forward to seeing their interpretations of this mysterious figure.

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Teachers with their puppet versions created by the first group

This theme explored community-building through the separation of the students into different communities or nations. Carrying this on into my drama sessions, I tasked the students with asking lots of ‘What if?’ questions about their nations and Campus as a whole. All fictional stories are basically the writer asking ‘What if this happened? Or this? Or that?’ then providing a possible answer to this question through their story. Working in their separate nation communities the students explored various different scenarios until they had boiled it down to their favourite, which they then built their final performances on.

IMG_1070They were all enthusiastic about the puppetry, even if a little daunted when I first told them they were going to create and perform puppet shows to their peers. Natural leaders emerged within the groups, and I worked with them to ensure that everyone in each community had a role, while trying to make sure the leaders weren’t relied on too heavily by everyone else. It became clear which parts of the process each student enjoyed and excelled at or found challenging. One boy struggled to engage with the devising process, but as soon as we started making the puppets he got stuck right in and his excitement and enthusiasm was wonderful! I could see him working through problems and coming up with different solutions as he tried this way of attaching the neck or that way of creating a shoulder joint.

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The final performances were an absolute delight – a little rough round the edges, as to be expected, but utterly charming. What stood out for me was the teamwork involved in the process and the final piece, and the level of creativity the students showed. All four groups I worked with created their puppets in a slightly different way, and all four stories were different, though interestingly there were some moral themes that ran through all of the ideas.

I love what I do. Travelling to interesting places, experiencing different cultures, sharing my passion for theatre and puppetry, and working with students who are discovering their own creative potential is immensely rewarding. Like every performer or creative, what I don’t enjoy is constantly worrying about money, the job insecurity and the rejections. At the end of each creative project there’s the necessity to get a day job back in an office for a bit, returning to a life I thought I’d left far behind when I set off to drama school (oh how naïve!). But when I’m feeling glum and I start wondering whether this career change really was a good idea, and isn’t it about time I said: “Well that was a lot of fun and I’ve had a great time, but now I really should get back to something sensible”, I remember what one student said to me at the end of a puppet-making session on camp: “I love doing this. I wish we got to do things like this at school”. Heart strings suitably torn, I realised I have to keep going, to keep creating and making and sharing. The joy I witnessed as I saw that boy delighting in the chance to be creative – that alone is enough to keep me going.

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!

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.