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!

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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!

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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!

 

Performing puppetry at Brighton Fringe

Alfie the puppet made his first trip to Brighton the other week for Brighton Fringe Festival. It was also my first time performing at the Fringe there. With a generous and supportive audience, beautiful weather and a lovely review, it was a great first show for us.

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We were performing Dark Matter, a puppetry piece about dementia, at the Rialto Theatre. This great little venue is just up the hill from the main road that runs along by the sea, so in a great central location. After the tech we headed out for lunch and sat in the sun eating delicious halloumi wraps from a greek mobile food stall. I love Brighton. It manages to maintain both a chilled-out seaside vibe and a lively, buzzing atmosphere at the same time. I wish I’d been able to spend a few days there, watching shows and splashing in the sea.

The show started at 4pm and was followed by a brief Q&A. In case you haven’t read my previous blog post, the show follows Alfie, a former astrophysicist now living in a care home and suffering from dementia. I animate Alfie’s feet, with Aurora Adams on the back and right hand, and Douglas Rutter on the head and left hand. The cast also includes Sofia Calmicova as care assistant Anna and several other characters from Alfie’s past.

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Strat Mastoris reviewed the show for Fringe Review, labelling it a ‘Highly Recommended Show’. He said:

‘The writing, by Eirini Dermitzaki and Mayra Stergiou, was poignant and sad, and Stergiou’s subtle direction took us right into Alfie’s inner world.’

You can read the full review here.

It was a fantastic experience for my first Brighton Fringe, and I look forward to hopefully taking part in future Fringe festivals there. But first, there’s our next show…. tomorrow, 7pm at Little Angel Theatre in London! Tickets are available here. There may be some tickets available on the door but please bring cash!

Puppetry rehearsals with Vertebra Theatre

I am currently rehearsing for my first professional puppetry role with Vertebra Theatre, in their show Dark Matter. Rehearsals are well under way and I’m loving getting to grips with both the play and the role of puppeteer as we near our first performance, at Brighton Fringe next week!

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The show deals with dementia and how it affects the mind, focusing on the story of Alfie, a former Professor of Astrophysics now living in a care home. There’s also a healthy dose of quantum cognitive theory in there, which has provided a juicy challenge for us to get our heads round.

I animate Alfie’s feet – yes, Alfie is the puppet. Whenever working with a bunraku-style puppet in training I always chose to animate the feet, as I find it a wonderful test of how well you can listen to, and be in tune with, the other two puppeteers. Some schools of thought say you should always focus on the body part that you are animating, so in this case the feet, whereas others would suggest you look up at the body if you are on the feet. With Alfie I tried both, and ended up basically looking at the puppet’s backside and using my peripheral to take in what’s happening with the other body parts. Obviously this means I can’t always see what I’m doing with the feet, but I can get a good sense of what’s happening through touch.

Although I’ve done bits of puppetry in shows before, this is the first time I’m solely a puppeteer throughout the whole show, animating Alfie’s feet for the most part, but also occasionally other objects in the story. During my puppetry training, either at Little Angel Theatre or with Gyre and Gimble, I remember being told that puppetry is painful. The morning after the first rehearsal I certainly agreed with that statement! Two weeks in and my body has got used to the stresses and strains put on particular parts, but there are still some days when my back and knees feel about 60. However, in a strange, sadistic gym-bunny kind of way, I like that it’s hard work physically as well as mentally. I enjoy pushing my body and working it hard, probably from so many years of dance training throughout my childhood.

It’s wonderful, getting to work with such a beautiful puppet. Alfie really is a little old man. The other actors and puppeteers on the project are also fantastic to work with – Douglas Rutter, Aurora Adams and Sofia Calmicova – and I think we make a great team, along with director Mayra Stergiou, writer and producer Eirini Dermitzaki and composer Gregory Emfietzis.

Our first show is next Wednesday 1 June, 4pm at the Rialto Theatre in Brighton, as part of Brighton Fringe. After that we perform at Little Angel Theatre in London on 13 June at 7pm as part of Creativity and Wellbeing Week, then we’re at Edinburgh Fringe from 22 to 26 August, 6.30pm, at Greenside Venues, Olive Theatre. Come and see the show if you can!