Devising puppetry with Brunskill and Grimes

WShop 9

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

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

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

IMG_4507

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

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

Wshop 1

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

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

WShop 2

Thanks to Brunskill and Grimes for the pics

NaNoWriMo winner – writing a novel in a month

Writers from the Cornwall Wrimos sitting around a table in a coffee shop with laptops and coffee

I am a NaNo Winner 2018. To many of you that will mean nothing, but to some of my fellow writers it will signify one hell of an achievement.

NaNoWriMo is a challenge that takes place every November, in which writers around the world try to write 50,000 words of their novel. Some of us want to eventually get published, for others it’s a chance to focus on their passion for a solid month alongside like-minded people. For me, it was a bit of both.

I’ve been writing with a view to being published since I was 12. In that time my writing has naturally developed and evolved. When I look back at the stories I wrote after school in my teenage bedroom I cringe at the numerous cliches and plot holes, but there is a beautiful naivety to those early forays. When I went to university I thought, finally this is it. I have the time and space to write, and will finally sit down and write that best-selling novel that’s been lurking inside, just waiting for the right moment to burst out into the world. But with basketball club and dance club and jui jitsu and so many nights out in the Students’ Union and lie-ins til lunchtime there was actually very little time to sit down and write. Because that really is the main part of it: getting your bum in that chair and putting words onto paper. And, as a master of procrastination, this is something I’m not very good at.

Third time lucky

This year was my third attempt at NaNoWriMo. Last November I reached 7,000 words and in 2015 I managed even less. I believe that every word written is an achievement, and whether you reach the 50k goal or not you should be proud of yourself for what you have managed to write. However, 50,000 words is a solid amount to get you well on the way to completing a whole novel, and I desperately wanted to reach the target word count to finally get somewhere with one of my writing projects.

So what made the difference this year? In one word: community. Unlike my previous two attempts, this year I joined a local NaNoWriMo group, the Cornwall Wrimos (see pic). With a Facebook group where we shared our progress and offered each other support, and weekly write-ins in nearby Truro, having that community made the challenge so much more enjoyable. Writing can feel a very solitary activity, so talking to other writers undertaking the same journey and sharing the experience with them gave me the impetus to keep on writing through the creative dry patches.

Trying to write every day also really helped. Some days I was on a roll and managed to write around 2,500 words. On the days where I got home from work and had to wolf down dinner before heading out to a dance class, I managed less than the target daily word count, but still managed to keep the momentum going. Moving house during the last week of November didn’t make things easy, but thanks to a super supportive boyfriend who did a lot of the ferrying boxes to and fro I managed to squeeze in some time to write.

Advice for future Wrimos

If I had to condense my advice to future NaNoWriMo participants into three words they would be this: support, continuity, discipline. Support – from a community of fellow writers but also from your family and friends. An understanding partner who is willing to do more than their share of the cooking and chores for the month in order to give you time to write deserves a huge thank you (and lots of chocolate), and may be one of the main reasons you succeed. Continuity – different writing habits work best for different people, but for me building continuity into my writing practice and trying to write every day ensured I was always making progress and didn’t feel overwhelmed by the remaining word count in the final few days. Discipline – at the end of the day if you don’t have the self-discipline to get your butt in that chair and write it’s never going to happen. Easier said than done, I know, especially when you’ve been working in an office all day and the last thing you feel like doing is spending several more hours glued to a computer screen instead of relaxing on the couch or with your family.

A little disclaimer: I work not far from where I live, I don’t have children or caring responsibilities and I’m in reasonably good health. Attempting to write 50,000 words of a novel in a month is a significant undertaking for anyone, but I can appreciate how much more of a challenge it must be for people who have a family or relatives to look after, a long commute or health problems. And of course your job can have a huge impact on your energy levels and time to write in the evenings, especially if you end up bringing work home.

To those of you who hit the 50k mark this NaNoWriMo, congratulations! To those of you who took part but didn’t reach that, congratulations are also due. However much you wrote, that is an achievement worth celebrating, especially if it has helped you develop your writing or a creative project. We should all be proud of ourselves. We are writing ninjas.

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.

IMG_1163

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.

IMG_0900

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.

IMG_1247

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.

To Moscow! Staging The Emperor’s New Clothes

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

The State Historical Museum in Moscow

The State Historical Museum in central Moscow

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

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

Colourful scenery created by the students

Colourful scenery created by the students

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


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

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

Print-making at Open Studios Cornwall

I recently left the hubbub and noise and chaos of London for a slice of peace down by the sea in Cornwall. Though I’ll still travel all over for acting and puppetry work, this is the place I will be calling home for the foreseeable future.

Ink print of a large leaf on paperAs luck would have it, during my first few weeks in Cornwall I had the opportunity to take a peek in some local artists’ studios and take part in a print-making workshop as part of Open Studios Cornwall. Driving down perilously narrow, windy country lanes after all that city driving ripped my nerves to shreds, but it was worth it for the glimpse of different artists’ creative lives. Chatting to each artist about their work was a real privilege, discovering personal stories reflected in how each person responds to the world around them through their creations.

Several of the artists taking part in this year’s Open Studios Cornwall also offered workshops (for a fee), covering everything from bookbinding to creative writing, stained glass to ceramics, Chinese calligraphy to botanical illustration. I wanted to take part in at least ten, but with a limited budget from the cost of moving house I had to pick just one, so I went for Mono Printing Using Natural Objects with artist Pam Furby.

Ink print of several smaller leaves on paper

The workshop provided a wonderful two hours to immerse ourselves in being creative and forget about the rest of the world. We started by wandering round Pam’s beautiful garden choosing natural objects we wanted to work with, then headed up to her little studio to have a go at printing with our finds. I mostly gathered leaves of various shapes and sizes, as I wanted to explore how their intricate veiny patterns would come out in the ink. The prints were just as beautiful and interesting as I had hoped, and a small feather also made for a lovely print.

The table in the artist's studio covered in piles of leaves, inks, papers and plastic boards.

I began by rolling out a small amount of ink on to a plastic board with a little roller, then pressed the leaf down into the ink, veiny side down (so that the side with the most interesting pattern or texture was face-down). I then peeled the leaf off and placed it on to the piece of paper I wanted to print on to, placed another piece on top, creating a leaf sandwich, then pressed down firmly so that the leaf left an inky print. Pam also had an ink press that we could use to give a more even pressure than our hands could.

A brown and black ink print of a small leaf on paper.Having never worked with ink in this way before it was very much trial and error for most of us, just having a go and having fun. As we became more confident using the ink and developed a sense of what patterns and effects we liked, some of us experimented with different colours, mixtures of colours, and different arrangements of our objects on the page. I found that often the second print using the ink-covered leaf would make a clearer picture than the first, which contained too much ink – less was more! When initially pressing the object into the ink we used a piece of newspaper so our fingers didn’t become covered in ink, and the ‘negatives’ this produced on the newspaper were often interesting pictures in their own right.

I love the prints I created during the workshop and one or two might even make it up on the wall! The next step is to experiment with different amounts of ink and pressure until I can capture as much of the delicate veins of the leaf as possible. Then I can move on to the next object, whatever that may be!

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).

IMG_9975

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.