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.

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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

EN-gage Theatre Arts drama facilitator training

New company EN-gage Theatre Arts recently ran a one-day training workshop at The Edge Theatre and Arts Centre in Manchester for its band of drama facilitators, including yours truly!

EN-gage Theate Arts

The company, run by performer and facilitator Hebe Reilly, delivers drama projects in English for non-native English-speaking students. These projects are tailor-made to the school or students’ requirements, and give the young people taking part a fun and educational experience where they can practise and develop their spoken English with a native speaker, make new friends, and gain creative and life skills through drama.

I first met Hebe working on an English summer camp in Russia, and we were instantly united in our passion for sharing the joys of theatre with young people and our love of travel.

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The goal of the training session was to share activities and facilitation tips, but also to establish a common language and mission statement for EN-gage Theatre Arts. The company already has two drama projects in Russia under its belt, and it brings together a group of theatre professionals with a wealth of experience in teaching drama, both in the UK and abroad, but Hebe felt it was important to try to establish a set of common principles that all EN-gage practitioners share. While retaining the individual skill sets of each company member, what is it about the EN-gage experience that all clients will get when they book a project with us?

As soon as we’d done the warm-up and kicked off the session with some drama games I was filled with joy at getting to just play. I’d almost forgotten what this felt like!

Workshop 1Throughout the day we took part in group activities that involved devising and planning theatre projects in English for different age groups. This was interspersed with leading the group in various games and activities we had each prepared for the session, sharing ideas and experiences.

Training sessions like this are so important, not just for sharing knowledge (and of course having fun!), but for building a strong company where all members feel part of a whole and support one another. Acting is obviously a very social activity in itself, but leading drama workshops can be a more solitary activity, in that you’re not surrounded by your peers every day if you’re a freelancer, so it’s great to feel part of a collective.

I left the training very much having a sense of us being a team, and hope that having this support network of fellow facilitators will greatly enhance the projects I do through EN-gage Theatre Arts and my professional development as a whole.

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

NaNoWriMo 2017 – we’re halfway there folks!

So we are now just over halfway through NaNoWriMo 2017. Have I reached my target word count to be on track for 50,000 words by the end of the month? Not even near. But that’s ok.

Jennie pulling a confused face while writing on her Apple Macbook laptop

50,000 words? No problem. Aaaaarrrrgghhhhhh!

This is the second time I’ve attempted the glorious madness that is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short). The first time around was in 2015, and I think I reached a grand total of 10,000 words. But just because I didn’t ‘win’ and reach the 50,000 target, doesn’t mean those 10,000 words weren’t a huge achievement in themselves. Up to that point, I don’t think I had ever managed that many words on one writing project.

This year, November, the month of NaNoWriMo, just so happens to also be the month of the NCTJ national exams. I’m currently studying the NCTJ Diploma in Journalism via distance learning, and last week I took the media law and magazine regulation exams. All the studying and revision has meant I haven’t been able to commit my full attention to getting those words down on paper (or computer screen) for NaNoWriMo. Nevertheless, I have still managed to write several chapters, fitting in writing time during my lunch break, for an hour when I get home, or a few hours here and there at the weekend.

If you’re a fellow adventurer on this intrepid journey and feeling in a need of a little pep talk, author and podcaster Mur Lafferty has written some oh so true words about why not hitting the 50,000 words target is not the be-all and end-all. Read Mur Lafferty’s article ‘Help! I’m 10,000 words behind!’ on the NaNoWriMo Blog.

Julie Murphy, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Dumplin’, says “No-one writes a good novel in a month” in her pep talk for NaNoWriMo writers. Read Julie Murphy’s pep talk on the NaNoWriMo site. She says: “whether your thirty-day novel is The Book or just an exercise that you shelve in the dustiest corner of your computer, I promise you there is something to be gained from this experience”, and I heartily agree. Whether I hit 50,000 word or not by the end of this month, I will have written more words and dedicated more time to one of my novels-in-the-making than I ever have before. And that is most definitely a worthwhile achievement. Now let’s get back to writing. Onwards and upwards!

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!