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.

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A note on Life

I was reading through my notes in my writing scrapbook earlier, and suddenly noticed a tiny bug, the colour of skin, translucent and almost too small for the naked eye to see. At first I was simply going to brush it away, most likely killing it in the process, but I decided to watch it a little, tracking its progress. I strained my eyes to watch it as it made its way across the page. Here was life. It may be small and seem insignificant, but of course everything is relative.

I tried to get it to crawl onto my finger so I could take a closer look, but every time it got near my finger it could sense it looming there and turned to take a different path. Sometimes it faltered a little before doing so, and I realised there must be some sort of thought process going on there! It seemed as if it was not just reacting instinctively, but actually choosing how to proceed. (I’m sure a biologist may have an explanation for this that renders my thoughts merely the result of an over-optimistic imagination.) Suddenly this tiny life-form became very significant. It was life; beautiful, complex, perfectly functioning life. Alive. Living.

There is so much life, all around us. So much energy, so much existence. I imagined its life, this little bug. What did things look like from its perspective? Did it really ‘think’? Was it aware at all? What was its purpose? Did it even need one? Or was it simply existing because it can? Because life is everywhere, and it needs no reason, no justification for being.

We have such small eyes. We think we’re kings of the world. But we’re like moles, burrowing through all this wonder.

Polar Bears by Mark Haddon

I think this fascination with life fuels my creative instincts. When I act a part in a play I am inhabiting a life other than my own, the life of the character. When I put pen to paper my imagination is giving birth to a character, a personality, with every hope, flaw, habit and subtle nuance that altogether moulds a spirit that is uniquely theirs, as they burst from my mind and spill onto the page.

I’m not particularly religious – perhaps ‘undecided’ would be the most suitable label, if anyone feels I need one. But that doesn’t mean I don’t find life itself magical. And right now I can feel a new life coming into being. A new voice wanting to be heard. Has she been there all along, waiting for the right time, for me to discover her? Or were the seeds of her creation only sewn a week or so ago as the idea for a story, her story, first crept out of my subconscious and gave my grey matter a little nudge?

The idea I mentioned in my last post, the beginnings of yet another story that wants to grow up to be a novel, has set down roots and firmly planted itself in my mind. It’s just waiting for me to breathe some life into it, and now that life is ready. I call her Emily. I don’t know her favourite food yet, have only a vague idea of her age. I don’t even know her favourite colour, or if she indeed has one. Whether she’d choose Britney or Christina, or if she even gives a damn. But all this will be revealed to me, as she speaks and I listen, jotting down a characterisation, sketching out the lines of her life. And like the little bug – as important in the scheme of life as ever, yet blink and you’ll miss him – it’s the little details that count.