A workshop with Kneehigh’s Mike Shepherd

I recently got to meet a bit of a legend in the theatre world. Mike Shepherd, artistic director of Cornwall’s Kneehigh theatre company, came to Little Angel Theatre to give a day-long workshop as part of the ‘Behind Closed Doors’ sessions.

When he turned up in a flat cap and long tweed coat and carrying a load of bamboo sticks I thought, he looks just like in the YouTube videos! It was that strange thing when you meet someone who you’ve already seen on TV or in an interview, and your brain feels sort of like you’ve already met them, even though you haven’t.

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Sculpture made from my bag contents – read into it what you will!

After a warm-up to get us present in the room we worked with the sticks a little and played a few more games, all this work building on giving and receiving, working together towards a joint goal. Mike advocates playing games in the rehearsal room but making it relevant to the work you are doing, and don’t just do some warm-up games then sit down and start doing script work, losing all that wonderful energy and creative zing that you’ve just generated. Instead, use the games throughout the session.

Just before lunch we were tasked with creating sculptures out of the contents of our bags (see pic). Great fun, and an activity that could be used to flesh out a character.

In the afternoon we looked more at the devising process and how to go about adapting a written story into a piece of theatre. We used Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ as an example, as Mike directed this with puppets at Little Angel earlier this year. The initial steps involved first reading the story aloud together, then jotting down words from the story, making a note of the main themes, and then summarising the action of the story in a maximum of seven (though aiming for five) bullet points. Storyboarding was another option.

Mike struck me as pretty chilled on the surface but with a fire fizzing underneath – a rebellious streak fuelled by his passion for theatre and making work that actually means something to him. He spoke of how, after a few years as an actor in London, he moved back to his native Cornwall. In London, at least nowadays, there is this idea of a ‘career’, whereas he just wanted to make theatre, so he started Kneehigh and over the years it grew, then he made the work he wanted to make. There never seemed to be a big plan with a capital P. I think and talk so much about my ‘career’ and how to build it up that this gave me pause for thought. It’s true that there is such a sense of focusing on developing one’s career that I feel it’s good to remind ourselves why we’re in this game, and in turn take a look inside at work we really want to do.

It was a marvellous day. I got to meet someone I greatly respect and whose work I admire, the group was a lovely bunch of people who inspired me with their ideas and creativity just as much as Mike did, and I left feeling determined to make my own work that I care about and believe in the value of. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday.

Puppet Space at Little Angel Theatre

Delving further into the world of puppetry, a week ago I went along to Puppet Space at Little Angel Theatre, where I met some lovely creative folk and found out about their interesting projects.

Puppet Space is a puppetry gathering that takes place at the Little Angel Studios a few times a year, giving puppeteers and those with an interest in puppetry a chance to network, share and discuss ideas, and eat a lot of biscuits! In an industry where it’s easy to feel like you’re floundering about on your own in a vast ocean, it’s a treat to be in the room with so many of my peers.

The evening started with some time for networking, so I grabbed an orange juice and a biccy and headed towards the nearest group. At an event like this I feel no apprehension when approaching a crowd of new people – we’re all here to meet folk with the same interests as us, so I never feel like I’m imposing on people. I saw a few familiar faces and many new ones, and listened intrigued as one guy told me about a children’s book he’s had published and is interested in adapting into a show with puppetry, while a lady I’d met previously told me about the work she’s been doing with puppetry in schools.

The next part of the evening was a talk by Rachel Warr and Almudena Adalia, who spent a few weeks collaborating with Canadian puppetry practitioners in Montreal. It was fascinating hearing about the puppetry scene over there and the process the company went through to try out new ideas and make work in response to a stimulus, in this case a painting. We were even treated to a live performance of the piece Rachel and Almudena had created, along with a video clip of a piece the company in Montreal had made.

The final bit of the event involved us all sitting in a circle and each introducing ourselves and what we do, and mentioning any projects we’ve got on the go. It was fascinating hearing about everyone’s work and interests. We then had a chance to mingle a bit more and chat to anyone whose specific work piqued our interest.

Little Angel Theatre is a very special place for many people. It’s where I’ve done most of my puppetry training to date, where I’ve met many interesting people, and a place where I’ve always been made to feel welcome. And it’s organising events like Puppet Space, gathering all these creative people together to share ideas and support one another, that makes Little Angel such a key part of the puppetry scene in this country.

Shadow puppetry at Little Angel Theatre

For our final class of the Puppetry Foundation Course at Little Angel Theatre (sob!) we had a go at shadow puppetry. It was a session of cutting, tearing, sticking, trying out ideas and having free reign to create whatever kind of shadow puppet we wanted. I loved it!

Oli Smart took us through the three different items you need – object, light source and screen – and what items work well for each of these. He’d set up a bed sheet for a screen (not his favourite material to use – thin canvas works better) with an overhead projector (OHP) maybe 2 metres behind it, so we could keep trying out our ideas as we were making.

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Shadow puppetry is one of those creative forms that many of us have probably had a go at already without realising it’s puppetry. I remember doing class assemblies at school where we would sometimes cut out little characters from black paper and stick a dowel stick to the back, draw scenery on a clear plastic sheet with the OHP pens, then perform short stories projected onto a white wall or screen to the rest of the school. An early taste of shadow puppetry.

In our puppetry class I decided to make a dinosaur. Dinosaurs are cool. Oli said that with shadow puppetry, the less precious you are with what you’re making, the better. There’s no pointing spending hours crafting the perfect details as the audience just won’t see them. So I decided to initially forego the scissors and just tear the paper to make my dinosaur’s head, then used scissors for the finer points like the eye and teeth as I wanted them to look sharp. We attached a dowel stick to our puppets by which to hold them. A split pin created a hinge for the jaw to open and close (the head and bottom jaw are obviously two separate bits of paper), and Oli helped me devise a ‘trigger’ with a piece of string attached to the jaw and dowel, allowing me to operate the puppet and open and close its jaw using just one hand. This took a bit of practice!

My finished dinosaur actually looks considerably like a crocodile too, so make of him what you will!

Making a moving mouth puppet

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Over our last two puppetry classes at Little Angel Theatre we have been making simple moving mouth puppets. Using electric breadknives to sculpt foam blocks into heads and hot glue guns to stick on eyes, nose and the opening mouth, we created a variety of funny-looking characters.

First came the drawing part. Drawing lots of circles for heads we tried out all different shapes and sizes of nose, and different placement of the eyes and the mouth, drawing first the front view and then profile. You can see in the second pic some of the different combinations I came up with. Next we drew the chosen face onto one side of a foam cube and the profile view onto another side, then used an electric breadknife (I genuinely hadn’t been aware such a thing existed) to sculpt the block into a sort of sphere. (It was a bit more technical than this but the best thing to do is have someone demonstrate it like our teacher Oli Smart did.)

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To get rid of any sharp edges we picked away at the foam with our fingers, then smoothed this by snipping away with a pair of scissors. I, however, quite liked the pockmarked effect so decided to keep it. I didn’t manage to get it entirely spherical, but then, whose head is a perfect sphere? We’d probably look pretty funny if it was.

Sculpting a nose from foam – the bigger the better with this kind of puppet – we stuck this on with the hot glue gun (my first time using an electric breadknife AND my first time using a hot glue gun! Playing with the big toys now). The mouth was a bit more complicated – again, it’s best to watch someone do it. We cut along the line we’d drawn for the mouth until we’d basically cut off the head/face below this point, then cut it down at the point where we wanted the mouth to open from. The bottom jaw was then stuck back onto the head by sticking a folded piece of card to both bits with hot glue. No, I’m really not explaining this very well!

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For the eyes we dug out sockets then glued polystyrene balls into the sockets and drew pupils on with a marker pen. Many of us finished off our puppets with some fuzzy eyebrows. There were some fantastic bushy black and brown ones, but I opted for making a pair of rather groomed-looking ginger brows. I didn’t get round to making any hair before the class finished, and if we had more time we would cover the foam with felt, but I’m pretty chuffed with him (I think it’s a him) as the first puppet I’ve ever made! At tonight’s class Ronnie Le Drew will be showing us how to make our puppets speak, so hopefully once I find the puppet’s voice I’ll discover more about the character of this little chap.

Mime, puppetry and people

Last week was fantastic. I went to my first corporeal mime class, had a puppetry class at Little Angel Theatre, took part in ‘Scene Gym’ at the Old Vic Workrooms and attended a one-person storytelling workshop with Little Angel Theatre’s Artistic Director, Samantha Lane.

The mime class was taught by Vini Carvalho of Fool’s Cap Theatre, and was a pure delight. Inspired by the work of companies such as Theatre Ad Infinitum, I was looking for a good mime class when this one popped up on Facebook! We worked on opposing forces (and got very sweaty), different rhythms and learnt an offering sequence. Corporeal mime, or contemporary mime, can be used to choreograph pieces, and it felt so good to be there in a class, learning the moves and practising them in front of the mirror. That’s my comfort zone, right there! It harked back to my ballet days. Vini’s planning on teaching the class every week so it will be great to make it a regular part of my ongoing training.

In the puppetry class at Little Angel Theatre we explored motion, firstly using puppetry sticks and then going on to having a play with some cloth bunraku-style puppets. The sticks are a great tool for puppeteers to practise movement before going on to try it with the puppet itself. I am so getting me some! (Or failing that I might chop up an old broom handle.) Just always check for splinters beforehand!

Friday’s ‘Scene Gym’ was an absolute joy – a bunch of actors, directors and writers all together in a room getting to play with some brilliant new play texts. But more on that, and yesterday’s storytelling workshop, in the next two posts!

Along with the chance to be creative, what made the week really special were all the interesting people I met and had the chance to be creative with. Being in a room full of people who all want to work together and create something together gives me the biggest buzz. I love meeting new people and finding out their story, and actors in particular are generally so open and engaging. It’s also great to hear what brings non-performers to the room, for example in my puppetry class and the storytelling workshop. It’s the people that are the true joy of an actor’s life.

Jacket puppetry at Little Angel Theatre

I have a lovely (fake) leather jacket. Perfect for the autumnal weather, perhaps not so perfect for puppetry. It’s got a stiff neck, you see.

Our most recent puppetry class at Little Angel Theatre involved animating our jackets. Oliver Smart led us through the stages of focus – thinking (eg of the clock on the wall), looking at the clock, turning your body towards the clock, then moving towards the clock. We practised this ourselves first before applying it to our puppets.

In order to establish our jacket puppet’s focus we first let the gaze of the puppet follow our finger as it moved around. It was interesting to see how our puppet reacted if the finger came closer and invaded it’s personal space. We kept it simple here with a clear like/dislike or curiosity/boredom reaction. Too complicated a reaction and the puppet’s movement loses its clarity and intention.

Once we’d had a go at the different stages of focus with the puppets, we looked at jumping. Just as with us humans, the puppet’s ‘knees’ (obviously imaginary knees in the case of the jacket) bend, it pushes up into the air, comes back down a little quicker and the knees bend again as it lands. We practised the required amount of ‘push’ – what happens if it doesn’t bend the knees enough? What if it bends them too much and jumps too high or far? Once our puppets could jump on the spot we had a go at bouncing to travel, paying attention to the transfer of weight and keeping it slow and steady. When working with a puppet, Oliver says, its movements should be a little like it’s underwater – not over the top, but steadier and more pronounced than our movements.

My beloved jacket was fun to work with but the softer jackets seemed more suited to the work, so I’m off to a charity shop to get my very own puppetry practise jacket!

Puppetry with plastic bags

Week three of the Little Angel Theatre puppetry foundation course saw us using black bin bags for our puppets. Puppeteer Oliver Smart went through some basic animation with us, including breath and focus, and the session included both group work in threes and working individually with a bag.

Starting with a simple physical warm-up, Oliver then showed us a wonderful little puppetry warm-up in which we made a bird with our hands and brought it to life, flapping the wings to a waltz rhythm (two counts down, one count up). Not only did this help us to focus and work to increase the dexterity of our hands, it was fun! So much so that I’m going to make it a part of my regular puppetry practice at home (once I have started a regular puppetry practice at home…).

Our work individually animating the bags started with noticing the difference for the audience when we suddenly start paying attention to the bag, which we’d previously paid no heed. This progressed through intensifying the focus on the bag to making contact with it, then applying our own breath and sharing this with the bag, exaggerating the movement arising from this before reducing it back down, and finally standing then moving with the bag puppet. By having the puppet move while you stand still, then keeping the puppet still while you move, you can establish that the two of you exist individually as separate beings. Going for a walk with our bag puppets, we played with this combination of us moving while the puppet was still, then the puppet moving while we were still, then us both moving at the same time, varying the rhythm.

It was a brilliant session – interesting and fun – and I found myself intrigued by everyone else in the class and what their work with the bags was revealing about them. I wonder what we’ll get up to in the class next week…..!