Whisker’s First Winter

Whisker’s First Winter just so happens to be my first Christmas show. Aimed at 2-6 year-olds and featuring beautiful puppets, a specially-created score and one impressive fluffy set, the show has been the focus of my life for the past few months.  

I’ve been a professional puppeteer for several years now, but this is the first time I’ve worked with this kind of puppet and been the sole operator. There are a few moments in the show where my co-star Matt Wood comes in to give a hand, literally, but apart from that I am Whisker. Being his conscious, his thoughts, his lifeforce for all this time, I have grown rather attached to the little fella. I can’t promise I won’t shed a tear when this project is over – I’m going to miss him! I’m also going to miss working at the theatre every day, performing with my co-puppeteer Matt, meeting our lovely audiences and just getting to do the job I love.

The show, which we performed at Cast in Doncaster, has been created by Odd Doll Theatre and directed by Kathleen Yore. Although Kathleen started with a structure and overview of the plot, she encouraged us to play and discover the details of each scene in the room during the early days of the rehearsal process. We then tweaked and refined as we went on.

An exercise we did during the refining stage that I’ve found really useful was something we worked on with Rebekah Caputo, a puppeteer and member of Odd Doll who came in for a few weeks of the process. This involved speaking the subtext for the puppet during whatever scene we were rehearsing (including non-verbal characters such as Whisker). This may be common practice for many puppeteers, but for me it was a new exploration, and I’ve spoken it in my head for each show ever since. It has very much helped to make sure Whisker is always thinking and keeps the puppetry fresh and my mind fully present, even after the 37th show! I have learnt that you really can see when a puppet isn’t thinking and the puppeteer is just going through the motions. This can easily happen when you’re working on a show for a while, but the subtext exercise is a good way of countering that.

Many of the joys and challenges of doing Whisker’s First Winter have come from performing to our young audiences. You can rehearse all you like in the studio but bring in a live audience and everything can change. The energy it gives you is amazing – suddenly it all makes sense why you’re doing this and who you’re doing it for. Given the age range of the target audience, it can also throw distractions at you, such as a stage invasion by an enthusiastic toddler who has slipped out of their parent’s grasp, or an audience member screaming when they see Whisker in trouble.

One of the things I’ve really enjoyed during the shows has been hearing children in the audience narrating the action for their family, or asking what the characters are doing at different points in the story. It’s wonderful to hear how engaged they are and how invested they are in Whisker and his adventures.

Performing at Cast has been a delight – the staff have made us feel so welcome, and I’m really going to miss coming into the theatre every day and seeing all their faces. But hopefully there’s more to come for Whisker…!

Photography: David Lindsay

A week of puppetry this and that

This week my puppetry journey took me to an audition with a company I greatly admire, a session of the Puppetry Foundation Course at Little Angel Theatre, and a workshop on puppetry and empathy in the classroom.

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Me with a beautiful little puppet at the Sept Gyre & Gimble training

I can’t say much more about the audition other than that it was a fantastic experience to be in the room with such creative people. I won’t hear whether I’ve got the job or not until next week, so fingers crossed!

My session at Little Angel Theatre was brilliant. Puppeteer Ronnie LeDrew told us about the history of the theatre itself and his own career, and demonstrated several different kinds of puppets he’d brought in, including glove puppets, a moving mouth puppet and some marionettes. Ronnie has operated Zippy from Rainbow (!!!), worked on Sooty and Sweep, and even worked on Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, so it was a bit like meeting a childhood hero! When he pulled out a set of Sooty and Sweep puppets from the show and a mini Zippy I nearly cried out with delight. It was magical. Meeting fellow puppetry enthusiasts was also fantastic – they’re a lovely bunch!

Alongside acting work I also work as teaching assistant (TA), which provides me with meaningful and fun work that pays the bills. Thus when I saw the In Your Shoes – Puppetry and Empathy short course advertised at Little Angel theatre I thought this sounded perfect for me, as it combined these two areas of work. The two-hour session was run by a lovely lady called Polly, who got us to think about why you would use puppetry in the classroom or in a session with children or young people, and showed us how to make a simple puppet out of a milk bottle that we could make with a class. We also explored how to use different breath to portray emotions in a puppet, and made simple string and newspaper puppets in groups of four, then brought these to life in short scenarios shared with the group.

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My fantastic group with our puppet at the Puppetry and Empathy workshop

It’s been such a fantastic, creative week, and I hope next week will be just as fun, with a puppetry workshop on Saturday that I might sign up for and a puppetry show at Little Angel Theatre in the evening!