Brunskill and Grimes puppet-making workshop

Many puppeteers are also puppet-makers, or at least have some skill in making. The more I work with puppets, the more interested I am in how they are put together, what materials they are made from and what considerations have gone into the design.

Hot on the heels of the devising with puppets workshop before Christmas came the chance to learn some puppet-making skills with the same company, Brunskill and Grimes. At the start of February a group of makers, designers, performers, directors, stage managers and various other assorted creatives gathered at the Workshop in Lambeth for the second of three two-day puppet-making workshops run by Jimmy Grimes and Andy Brunskill. The first took place just several days earlier and the third is happening mid-March, so if you happen to have booked on that workshop and don’t want any spoilers, stop reading here!

I cannot express how much I enjoyed the two days. I love my fellow performers but getting to meet so many people from other roles in the world of theatre was pure soul food. Everyone was so open and generous and interested to learn about each other’s work.

Having a play with Jackie the baboon

When we received the equipment list for the workshop I headed out to B&Q and went up and down the aisles clutching my list, excitedly placing my first ever proper saw (ie not a plastic kid’s one) in the basket. I have my own saw! Check me out! Granted, it is a junior hacksaw so I’m not going to be attacking any logs anytime soon. Add to that my first spanners and scalpel handle (I made a trip to Hobbycraft for that) and of course I needed a toolbox! So I rocked up at the workshop swinging my own little B&Q toolbox by my side, feeling convinced I looked every bit the professional handywoman. All the gear, no idea may have been more fitting.

During the workshop we had the opportunity to examine various puppets and puppetry mechanisms that Jimmy has created for this show or that. He explained the pattern-making technique using a sculpt and plastazote, a kind of foam that most puppet-makers I know rave about, and we had the chance to have a brief play with the material.

Bertie Harris, yours truly and Jimmy Grimes demonstrating front and back leg movement on a four-legged puppet. I was cold, hence the hat.

The two days built towards creating a jointed dog’s front leg with a trigger mechanism for the knee. I got to use my new scalpel handle and blades to cut out the various parts of the leg from a thin plastic called styrene, and the little spanners and hex keys came in handy for tightening the bolts on the joints. My thanks to the generous and patient fellow workshop attendees sitting next to me who helped me out here and there, from showing me how to fit the scalpel blade into the handle, to how to use the spanner to hold the bolt still on one side while turning the hex key on the other side to tighten it.

I won’t go into detail here about how we made the legs as I’ll probably end up confusing everyone, not to mention myself! Check out Jimmy’s Instagram page for a bunch of puppet-making clips.

So that’s another brilliant workshop with these guys. Their passion, talent and generosity really are a rare and wonderful thing.

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Devising puppetry with Brunskill and Grimes

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Thanks to Brunskill and Grimes for the pics

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.

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.

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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!

Performing puppetry at Brighton Fringe

Alfie the puppet made his first trip to Brighton the other week for Brighton Fringe Festival. It was also my first time performing at the Fringe there. With a generous and supportive audience, beautiful weather and a lovely review, it was a great first show for us.

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We were performing Dark Matter, a puppetry piece about dementia, at the Rialto Theatre. This great little venue is just up the hill from the main road that runs along by the sea, so in a great central location. After the tech we headed out for lunch and sat in the sun eating delicious halloumi wraps from a greek mobile food stall. I love Brighton. It manages to maintain both a chilled-out seaside vibe and a lively, buzzing atmosphere at the same time. I wish I’d been able to spend a few days there, watching shows and splashing in the sea.

The show started at 4pm and was followed by a brief Q&A. In case you haven’t read my previous blog post, the show follows Alfie, a former astrophysicist now living in a care home and suffering from dementia. I animate Alfie’s feet, with Aurora Adams on the back and right hand, and Douglas Rutter on the head and left hand. The cast also includes Sofia Calmicova as care assistant Anna and several other characters from Alfie’s past.

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Strat Mastoris reviewed the show for Fringe Review, labelling it a ‘Highly Recommended Show’. He said:

‘The writing, by Eirini Dermitzaki and Mayra Stergiou, was poignant and sad, and Stergiou’s subtle direction took us right into Alfie’s inner world.’

You can read the full review here.

It was a fantastic experience for my first Brighton Fringe, and I look forward to hopefully taking part in future Fringe festivals there. But first, there’s our next show…. tomorrow, 7pm at Little Angel Theatre in London! Tickets are available here. There may be some tickets available on the door but please bring cash!

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.

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!