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!

Gyre & Gimble puppetry training

I have always believed in a little bit of magic, and I think this is an essential quality for a puppeteer. The belief that one can breathe life into an otherwise inanimate collection of foam and wood is, in my mind, a belief in magic.

Ever since those first finger puppet shows I made as a kid and performed in a shoebox theatre, I have been fascinated by this magic-making. An animation workshop at East 15 gave me my first taste of training in puppetry, and last weekend I had the chance to take the next step on my puppetry journey.

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September Intensive puppeteers and Finn (I’m the tanned one front right)

Gyre & Gimble, set up by War Horse puppetry directors Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie, recently ran a three-day September puppetry intensive focusing on using Bunraku-style puppets. It was a brilliantly insightful three days, and solidified my desire to develop my skills in this area. Day one kicked off with some introductions and games followed by basic animation with large sheets of brown paper, getting us used to enabling rather than imposing movement on the object we’re puppeteering. We then made some super basic puppets out of brown paper, with a bit of scrunching, some folding and a spot of sticky tape, and produced short sequences with each puppet performing an everyday task (such as making a cup of tea), working three people to a puppet. We discussed the key principles of puppetry, including breath, weight and focus, and in the afternoon worked with some white, fabric, rag doll-like puppets.

Day two saw us moving on to more advanced Bunraku-style puppets, including foam and wood human-form puppets, a cat prototype, a fox in a white suit (naturally) and a beautiful little old man puppet that was one of the first puppets Finn made. We worked in groups of four, with three people working the puppet and the other acting as an outside eye or director – when you’re working with a puppet like this it’s so important to have someone watch the work as you can’t see how it’s coming across. Looking at how puppets and actors interact on stage, we produced short scenes with our puppet and one of us acting alongside it. This actor is often called the ‘fourth puppeteer’ and plays an important role in making the audience believe in the life of the puppet, through his or her belief in and engagement with it. The day ended with a bit of making the puppets speak – getting the head movement right is quite a skill! – before we got into small groups and discussed stimulus material we’d brought in ahead of doing some serious devising the next day.

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The final day was spent mostly devising in our groups, with pointers and suggestions here and there from Finn as he went round the room watching us work. We ended up with a few extra members in our group, making six, which enabled us to use two puppets in our piece. Get in! We tried using music as well but it didn’t work so well with the piece as it all got a bit dramatic in the middle of the track, but it was worth trying.

I came away from the three days with such a buzz and a hunger for more. Thank you to Finn Caldwell and Gyre & Gimble, and to my fellow puppeteers in training for being such fun to work with. I have a feeling this is just the start of our puppetry journey together….