Broken Puppet 3: training for applied puppetry in healthcare

Applied puppetry is an area of work I’ve become increasingly interested in since starting my career as a puppeteer. The benefits of puppetry are being explored in a variety of areas, from healthcare and disability to community projects. I recently went to the Broken Puppet 3 symposium, which looked at training the applied puppetry practitioner.

Taking part in a dramatherapy workshop

This year’s event took place at Newman University in Birmingham, and brought together performers, academics, healthcare practitioners and other professionals working in the field. The programme included research papers and presentations, practical workshops and sharing of professional practice, including a performance of Love vs Trauma by Raven Kaliana, director of Puppet (R)Evolution Theatre Company. Raven also delivered one of the two keynote speeches, the other presented by Professor Ross Prior of the University of Wolverhampton.

The Broken Puppet symposia are a series of events exploring puppetry in relation to disability and health. Last year I attended Broken Puppet 2 at Bath Spa University, which focused on puppetry and disability performance.  

Professor Ross Prior’s keynote speech

It was an interesting two days of sparking new ideas and developing existing ones. At times my brain hurt from trying to grasp various concepts, at others it felt inspired and invigorated. And I co-facilitated my first conference workshop! As Associate Artist of Vertebra Theatre I worked with Artistic Director of Vertebra Theatre and dramatherapist Mayra Stergiou to deliver a workshop on ‘Engaging the unspeakable through intergenerational puppetry’, which included a presentation on our show Dark Matter and a practical session where participants devised memories with puppets.

My highlights of the symposium included:

  • discovering Dr Matt Smith’s (University of Portsmouth) project Puppet City which ‘interrogates the use of play as a participatory tool for urban design’, encouraging members of the community to re-imagine their urban landscape
  • Professor Ross Prior’s thoughts on seeing art as a process, not an end product, and how art can be the mode of enquiry in research and we don’t need to make excuses for it being so
  • Dr Emma Fisher (Bath Spa University) highlighting the need to make puppetry training more inclusive, which will in turn make the industry more inclusive
  • Dramatherapist Amy Franczak’s practical workshop where we made a puppet to resemble a part of our body that hurt or was uncomfortable. I made a sock puppet of my gut (I have IBS), and the feelings of protection towards it that were unearthed took me by surprise
Devising in our Vertebra Theatre workshop
Devising in our Vertebra Theatre workshop

As I left Newman and headed back down to Cornwall, I was tired from two packed days but feeling inspired, and looking forward to giving myself a few days for all the new ideas to sink in!

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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.

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.

Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2017

Today is the last day of one of my favourite events of this year, Bristol Festival of Puppetry. The Festival runs once every two years, organised by Puppet Place, a puppetry and animation hub in Bristol.

I could only make it to the first few days of the Festival, so I fit in as much as I could and soaked up the fantastic atmosphere. It all kicked off on Friday evening, 1 September, with Barnaby Dixon’s ‘Micro-Puppetry’. The little creatures this guy creates are delightful. They fit onto the fingers, both hands being used to operate one puppet. Along with demonstrations and one puppet treating us to a dance or two, it was very interesting listening to Barnaby explain how he made the puppets and where he gets his ideas. We also got to see some of his short animation films, which were pretty dry in their humour and therefore right up my street! It was a brilliant way to start the Festival. Sadly I missed the free Smoking Puppet Cabaret later in the evening as I was meeting a friend in town, but I heard it was great fun.

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Puppet carnival parade

My Saturday began with a Festival Breakfast in the Tobacco Factory Theatre with puppeteer Sarah Wright. Sarah, daughter of Little Angel Theatre’s founders John and Lindie Wright, runs the Curious School of Puppetry, and after corresponding via email and phone it was fantastic to finally meet her in person. She spoke to a group of us about puppetry training, asking what we specifically want from training, and also discussing other options if you don’t get a chance to train, such as learning on the job and making your own work. I was so inspired sitting there amongst all these fellow puppeteers and puppet-makers, theatre-makers and actors, as we chatted about the puppetry industry and how we can shape it for the better. The free coffee and big fluffy croissant and jam went down a treat with this!

At lunchtime I watched a free ‘New Visions’ film in the pop-up cinema, showcasing new talent in the animation world, then headed outside to catch the puppet carnival parade. A colourful crowd of puppets bobbing up and down paraded past me, accompanied by a New Orleans-esque jazz band.

Saturday evening saw me heading back to the Tobacco Factory Theatre (my new favourite place) to watch Stephen Mottram’s ‘The Parachute’ and ‘Watch the Ball’. In the first piece Stephen used white ping pong-sized balls on black wands to create characters that we can recognise and empathise with. With everything else in darkness, using just the balls and what he calls the ‘movement code’ of human movement that we can all recognise, he managed to tell a story and take us through the journey of a character’s life. It was remarkable. The second, shorter piece defies description really, insofar as to say that you really have to see it to get the essence of it. I thoroughly enjoyed watching both pieces, and would highly recommend seeing Stephen’s work – he’s performing at Skipton Puppet Festival at the end of the month.

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Puppets parading past the Tobacco Factory Theatre

My final slice of the puppetry festival was Stephen Mottram’s masterclass, ‘The Logic of Movement’, on Sunday afternoon. For that I’m going to write a separate blog post, as there’s too much to just tag on to the end of this one and it’s already getting pretty long! Suffice to say, it was probably one of the most useful workshops I have ever attended as a puppeteer.

There were so many other events in the Festival that I wanted to attend, had I not been busy: the masterclass with Les Sages Fous, Little Angel facilitator Judith Hope’s suitcase theatre workshop, the Prototype night showcasing new ideas and giving feedback, and two shows by companies based in Quebec, Canada – ‘Tricyckle’ by Les Sages Fous and ‘La Causeuse’ by Equivoc. Plus of course Hijinx’s ‘Meet Fred’, a fantastic show I saw earlier in the year in London. In the three days I was there I met some lovely people, saw inspiring work, learnt a lot and bathed in the warm fuzzy glow that is generated when a large group of creative-minded folk get together. Thank you to Puppet Place and all the artists and volunteers who made this year’s festival possible – I loved it!

Teaching my first puppetry workshop… in Russia!

At the English summer camp in Russia with CLASS Study and Training Centre this year we wanted to teach the students some specific theatre skills that they could use in their final devised pieces. Along with a bunch of fun drama games for team-building, firing up imaginations and encouraging creativity, I led my first puppetry workshops with the students.

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The first part of the workshop involved making simple bunraku-style puppets using a method I learnt at a Little Angel Theatre inset workshop – you make simple string ‘skeletons’ (sort of stick men), then the students wrap newspaper around these and fix it in place using masking tape. In the second part of the workshop I went through a puppetry warm-up, then showed the students how to animate their newly-made puppets. We covered the main principles of puppetry, including breath, weight and focus, and I encouraged them to explore different rhythms with their puppet’s movement. In groups of mostly four – three people on the puppet and one directing, though making sure to rotate roles – they then created short sketches to perform.

I wasn’t sure how the students would respond to working with puppets, but both groups really engaged with it, and with the younger group particularly I saw students who were normally a bit disruptive suddenly become engrossed in the activity. It was fantastic to see their enthusiasm and how much they were enjoying themselves.

The short sketches they devised ranged in subject matter from a day in the life of camp to a doll coming to life when its owner’s parents had left the room, to a marriage proposal between two puppets! Kids of all ages can be so creative if just given the space to do so.

These simple puppets were a great idea to make with the students – it felt good to put into practice something I’d learnt in the workshops at Little Angel Theatre. I’m now thinking about how I could improve on the session, and how I can progress on to making slightly more complex puppets the next time I deliver a workshop. With more time, I had wanted to try some object manipulation, with the students each bringing an object of their choice to the session to animate. Maybe that’s one for next time!