The Great War Horse conference – exploring, celebrating and discussing puppetry

The word ‘conference’ used to immediately conjure up a vision of drab discussions about drab things punctuated with mediocre cups of coffee and dry sandwiches. I certainly would never have put the words ‘puppetry’ and ‘conference’ together, yet there I was at the weekend, heading to the lovely city of Canterbury for just that – a puppetry conference.

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Workshop participants with Henry Maynard, Boris and Sergey, and Mikey from Strangeface

The event was hosted by Canterbury Christ Church University in collaboration with The Marlowe Theatre and the University of Kent, and took place over the Friday and Saturday (I chose to attend both days). Friday’s main event was an all-day puppetry masterclass with Henry Maynard, Artistic Director of Flabbergast Theatre. I saw Flabbergast’s puppets Boris and Sergey in action recently at the Edinburgh Fringe, and a puppeteer mate of mine regularly works with them, so I was pretty darn excited about doing a workshop with Henry. I had a brilliant time, exploring, playing, laughing a fair bit. In the group there were performers, academics and theatre-makers at various different stages of their training journey, yet we all worked together wonderfully. In the afternoon we also got to have a play with Boris and Sergey themselves, and one of Strangeface theatre company‘s puppets, Mikey – excited much?! Henry directed us in working on several different types of movement with the puppets, breaking the movement down into stages and reworking it until we’d got it. I’ve not experienced that level of detail when working with a puppet and a director before so I was absolutely loving it.

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Friday evening and Saturday were made up of various talks and discussions about what Handspring and the National Theatre’s production of War Horse did for puppetry as an art form, and how the industry has moved on in the ten years since the show first came to the stage (yep, it really has been ten years!). Most of the speakers were also in the workshop on Friday, so it was lovely getting to work creatively with them as well as hearing about their research.

On Friday, Russell Dean of Strangeface theatre company talked about puppetry and perception, and how puppeteers highjack a part of the brain to give the cognitive illusion of life, lighting up the nervous system. This was followed by Knuckle and Joint’s Rebecca O’Brien discussing puppetry for children and adults in the age of War Horse.

Saturday was a particularly special day because I got to meet two of my puppetry heroes, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring Puppet Company, the geniuses behind the War Horse puppets. They delivered the keynote speech, Geographies of Collaboration: The Legacy of War Horse. There were so many interesting thoughts to take from their speech, but the particularly pertinent ones for me were that yoga is good for puppeteers; that puppets have a fourth dimension, their own metaphysical presence; and the concept of Group Mind, where the three Joey or Topthorn puppeteers work together as one to create the ‘being’ of the horse. It really was something special to meet these guys in the flesh.

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Panel discussion: What next for UK puppetry?

We also got to find out more about the puppetry in the show from Craig Leo and Matt Forbes, two puppeteers working on the current tour, and we saw another project of Handspring’s in a screening of the film Olifantland. The rest of the day was taken up with talks from Laura Vorwerg of Royal Holloway exploring interdisciplinary performance practice and collaborative skill augmentation in War Horse, Dr Valerie Kaneko-Lucas of Regent’s University London discussing War Horse as community metaphor, and Dr Jeremy Bidgood of Canterbury Christ Church University (who organised the event) looking at Erika Fischer-Lichte’s concept of ‘interweaving’ and exploring who does the interweaving in the work of Handspring. The conference ended with a panel discussion about the future of UK puppetry, with Rachel McNally of Bristol’s Puppet Place, Dr Bidgood and puppeteers Ronnie LeDrew, Penny Francis and Joseph Wallace.

So was this conference drab? Most certainly not, and it has prompted me to reevaluate my perception of the word. An event where practitioners and academics with a common passion come together to share knowledge, explore their creativity and discuss the future of an industry they care deeply about is surely as far away from drab as possible. I had a wonderful two days, met some fantastic people, and left with a bucketload more ideas and motivation. My deepest thanks to everyone involved.

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My first Edinburgh Fringe

Every year, come August, I’ve had the greatest fear that I was missing out. That’s because every August the whole of theatre land has gone crazy with Fringe fever, while I, stuck in London or Portsmouth or wherever I was at that time, have wished I could be up in Edinburgh where all the fun was.

Well this year, my wish came true. After performances at Brighton Fringe and Little Angel Theatre, (and with a trip to Russia in between), I headed up to Edinburgh with the rest of the cast and crew to perform Vertebra Theatre’s ‘Dark Matter’ during the final week of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. And let me tell you, the experience did not disappoint.

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Our show managed to sell out every night. The first few nights of the week had nearly sold out before we even got to Edinburgh! Don’t ask me how we did it – we’re still not entirely sure – but I think the combination of puppetry and the subject matter of dementia went a long way. The health community did a great job in helping spread the word, as did our producer Eirini, who, when not tweeting like a mad woman, was running around Edinburgh plastering every surface she could find with our posters and flyers.

We had lovely audiences and some great four-star reviews, complimenting the puppetry and storytelling. Sadly the sight lines at the venue weren’t great for our show, as our puppet Alfie is only about three feet tall, and much of the action takes place with him sat on a low chair or standing on the ground. We did what we could to improve this, moving some of the action further upstage. You live and learn!

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As for seeing other shows, I downloaded the Fringe app before I went and proudly announced to the team that I was the keeper of all Fringe knowledge. We got hold of a few copies of the printed guide when we arrived but, to be honest, with so many shows it was a bit overwhelming turning page after page, so I planned what to see and booked most of the shows through the app. It had a schedule function where you could add shows to your planner without buying the tickets, then decide which ones you wanted to book.

I watched nine shows during the week, a healthy number I reckon, considering I wanted to get a good dose of theatre but not empty my bank account. If I had to pick three highlights, they would be Theatre Ad Infinitum’s ‘Translunar Paradise’, ‘Losing It’ by 2theatre and Flabbergast Theatre’s ‘Boris and Sergey’s One Man Extravaganza’. Ok, one more – ‘A Heart at Sea’ by Half a String definitely deserves a mention, as it employed such beautiful and imaginative storytelling. Three of these shows were ones I’d already heard about and desperately wanted to see, but one – Losing It – was a new suggestion. Combining clowning with elements of dance, mime, puppetry and live music, this show turned out to be a very special theatrical experience indeed. It challenged me and made me question my feelings and response to what was happening in front of me.

So I survived my first Edinburgh Fringe, my sanity intact (at least until the overnight coach journey back). If we’d been performing there for the whole month I may have felt a little different by the end. I appreciate that the experience can vary greatly, depending on the quality of your digs, if it’s your own show you’re taking up or if you’ve joined a show like I did, and of course the weather (we were lucky and only had one day of proper rain). I definitely want to ‘do’ the Fringe again, and I’d like to visit the city at another point in the year to get a better feel for the place itself.

Less than a week since we got back I’m now in Bristol, checking out the delights of Bristol Festival of Puppetry. No rest for the wicked! But that’s for the next blog post…

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Half a String’s fantastic set for A Heart at Sea

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!

Puppetry rehearsals with Vertebra Theatre

I am currently rehearsing for my first professional puppetry role with Vertebra Theatre, in their show Dark Matter. Rehearsals are well under way and I’m loving getting to grips with both the play and the role of puppeteer as we near our first performance, at Brighton Fringe next week!

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The show deals with dementia and how it affects the mind, focusing on the story of Alfie, a former Professor of Astrophysics now living in a care home. There’s also a healthy dose of quantum cognitive theory in there, which has provided a juicy challenge for us to get our heads round.

I animate Alfie’s feet – yes, Alfie is the puppet. Whenever working with a bunraku-style puppet in training I always chose to animate the feet, as I find it a wonderful test of how well you can listen to, and be in tune with, the other two puppeteers. Some schools of thought say you should always focus on the body part that you are animating, so in this case the feet, whereas others would suggest you look up at the body if you are on the feet. With Alfie I tried both, and ended up basically looking at the puppet’s backside and using my peripheral to take in what’s happening with the other body parts. Obviously this means I can’t always see what I’m doing with the feet, but I can get a good sense of what’s happening through touch.

Although I’ve done bits of puppetry in shows before, this is the first time I’m solely a puppeteer throughout the whole show, animating Alfie’s feet for the most part, but also occasionally other objects in the story. During my puppetry training, either at Little Angel Theatre or with Gyre and Gimble, I remember being told that puppetry is painful. The morning after the first rehearsal I certainly agreed with that statement! Two weeks in and my body has got used to the stresses and strains put on particular parts, but there are still some days when my back and knees feel about 60. However, in a strange, sadistic gym-bunny kind of way, I like that it’s hard work physically as well as mentally. I enjoy pushing my body and working it hard, probably from so many years of dance training throughout my childhood.

It’s wonderful, getting to work with such a beautiful puppet. Alfie really is a little old man. The other actors and puppeteers on the project are also fantastic to work with – Douglas Rutter, Aurora Adams and Sofia Calmicova – and I think we make a great team, along with director Mayra Stergiou, writer and producer Eirini Dermitzaki and composer Gregory Emfietzis.

Our first show is next Wednesday 1 June, 4pm at the Rialto Theatre in Brighton, as part of Brighton Fringe. After that we perform at Little Angel Theatre in London on 13 June at 7pm as part of Creativity and Wellbeing Week, then we’re at Edinburgh Fringe from 22 to 26 August, 6.30pm, at Greenside Venues, Olive Theatre. Come and see the show if you can!

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.

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.