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.

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!

Puppetry with plastic bags

Week three of the Little Angel Theatre puppetry foundation course saw us using black bin bags for our puppets. Puppeteer Oliver Smart went through some basic animation with us, including breath and focus, and the session included both group work in threes and working individually with a bag.

Starting with a simple physical warm-up, Oliver then showed us a wonderful little puppetry warm-up in which we made a bird with our hands and brought it to life, flapping the wings to a waltz rhythm (two counts down, one count up). Not only did this help us to focus and work to increase the dexterity of our hands, it was fun! So much so that I’m going to make it a part of my regular puppetry practice at home (once I have started a regular puppetry practice at home…).

Our work individually animating the bags started with noticing the difference for the audience when we suddenly start paying attention to the bag, which we’d previously paid no heed. This progressed through intensifying the focus on the bag to making contact with it, then applying our own breath and sharing this with the bag, exaggerating the movement arising from this before reducing it back down, and finally standing then moving with the bag puppet. By having the puppet move while you stand still, then keeping the puppet still while you move, you can establish that the two of you exist individually as separate beings. Going for a walk with our bag puppets, we played with this combination of us moving while the puppet was still, then the puppet moving while we were still, then us both moving at the same time, varying the rhythm.

It was a brilliant session – interesting and fun – and I found myself intrigued by everyone else in the class and what their work with the bags was revealing about them. I wonder what we’ll get up to in the class next week…..!

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!

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….