Whisker’s First Winter

Whisker’s First Winter just so happens to be my first Christmas show. Aimed at 2-6 year-olds and featuring beautiful puppets, a specially-created score and one impressive fluffy set, the show has been the focus of my life for the past few months.  

I’ve been a professional puppeteer for several years now, but this is the first time I’ve worked with this kind of puppet and been the sole operator. There are a few moments in the show where my co-star Matt Wood comes in to give a hand, literally, but apart from that I am Whisker. Being his conscious, his thoughts, his lifeforce for all this time, I have grown rather attached to the little fella. I can’t promise I won’t shed a tear when this project is over – I’m going to miss him! I’m also going to miss working at the theatre every day, performing with my co-puppeteer Matt, meeting our lovely audiences and just getting to do the job I love.

The show, which we performed at Cast in Doncaster, has been created by Odd Doll Theatre and directed by Kathleen Yore. Although Kathleen started with a structure and overview of the plot, she encouraged us to play and discover the details of each scene in the room during the early days of the rehearsal process. We then tweaked and refined as we went on.

An exercise we did during the refining stage that I’ve found really useful was something we worked on with Rebekah Caputo, a puppeteer and member of Odd Doll who came in for a few weeks of the process. This involved speaking the subtext for the puppet during whatever scene we were rehearsing (including non-verbal characters such as Whisker). This may be common practice for many puppeteers, but for me it was a new exploration, and I’ve spoken it in my head for each show ever since. It has very much helped to make sure Whisker is always thinking and keeps the puppetry fresh and my mind fully present, even after the 37th show! I have learnt that you really can see when a puppet isn’t thinking and the puppeteer is just going through the motions. This can easily happen when you’re working on a show for a while, but the subtext exercise is a good way of countering that.

Many of the joys and challenges of doing Whisker’s First Winter have come from performing to our young audiences. You can rehearse all you like in the studio but bring in a live audience and everything can change. The energy it gives you is amazing – suddenly it all makes sense why you’re doing this and who you’re doing it for. Given the age range of the target audience, it can also throw distractions at you, such as a stage invasion by an enthusiastic toddler who has slipped out of their parent’s grasp, or an audience member screaming when they see Whisker in trouble.

One of the things I’ve really enjoyed during the shows has been hearing children in the audience narrating the action for their family, or asking what the characters are doing at different points in the story. It’s wonderful to hear how engaged they are and how invested they are in Whisker and his adventures.

Performing at Cast has been a delight – the staff have made us feel so welcome, and I’m really going to miss coming into the theatre every day and seeing all their faces. But hopefully there’s more to come for Whisker…!

Photography: David Lindsay

Hijinx puppetry in Cardiff

I recently spent a week working with Wales’ Hijinx Theatre on their show Meet Fred, as an understudy puppeteer. It was a brilliant few days in one of my new favourite cities, Cardiff.

On the first day I rocked up at the Sherman Theatre, my workplace for the week. Ahead of me lay several days of rehearsals in which to learn the show before the company did three performances in the studio theatre, one featuring yours truly on the feet of the puppet. After this the show would set off on a European tour while I headed to Greece for a different job, hoping to re-join the Meet Fred cast on a future tour.

Fred is a simple, cloth table-top puppet operated by three puppeteers. His plain appearance and lack of embellishments is explained during the show, but I like to think it gives him an air of being the ‘everyman’ – we can all see a part of our own life struggles in Fred. The show follows the events of Fred’s life as he faces the prospect of losing his PLA (Puppetry Living Allowance). Cue drama, hilarity tipping over into tragedy and a healthy dose of existential crisis. It’s good fun to watch and great fun to perform.

The level of precision required is what I love about puppeteering the feet on this kind of puppet. From simple movements such as standing up and walking to running on the spot and even dancing, if it’s done well, the puppet moves seamlessly as one being. (If it’s not done well, it’s awful.) With my dance training I feel like this technicality of movement speaks a language I understand.

I first saw Meet Fred several years ago at a theatre in Canada Water, London. I remember thinking at the time, this is a show I would LOVE to be a part of. Well now that dream has come true! The cast and crew at Hijinx are a lovely bunch, and I couldn’t have asked for a more welcoming group of people to work with. Cardiff very quickly felt like home and I hope to come back to the city soon and continue exploring.

Dark Matter by Vertebra Theatre in Sweden

If I don’t leave this country at least once a year I get itchy feet. My latest adventure and itch remedy took me to Gothenburg, Sweden earlier this month to puppeteer the feet of an ageing physicist with dementia called Alfie.

Avid readers of my blog (so, basically you mum) may remember that back in 2017 a lovely company called Vertebra Theatre took me on for my first puppetry job. The show, Dark Matter, followed retired astrophysicist Alfie as the line between memories with a lost love and the present day in a nursing home blurred.

I recently had the opportunity to return to the show, and my role of animating the puppet’s feet (or the head in one scene). This is the first time I have come back to a show several years later, and although there had been a few alterations and developments since our 2017 Edinburgh Fringe run, it was familiar ground. I found there is something comforting about re-acquainting myself with the physical language of a piece, stirring the muscle memory of the body. In the same way, working with the same director several times (I also puppeteered in Vertebra Theatre’s At the Heart of Things last year) you build up a shared language and understanding. Such a relationship can only enrich the work further.

Our venue, Frilagret, on Heurlins Plats, hosted us as part of the Gothenburg Fringe. Our dressing room overlooked the river – definitely one of the nicer dressing rooms I’ve been in! This was my first time in Sweden, and although we didn’t have long in Gothenburg we managed to do a bit of exploring. We were staying on the edge of a neighbourhood called Haga, an area of pretty old buildings and the city’s oldest quarter. We wandered the cobbled streets lined with little cafes, expensive gift shops, vintage boutiques and bakeries, stopping for coffee and huge cinnamon buns called Hagabullen (we shared one between three). On our walk to the venue we passed through several leafy parks and down surprisingly quiet streets for a city, taking in a mixture of older apartment buildings and more industrial looking architecture. If you have longer than a day in the city there’s a great list of things to do in Gothenburg on the hotels.com website.

We had a very warm audience who gave us some great feedback after the show. It was a far more chilled affair than other fringe festivals I’ve been to, with very little hype around the city. After the show a few of us managed to quickly change and pop into the adjoining performance space to watch The Sparkle by De La Schmate Project. It was an intriguing piece involving puppetry, film and photography that used closed-circuit cameras to tell the story of a rat in the city of Jaffa. I love actually seeing how the performers create the world and the story that the audience is presented with, something which reminded me of seeing The Paper Cinema’s brilliant shows.

It was a flying visit but I enjoyed my first taste of Sweden. Puppetry, seeing a show, a spot of exploring and a cinnamon bun the size of my head. What’s not to like?

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!

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.

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.