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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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.

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!