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.

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….