An Inside View on Vivaldi: An Interview with Ben Thompson

Josh Elwell talks to puppeteer Ben Thompson about this exciting new production. We look beneath the surface at the process that brings together a contemporary version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by Max Richter, a live sextet of musicians and a team of master puppeteers. The show opens this April and can be seen by candle light at The Globe Theatre.

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Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons at The Globe is an exciting collaboration between Gyre & Gimble, a team of master puppeteers (of which you are one), a sextet of musicians and the prolific contemporary musical artist Max Richter. Can you tell us how the collaboration came about and in particular how you yourself became involved in such an unusual project?

Toby and Finn (of Gyre & Gimble) wanted to create a show that mixed puppetry with music to tell a wordless, but still emotionally engaging, show. They approached the Globe with this idea and set about listening to a lot of classical music. They were introduced to Max Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ and knew straight away that it had the epic scope and dynamism they needed.

They held a number of research and development workshops to explore how such a piece could work. I’ve known Toby (Olié) and Finn (Caldwell) since I worked with them on ‘War Horse’ in the West End and have been lucky enough to work with them since on various different projects. They asked me to be a part of one of the workshops and after the last one I was offered a place in the cast.

From your perspective as a puppeteer how has it been working on a show that is a response to a piece of music? In what way has it been different to other projects you have worked on?

It’s actually been quite freeing because there really is no right answer and whenever we got stuck we just went back to the music and explored what it inspired in us. Most of the other projects I’ve worked on have been scripted and mostly fixed before rehearsals start. However, even within those shows, quite often the puppet I’m operating won’t have text (I seem to have done a lot of animal puppets in my time) and so the physical script needs to be discovered. The thoughts and emotional journey of the character mapped out. So in that respect this project is quite similar to others I’ve done.

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I know that you are a very accomplished and experienced puppeteer. You have worked on War Horse as well as with other companies like Blind Summit and with me at The National Theatre of Scotland. In what way has this project enabled you to play to your strengths? It would also be interesting to know in what way you have been challenged? What is it like performing to candlelight in The Wanamaker?

The atmosphere in the Wanamaker is just beautiful, but the candle light means you’re not able to focus an audience’s attention like you might with a lighting change/spotlight. Therefore the precision of the puppets’ movements is very important, so as to allow the audience into what the character is thinking or feeling, as well as having moments of stillness to draw their attention to something in particular. Coupled with this is the fact that the audience is on three sides of the stage, meaning that at any one time there’ll be some action that someone can’t see. So, as well as keeping the staging moving and taking in all sides and not just the front, as a puppeteer you have to be very aware of your own body; making more space than perhaps is usual between yourself and the puppet to allow for sightlines.

I knew and worked with Max Richter back in the early 90’s when we were fresh out of college and he was writing music for fringe theatre shows at Arts Threshold in Paddington under the leadership of the young director Rufus Norris. At that time he was full of inspiration and had a wonderful inventiveness. How does his recomposition of this famous piece of music lend itself to the art of puppetry? Has Max been involved and how have you worked with the music during the rehearsal process?

I’m not sure if Max’s recomposition lends itself specifically to puppetry, but it definitely does to theatre and storytelling. It has an epic scale to it with sweeping moments of passion and sustained levels of tension. Of course this is Vivaldi as well, but somehow Richter steps it up a gear. In that way I suppose it’s linked to puppetry in that puppets, particularly human figures like ours, are a heightened form of performance; they are essential as in they show the essence of something. There is no text in the show and so the music acts as the dialogue.

Max hasn’t been directly involved with rehearsals, but has given his permission to use the piece in a scaled down version with just 6 musicians which has been brilliantly rearranged by Bill Barclay, The Globe’s Director of Music. We’re hoping he approves of what we’ve done and that Vivaldi might also like what’s been done to his original.

The first thing we did at the start of rehearsals was to spread out a huge roll of brown paper, grab a load of marker pens and, with each of us taking a section of paper, we listened to the entire piece and drew/wrote/doodled anything that came to mind. Initially this could be quite abstract and disconnected, but then we repeated the exercise and made an attempt to create a narrative that covered the whole piece. From this process a basic storyline was thrashed out and we then set about creating the physical version of it. We would listen to a movement and then improvise a scene to it, repeating and finessing as we went. If we were ever stuck it always helped to go back to the music and see what it inspired.

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Perhaps you could tell us a little bit about how it has been working with your fellow puppeteers? It would also be interesting to hear about the process led by G&G’s Toby & Finn?

I’ve worked with a few of the other puppeteers before – or knew them at least – and so it was great to jump straight into the process without the awkwardness that comes with the first few days of a project. It’s been great and inspiring to work with people who work at such a high standard within puppetry. Toby and Finn too have gone from strength to strength with their past projects and the two of them bounce off each other so effortlessly in the room. It’s been one of the most fun rehearsal processes I’ve been a part of, with a lot of laughter and silliness but also a great amount of serious focused work that has brought out some beautiful moments in the show.

ST207729 captioned.jpgWhat do you see as being the main purpose or message of the production? What do you hope that the audience may take away with them?

It’s going to be interesting to see how an audience reacts to this piece. Every night there’ll be a different make up of people that have come because it’s Vivaldi, or because they’re huge Richter fans and are intrigued to hear this piece. Or those that have come because of the puppetry or simply those that are fans of The Globe and the atmosphere within the Wanamaker. It’s part concert part theatre piece and the etiquette for how to respond to this medley is, I think, not fully known.

Emma Rice, the Artistic Director at The Globe, described the puppets as being ‘crash test dummies for life’ which is lovely way of putting it. The design of the puppets is such that they are very neutral and so an audience can imprint on them whatever they wish. The piece deals with universal subjects like love, loss and dealing with life. I imagine people might initially see themselves in the puppets, but then as the story develops they are perhaps taken out of themselves and invited to imagine how it might be for someone else. Sympathy and empathy all rolled in to one.

 

Interview with Josh Elwell



‘Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining’ at The Globe
 is on until the 21st April.  To find out more about Gyre & Gimble and their work, visit their website at: http://www.gyreandgimble.com, or Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo and Instagram feeds.   To book tickets to see the performance at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, visit the Globe’s website.

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Moving Stories: An Interview with Claire Lamond

Claire Lamond is a Scottish BAFTA nominated stop motion animator and filmmaker based in a dark cupboard in Edinburgh.  She is drawn to stories of small happenings that reflect wider society and has worked with community projects animating their stories.  I caught up with Claire at the 2018 Manipulate Festival to find out more about her work and influences.    


mugshotlowresHow did you get involved in animation, and why stop motion?

Some years ago I was ill and had to give up my job as a youth worker. I was introduced to art initially as a therapeutic process but ended up going to college to take it further. I was doing illustration but found that everything I wanted to do took place over time so that, coupled with my love of film and stories, led me to study animation at Edinburgh College of Art.

Stop motion has a particular appeal to me. I love the thrill of creating something that is gone the minute you move onto the next frame, never to be repeated. Although I use computers for capturing my frames and After Effects, I mostly love the tactile interaction that exists between puppet and animator when we’re working together in the wee dark room of my studio. I think stop motion has a lot in common with working with puppets in real time…just much much slower!

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Still from ‘All That Glisters’, Claire Lamond, 2012

After my degree film ‘All That Glisters‘, adapted from a short story by the achingly great author, Ann Donovan, I was offered an animator in residence at National Mining Museum Scotland, where my remit was to make a film inspired by the collection. What a dream that was! I ended up interviewing the ex miners who work there about their first experience of going underground and their response to the closure of the pits under Thatcher’s orders. ‘Seams and Embers‘ resulted. I like that objects as well as puppets can be characters and here the ‘piece tin’ (or sandwich box) plays it’s part because the men talked about how opening their tin and having a piece of home down in the mine was so important to them.

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Still from ‘Seams and Embers’, Claire Lamond, 2012

My next larger piece, ‘Sea Front‘, was another museum based collaboration between myself and Fife Cultural Trust to make a film about World War I. Having focused on men in the mining museum, I wanted to create a story from my research that focused on women and children’s experience. I’m a bit of a geek for research and there are 173 facts from the time couched somewhere in ‘See Front’! It was fantastic to work again with my pal, Karine Polwart, to create the score. She’s a bit of a geek herself and created something beautiful based on pipe tunes of the time.

These are my main films but I have also worked with organisations such as Edinburgh Development Group and Disability History Scotland to create work for them and have just finished a music video for Glasgow artist Richard Luke working in shadow puppets which was a really lovely, peaceful process.

 

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Still from ‘Sea Front’, Claire Lamond, 2014


You use materials with a lot of texture, and this seems particularly apparent in your short film, ‘Seams & Embers’.  What does this aesthetic lend to your narratives? 

The making process is a joy for me. I keep old clothes and source specifics bits of fabric from charity shops. Stories in films capture characters at one moment in their lives but I want it to appear as though they have had a history. That they have a ‘lived in’ look. It means everything looks a bit tatty, but so do we all. Sometimes I choose textiles for a specific reason. I tend now to make my puppets’ skin from nylon tights. This started when I was making ‘Seams and Embers’ and found out that nylon was a by-product of coal.

My choice to use textiles is also a nod to women in particular’s rich history of craft. I was sent out of my sewing class at school because I kicked against doing something so ‘girly’…it’s amuses me to think how much I use fabrics and sewing now! The film I’m working on just now pushes this side to my work even further because absolutely everything is made out of fabric and threads.

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Still from ‘Sea Front’, Claire Lamond, 2014


You have significant experience in community work and continue to work with young people, sometimes from challenging backgrounds, using animation.  Can you tell us about this?

There is nothing more magical than watching someone press ‘play’ when they have just done their first second or two of animation – that ‘I’m a wizard!’ moment that even the most cynical or withdrawn person or someone with significant additional needs experiences. Often the people who are struggling the most in other aspects of their life or in the setting they find themselves in are the ones who gain the most from creating things. Using art forms to connect with people is such a powerful way of working. I think humans are natural storytellers, so running workshops is as much drawing this side out of people as it is doing the animation.


So, what’s next..?

At the moment I am working on stage visuals with singer/performer Mairi Campbell on her next show (having created the visuals for her first show, ‘Pulse’ two years ago). It’s lovely to be collaborating with a wide creative team.

By contrast, I have also just finished the making-stage and am about to begin animating my own stop motion film adapted from a story that my oldest daughter wrote about what she has learned from her sister’s unusual way of looking at the world (as well as a beautifully unique slant on things, she has autism). It feels like a very internal, personal and quiet space to be working in.

In terms of the future…well…funding….need I say more….but I hope I will be able to make more stories that are small but tell something of wider society – that’s where my love lies.

Interview by Emma Windsor

 


To find out more about Claire’s work, visit her website: www.clairelamond.com , Facebook and Vimeo Channel.  Read about her work in progress on her WordPress blog: https://clairelamond.wordpress.com

Dolly Said No to Elvis: An Interview with Heather Colbert

‘Dolly Said No to Elvis’ by Mark Nevin is the true story of Dolly Parton refusing to part with her song ‘I will always love you’ when Colonel Tom Parker wanted to take 50% of the royalties if Elvis recorded it. Luckily she later said yes to someone rather special… We spoke to Heather Colbert, who directed and animated the official music video, about her work as a stop motion animator and model maker.

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Heather Colbert working in ESCAC in Teresa near Barcelona

Can you tell us about yourself and your work as a stop motion animator and model maker. What’s your background and how did you get into animatio
n?​
I came to animation through illustration. I studied at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge; my degree was in Illustration and animation but it wasn’t until the third year that I had the opportunity to try stop motion and find my passion there. I had always loved hand made animation such as Bagpuss and The Clangers, made by Small Films. Seeing films like “The Maker” by Zealous Creative as a student made me want to create animated worlds of my own.
 
 

 

You recently directed and animated the official music video for ‘Dolly Said No to Elvis’ by Mark Nevin. Can you tell us more about this?

This was my third animation commission, and I had recently been part of an intensive stop motion workshop in Budapest, run by Joseph Wallace and Péter Vácz, so I wanted to really push myself and create something more ambitious than my first music video, Bibimbap, for Ori Dagan.  “Dolly Said No to Elvis” was created in two months, and I set up a makeshift studio in my grandmother’s dining room.

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Part of the set from ‘Dolly Said No to Elvis’
What was the most challenging part of the process of making the animation?
The short time scale was a real challenge, as I had not made 3.5 minutes of stop motion animation in two months before, but I think these intense schedules have helped improve my ‘big picture’ thinking; managing the whole project solo, and making sure it is delivered on time. (When I worked on illustrations in my degree I would very easily get lost in fine detail, which was very enjoyable, but not great for developing time keeping skills!) Also the intense and solitary nature of these projects is not very good for the mental health! So I am enjoying the different discipline of being a part of bigger projects at the moment.
 
 
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Puppet development sketches

How do you get your ideas? Who or what is your inspiration?

So far, my professional animation experiences have all been music videos, so there is a great deal of inspiration already there as a platform to build up from. But when I have had the chance to think of my own ideas, it comes from many sources. My own work has been led by what I’m curious about at the time, but music often helps me develop the initial idea. For example in my graduation film, Courage to make a Fool, I knew I wanted to make a film about a clown, but it was when I found a track by the ‘Underscore Orkestra – Egyptian Ella’ that I started to build the story – by watching what happened in my head as I listened to their ‘Klezmer’ music.
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Puppet from ‘Dolly Said No to Elvis’
Any exciting projects in the pipeline?
At the moment I am in Teresa, near Barcelona, working in ESCAC – alongside Abel Carbajal. We met at the Budapest workshop and since then we have been collaborating on the puppet design for his graduation film. I have joined him and his team out here, and I am working on building the puppets. It has been an amazing experience and I can’t wait to see the little guy in action!
 

When I get back to the UK, I feel very lucky to be part of the placement scheme at Aardman where I will spend a few weeks in the animation department.  I’m also looking forward to meeting up with the lovely community of animators in Bristol to talk about possible future projects we could work on.

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Drawing by Heather Colbert
 
 

Find out more about Heather Colbert at her website www.heather-colbert.com and keep up-to-date with her latest projects via Instagram and Twitter.

Body Talk: An Interview with Chris Pirie

Chris Pirie is Artistic Director of award-winning theatre company Green Ginger, and a resident artist at Puppet Place.  He has thirty years’ experience as a freelance designer and maker of puppetry solutions for screen and stage and is also a lecturer and researcher in puppetry for performance.  We sat down with him for a chat about his latest show in production, ‘Intronauts’, and how his work in disability performance and accessible theatre has developed since he led Interchange at Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2017.


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So how are you?  What’s new?

It’s going well.  We are now in the design and early fabrication stage of creating the next Green Ginger show.  This process will go on from now until August when we go out to Norway for a residency in the frozen wastes to finish the creation of the show.

The show is called ‘Intronauts’.  In our story, Intronauts are human beings who are charged with body maintenance.  They are miniaturised through nanotechnology and sent into the body in little vehicles that can travel around the body to maintain health.  Well, within reason; they’re not allowed to go near the brain, or anywhere there is a danger of them being excreted too early, like the bladder or mouth.

It’s quite a common technology in the future.  Everyone will have an Intronaut looking after their body.  Intronauts go into the body for two years at a time – so it’s quite a long shift.  We join our story after a new, non-human based technology has been introduced.  There are two versions: a full version that locates the Intronaut in the body and safely extracts them for enlargement.  And then there’s the budget version, which just locates and destroys the Intronaut in the body!  So there’s a dilemma for the person who is using an Intronaut.

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‘Rust’ by Green Ginger.  Chris has been keen to do a show inside the human body since ‘Rust’!

What’s the inspiration for the story come from?

Well, we’ve wanted to do something inside the body for a long time.  Ever since we made ‘Rust’ and got obsessed with submarines and travel in strange vehicles and in strange places.  So why not take a submarine into the body?  Also, we’ve drawn inspiration from classic sci-fi films from the 60s, such as ‘Fantastic Voyage’ (1966), and later ‘Innerspace’ (1987).  We’ve used those two movies in particular as our starting point.

We had initially three days of R&D here in Bristol where we went for a walk around Oldbury power station and we investigated the world of hazmat (hazardous waste handling) to see what that might mean in terms of protective clothing, protocols and the management of dodgy stuff!  (SMILES).  So, these two worlds of nanotechnology and hazmat have collided into what we hope will be a spectacular addition to the Green Ginger canon.

And there’s great opportunity for puppetry in this, of course.  We’re in a strange world inside the body and puppetry will come into its own spectacularly because we are dealing with a world where the normal rules of gravity, time and space can be messed with.  The gift of puppetry is that we can deliver this cinematic vision; we can create everything from wide-shots to intimate close-ups .  We can mess with scale, motion, gravity – we can explore how things move in viscous liquids to how a submarine might travel through a vein or any other part of the body.  It can be quite surreal and we can present an absurdist view of what the inside of the body is.  Puppetry lends itself well to that.

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We’re also exploring the use of new video projection technologies for this new show, to enable us to embed open captions.  It’s very interesting!  This is coming directly from the work that we all did for ‘Interchange’ at Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2017 and feeding into our practices at Green Ginger.  So we’re adopting the learning that came out of ‘Interchange’ and applying that in a meaningful and embedded way.

I’ve wanted to bring some of this new found learning into Green Ginger’s activities, in particular live performance, for some time, as I realise that 9 million people in the UK, that’s around one in seven, have some form of hearing deficiency.  Only half of them might be diagnosed as deaf.  The other half are people who have lost hearing through old age or a number of other reasons.

Not being diagnosed, they can choose to avoid situations like cinemas and live performances where they feel they might not enjoy that activity.  So we want to use open captioning and embed that into the fabric of the show, so it’s not like surtitles (supertitles) where you’re having to shift your eyes up above the stage to see a screen and adjust your focal length throughout a performance.  Nor is it like closed captions, where you read from a handheld device or device in the back of the seat in front of you, because these methods can be quite tiring.  So we wanted to embed these into the imagery of the show and find new ways of doing this.

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Broken Puppet 2 Symposium on Puppetry & Disability Performance, 14 – 15 Apr at Bath Spa University. Image: ‘Pupa’ by Emma Fisher

It’s clear that you have a passion for this kind of work.  We’ve already spoken about Interchange, which you head up at Bristol Festival of Puppetry, plus the work that you’re doing right now in the new show. 

Puppet Place, in association with UNIMA Research Commission and Bath Spa University, are about to hold the next Broken Puppet Symposium on 14 – 15 April at the University.  Can you tell us a bit more about that?  What’s your involvement?

The first symposium was in Ireland last year and this second one is going to be here in the UK in Bath.  I’m going to be making a short presentation, talking about ‘Interchange’ at BFP17, what we achieved and its legacy.  As I have already mentioned, some of this is being employed in my own work, but there are a couple of other interesting strands that have come out of this work.  There were two main lab based activities in ‘Interchange’. One was iPuppetry, which now has the potential to be developed further with Dave Young – a wheelchair user who describes himself as a differently-abled artist.  Dave is an amazing poet who uses Eyegaze technology to communicate, so we’re doing further experimentation with that to allow Dave to explore his idea of bringing broken access equipment to life.  This is in collaboration with Laura Kriefman (Hellion Trace) and Barry Farrimond (Open Up Music) who has created the Clarion technology that plugs into Eyegaze.  We will be fundraising to take this work further.

The other ‘Interchange’ lab explored new ways of approaching table top puppetry.  We worked with inclusive theatre company Hijinx Theatre who have an academy in Cardiff that facilitates disabled and non-disabled actors working together to produce professional performance.  There was a real appetite to revisit and continue with that work.  There is no timescale for that at the moment, and we’ll need to attract further funding to make that possible, but we’re excited to take that further.  So I will be talking a little about both of those projects and the legacy that has come out of ‘Interchange’ at the Symposium on 14 – 15 April.

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Interchange: Rethinking Table-Top (image from Diverse City (c) Dom Moore)

And at 4pm on Saturday 14 April, there will be a puppet building lab, facilitated by Nikki Charlesworth, myself and Emma Fisher.   So there’s going to be a lot going on!


You’ve a significant anniversary coming up, is that correct?

Yes!  ‘Intronauts’ will be the 21st show of our theatre company!  It’s Green Ginger’s fortieth year this year, so it feels timely to be making a new show that’s going to challenge us as theatre-makers and storytellers.  And we’ve just found out that two earlier works have been digitised as part of a project to document the highly acclaimed ‘Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater’.

Throughout the 90’s, the Jim Henson Foundation presented this festival in New York City and scoured the world for acts.  We were fortunate enough to do two festivals, and took ‘Frank Einstein’ in 1996 and ‘Slaphead’ in 1998.  The videos of the performances have now been digitised and are now available in the New York Public Library.  So that’s very exciting! We found out that news on World Puppetry Day, which was pertinent.  A nice anniversary present for Green Ginger, but more importantly it’s a wealth of material of shows from around the world that is now available in posterity.

 

Interview with Emma Windsor

 


Broken Puppet 2 Symposium on Puppetry & Disability Performance will be held on Sat 14 & Sun 15 April at Bath Spa University.  For further information and to make a reservation, visit the website: https://www.brokenpuppetsymposium.com

Green Ginger makes innovative theatre for streets and stage. Since its formation in 1978, the Company has had a commitment to puppetry in the widest sense and its members will use any tools and effects they can put their grubby little hands on to realise its surreal and absurd imagery.  To find out more about their work, visit their website, Twitter and Facebook page.

Puppetry In… ‘What is Australian Puppetry?’ Part Two

In this, the last in a two part feature about puppetry down under, notable puppeteers discuss what defines Australian puppetry and sets the scene apart from other cultures.  This article is edited by Kay Yasugi, Pupperoos (New South Wales) and General Secretary of UNIMA Australia.  The first part can be read here.

 


17952805_10158526630080114_7509519809466400408_nWhat is ‘Australian’ Puppetry? We are the world’s oldest and youngest nation. Australia is a cultural melting pot, and so is our puppetry. It seems only fitting that this article be a collection of thoughts from various puppeteers around the country – a rich and complex ‘puppet soup’, if you will.  So, below are further thoughts from notable puppeteers and other practitioners working in the puppetry sectors in Australia today:

 

Brett Hansen (Larrikin Puppets), QLD:

Over the years we’ve seen our own quirky Aussie takes on the various styles of puppetry such as marionettes, shadow puppets and even Muppet-style puppets. A lot of this is evident in unique children’s television shows such as Mr. Squiggle, The New Adventures of Blinky Bill, Lift Off and The Ferals.

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Mr Squiggle created by the late Norman Hetherington (Photo from ABC TV)

Now that television puppetry isn’t as common as it was between the 1960s and the early 1990s, puppetry in Australia today is mostly performed live at parties, schools, childcare centres, festivals and theatres.

I would consider much of Australia’s modern puppetry work to be experimental and thought provoking, with many productions tackling serious issues. These Australian puppets are often abstract and made using recycled objects. Many would consider such puppetry as “high art”, alongside ballet.

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Brett Hansen (Larrikin Puppets) with ‘Troggg’, Queensland

 

Lynne Kent (ThingMaking), VIC:

In answer to the question ‘what makes Australian puppetry?’ I would argue that it is the willingness to take risks with creating hybrid forms of puppet theatre. This hybridity gives a nod to, but is not bound by, tradition. Australian puppetry has explored and continues to investigate new technologies in both the process and the product of the work.

 

 

Tim Denton, AboutFace Productions, VIC (originally from New Zealand):

The isolation of both New Zealand and Australia means that, because often a lot of puppeteers (and people who want to be involved in Puppetry in Australia and New Zealand) only saw things from television and couldn’t have a hands-on understanding of it, they had to work it out their own way… that’s why I think Australia and New Zealand seem to be innovative, because they’ve found a different way of doing things.

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What I Leave Behind, AboutFace Productions (Annie Forbes and Tim Denton). Photo by Kay Yasugi

Annie Forbes, AboutFace Productions, VIC (originally from New Zealand):

A particular challenge facing Australian puppeteers is whose stories do they tell. At the moment, Indigenous culture is reasserting itself, reclaiming their own stories. So it’s no longer appropriate to do European versions. With the Question, ‘What is Australian Puppetry?’ you also have to ask ‘How do you express it?’, ‘Who can tell those stories?’ I think that’s a really significant issue.

Another key challenge is the digital age. People are experiencing the world in a different way through screens. Though touching screens, looking at screens, interacting with screens, and I think that poses a particular challenge to puppeteers. People are changing so they don’t necessarily think about buying a ticket to see a show. I think it’s harder and harder for puppeteers to go to schools now.

But I have to have faith that people can be charmed and beguiled by a puppet.

 

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, I’m not sure if it is possible to define what ‘Australian Puppetry’ actually is. It doesn’t have a distinctive style or aesthetic, and yet there does seem to be an Australian ‘attitude’ or ‘approach’ towards puppetry. As Sue Wallace from Sydney Puppet Theatre put it, Australian puppeteers are ‘Bower Birds’. With the absence of traditions and ‘rules’, we are free to take and adapt whatever we like. What a myriad of choices we have with our multicultural palette!

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‘Nella’s Wings’ by Sydney Puppet Theatre, New South Wales (Puppet by Sue Wallace and Steve Coupe, Photo: Brian Rapsey)

Our isolation from the rest of the world has forced us to reinvent puppetry for ourselves, and we are known to be experimenters. Although there is a lack of formal training available, we are an inventive bunch and we seek knowledge and skills where we can. There is growing interest in puppetry in education, as well as the continued presence of puppetry in theatre, film and various festivals. It would be interesting to see how this affects the development of puppetry in the future, amidst challenges of funding, training, technology, and the stories we tell as a nation and as individuals.

 

Edited by Kay Yasugi

 


Read more about Australian puppetry in the first part of this article, where notable puppetry practitioners Richard Hart Dream Puppets & President of UNIMA Australia)Richard Bradshaw, Angie Macmillan, and Dennis Murphy (Murphy’s Puppets) give their thoughts on what makes Australian puppetry great.  [More…]

 

Where to find out more about Australian Puppetry

UNIMA Australia – www.unima.org.au

UNIMA Australia is the official puppetry organisation of Australia. We welcome members from all over the world, and have regular newsletters with updates on puppetry happening around the country and abroad. For more information about membership, please go to http://mp.gg/a1u-t

ThingMaking – www.thingmaking.net

In their 2004 publication, The Space Between: The Art of Puppetry and Visual Theatre in Australia, Peter J. Wilson and Geoffrey Milne asked: “Where, then, do we think puppetry and visual theatre might go in the next twenty years?” (Wilson and Milne, 2004, 117). While it is not quite yet twenty years since this question was posed, the interviews conducted for ThingMaking (www.thingmaking.net) turn to the practice of Australian puppeteers to provide some answers. In a context of a lack of puppetry training institutes in Australia, and drastic government arts funding cuts, the interviews are presented as audio podcasts and are publicly available as an avenue to communicate this research to other professional puppet makers and performers.


Facebook Groups:

UNIMA Australia (public page)
https://www.facebook.com/UnimaOz/

Puppet Builders of Australia
https://www.facebook.com/groups/264778817340015/

Hand in Glove: Puppetry in Sydney/NSW
https://www.facebook.com/groups/314493542805/

Puppetry Melbourne
https://www.facebook.com/groups/963499166994624/

 

Review: Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining – Gyre & Gimble

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I had some reservations before taking my seat at The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for ‘Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining’.  Reworkings of masterpieces, however well considered and critically received, are always going to be provocative – and as the score was subsequently rearranged by The Globe’s Musical Director, Bill Barclay, and is Emma Rice’s final original piece of programming as Artistic Director at The Globe, this performance was never going to come neutrally packaged.

How would perhaps the most infamous work of the legendary Baroque composer, now reworked by his contemporaries, translate into modern puppet theatre?  Would it be too highbrow, too clever for its own good?  And would anything of its origins be able to reach through the considerable passage of time to us sat in the candlelight of the present moment?  Would we be able to connect?  Would we be moved?

Ahead of that hushed moment before the first act, the interior of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse began to fuse past and present – a chocolate box space that glittered and glowed, inviting us to settle in its cosy nook somewhere outside of time.  Above the stage, housed in a shallow gallery, an intimate band of musicians drew ornate melodies from their strings.  And then came the performers – a small troupe of five puppeteers, dressed in the uniform of the puppet theatre: timeless, causal, slightly-worn, all black.

The stage was set.

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As is the received wisdom in puppeteering – it all began with the breath.  Puppeteers forge their connection with the puppet by breathing with their charge, imbuing life with each respiration.  And this tethering was returned to throughout, woven into the fabric of the narrative as ground for the puppeteers to maintain the interconnectedness with both their puppets and each other that was so vital to the performance.

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Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining. Photograph: Steve Tanner

For it was clear from the outset that this was something quite special.  There is a certain quality of precision and care that marks any artistic mastery out, whatever the form.  And ‘Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining’ has it in spades.  Performed on table tops in a bunraku style, every detail of the movement was considered and conveyed with endless fluidity.

Vivaldi’s original composition is a powerful piece of music, and nothing of this emotional resonance is lost in Richter’s respectful recomposition.  It remains deeply affecting, perhaps more so, as Richter’s considerable experience in writing musical scores for film has surely honed his ability to touch modern audiences.  And despite the limitations of the version performed (only six musicians), it is still highly evocative.

It could be argued that much of the emotive landscape has already been carved out by the score, but at no point did the puppeteers rest on their laurels in this regard.  Language free, emotion expressed via a keen observation of body language was also thrown onto the puppeteers faces, for these performers were never intended to be hidden.  They were integral to the story, effortlessly morphing into narrative features such as supporting characters and even landscapes.  Scene transitions flowed with similar ease, as tables were gently swept into new positions and puppets held with the care one might an infant, always kept ‘alive’ albeit sometimes for a moment in a suspended animation.

The design was courageously simple.  The puppets had a wooden appearance (a hand painted finish) and neutral expression, with supporting props and pieces fashioned from twigs and rags, which transformed in the puppeteers’ hands into butterflies, flowers, a cat and even traumatic flashbacks from the past.  Such stripping down begs an imaginative engagement from the audience; it evokes rather than dictates, demanding far more active, less passive interaction.  And this was possibly the most controversial aspect of the performance in some respects.  As this invitation to participate, to respond to the visual cues and take your own journey with the music, may have missed its mark with some.

There is a great deal to appreciate in Gyre & Gimble’s ‘Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining’ – the masterful puppetry, the minimalist design, the incredible music and the opportunity for the audience to layer their own imagination onto the work, as these more traditional media forms, such as literature, have done for centuries.  Yet the performance is also cinematic in its vision and especially its score – epic in fact, despite the sparseness of its ingredients.

Beautifully crafted, expertly delivered.  This performance requires your attention.

Review by Emma Windsor


‘Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining’ at The Globe is on until the 21st April.  To find out more about Gyre & Gimble and their work, visit their website at: http://www.gyreandgimble.com, or Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo and Instagram feeds.   To book tickets to see the performance at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, visit the Globe’s website.

Review: Isle of Dogs – Wes Anderson

In Megasaki City outbreaks of dog flu and snout fever have persuaded the (cat loving) Mayor to quarantine all dogs on nearby ‘Trash’ island. However, 12 year old Atari defies the authorities by flying to the island to save his beloved pet ‘Spots’. There he meets a group of abandoned pooches who pledge to help him and ultimately all the dogs in the district.    


The first thing to strike me about Wes Anderson’s latest animated film, ‘Isle of Dogs’ was the colour.  From the multicoloured fluorescent pop of Megasaki city to the often muted duotones of the island landscapes, the production design has much of what I would consider, with my Western eye, a very Japanese palette.  This, in combination with the Japanese writing that adorns the imagery throughout, gives a sense of traditional graphic design, in particular Japanese art by Hokusai and Hiroshige.  Stylish, to say the least.

Although influenced by Anderson’s passion for Japanese film making, notably the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa, this is just the backdrop of a vision which is inescapably his.  It seems impossible not to draw comparisons with his other full-length animated film ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ (2009), as there is a great deal of shared ground, both in terms of style and substance.  But for me, ‘Isle of Dogs’ was the better film by far.

Talking canines aside, both films are beautifully crafted, and the puppet design repeated aesthetics from the former – notably the use of textured fur.  This approach, once shunned by stop motion animators due to the visible creeping motion left in the wake of the animator’s hands, has been popularised in recent years by directors, including Anderson.  However, in ‘Isle of Dogs’ its treatment is less distracting, as this movement has the feel of being moved by a gentle wind, rather than something more inexplicable.

Although stop motion was the main form used, 2D animation also played a significant part in the storytelling, with several sequences rendered in a simple style reminiscent of those infamous woodblocks from the Ukiyo-e genre.  In fact the 2D/3D crossover was well integrated throughout the film, with some 3D sequences shot with a very shallow depth of field, that kept characters both in the extreme foreground and mid-ground in focus, providing a flatness to the look that added to the graphical feel and nodded to Anderson’s often surreal visual treatment and off-kilter framing.  (The latter only really jarred in those compositions that placed the focal character in the extreme lower screen.)

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Still from ‘Isle of Dogs’, Wes Anderson (2018) Fox Searchlight.

In fact, it felt very much as if many devices that make for a Wes Anderson (animated) movie had been better honed for ‘Isle of Dogs’ and more carefully considered in their appropriation.  The pace and comedy was much sharper for me, and the use of middle aged American voice actors certainly grated less than some of the choices for ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’.  The slight grittiness to the humour also felt more appropriate here, although perhaps due to my own expectations (and deep affection for) Roald Dahl’s gloriously mischievous and often grotesque sense of humour, which is in a stark contrast with Anderson’s more adult, dead-pan wit.

However, although I preferred ‘Isle of Dogs’ to its predecessor, I do wonder how Japanese audiences might respond.  Certainly part of the (slight) disappointment with Anderson’s ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ for me was that both the book and its author hold a special place in my childhood and sense of identity.  And although ‘Isle of Dogs’ is an original story, criticisms of its portrayal of Japanese culture have been voiced.

It was certainly exciting to watch a film in which another language is more equivalently represented, and as I cannot speak a word of Japanese, this felt positively intriguing and orientated me more closely to the dogs’ point-of-view.  I also understood that the use of an English language speaking character was useful as the ‘meat’ of the narrative unfolded (as lovely as the translation devices were, these were far more time consuming and could have slowed the pace unappealingly as the story arced.)  However, it wasn’t necessary for a white American to take centre stage, and it did feel somewhat contrived, as if pandering too far to a producer’s anxiety about whether the key demographic would ‘get it’.

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Wes Anderson with the puppets from ‘Isle of Dogs’ (2018)  Fox Searchlight.

Is ‘Isle of Dogs’ a family film?  I’m not sure there’s a straight-forward answer.  It’s rated PG, has no particular violence or sexual innuendo, and has many genuinely heartfelt moments that will appeal to kids.  However it is quite complex is some respects, so might better suit older children who can appreciate more sophisticated storytelling.  Overall, ‘Isle of Dogs’ is a highly appealing film, with a clever, stylish visualisation and warm characterisation that left me excited for any future feature-length animation that Wes Anderson and his team might create.

 

Review by Emma Windsor

 


‘Isle of Dogs’ is in cinemas nationwide and will screen at Watershed, Bristol until at least 12 April.  Find screening times and book your tickets at the website.  View the ‘Isle of Dogs’ official trailer, behind-the-scenes with the voice actors and animator ‘making of’ on YouTube.