Yana and the Yeti: An Interview with Dik Downey, Pickled Image

Dik Downey is co-director, performer and puppet-maker of award-winning puppet theatre company, Pickled Image.  Their latest production, ‘Yana and the Yeti’ is a dark fairytale in the vein of previous works, which tells the story of a lonely little girl and the monster who befriends her.  We caught up with Dik on his way back from Norway, where the team have been developing the show. 

Hi Dik, so what’s new..?

Well, I just got back from Norway.  Tomorrow they’re doing a try-out dik_downeyrun though for a school of ten year olds in Norway (our target audience is 5+).  ‘Yana and the Yeti’ is a very beautiful, sad, funny and thought-provoking show about a young girl who comes from somewhere else, arriving in a small, remote, snow-bound village in the middle of nowhere.  Nobody understands anything she says, and she doesn’t understand them either.  The story is about her trying to be accepted and come to terms with her life as it is.

In the process, she gets lost in the forest and meets a very unexpected character… Well maybe not that unexpected as it is in the title, ‘Yana and the Yeti’ (laughs).  It is a tale about how isolated you can be until you actually start being understood and making friends.

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You took a team out to Norway to produce the show…?

Yes.  It started off in Bristol with a team of puppet-makers, which was myself (Dik Downey), Emma Powell, Lizzie Johnson, Katie Hood and two volunteers, James and Harry.  So we made the majority of the puppets and tiny village houses for the set here.  We then shipped the puppets and set pieces out to Norway in three flight cases.  Emma Powell and I then flew out to Norway with Dean Sudron, who is the lighting designer. There we were met by Linda Anneveld, who came over from Holland.  Linda, who used to work with a company called ‘The Lunatics’ made the costumes for ‘Coulrophobia’, so we were familiar with her work.  Her role was to make the costumes for the puppets in ‘Yana’, which was something that she’d never done before.  She loved it and made some exquisite costumes.

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After the first fortnight, the rest of the crew joined us:  Vicky Andrews (performer and co-director of Pickled Image), Emma Lloyd (Director), Nicky Warwick (performer), Adam Fuller (performer), Adam D J Laity (filmmaker/photographer), Simon Preston (composer) and Hattie Naylor, (writer) came also.  Adam Laity came with us to shoot images for stage projection on location.  Part of the show has a mountain and this image changes throughout the show depending on the time of day and weather conditions.  It was quite magical.

What was the development process of the production..?

Vicky and I came up with the original concept, then had meeting with Hattie Naylor and Adam Fuller (who knows our works very well, as he has performed in and written quite a few of our shows.)  Between the four of us we came up with a rough idea of the storyboard, which Vicky and I drew out.  That gave us a template to work from.  We then made the puppets and took them out to Norway.

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With hindsight, we could have done a bit more R&D in the UK to work out the story further because the team have had to do a lot of that whilst in Norway.  If we’d spent a bit more time in preparation here it might have been a bit smoother over there.  When we got there, we needed to make changes.  For example, we were going to use a lot more film footage such as scenes from point-of-view perspective using this miniature set that we’d built.  However, when we were there we decided that we didn’t want to do that as it would take away from the majesty of the mountain that was being projected throughout.  To project other images on top of it would have diminished this.

Another aspect that we didn’t fully understand was the complexity of timelapse photography.  When you see it used on ‘Plant Earth’, for example, it has taken months and hundreds of thousands of pounds worth if kit to achieve!  Adam has done a fantastic job making a beautiful final image, so that was good.

Being there, in Norway, and being surrounded by snow all the time did give you that ‘feel’.  It probably influenced Simon more than anyone else as he spent a lot of time outdoors doing field recordings of sound, such as the wind, which we used in the show.


The photos of the performance that I’ve seen look really cinematic…

Yes.  We’ve got these tiny puppets, which we were worried might be too small in the theatre but we think it will work in the sense that it is very cinematic.  Dean’s lighting is just so brilliant also; it really pinpoints this tiny little village and gives a wonderful look.  All the houses have lights inside; there are tiny little streets lights and a mountainscape behind it the lights up beautifully.  I think in a proper theatre with a blacked-out environment you’ll see all those tiny details because it is so focused.

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We use split images as well.  So in the village you will see a tiny Yana puppet standing underneath a street light, which ‘cuts’ to a table where you see a bigger Yana under a larger street light.

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So yes, it does have quite a cinematic feel and is aesthetically beautiful.  But the story is also very engaging.  Hattie has gone out of her way to make sure people cry… And then laugh!  It is quite emotionally heart tugging, as well as warming.

Interview by Emma Windsor


Yana and the Yeti’ will tour the UK throughout the summer.   For further information about the show and Pickled Image Theatre Company, keep an eye on their Facebook page or visit the Pickled Image website: http://pickledimage.co.uk  

Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant: An Interview with Suraya Raja

 Suraya Raja is an a director, animator and writer.  Her latest film, ‘Don’t Think Of A Pink Elephant’ enters the world of a teenage girl, Layla, who fights daily against compulsive thoughts and urges.  We sat down with Suraya to find out why puppet stop-motion appeals and what it can lend to this kind of filmmaking. 


suraya_rajaWhat is your background?  How did you come to be involved in stop-motion animation?  What is the appeal for you?

When I was a kid I used to write a lot. My Mum was a librarian and I really wanted to be an author. At the same time I was really influenced by my Gran. She was awarded a scholarship to go to art school, but she had to leave because of the war, and a lot of my family had been stonemasons, carpenters, and various types of crafts people. She had a lot of their old tools, and whenever I saw her we used to spend all our time making things.

Later on I took a degree course in Visual Communications at Leeds College of Art & Design, where I started to make documentaries, in which I used puppetry and object manipulation to tell stories. After this I went on to work as an artist on residencies and commissions, including a residency at Atlantic Center for the Arts in the USA, where I met a lot of filmmakers and puppeteers.

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Still from: “Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant”

 

It was whilst I was working with the Art House and English Nature that I discovered Czech and Eastern European puppet animation, which really inspired me. I realised that puppet animation is something that incorporates all of the things I love – story telling, film, characters and making things. I started to teach myself puppet making and took the 3 month animation course at UWE in Bristol. Living in Bristol, I was in a really interesting place in terms of exposure to puppetry and animation, and I supported Puppet Place during one of the festivals as a press writer. It was great and meant I got to see several shows. I also started to work in the animation industry, primarily in puppet making and model making for TV, commercials and film.

During my degree course and alongside my freelance work I had worked in homelessness, psychology, offending and substance use. I am really interested in how we think and behave.  I have an interest in stories, which inhabit the internal, of mental health, perception and the comedy of human behaviour and interaction. Often my ideas come from social interactions in the mundanity of every-day life, and sometimes from my background in this type of work.

It was my desire to tell stories that led me to going back into education and take the
Directing Animation course at the National Film & Television School.

 

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Still from: “Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant”

 

You recently directed the animated short film “Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant“, which is currently on the international film festival circuit.  What is the film about? Why did you choose puppet stop-motion to tell the story?

‘Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant’ is about a teenage girl learning to cope with intrusive thoughts; the kind of thoughts we all experience, like the thought of stabbing someone with a fork, or the urge to jump from a high place. The main character, Layla, fights daily against these thoughts, terrified by her potential to do harm.

The film is actually about her experience of puro OCD, a form of OCD that is less known about, whilst not being explicit that this is a film about a mental health issue. Generally unspoken of, intrusive thoughts like these are something we all experience. My intention was to present these thoughts, often bizarre, taboo and funny, in a way that we can relate to, and to then reveal the more serious and distressing nature of the problem for Layla. I also wanted to really get across the internal thoughts as they might be experienced, through the use of mixing animation with live action, and through the use of physical textures and sound.

I chose puppet stop-motion, partly because this is the technique I really enjoy working in, but also because it seemed a really good way to make an environment of multiple textures. The puppets are made to have a ‘skin-look’, whilst everything about the puppets and in the set is very textured. Apart from the sharp metal objects, everything else is soft, the idea being that this contrast will make the sharp objects more noticeably sharp. Hopefully the textures make the audience sense the feel, or the tactility of everything, so that the live action parts have a greater impact.

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Still from: “Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant”

 

I chose to use live action as the language for the internal thoughts. I wanted to give screen time to the internal thoughts without leaving the audience confused or tricked. It was also a sharp contrast to the puppet world and felt unpleasantly explicit.

 

Was it important to you that the central character, Layla, was female? Do you think that women have different stories to tell through stop motion?

I have a tendency to write more of my stories with a female as the main character and perhaps that’s because I’m female. I do think it’s important that we see more women on the screen, and as lead characters, as currently this ratio in film does not reflect society – by far.  I really do think that what we see on screen has a strong influence on our perceptions of people and what they can be, whether it’s gender or race, etc.  I think women may have different stories to tell, or that more stories could be told from a female perspective, and I’m always really interested in watching films that appear to be doing that.

 

What’s next in the pipeline?

I am really interested in working in story development and in animating.  However, at the same time I intend to continue working on my own ideas. I am currently developing a new project, which is a stop-motion adult series and am also pitching some ideas for children.

 

Interview by Emma Windsor

 


For more information about Suraya Raja and her work, visit her website: https://www.surayaraja.com/ and Vimeo Channel: https://vimeo.com/suraya

‘Crafted: The Art of Making’: A Documentary with Jan Zalud

Crafted: The Art of Making is a web series project that sprung into my head at a film festival. I have a continually growing interest and enthusiasm for crafts and the idea of making things by hand. In particular, how I could capture this on screen in a novel way and bring it to an audience artistically. I want to create films that championed ‘makers’ and beautifully showed their skill, without it having to be described. This series of films features no interviews, no narration and no music. Purely observational in style, detailing the various stages in the creation of an object, whether it an art or craft.”

Jacob Hesmondhalgh, Filmmaker

 


About the artist: Jan Zalud, puppet maker

Prague, where I was born, is dotted with puppet shops and theatres. Puppets and puppet-making seem to be part of the culture, and maybe that helped me to choose my path. It’s hard to know what came first – my fascination with wood, and what can be made from it, or my love of puppets and all things moving, such as automata. Obviously, the combination of the two wins every time.

When I started making puppets for the theatre, a majority of them were marionettes operated by traditional string controls. Other styles I made have included glove and rod puppets, bunraku/table top style puppets, and even some shadow puppets. Although a large proportion of the theatre puppets and props I have made have been for the Little Angel Theatre, I have also done work for, among others, The Royal Shakespeare Company, Treasure Trove Puppet Company, Theatre Rites, Theatre de Complicite, PuppetCraft, Almeida Theatre, and Simon Buckley Puppets.

About the filmmaker: Jacob Hesmondhalgh

After graduating with Kingston University with a degree in filmmaking, I started working on film sets, initially as a runner, and developing my portfolio as and when I could. Now, I work with various businesses to create promotional films and online content as well as producing work for art galleries in the north of England.

These ‘Crafted’ films I weave into my spare time, but the reception from them has felt really positive. I’m hoping to finish one at least every couple of months. I’m currently working for Lakeland Arts and their MOLLI Gallery will be expanding and adding two of my films for permanent display, one of which came from the first of these Crafted projects, set on Oak Swill Basket Weaver, Owen Jones.


To view the other films in the ‘Crafted: The Art of Making’ series, visit Jacob’s Youtube Channel.  To find out more about Jan Zalud and his work, visit his website: www.janzalud.co.uk

Puppetry Is Dead. Long Live Puppetry!

Puppet Place CEO and Co-Producer of the Bristol Festival of Puppetry, Rachel McNally, ponders what is puppetry?  What does puppetry mean to us and our sense of humanity? In fact, why does it matter at all..?   


AAEAAQAAAAAAAAOFAAAAJDc3MjVjNjg1LTEyYjUtNDY5ZS05Y2JlLTY3YzVlMzgyNjZkZQ“My interest in puppetry first came about as a result of seeing Green Ginger’s show, Slaphead in Bristol many years ago. It was the first time I really came into contact with the uncanny and unnerving quality of puppets. After many years of enjoying theatre, I had discovered something different. This quality of difference is something I am still fascinated by today and continue to discuss with my colleagues at Puppet Place including Chris Pirie (Director of Green Ginger and now Co-Producer at Bristol Festival of Puppetry) and Dik Downey (Pickled Image Co-Director and Slaphead of the show).

I gave a talk a few years back at Bath Spa University. Has The Popularity of War Horse Killed Off Innovation In UK Puppetry?

I argued that War Horse was not a puppetry show but a show with puppets, with the puppets used as an inspired tool as part of a broader theatrical language to tell a story.  I then went on to try and define what I thought a puppetry show is – not entirely successfully – what I was trying to articulate was that form drives content and vice versa.

The examples of this I would cite are:

The Paper Cinema, who use cut out illustrations with music and a narrative technique akin to that of a film editor to create their shows: diving in and out of their illustrations via a live feed from a camera to a projector screen. As with all puppetry, the act of seeing how the “trick” of bringing the illustrations to life is achieved amplifies rather than diminishes the illusion.

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The Paper Cinema, ‘live animation’ – cut out hand drawn illustrations animated live under a camera and projected. Picture credit: Paper Cinema.

Count To One, directed by Zaha Sabri. Inspired by the poetry of Omar Khayyam, the show is set in a dreamscape made up of circles of potters’ wheels. In the show, three soldiers put down their weapons and give their dreams life through the spinning of the wheels and the constant moulding of the clay by their hands. One memorable scene shows a woman’s journey from girl to mother: meeting her lover at a party, making love, becoming pregnant, giving birth, nurturing her child. What makes this so powerful is the constant transferral of the clay from mother to the son as the one ages and the other grows from child to man. There is no sentimentality, it is a beautifully crafted piece of puppetry made poignant and subversive by the strict censorship of Iran.  In a country where women and men cannot touch in public, this type of puppetry offers a subtle challenge.

Dafa Puppet Theatre’s The Smooth Life uses found and everyday objects to tell the story of Husam Abed, a Palestinian boy growing up in a Jordanian refugee camp. Husam is performing his own life story for us as we sit around the dinner table waiting for the pot to boil. The show starts with Husam lovingly placing grains of rice on the table to show us his family and where they all are on a map of Palestine, with each grain of rice we get a little glimpse of their character. Time inevitably passes and the moment comes when Husam sweeps the rise from the table with the simple words, “and then this happened”. Throughout the show, Husam invests simple objects with a rich symbolism to drive the story and to highlight the value of things in our society and what it means when you have nothing and no society.

From these examples, for me at least, I’m clear that puppetry is much broader and more interesting than any one particular form and I no longer want to talk about the boundaries and outer edges. In my role as Puppet Place’s CEO I have endless discussions and comments with funders, filmmakers, puppeteers, audiences, theatres on any of these themes:

“Puppets are marionettes. No, a stop-motion model isn’t a puppet. A show with a toy train is not a puppet show. I want my money back.”

I think I’m done with this now! So to re-frame my title… Puppets Are Dead. Long Live Puppetry! Here at Puppet Place, we’ve taken Penny Francis’s definition that puppetry is the “art of bringing the inanimate to life” and made that the beating heart of what we do. This is reflected in the practice of our community ranging from creative robotics, to stop motion and theatrical puppetry and how we programme Bristol Festival of Puppetry.

But why does any of it matter?  This is the part I always struggle to articulate, but I’ll give it another go…
pull_outs_01If a lump of clay, a slab of meat, an illustration on a stick or an exquisitely crafted marionette can all be understood to convey meaning and create empathy with an audience, this tells us something important about puppetry.  “Puppetry” has a unique metaphorical voice, a narrative of materiality which enables us to communicate in ways that are different to conventional language and verbal reasoning. To restrict it to being a “theatrical tool” is to diminish its power and limits ourselves as human beings. I realise that’s quite a claim.

So why is puppetry important to our sense of humanity?

As human beings, we communicate in so many ways. As conscious beings we talk, we reason verbally, we listen, we articulate. Much of this type of communication is based on an assumed common language – it may be English, French, Farsi or Jargon. However, as we know, these languages are also barriers if you don’t have them. So if you don’t have a common language how do we communicate – is it possible? Yes, but you have to rely on other forms that are often part of our more unconscious forms of physical expression e.g. gesture, movement, expression, physical stance, breath.

From firsthand experience, when I was part of the jury for Puppet Is A Human Too Festival in Warsaw where the common language was Russian (which I do not speak), I can tell you it is possible.  It’s much harder but immensely rewarding.  In this situation, we are having to work harder on both sides of the conversation to understand and be understood, to create meaning and it forms a common bond. We have to forgive confusion, accept we might be interpreted differently and be patient with each other. Be empathetic. Hierarchy and status go out the window – it doesn’t matter who you are, how many languages you speak, how linguistically confident you are, everyone is on the same level. And I think this is a similar process to what happens with puppetry. As the art of bringing the inanimate to life, we are imbuing “objects” with a gesture, movement, expression, stance and breath to create meaning. We are making ourselves as audiences and puppeteers work harder to communicate.

pull_outs_02We are asking each other to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be through puppetry and in doing this we are starting to think slightly differently, to make intuitive leaps of the imagination and leave ourselves open. In this interpretation, puppetry is an amazing methodology to make us into better people. It’s also fun and there is literally a “puppetry object” to suit everyone, whether it’s a turnip, a robot or a giant horse puppet. It also works in all settings from theatres to cinemas, it works in libraries, it works in labs, on the street, in the digital realm, anywhere. It’s a universal theory of everything.

The art of bringing the inanimate to life becomes a way to bring humanity together and think differently and this feels very important. Our political and social landscape is very volatile at the moment. There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty about the future, there is an upturn in racism since the EU Referendum and we continue to face economic conditions that hurt the most vulnerable in our society. It is precisely these groups that puppetry is best placed to help and support. It can communicate these different stories in our society and do so in a way that gets under our skin and makes us want to understand.

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Bristol Festival of Puppetry Carnival.

But what is the role of the artist/puppeteer in all this?

Facilitators, workshop leaders, etc….Well yes, but to confine artists in this way is reductive and rather boring. I think there is potentially a different role, much more challenging, but much more exciting. I think it’s always been there, but we need to be explicit. ‘Artists’, ‘Puppeteers’, ‘Creatives’ – whatever your terminology – I think we can define them as:
Ambassadors of Ideas.

As with artists, an ambassador’s role is varied. Sometimes it’s doing the fun stuff, going to parties, handing round the chocolates. However, there is also a tougher job, keeping lines of communication open with people whose views are opposite to your own, creating deals and agreements that allow for great co-operation and stepping into dangerous territory and keeping the peace.

As ambassadors of ideas, I would like to see all of us who think of ourselves as artists, puppeteers, creatives and producers keeping the fun, but also really owning up to that responsibility to keep the ideas flowing, challenging prejudice, stepping into that dangerous territory and creating opportunities for communication and empathy where none exist.

If we are living in an “alternative fact” society and there is no longer a common language, then puppetry is the perfect way to communicate, to bring us together and make us human to ourselves and each other again.

By Rachel McNally, April 2017.


Rachel McNally is CEO at Puppet Place and Co-Producer of the Bristol Festival of Puppetry.  She has previously worked as a producer and tour booker for Full Beam, Pickled Image, Stuff & Nonsense Theatre Company and The Devil’s Violin Company.  More information about Puppet Place can be found on our  website at: www.puppetplace.org

Folk-Art, Storytelling and Technology: An Interview with Becca Rose

Becca Rose is an artist, designer and educator based in Bristol, UK.  She has a Master’s Degree in Design Education from Goldsmiths College, University of London and she works as a lecturer in media art and design at the University of the West of England.  We sat down with her to chat about her background, why puppetry appeals to her and how handcrafts and electronics can produce innovative new artworks.


What is your background? How did you get involved in puppetry? 

I would say that my practice ibecca_roses interdisciplinary. My work includes and involves puppetry, but also has many other cross-overs. I find it hard to pin down my work into a category.  I studied Literature and Art in Leeds, and about 6 months after I graduated (in 2009),  I started to develop work with Corina Bona and Roseanne Wakely.

Together we started a participatory and interactive puppetry company called “Gongoozler”. Our work was part performance, part storytelling, and part workshop and we made shows mostly in Bristol (at the Cube, Wardrobe, for the Harbourside).

 

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Gongoozler at the Parlour Show Rooms.
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Gongoozler interactive puppetry at the Wardrobe Theatre.

One key way in which puppetry has been transformative to my practice was through a research trip I made to India. In 2012, I received an international development fund from the Arts Council to travel to India. I thought I was going to explore Keralan shadow puppetry. But what I ended up learning about was the breath and diversity in the artefacts people used to tell stories visually there. The trip helped me to understand that puppetry is one way of telling stories through objects, and since I have been exploring the connections between stories and the way we engage with their physical artefacts in a number of ways.

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Odisha shadow puppetry.

 

Your practice is strongly aligned with educational processes. What led you to connect education with puppetry?  What insights have you found?

I started teaching arts workshops at the same time as making artistic work, so for me, teaching and creative practice are intertwined. Saying that I have started to think more broadly about my role as an educator in recent years. I think there are huge issues with the education system as it stands, and in 2015 I spent a year doing an MA at Goldsmiths in Design Education. I did this because I wanted to learn more about learning, and about how we design learning. My understanding of how people learn was based on tacit knowledge I gained from teaching for 10 years. And on the MA I was able to underpin the knowledge I already had through practice with a theoretical framework.

 

You also describe yourself as working on projects in crafts and electronics. How does the handmade relate to electronics? What have you discovered?

In about 2011, whilst making interactive puppetry with Gongoozler and teaching, I started working with David McGoran from Rusty Squid.  I participated in one of their Arduino workshops. For me, this was so amazing. I discovered that objects could be interactive on a whole new level: through automation. I started to explore what this meant when it came to storytelling, and how objects that tell stories could come to life in new ways. I explored books, and shadow puppets, and illustrations, and interactive all sorts of things… And I am still exploring!

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Experiments with books and automated animation.

It turns out the world of interactive books is quite small, and it wasn’t long until I started collaborating with computer scientist Natalie Freed and Engineer Jie Qi (who are both brilliant practitioners in that field and I feel very privileged to have worked with them.) I was part of Jie’s research project at MIT, and developed a bookbinding class called
“e-lumiated books” with Natalie.

 

What are you currently working on?  What would you like to explore next?

I’m currently developing a mobile platform that allows creators to make stories across digital and physical spaces called “Bear Abouts”.  I started working on this a few years ago as a way to explore the crossover between physical artefacts and digital storytelling. I was interested in the embodied nature of storytelling, and how to bring this to digital space. And although I am exploring the human-commuter interaction side of things, there are still a lot of links with the puppetry (craft, animation, bringing inanimate objects to life, video games, interactivity.)

Bear Abouts_Photocredit-Ben Peter Catchpole
Bear Abouts. Picture: Ben Peter Catchpole.

 

I suppose due to my interest in learning, the project has grown more into a way of connecting people, and learning from each other through the stories that are told with the platform. This has taken me down an education route. I also went to Bett a couple of years ago and was shocked by the number of educational apps that were grounded in Behaviourist learning methods. I was horrified by the direction of mobile apps for learning -many of them were based on reward systems, rather than engaging in creative learning experiences. In Bear Abouts I’m trying to explore a way to bring some of the learning experiences I developed whilst teaching with puppetry to a digital framework.

Currently, I’m working with a Unity developer to develop Bear Abouts further. I’m being supported by Innovate UK, and about to start a 2-month residency, where I am inviting three artists (puppeteers, interactive story makers and illustrators) to develop stories with the platform. I’m also partnering with a school in North Bristol. This all kicks of in early April, so watch this space for more details.

We’ll be looking for people to test out the platform as it develops so please get in touch if you are interested or have any questions – hello[at]beccarose.co.uk

 

Interview by Emma Windsor


To find out more about Becca Rose and her work, visit her website at http://www.beccarose.co.uk, Twitter or Vimeo Channel.

A Life in Puppetry: An Interview with Ronnie Le Drew

As a member of The British Puppet & Model Theatre Guild myself, it is indeed an honour to have been asked by our editor Emma Windsor to interview our new President, Ronnie Le Drew, for the Puppet Place Newsletter.  His record of achievement and successes in the world of puppets, gained over a lifetime in the business, is inspirational. As a performer, theatre maker, director and teacher, he has performed at festivals, theatres, in film and on television from where he is probably best know for being Zippy from Rainbow. His new, crowd-funded book, ‘Zippy & Me’ is a delightful and fascinating peek behind the scenes of a much loved iconic puppet show.

Interview by Stephen B Watters

You have had a hand in, if you’ll pardon the pun, a great many of the abiding memories of my childhood through your work with puppets. It appears puppetry has a timeless, magical appeal for audiences of all ages. Why do you think that is?

dsc_1442Puppets, like dolls, have a link to everybody’s childhood. We probably spoke our most private thoughts to our dolls or teddy bears even before telling our parents. That makes them a very important part of our early lives.  When we grow up we are reminded of this fact when we see a puppet show. The strong characters and stories take us back to that time, which in most cases is a positive experience. As adults watching puppets perform we are reminded subconsciously of those childhood memories.

We live in a very nostalgic age where television and film has prolonged the puppet influence in our lives. The repeats of puppet programmes, the building of puppet theatres, the many puppetry organisations such as your own at Puppet Place, as well as puppets being used in mainstream theatre, keeps the magical appeal of the puppet alive. Long may it last.

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You have recently been elected to President of BPMTG and are a recipient of their prestigious Harlequin Award.  What are your plans and ambitions for the Guild as president?

I was delighted to be unanimously voted the new President of BPMTG. As a 14 year old child, I first became a member and to be asked to be President of the oldest puppet organisation in the world, is indeed an honour. I would like to see BPMTG expand its membership, (I think all presidents would say this.)  We now have a Facebook page, which has helped membership enlarge and our new website has lots of links of interest plus video clips of recent happenings. Well worth a look !

I am very pleased that the Guild’s meetings are not London-centric, but are spread all over the country which gives opportunities for all members to meet. Our membership has both young and older members and it’s always a pleasure to see the older more experienced sharing their knowledge with the youngest.

We are celebrating 92 years of the Guild this year and have a number of events planned to celebrate this significant event. You can find out more about them by looking at the website or becoming a member and receiving our bi-monthly newsletter and wonderful magazine, ‘The Puppet Master’.

I am also delighted our archivist Michael Dixon was able to show some of the Guild’s collection in a room given to us by the Bantock House Museum in Wolverhampton. Starting off with the wonderful Lanchester marionettes then an exhibition called ‘Puppets and the World of Mr Punch’. Performances were given and the collaboration continues. News will be published in the Guild’s newsletter.

zippy-and-me-26th-april-2016

Your association with the Little Angel Theatre has been as long, if not longer, than your association with the BPMTG. May I ask about your work with this theatre, especially the work you do with disadvantaged communities and artist development?

1235379_303147893159676_425096219_nActually, I was a Guild member before I discovered the Little Angel Theatre. Way back in June 1963 I had my first visit to the theatre. After seeing the show and meeting the puppeteers, I knew this was not only what I wanted to do as a hobby, but as a full time job.

In July 1963 I started my professional career as a puppeteer. 53 years later, I share the role of Honorary Associate with Lyndie Wright. My main work in the theatre, when I’m not performing in shows, is teaching on the many adult classes, particularly the foundation course, as well as specific courses on operating puppets which is my forte.  The foundation course is for adults, but under the Little Angel banner, I have visited schools and colleges around the country so cover all age groups.

The theatre holds a regular Summer party open to the local community. I am often to be found there having a fantastic time demonstrating puppets.  The theatre provides disability concessions and companion tickets, wheel chair space and has relaxed and captioned performances. I’m not full time at the Little Angel, as the policy of the theatre regarding puppeteers is we work on a freelance basis.

One of the new ideas we are trying this year is an evening for people to come to London’s Hidden Gem, where I am on hand to show clips of the theatre’s archive from its start to the present day. Visitors get to meet the puppets and a tour of the theatre, finishing off with a glass of wine. The 20th February and 14th March are the dates planned so far.

What advice would you offer to new and emerging puppet artists?

dsc_1441I had an advantage as a young puppeteer living in London because of the existence of the Guild and The Educational Puppetry Association, which later became The Puppet Centre.  It enabled me to visit these organisations to find out more about puppetry.

Today we have the internet for artists to find who and where their nearest puppet organisation is. Go see them, get involved. Puppeteers UK is a also great place to find like minded puppeteers and performers.   See as many shows as you can. If you are brave enough, go backstage and talk to the puppeteers, but try not to get in their way if they are packing up.

Visit libraries and museums. Most have puppets in their collections. Search social media for groups  you can join. The internet is a wonderful tool for today’s up and coming puppeteers. But don’t forget see live puppet performances to really ignite your passion.


For more information about Ronnie, visit his website, Facebook and Twitter.  Keep up-to-date with news about his forthcoming book ‘Zippy & Me’ at unbound.com and find out more about his own and other forthcoming puppet performances and events at the Little Angel Theatre’s website.  You can also find out more and join the British Puppet & Model Theatre Guild via their website.

Micro-Puppet Man of the Moment: An Interview with Barney Dixon

Barney Dixon has recently taken the internet by storm with his highly innovative and astonishing micro-puppetry.  His videos, which have reached millions of viewers worldwide, are charming vignettes that feature his characters Dabchick, Raptor and MANU.  He also joined us for our Generator 16 fundraiser event last year, where he and his dinosaur entertained our enchanted audience.  We caught with him to find out where his fascination with puppetry stems from, how he comes up with his designs and what might be next for him and his extraordinary creations.

 

b-dixon_croppedWhat is your background?  Where does the fascination with puppetry come from?

My professional background is in stop-motion animation, my shift to puppetry has been relatively recent. My interest in both comes from a similar place, which is (in part) a fascination with movement. However puppetry can be created in real time, which is a new and exciting concept for me.

 

 

You create smaller puppets with unconventional mechanisms, often involving your hands.  How did this come about?  How do you come up with these ideas?

People use their hands a lot and practice regularly with them in their day to day tasks. Designing puppets that fit (or partially consist of) our own hands, capitalizes on our skill with them. The scale of the puppets is a result of that approach. The unconventional mechanisms I use might be partially a result of lack of knowledge regarding conventional puppetry mechanics, this forces me to be creative. Also my understanding of stop-motion armature construction (although not entirely the same) does help.

In terms of coming up with ideas and concepts, it usually starts with my hands.  What shapes and actions they can make with relative comfort and is there a particular form this could lend itself to. Ideas can also come in the construction process. The aim is always to make the puppet as dynamic as possible, in its articulation and movement possibilities.

 

 

You had some stellar success online recently when a video of one of your creations went viral.  How did that feel?  What plans do you have in the pipeline ?

I was certainly surprised, although there are many controllable factors that make a video go viral, the final (and most important) one is luck. The experience was overwhelmingly positive in every way you might expect. However it’s not an easy thing to go through, especially as suddenly as it all happened. People were trying to contact me constantly, and the motives weren’t always that clear. My inbox and brain space was full to bursting for about two weeks and sleeping for that time was also a challenge. I don’t generally focus on the negatives but it’s a side of the experience that was really unexpected, so perhaps worth mentioning for that fact.

This set the ball rolling for a lot of opportunities that seem to be coming my way, many of which are still confidential. However I can now tell you that I took part in a televised international puppetry competition called ‘Die Puppenstars’, that was aired on the German RTL network in late January.

Interview by Emma Windsor

 

 


You can keep up with Barney’s work via his YouTube Channel and support him via his Patreon page.  He’s also to be found on Facebook and Twitter.