Josh Elwell talks to Emily Morus-Jones, the creator and curator of Puppets at the Pop-Up Palladium – an extraordinary online live puppetry variety/magazine show with illustrious guests and performances, produced from Emily’s home in Wales.
Where did you first conceive the idea of ‘Puppets at the Pop-Up Palladium‘ and what were the steps that you took in order to start the ball rolling?
The idea came about through watching the success of an old friend of mine who is a successful Welsh Comedian, move her gigs online during the first wave of lockdown. The online gigs that she organised were helping performers twofold by both providing them with some paid work and the opportunity to have a gig to prepare and perform at, i.e. do what they do at a time when there was no work, which helps with your mental health as a performer in addition to the financial benefits. It was also making audiences aware of the comedians’ plight where, because of the pandemic, they were staring down the barrel of a year of no work but still had to negotiate the cost of living. I thought, if it can work for comedy, then why not puppetry?
To get the ball rolling and make this idea happen I needed an amount of capital to invest in the creating the necessary infrastructure, which having been fresh from finishing the course at the Curious School Of Puppetry in Falmouth, I simply did not have. In the time of a pandemic where performers, puppeteers and freelancers working in the entertainment industry had seen their livelihoods stripped away by the lockdown restrictions, I did not want to be another person asking them to work for free (a particularly weird phenomenon in my opinion.) So I relegated the idea to that of a pipe dream and went about supporting my family in Wales.
It was then that the Welsh Arts Council announced that they were offering Stability Fund for individuals impacted by the pandemic. I met he criteria because I had rinsed all my savings in studying, finishing just in time to lockdown and was supporting my Mum who has an auto-immune disease. This meant I could not seek work without being a risk to her, so I applied and much to my shock and surprise, was granted the funds that I was asking for.
In this bizarre time where theatres are closed and live performance is having to adapt and adjust to completely new ways of working, you have attempted to do something entirely new. An online live puppet variety show may not have happened before! What have been the main challenges? Also what do you feel are the main things that you have learned or gained from the project?
There have been so many challenges on this project! First of all I am incredibly lucky to have received support from the girls behind Cardiff Animation Festival – Lauren Orme and Ellys Donovan in particular – without whom I just wouldn’t have been able to do it because the complexities of orchestrating this kind of event over Zoom would have been a nightmare to learn alongside everything else I was doing.
The main challenge I have encountered has been the volume of work, which I had never done before. It felt like with every hoop I managed to jump through to get the show going, another layer of work to do was added. It started with writing a funding proposal (which I had never done before), getting the funding (which I had never done before ), emailing all the acts to say you’ve got the funding, then finding freelancers to help you make press materials and the necessary digital infrastructure (which I had never done before.)
Once I’d done all that, I had to find a publicist and go about publicising everything (which I hadn’t done before) until we were ready to launch where you get a momentary sigh of relief. But then you have the mammoth task of generating enough ticket sales to keep the event going, paying everyone and chasing up publicity and acts for the next shows (which was also completely new.) This was all before I had even began to consider my own performance! There’s a reason roles like Producer, Director, Performer, Set Builder, Writer, and Production Manager are separate and I’ve certainly found a new respect for the people working in them!
All that aside, I think the biggest challenge has been finding our audience. This project, like a lot of my work, has been experimental. The key difference I have found between puppetry and comedy is that there already exists a great deal of infrastructure out there for comedy. So you have well established localised and national comedy circuits, TV comedy panel shows etc and a strong following, which is something we don’t have anything like for puppetry.
Puppeteers are often hidden, and like animators, you seldom know who is behind a piece of work with perhaps the exception of the Muppeteers and a few key Directors/Performers. So there is no huge following that you can easily tap into like there is in comedy. There is no established circuit of watching puppet-specific entertainment for an adult audience. It is usually tied in as part of a theatre show for example, or thought of as being something that is specifically for kids with a few notable exceptions.
Finding our audience was made even harder by the second part of the goal of this project, which was to try to platform puppetry from across the entire spectrum of what is an incredibly broad art form. Often people associate puppetry with Henson’s style muppetry, Punch & Judy, or Warhorse, which is great but there is a lot more out there that often gets forgotten. As everyone had lost their incomes, I thought it was only right that I try to build a platform for everyone so that audiences could learn about them.
Add to this the newness of working online where we had to figure out an entirely new format to see if we could make it work for puppetry. This also begged the question, would audiences be up for paying to watch entertainment over Zoom and how do we make Zoom work for all the different types of puppetry out there? It’s not just a matter of worrying about what a stand-up comedian is going to say but rather thinking about and trying to pre-empt as best you can, all the bonkers technicalities that each type of puppetry brings with it. For instance, an online performance of shadow puppetry requires a completely different set of technical requirements to a muppet style performance. How do we work with performers to show them off in the best light?
Finally, creating a puppet character in Ddraig has been enormously challenging for me. First of all having the confidence to do it in the first place felt like a pretty huge barrier! After getting the go ahead from the Welsh Arts Council I did go into a state of shock for a while and was questioning if I was capable of pulling this off. I have been puppeteering for 4 years and usually puppeteers spend a number of years working as an assistant. I was thrown in the deep end from the get-go, which has some advantages but means I still have a lot to learn. I’m sure you can appreciate that platforming myself alongside puppeteers like Laura Bacon who’s been doing Patsy May for a decade, or Andy Heath doing Nelson the Fox and puppeteering for over 20 years professionally, or Ronnie Le Drew who’s been doing Zippy since before I was born was a teensy weensy bit daunting!
These characters take a very long time to really form and while I think Ddraig has progressed a lot, she still has a fair way to go. It has also been very challenging doing this type of puppetry live. So in addition to having a new puppet, trying to work out a new character, doing a new role in hosting, there was the added challenge of doing it all live. I have come into puppetry through TV puppetry, so ordinarily I would be doing a couple of lines/actions for a single take lasting a few minutes, then cut, repeat if necessary. Then whoever is editing would pick the best one. For this there is no second take or chance to get it right. You are puppeteering for over an hour with a few breaks – it’s a very different beast.
In terms of what I have learned – well there’s just so much. I think I can say I am a more confident puppeteer with a much better understanding of what goes into making any kind of show, and the costs and time involved in putting them together. I have learnt loads about publicity, marketing, pitch writing, material writing, hosting, time and money management/budgeting. Actually I think the biggest thing this project has given me is the confidence in my own instincts. It has taught me to be more assertive. It has also been really fascinating learning from other puppeteers and see how different people approach making new work.
You have had some highly illustrious guests from Handspring to Zippy! How did you go about curating the project and how easy was it to get people on board?
In my view, one of the key tenets of working in puppetry is to be an ambassador for it as much as you can. There are so many pre-conceptions about it being just for kids. So when I set out to write the funding proposal, I knew that I wanted the event to be a positive part of the industry in promoting puppetry to new audiences. I am very fortunate that, as someone who is relatively new to the industry, I am pretty well connected. So I sought the advice from many of my colleagues who have a wealth of experience as puppeteers before I even wrote the funding proposal to find out whether or not they thought it was a good idea. Curious and Talk To The Hand Puppets were an amazing source of encouragement in particular. Many of them even wrote me a letter of support, which was very heartening.
The key idea of this event was to use the more well-known puppets, puppeteers and puppet companies as a draw to help the lesser known, up-and-coming puppeteers platform themselves to new audiences. There was no point in using the funding grant to pay only the performers who were already well-established and likely to be struggling less. But we did need their help to publicise each show and give audiences taking a punt on the event the security that there would be something that was a known quantity there for them.
Getting people on board wasn’t very difficult because everyone was feeling the affects of the pandemic. They weren’t busy and could see that many performers were struggling. They were up for helping in any way they could, which actually has been one of the most heart-warming and exciting aspects of running the event for me. Having some really high quality acts get on board because they want to help others that they don’t even know through these dark times.
There’s a huge amount going on in one show! Perhaps you could also say a bit about how it all works technically? Also, how does it feel to be performing a live show from your own home?
Well we have been learning with each show we do. The truth is that we never really know how it’s going to turn out until we do it, partly because of the tight turnovers on each show which leave barely any rehearsal time, and partly because that is the nature of both live performance and technology!
Ellys is really the queen of the technical running of the show and I genuinely have no idea how she does it. Perhaps one day when I eventually get to meet her in person I’ll find out!
Certainly from my side I try my best to work with each performer to see how we can best work with their act online. Everyone has to be having fun first and foremost, so it’s been a balancing act between needing to be decisive and guide them based on my experience of what worked in previous shows against what they want to do. I then try and put each piece into an order that flows best. It’s like trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together where each of the pieces comes from a different puzzle and then trying to make an interesting picture out of it.
Performing at home has been advantageous for everyone in that you don’t have to go anywhere to do it. There is an ease in the fact that all you have to do is log in, rather than take a set and suitcase with you. It has also been extremely challenging as I didn’t really envision having to move back in with my parents in my 30s. Whilst they are supportive and have allowed me to commandeer their spare room and turn it into a theatre, I don’t think they really understand it. So I feel very isolated in doing this a lot of the time. Finally, when I finish a show I’m on a bit of an adrenaline high from the day of rehearsals and all the work leading up to it, but then I switch my computer off and I’m suddenly just sat in the spare room on my own again. It is just a very odd feeling that I still haven’t got used to.
Restrictions seem to be set to continue. How do you think that live performance may be able to move forward from here? Do you have any plans to continue or evolve in anyway?
It has been really interesting to watch how different people have adapted their work to the new reality and I think the truth is that the people who are really serious about their art will always continue to do that. I think everyone is looking forward to next year with a hopeful return to some sort of normality but that said, I really hope people continue to experiment with their work.
Someone said to me recently that as artists we are always working against limitations and part of the reason that we work with puppets is that they are very limiting in many ways in comparison to working with an actor for example. If you reduce down the way you think about lockdown restrictions to just a new and challenging limitation to be played with, then it becomes far less depressing. Certainly from my experience of the Pop-Up Palladium some of the positives we have encountered have been that it has provided live entertainment to people who would not be able to go to a theatre because of social anxiety or because someone in their family is autistic. Similarly the YouTube recording of each performance has meant that people have been able to revisit stuff and watch from across the world ( we have a very loyal following from across the globe.) So I think there is a future for online entertainment and I’m intrigued to see where it goes from here.
In terms of the Palladium, we are constantly evolving and figuring out what works. We plan to take a break for the time being because I for one need my life back for a bit! That said, we are looking to do a Christmas show sometime in December. I will continue collaborating with Ellys and Cardiff Animation Festival so who knows what next year may bring.
Interview with Josh Elwell