Josh Elwell talked to Puppeteer Rachel Leonard ahead of this extraordinary and epic journey across Europe at such a pivotal time.
I caught up with Rachel Leonard on board her 125 year old narrow boat (which you can find listed in the National Historic Ships Register) on the edge of Bath. We spoke just as she was about to go into a week of R&D for a new project, with the team behind Little Angel’s The Journey Home.
Rachel has been performing with puppets for nearly 30 years, having learnt her trade at Little Angel and The Puppet Theatre Barge. She works with many exciting companies, from Handspring and Little Angel to the National Theatre, the RSC, and Kneehigh. However, like so many other performers she has felt the effects of the last year with all its huge challenges.
We began by talking about ‘resilience’ and ways that freelance puppeteers have managed to negotiate these crazy times. One of Rachel’s survival techniques is ‘living small’. She lives on her boat and keeps her outgoings to a minimum. She believes this lifestyle affords her a huge amount of independence. Living this way enables her to be a little more selective than most, and to be able to engage with projects that have real meaning for her. It is one such project that drew me to want to talk to Rachel in the first place.
Some of you may have caught sight on social media of an extraordinary giant puppet girl called, Amal. Amal is the focal point for a project called The Walk, the epic journey of a 9 year old refugee girl travelling 8,000km across Europe to find her mother.
Little Amal will start her journey at the Syria/Turkey boarder in July this year and make her way through Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and France, before reaching the United Kingdom in November. Amal has a hugely important purpose – to shine light on the struggles of the many refugee children she represents.
Along the way cities, towns, and villages will welcome Little Amal with art – from major street parades and city-wide performances of music, dance, and theatre, to intimate community events. Little Amal will connect with young people from refugee and non-refugee communities through creative learning projects, developed specifically for each location.
The Walk is being produced by Good Chance Theatre, famous for their work in The Jungle in Calais. Good Chance have joined forces with Handspring Puppet Company to design and build Amal, and Rachel is one of the puppeteers who will be animating Amal in this hugely exciting and important project.
Rachel was fizzing with excitement about Amal and said that she feels it is perhaps one of the most important projects that she has ever been a part of. Involved in the development of the The Walk from early on in Amal’s creation, Rachel will be one of the international team of puppeteers operating her from inside and out.
The team will rotate; taking turns working her arms and supporting her back (with rods, from the ground) and working from within the puppet, at Amal’s ‘heart’. The heart position is the most complex; requiring the wearing of stilts to create her legs, and a backpack harness to take the weight of the puppet. The operator in this position is controlling her head and facial expression from a ‘harp-like’ construction of pulleys in her tummy. Mechanisms have been kept low-fi to be as robust and repairable as possible along the route.
There is however just one electronic feature; her eyeballs, which are powered by a small battery pack and operated by a mini-thumb control. As it is not possible to see her face from within the puppet, attitudes and facial expressions must be learnt by muscle memory and through prompts given by other members of the team who can feedback instructions. Due to the tricky nature of this role and the heat that builds up with the exertion of it, the puppeteers will only do short stints inside the puppet. Rachel hopes that, with practice, they will get the changeovers, “Slick, like a pit stop!”
Rachel says, “She is magnificent as she walks through the landscape. You cannot help but feel for her. Despite her being 3.5 metres tall, children call to her, look after and care for her. She is both charming, mesmerising, and moving.”
Amal will walk into many different events on her 3 month journey. Each event will form important stages of her emotional development. Each meeting, gathering, sharing, celebration or carnival will serve as an important part of her overall journey and story. In her wake she will leave a legacy of sponsorship and scholarships for educational opportunities. Each event and stopping point in Amal’s journey will provide a catalyst for change and an opportunity to understand the plight of children just like her.
The project has been set back due to Covid and of course everyone is desperately hoping that this won’t happen again. However, Rachel remains hugely positive. She has agreed to talk to us again during The Walk, and then again once she has reached Manchester in November. In the meantime, Rachel’s bags are packed and the 8,000km road between Turkey and the UK awaits her and Amal’s footsteps.
‘May the road rise up to meet you and may the wind be always at your back!’ – Traditional Irish Blessing
Good Chance needs your support to help make The Walk happen.The Walk‘s Step Up appeal is raising funds to support Little Amal‘s journey, the artistic and education programmes of The Walk, and the crucial work being done to raise awareness of the refugee crisis and advocate for young refugees to have access to an education.
Every young refugee deserves a Good Chance of fulfilling their potential.
Air Giants is an exciting collaboration between Emma Powell, Richard Sewell, and Robert Nixdorf. Together they create strikingly beautiful, soft robotic creatures that come to life at the intersection of puppetry, robotics, technology, and software design. Matt Gibbs caught up with Emma Powell, one of the co-founders and the creative director of Air Giants, about their emotionally expressive creations.
How did you and the team first conceive of the idea behind Air Giants?
My colleague Richard Sewell is a prolific tester of ideas, and he has tested some ideas using soft robotic principles at a very large scale. I saw some of his early experiments and fell in love with it as a medium! Together with Robert Nixdorf, we started hatching a plan to take the principles much further and apply some of the human-robotic interaction principles we’d learned from other projects, as well as refining and improving the beautiful motion the technology offers.
We were lucky to get prototype funding from the South West Creative Technology Network which allowed us to tackle a lot of the technical challenges involved and find people who would be interested in exhibiting and commissioning the work.
The idea of creating creatures came quite quickly because even our first prototypes had a powerful sense of life about them. We love the idea of working with more abstract forms too, and some of the projects we are developing at the moment are about transforming whole spaces into interactive environments.
How do you go about bringing such a sense of life and movement to these robotic creatures? What challenges do you face?
It’s certainly a challenge! Puppetry is a useful tool in exploring the possibilities. We often use table-top scale puppetered versions of designs to map out motions and interactions before thinking about how to realise these at full size. My own background in puppetry is very useful here. There’s something about the nuances of the way a real object moves that I haven’t found possible to express properly through storyboarding.
Then we have to take the vocabulary of movements we’re aiming for and figure out how we can translate that into the pneumatically controlled fabric. We now know a lot about the geometries and pressures needed to make it all happen, but it can still take a few modelling attempts at a smaller scale of about one metre before we finalise a design.
Once the design is in place, the actual fabrication requires a lot of space for laying out and cutting huge pieces of fabric. There is also lots of valve assembly, bespoke control coding for each new piece, and a huge amount of sewing to do.
What is challenging is that this is new ground – there’s no handbook for what we’re doing! Soft robotics is being developed in many university labs, but there’s nothing of this scale which we can reference. Everything from the specific geometries of the internal compartments to the air control valves has been designed by us from scratch. We’ve been learning fast, and we’re excited to see that the possibilities here are incredibly broad.
How important is the movement and lighting to creating emotion? And what do you hope audiences will take away from the experience?
The movement really is key for us. The scale and spectacle of the work is striking, but it’s amazing how people respond to the movement at an instinctual level. Much of the motion is bio-inspired and the wide range of wiggling, flexing, and other contortions we can create are not usually associated with robotics.
Audiences are constantly trying to read meaning and behaviour into the movement the robots make, so designing the motion and responses is a large chunk of the work for us. I think there are very strong parallels to the art of puppeteering here.
We want people to have joyful experiences of the work and to have a sense of having met something intelligent, otherworldly, and engaging. It should be a moment of magic and a way to step outside of normal life – something we could all use at the moment.
What are your hopes for Air Giants in 2021? What more can we look forward to?
We’ve got a few exciting projects we’re hoping to get the green light for in 2021. I can’t say too much, but hopefully we’ll be bringing work to lots of people in all sorts of places, from town centres to botanical gardens.
We’re interested in co-design, site specific work, and collaborations with other creative industries. We’re very approachable and love to make connections happen, so please feel free to get in touch!
We’re looking forward to experiencing more of these gentle giants in the months to come and exploring the new spaces they might inhabit.
Air Giants is the brainchild of Emma Powell, Richard Sewell, and Robert Nixdorf; who create huge, emotionally expressive soft robotic creatures and spaces.
Emma Powell is an artist and director from Bristol, UK, who creates exciting, inspiring, and accessible work in theatre, film, and events.
Satyajit Ramdas Padhye is a third generation ventriloquist, puppeteer, and puppet maker from India. He is the son of Ramdas Padhye, India’s leading ventriloquist and grandson of Prof. Yeshwant Keshav Padhye, who created Ardhavatrao, India’s most loved puppet character. Emma Windsor caught up with him to find out more about his family history, his passion for puppetry and his hopes for the the art form in India.
Can you tell us about the history of Ardhavatrao and your family?
My grandfather Prof. Yeshwant Keshav Padhye was a renowned magician. He once saw a solider from First World War doing ventriloquism and hence thought of trying his hand at ventriloquism, and thus created a character called “Ardhavatrao” that he conceived in the middle of 1916 and 1917. This character is now more than 100 years old and is actively being performed by my father Ramdas Padhye who popularised this art of ventriloquism and puppetry in India since 1967. My father learnt this art from his father Yeshwant Padhye and has performed more than 9,900 shows across different media including stage, TV shows, feature films, and ad-films.
Why did you decide to continue with your Grandfather’s legacy? What is most important to you about puppetry as an art form?
Well, I was very naturally drawn towards the art since my father Ramdas Padhye has been into this art for the last five decades, popularising this art in India, and is a celebrity. My father never forced me into it as art cannot be forced. It should come naturally to you. So, although I am a Chartered Accountant by education, I never pursued it as a profession, but ventriloquism and puppetry became by profession.
The most important thing about puppetry as an art form is that it has a universal appeal and can evoke a lot of emotions. I guess puppets speak more than an actor and I guess it is less offending when puppets speak the truth.
You were recently involved in the production of the film ‘Ludo’ with filmmaker Anurag Basu. Can you tell us more about that and your role in the production?
Mr Anurag Basu, who is famous director in India, was planning his next film Ludo where one of the lead actors Aditya Roy Kapur was playing a role of a ventriloquist and voice-over artiste. Anurag Basu called me and asked me to train Aditya for the role of a ventriloquist. He also knew that my dad Ramdas Padhye creates look-alike puppets of people and hence hired us to create a puppet which looked exactly like Aditya. We used 3D scanning and 3D printing technique for the first time in India to create a look-alike puppet of the actor. It was a challenging process as it was never done before. We could achieve this because of our excellent team.
What are your hopes for the future of puppetry in India?
I think the future of puppetry looks bright for our country India, as there is lot of interest in the art of ventriloquism as well as puppetry. The younger generations are aware about this art because of the internet and we have the youngest population. In fact we get lot of inquires about learning the art of ventriloquism and puppetry. I guess there will be many puppeteers and ventriloquists from India in the coming years.
Cat Rock talks to Katie Greenland, Assistant Professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, from the Stronger – SAFE project about how they are trying to eliminate the Trachoma endemic in Ethiopia with the help of Puppetry.
Have you ever had an eye infection? A lot of us know the joys of eye problems, from a sty to keratitis, a rouge eyelash to the torment of a ripped contact lens. Many of us will know just how horrible contracting conjunctivitis is, I know I do! For most people, especially here in the United Kingdom, it is a simple trip to the pharmacy that will sort this problem, a few days of drops and you’re done.
But pretend for a moment that you live in a community where you do not have the resources or knowledge to treat your infection, where water is so precious and limited that you have to make a choice about who gets to wash their face. Picture seeing eye infections spread through your family and friends, causing them immense discomfort and pain, as you eventually watch them succumb to blindness. Now imagine watching all this unfold though your own infected eyes, knowing that this could have been prevented.
Tragically this is the case in many places as the trachoma-endemic rages on.
The situation is dire and things desperately need to change. Trachoma is a mild eye infection mainly affecting children, the serious consequences come from repeat infections that over time cause scarring and eyelashes to turn inwards and scratch the eye which is very painful and can eventually lead to blindness. luckily the team behind the ‘Stronger – SAFE’ project are on the ground fighting this endemic. Using new and exciting ways to engage communities they hope to save the eyesight of millions… with the help of some puppets!
Meet Caltu, a young girl from the Oromia Ethiopia. She will be traveling around communities performing in a drama demonstrating face washing and other measures that can help prevent the spread and contraction Trachoma.
So what is ‘Stronger – SAFE’?
The ‘Stronger – SAFE’ project will include a series of community interventions that will target the caregivers of preschool children. The pre-schoolers are the most likely age group to catch and transmit this disease. The team hopes that by highlighting the importance of prioritising this age group, creating a campaign that is relatable and memorable, focusing on the importance of face washing, that they will help reduce the overwhelming presence of Trachoma. This will take place near Shashemene, which is about 200km south of Addis Ababa, in the West Arsi Zone in Oromia, Ethiopia.
How did you come to the idea of using puppets as part of ‘Stronger – SAFE’ and what do you hope puppets will bring to the program?
Katie Greenland (KG): We are working in low literacy, quiet rural communities, which means we don’t have people who can read pamphlets or even posters, or things like that. They don’t have a lot of television, radio, and other media access. Things like roadshows and dramas are very popular; I was already planning a drama which is a standard approach for behaviour change communication.
Because of the Covid pandemic, I was part of a team reviewing proposals for some FCDO (Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office) and Unilever Covid related funding. I saw a proposal form the Sesame Workshop, which received funding; it just made me start thinking, that if we were using puppets it might make the drama more memorable and maybe more attractive. I was thinking about what we could do to engage the children. It would be more fun with the puppets and they would then be able to interact with the children making it memorable. We could then use them in other elements like house-to-house meetings and small group events.
It would also help the mothers to remember that they need to prioritise these young children. This is one of the problems that is happening at the moment. People are washing their own faces and older children are washing their faces with soap before they go to school, babies are well taken care of, but there is a gap when it comes to this age group. We wanted to emphasize that person within the family. We have messages about prioritising preschool children, if you don’t have enough water for face washing it is these children that need to be prioritised. This goes against the norms at the moment (in Ethiopia) of who gets prioritised, which would usually be the head of the household and the man. Also With a puppet, you’re not saying your child’s face is dirty and needs washing, you have that degree of removal by saying it to the puppet. It’s easier to have the puppet say, “My face is dirty and needs washing…” rather than trying to make people feel that it’s directly talking about their family.
We all know how powerful puppetry can be, by adding this element into these already well received dramas you not only bring a new and exciting twist to the performance, but by making the child the puppet, the unique factor, you highlight the importance of that child in the story. You bring attention to them, make them the focus, and this will really engage the audience with the different face washing behaviours associated with that character.
What was the puppet design process like, what factors did you take into consideration when developing Caltu?
KG: Before we even engaged Izzy Bristow (the puppet designer and maker) we wanted to understand how puppets might be received, which is quite tricky with remote working because usually I would do that kind of work on the ground. I would have bought a puppet here that I could have taken with me to do some field research. Instead we had to do all that remotely, via our field team. We sent them images (of puppets) that they could then show in the communities and to a wide range of people, we could then understand what they thought of puppets.
We learnt that basically people don’t really know much about puppets, that they really didn’t understand when they didn’t really look like a person. They’ve never seen them, which is another reason why I wanted to use them. Because they are ‘novel’ I thought that would be what would make them memorable. It probably was a bit hard for Izzy…
Izzy Bristow (IB): The Design Process for these puppets was a bit tricky. As a culture somewhat cut off from the visual shorthands and design sensibilities of the Anglo-European world that dictates most of what we think of when we think of “puppets for kids”, the Oromo (region in Ethiopia) focus group really didn’t like the simple and cartoonish look of muppets that they were approached with initially.
Even with forewarning, I went through three different initial design phases and then extensive tweaking of the final pattern to create a puppet realistic enough that the field team and focus group found appealing, but still achievable to make with the time and budget allotted. However, throughout the whole process I was supported incredibly well by the Stronger – SAFE team. Clair specifically, was there to answer questions and make sure my designs and suggestions were turned around quickly within their Ethiopia team.
KG: We had to be very careful that we made sure that she looked like a local person. We spent a long time thinking what colour she should be wearing; it couldn’t be linked to any political colours as there is a lot of political unrest in the area. We needed to be sure that her skin tone was correct and her features were correct; even her hair, because different hairstyles would have just meant that she wasn’t a girl from ‘here’. You have that balance of trying to get somebody who is from ‘here’ and also a slightly aspirational figure.
IB: It is an unfortunate truth that we live in a made world that is designed with white skin as a default, this made it difficult to find fabric that was the right colour to reflect the skin of the Oromo people. In the end I had to dye the fleece myself, which was time consuming but well worth it.
KG: There was a lot of back and forth about what she should wear and obviously making sure that her features were right and wouldn’t be offensive, this was really key. Each time there was an iteration we had to make sure, as best as we could in the current climate with all the movement restrictions, that we got as much community feedback as we could.
IB: This was the first time I’ve ever had to design anything that needed to be run by a focus group. It is definitely an interesting experience that wasn’t wholly good or bad. For some things like the costume, having feedback from so many people helped zero in on the ideal solution pretty quickly. It is very satisfying to know that everyone in a group responds well to a design. As for tricker things like the face, where the rendering medium is a shallow representation of the final, and where there are less common cultural touchstones to share ideas, having a lot of different uncertain reactions was a bit overwhelming at times.
A much harder challenge to overcome was my own design bias. It is one thing to understand that the client has different culturally defined ideas of what is cute and what is uncanny, and another entirely to act on it. Things like the super wide mouths of muppets that allow the exaggerated and enthusiastic movement we know and love were just as unacceptable and repelling as the ridged ventriloquist dummy style mouths. The solution to have a small almost immobile mouth was one I fought internally to the very end, but it was what the focus group liked best.
What stage is the Stronger – SAFE program at and what happens next?
KG: It’s a big trial, so that means we have 68 clusters (a cluster is a small community of about 90 households), half of them will receive the face washing interventions which include the puppetry elements and half won’t. We are at the stage where we have actually started collecting data for our baseline, which we need to do before we intervene. We need to understand what are people doing right now; are they washing their faces with soap? When in the day? Who’s washing? All those kinds of things. Then we do the intervention and then after that we will measure the outcomes.
Hopefully, we would see that there’s more face washing after they have been exposed to our intervention. Behaviour change is really hard so we will also be measuring other things throughout the intervention; did they enjoy it? Did they remember it? Which aspects were most memorable for them and why? So even if we don’t see any behaviour change as a result, we hopefully learn a bit more about why.
Stronger – SAFE are hoping to begin the interventions in the Spring. If all goes to plan, it will take about three and a half months to conduct with the 34 communities involved, then they will collect data again. They are hoping to have some initial results by the end of the year.
We all know the power of puppetry and what can be achieved through the exciting process of manipulation, design, and play. To see puppets being used for such an amazing project shows the breath of puppets and puppeteers potential. Puppets can entertain, they can inspire, and hopefully, alongside the hard work of everyone involved with Stronger – SAFE, they can help save the eye sight of so many people.
We look forward to talking with the Stronger – SAFE team in the future.
Mock Duck is a delicious canned meat substitute originating from China. Astrid Goldsmith is the founder of Mock Duck Studios, an award-winning stop-motion studio located in her garage in Folkstone, England. The studio has brought many delights into the world; Morris dancing badgers, sci-fi squirrels, even aliens! Whilst her settings and creatures are otherworldly and a little eccentric, the themes running through her content are often rooted in real-world issues like Conservation and Brexit. Astrid and her team craft enchanting worlds with stories that are thrilling, emotive and meaningful. How does she do it? Let’s find out!
Tell us about your garage!
It’s an old coachhouse, which is the ground floor of our house, we live above it. It has very draughty double doors and an original flagstone floor, which unhelpfully slopes downwards towards a drain in the middle; so you have to be careful not to drop anything that might roll. That drain is probably full of lost puppet eyeballs. I’ve divided the space in two with a big blackout curtain – the front half with the window is my workshop and the dark back half is where I animate. This all makes it sound very grand and organised, in reality it’s a tiny, chaotic space full of tools, tripods, lights, backdrops, set walls, furniture, polystyrene, and of course lots and lots of puppets gathering dust, all staring at me accusingly.
The subjects of your films are always wonderfully wacky; Morris Dancing Badgers, Sci-Fi Squirrels. Where does your inspiration come from?
The initial ideas for my films always come from the news. I’ll read an article or hear an item about something that strikes me as curious or unjust, and start thinking about it from different angles. I started writing Squirrel Islandafter reading a series of articles about conservation policies to protect Britain’s endangered native red squirrel population – which included sterilising and shooting thousands of grey squirrels in the borderland territories. When I thought about the experience of an unsuspecting grey squirrel in that situation, it immediately suggested themes typically found in sci-fi action thrillers.
With Quarantine, I saw a report about proposed plans for post-Brexit pet travel and animal imports, predicting that the South-East’s existing kennels and quarantine centres would be overrun, and new facilities would have to be built to accommodate the numbers. I began to imagine what kind of animals would be kept in these new facilities, and what the impact would be on the surrounding habitat. I live in Folkestone, where the Channel Tunnel terminal is, so I didn’t have to look too far to see where these sites might be. Once you start thinking about Brexit, and tradition, and British animals, it’s only a hop skip and jump to writing a film about Morris Dancing badgers!
Your film ‘Quarantine’ came out in 2018 but has re-emerged this year with more success; what’s that been like?
Well, I’m delighted that my film has found new audiences, although, I would rather it hadn’t taken a global pandemic for that to happen! Over the last year, I have received so many emails and messages from people who had just discovered it, and I recently learned that it was the third most-watched free film on BFI Player in 2020, which is incredible.
As any animator or any creator of a long-term project knows, you spend months or years of your life thinking and designing, and working on something, but once it’s released into the world, it belongs to the audience. Everyone will bring their own interpretation and sometimes even global events will change how audiences will receive your work. I certainly didn’t know in 2018 that everyone would have their own experience of being ‘quarantined’ in 2020, but I’m glad that the badgers have been keeping people entertained in lockdown!
You’ve recently worked on projects for bands; Blossoms and Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard! How has it been animating for them?
Those projects were collaborations with creative director Edwin Burdis, who works in a unique way with bands and is tons of fun to collaborate with. He writes the initial idea, hands it over to me to animate, then the bands write or improvise the dialogue around the action, or the two are put together in the edit. The whole process feels quite free and organic, which is the opposite of making most commercial work or my own films, which are always carefully storyboarded and planned down to the last detail, with animatics already in place so you know how it’s going to work in the edit. I think in a way these projects have revealed a new side to my practice, and shown me what happens when you relinquish some control!
The puppet heads and bodies are designed and made by Edwin’s sister Joliande, and then I make their armatures, so their aesthetic and range of movement is very different to the puppets I design and make for my own films. So not only is the physical aspect of animating the shots a different experience, but also the mental approach is entirely new, as I’m kind of guessing what the band will say when they record the dialogue for that shot, and guessing what will happen in the edit. It’s always such a nice surprise to see the finished video, and see all the great responses from the bands’ fans.
A lot of of your short films have no dialogue, but these projects have loads! Do you have a preference?
I love watching and making dialogue-free short films, as I think they allow both the filmmaker and the audience to use their imagination, explore, and free-associate in a way that dialogue-heavy films don’t leave space for. I studied at Norwich Puppet Theatre for three years alongside my degree, and I love mid-century Polish and Czech puppet stop-motion films, most of which are dialogue-free, and often feature fixed-face puppets. It just shows you that you can express so much with so little. Animation has such an incredible scope for physical comedy, gravity-defying action, or crazy visuals that take you into unknown realms, and often in short films dialogue can feel superfluous or too didactic. In these music video projects, it’s different because the humour comes from a bunch of animals in a pub in Stoke, discussing how to find Santa Claus; or in the case of Beautiful Domes, creating a pastiche of 1970s children’s television. At the moment, I’m developing my first feature film, which will contain dialogue, so I’m exploring ways of combining that dialogue-free puppet magic with fun and characterful speech.
Can you spill the beans about your shiny new film, Red Rover?
I started working on Red Rover right after I finished Quarantine, with the support of BFI Network. It’s a colonial sci-fi movie set on Mars, about what happens to the native rock-creatures when a drilling rover lands on the planet. It’s puppet stop-motion, with short sequences of 2D animation and a bit of pixilation for the human element, which I always love to throw in. I completed it in June 2020, so it took about 18 months to make. I actually finished shooting it last March, but post-production took a few months longer than planned as it all had to happen remotely during the first lockdown.
The distribution side of things has been quite different too, as many film festivals were cancelled or postponed in 2020. I was quite sad after I had finished it, as it seemed for a while that there would be nowhere to show it! Fortunately, Sitges Film Festival did take place between lockdowns in October, where Red Rover had its international premiere, and won the Best Animated Short Film award. Since then, it has played at LIAF and LSFF, and is now on the Oscars long list. There will be some more festival announcements, as well as some upcoming online screenings, so hopefully everyone can see it soon!
I really can’t wait for Red Rover to be available online! For people who haven’t seen any Mock Duck films, have a watch! It’s the perfect time to escape and allow yourself to be whisked away by lovely woodland puppets with big, round eyes taking us on cathartic adventures. Astrid’s films are a visual feast with a vintage warmth and tales that entrance. There are lots of stop-motion films out there, but I can’t think of many studios that make work that’s as distinctive, high quality, and charming as Mock Duck Studios.
Enjoy a different kind of lockdown, by watching Quarantine!
That Creative Thing Wotsit is a Community Interest Company whose vision is to improve the quality of life, health, and well-being of people living with additional care and support needs through engagement with the creative arts, whilst creating meaningful employment opportunities for new and emerging artists. Emma Windsor spoke with Stephen Barrie Watters about his involvement, his hopes post-Brexit, and the new mobile puppet theatres that they have recently built.
Can you tell us about yourself, your background and the work you’re currently involved with?
I am Director & Company Secretary of a creative arts organisation called That Creative Thingy Wotsit CIC. We work to improve the health, well-being, and happiness of people living with dementia or other care need through engagement with the creative arts. During the past five years we have visited residential care and nursing homes across North Somerset using music, movement, and a range of creative arts to make connections with people at all stages on their dementia journey, and those who love and care for them.
We partner with creative artists, theatre makers, and holistic therapists to deliver health beneficial creative care through engagement with the arts to a community who face some the highest barriers to accessing those arts. We want to change that. People living with dementia get enormous health benefits from engagement with the arts, probably more so than any other cohort of our community, and we believe they deserve to have the very best access to arts we as a creative community can give them.
The thing I enjoy most about my work are the theatre shows we put on, as I am a stage manager by trade and have worked at most theatres in this area, including The Wardrobe Theatre & BIT in Bristol, as well as on many festivals and street theatre including Puppet Place carnivals. I spend a great deal of my time raising awareness of dementia and helping to make North Somerset the most dementia friendly community it can be.
Most people don’t know that North Somerset is the most dementia friendly place in the UK. That is something we can all be very proud of, and probably something more people should know. There are many things we can all do to help us stay number one in the UK, and one of the best is to become a dementia friend. It only takes a few minutes online and will greatly help improve life for people living with dementia.
You’ve been busy building two mobile puppet theatres! Can you tell us how you came up with the idea, what facilities these have and how you intend to use them once lockdown is over?
Thanks to a small grant from the National Lottery Community Fund, we have been able to upgrade and modify our theatres. We have owned our theatres since we started our CIC in 2014 and have used them once or twice a year to put on shows on the beach, in parks, and other public spaces. However, in our work in residential care homes, we specialise in what is known as person-centered care. That means getting up close and personal, holding hands and making eye contact, so theatre projects such as the Brave Bold Drama dementia sensitive production of Wonderland we helped deliver in 2018 worked well as an indoor event.
Putting on a show in the garden of a residential home is a much more difficult and challenging thing to do, but it is something we can do safely, being socially distant, and in all likelihood much sooner than we can return to indoor performances. Our theatre has much the same capabilities other theatre and performance spaces can offer an artist. Programmable lighting, high quality sound system and head mics, scenery changes, special effects, props, and a wardrobe and puppets department. However an artist needs the theatre to be dressed, or the genre of puppetry planned, we can make our theatre accommodate it.
We can pretty much guarantee a full house made up of an intergenerational audience, most of whom will be priority target beneficiaries for funders and sponsors both locally and nationally.
Artists receive a fair and reasonable income for their performances and can use our mobile puppet theatre to help fundraise for their projects or organisations. We will support you in any way we can, in whatever way is needed to make each project a success.
What benefits does puppetry bring to people with dementia and the elderly in care?
Dementia is a particularly cruel disease. It takes away so much from everyone who’s lives are affected by it, robbing them of their health, happiness, and joy. But we can hold the hands of people on that journey, and of those who care for them, let them know they are not alone by connecting with them through music and the creative arts. One of the most effective and immediate ways to make those connections is using puppets.
Most people know dementia often leads to memory loss, particularly short term memory loss. However, over time even long term memories can be similarly affected with people not able to recall names, faces or key events from their lives. In our experience there are some things which are seldom forgotten whatever stage of their journey a person is at. The first and least forgotten thing is the music and songs they have loved through the years, and truly amazing things can be achieved through the power of music and dance.
Puppets are another way to make that immediate and happy connection with people. The joy and happiness that comes from seeing a puppet, especially a large, brightly coloured puppet, and one that talks remains unaffected by the disease. The same wide eyed look of wonder and amazement with smiles as wide as a canal barge seen in the faces of children and parents at puppet shows is still there on the faces of those living or working in residential homes when the puppets come out. People don’t seem to forget their love of puppets. Puppets are fun, tactile, and one of the best ways to reach people who are nearing their end of their journey and who are finding it most difficult to communicate and engage.
Things seem uncertain in Arts & Culture at the moment with both lockdown and now Brexit. What plans do you have for the future and what do you feel will be needed to best support the work that you do?
We all want to live in a better community when this crisis is over. More socially connected, more creative, and more supportive of those who need our help. A society which recognises the contribution creativity and creative artists have made in getting us through these difficult times, and will continue to do so long into the future. Whatever that better community looks like to each of us as an individual, when we close our eyes and try to imagine the possibilities of tomorrow, that community has a name. It is called a Dementia-Friendly Community because everything we do to make our communities better for people living with dementia and those who love and care for them, the better a community it will be for everyone.
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.
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.
Since 1979, Norwich Puppet Theatre has been a precious and rare habitat for puppets and their puppeteers. A place where all sorts can come together and experience the tangible excitement of a puppet show. The pandemic has of course meant that coming together isn’t such a safe thing to do and like many other venues across the world, Norwich Puppet Theatre has had to adapt quickly. Online Puppet Theatre is their shiny new YouTube channel that launched six months ago. With theatre being such a physical and sensory experience, it’s amazing that they’ve managed to convert their entity into online content and keep the magic alive! A series of making tutorials for building puppets/ DIY mini puppet theatres has been uploaded. Sock puppets, rod puppets, paper puppets, shadow puppets… Before you know it, you’ll wake up surrounded! It’s a nice thought that while many theatres have temporarily shut their doors, Norwich Puppet Theatre has caused hundreds of tiny home theatres to spring up.
The theatre has a 165 capacity main auditorium so there are limits to how many can see a show in the flesh, however the number of views a YouTube video can get is limitless! You can pause it rewind and watch the same bit over and over! Going online means that the theatre is reaching new audiences, including families who can’t afford theatre trips and people across the world. People are now able to access the wonderful world of puppetry whilst being safe and comfy at home.
Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts and Revolting Rhymes is the latest collection of performances. Each one is performed by a different puppeteer in a unique style, devised and performed at home during lockdown. With such a unique form of entertainment it’s probably a relief to parents to see something fresh for their kids after hours of playing on Roblox or Minecraft. The idiosyncratic Roald Dahl, with his silliness and absurdity, is a perfect match with the crafty genius that puppeteers have to offer. Clever poems, wild visuals and kooky characters, an ideal way to escape and shake off those corona blues.
A personal favourite of mine is Cinderella, performed by Clementine the Living Fashion Doll. Clementine is a humanette puppet, a combination of small fashion doll puppets with large human, drag queen heads all composited together perfectly. The tiny ball costumes, sparkly sets and sound effects are all fabulous. Who knew a barbie doll drag queen with an oversized head was missing from my life!
There’s something special about every film in the series, they’re all so varied and distinctive using so many contrasting art styles. The DIY nature of them will be sure to inspire people to try out making their own productions. It just shows what can be achieved even without piles of money and equipment. The premieres are popping up weekly on their channel until October Half Term 2020, and all the shows will be available for free to watch and rewatch again and again until 4th December 2020. Get them while their hot! You do not want to miss out. Ian Woods, the manager of the theatre, kindly filled me in on what they’ve been up to and how they’ve been affected since the pandemic began. – Amy Baker
What was Norwich Puppet Theatre like before COVID?
A building based company creating and touring puppet shows to venues across the UK and to schools in the eastern region. A vibrant creative learning outreach with craft based puppet making workshops delivered to the public at the theatre and into educational settings across (primarily) Norfolk and Suffolk. A venue to present our own work and also that of visiting puppet companies, and when not used for our prime charitable mission (i.e. puppetry) we accepted hires for local am-dram theatre and dance groups. We also had 8 wedding/civil partnership ceremonies booked for 2020. As well as being the ‘place to ask’ about puppets, we have a regular trickle of visitors interested in the building in its former role of the church of St James’ for family history searches etc.
How have you adapted to the situation?
On the evening of 16 March when the PM said that people shouldn’t go to bars and theatres, we ‘closed’ all our work – a week before the official lockdown started. Our tour of Beastly Belle ended. Planned schools workshops stopped. We had a week to arrange for staff to move PCs etc. to their homes and to start working from there. For the remainder of the month all seven of us carried on ‘normal’ working hours. From April 1st, four of the seven were furloughed. We then received the £10K hospitality grant. We applied for ACE Response Funding primarily to secure the building costs through to September 2020 but also to enable development of online delivery. Our Foyles capital grant was converted to core costs with very rapid approval by Foyles Foundation. We secured £5K from the Martin Laing foundation to cover core costs and support online product making. A volunteer started making face masks for £5 donation to the Puppet Theatre and has raised over £2500 with gift aid. That financial stability and desire to link with our audiences meant from Day 1 of lockdown we wanted to have a digital online presence and so we created our Online Puppet Theatre YouTube channel. This was a vehicle for online puppet making sessions.
These pre-recorded sessions were designed to use simple everyday materials – paper, glue, tape, card etc. that could be found at home – to make simple but effective puppets. Our pre-COVID workshops when delivered at the theatre or out and about, always had a huge range of decorating/making materials that we couldn’t expect anyone to have at home! The making workshops were added to with some “behind the scenes” videos of Pied Piper (recorded before the total lockdown) and information on how to manipulate puppets. They were ‘old’ and not specifically ‘made for’ online delivery.
Zara Goodfellow (creative learning coordinator) wrote to the Roald Dahl Story Company with the idea of making puppet adaptations of his poems. We were pleasantly surprised to receive a reply, and even more so that it was positive. When they had released the rights from Netflix to us, an agreement was reached for royalty-free access to the poems provided the films were free to access and that the exact words were used of the poems. The RDSC had final clearance before the films were released. This free licence period comes to an end on 4th December when all films will be taken down.
The result – 15 unique videos each made by a freelance artist that we would, could or have worked with. This enabled us to trickle-down some of our ACE Response Funding to freelance artists whose income had been eradicated by the COVID lockdown. As part-time furlough came into play we have been able to visit the building more regularly, keep it secure and have been able to host two companies for rehearsals. Also most recently a partner artist of the theatre was able to present her one woman play to a private audience (max capacity is now 35 but her shows played to 24 and 19 people respectively) with live zoom feed as well.
With CRF funding we are now able to plan for a season of Christmas performances with social distancing in place. CRF money is subsidising a loss making opening, allowing us to design more intricate online workshops for schools delivery and plan/consult on how we can create and deliver work in 2021 and beyond.
What’s been your favourite video from the, ‘Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts and Revolting Rhymes’ series?
Each video is unique, and has its own special moments, so it would be invidious to select one over the others. How can you select from the plasticine stop-frame animation of The Lion or The Anteater, the live puppetry of Jack & the Beanstalk or The Toad and the Snail, shadow work of The Cow or multi-role play of Cinderella? Whatever your medicine, each poem is a treat for a cup of coffee moment or even to entertain a child (or two!)
Have you found that you’re reaching new audiences now, having an online presence?
As we have set all our videos to being child-friendly. We do not get direct comments on the YouTube channel so it is hard to say where we are being watched. But social media comments do indicate an international footprint. For example, we had a flurry of Malaysian comments on our Sock Puppet making video! We have been releasing the Roald Dahl videos on a weekly basis but now all 15 are available we can push the boat out to spread the word about them. Each poem has subtitles available, increasing accessibility and also their use in educational settings.
Norwich Puppet Theatre will be 40 on 1st December 2020. We won’t be able to have the hoped for big gala celebration but the date will be marked to be sure! If anyone has memories of the theatre we’d be happy to hear about them and if they want to make a 40 second ‘memory’ and send that through, we will be working to make a compilation!
Josh Elwell takes a look at some of the work that has been created during lockdown and reflects on ‘where are we at?’ in a year that has meant huge changes for puppeteers.
There is no doubt that, like many art forms within the live arts sector, puppetry and puppeteers have taken a huge hit this year. Theatres have closed, tours have been cancelled, projects have been dropped and artists are struggling. After months of uncertainty and a new lockdown in place, there is much concern about the future of live performance.
I think we can all agree that it has been a challenging time for us puppeteers. However, there has been a huge amount of creativity bubbling out of the struggle. It seems that there is some truth in restriction providing artists with something to kick against and take inspiration from. This of course does not take away from the very real need for us to earn a living and to find new ways to monetise our work within a completely new landscape. There are those who have found this all really hard and continue to do so, and this is entirely understandable given the circumstances.
It is my hope that by drawing attention to and celebrating some of the incredible creative work that has started to surface out of the thick Covid mist, it may inspire us all to take new brave steps towards breaking new ground.
Over the last 6 months there have been some weird, wonderful and outright trailblazing work going on within the puppet community. Here are a few of these projects that have crossed my radar. Please let us know at Puppet Place if you hear of any more or you yourself are in the process of working on something.
One of the first puppet pieces to appear online during the first lockdown was a live performance of Jon Klassen’s picture book ‘I Want My Hat Back’. Little Angel Theatre partnered with theatre director Ian Nicholson to stream a live performance. The show was broadcast on Little Angel Theatre’s YouTube channel during Easter earlier this year. Nicholson directed and performed the show from home, with a delightful set by Samuel Wilde and music by Jim Whitcher.
This show paved the way for a whole program of work commissioned by Little Angel and presented by a talented cohort of associated artists. This ranges from a charming tale of ‘Little Fish’ told by Kneehigh’s Mike Shepherd to a compelling telling of ‘Rumplestiltskin’ by Arran Glass. If you go now to Little Angel Theatre’s YouTube channel you will find a superb array of performance, storytelling and creative ideas.
NPT have commissioned some of the top names in touring British Puppetry to present a series of brand new performances of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes and Dirty Beasts poems.
Each mini-show has beed created and performed by a different artist or company working in lockdown, using Roald Dahl’s original words and lots of different styles of puppetry. These vary from animation to marionettes and everything in-between.
There is a hilarious rendition of Cinderella by Mark Mander and Clementine the living doll (who we have previously spoken to.) This is as engaging for adults as children. Just as beguiling is the true story of Goldilocks created and performed by Nik Palmer & Sarah Rowland-Barker of Noisy Oyster, performed on a miniature set with rod marionettes. There are many more and they are all well worth a watch for free on the NPT YouTube Channel.
Another company that has put together some impressive online output is Theatre Rites. They have adapted two of their productions for YouTube and have made a hybrid children’s TV/theatre series with their show ‘Talking Rubbish’. These are two short films created during lockdown inspired by rubbish and recycling.
They have also put together a big collection of very short films based on their show ‘Big Up’. ‘Big Up – at Home’ is aimed at little people who want to be Big and Big people who might just have forgotten how to play. They’ve been adding content weekly so you can check in for more beatboxing, puppetry and music that you can create at home.
Many other festivals have also gone online and offered artists the opportunity to present work in a new way. I was asked to produce a short film for Bournemouth Arts by the Sea Festival that introduced various different puppet styles as well as sharing how to make a puppet at home.
One extraordinary project that has striven to break new ground with its live puppet variety/magazine show is Puppets at the Pop Up Palladium. We have a separate interview with them in this issue. Check it out.
These are just a few examples of what people have been up to during this crazy year. In some cases having to create work for an audience online has made work widely accessible to a much bigger audience.
Whilst there has been a willingness of the Arts Council to support artists in adapting their work to the climate, the longer term question of where all this is leading us is yet to be fully answered. Is the answer in charging audiences to access live performance online? Are there more ways, yet undiscovered, that artists and puppeteers can adapt their work in a way that will sustain them? One thing is certain – creativity is clearly alive and kicking and artists are continuing to producing outstanding work. Please let us know what you are up to!
As theatres have been locked down for months, theatre makers have been creating new show formats to reach audiences in new ways. Tessa Bide Productions have created an interactive audio adventure to empower children to be masters of their own destinies, to be inspired by literature and to change the stories they see unfolding around them. We caught up with Tessa to find out more about this audacious adventure!
How have you been over recent months? How have you adapted to working?
The million dollar question! The last few months have been a real rollercoaster, as I’m sure they have been for just about everyone. I have felt a mixture of feeling lucky that, as an independent artist with a small team behind me, I am small enough to do a complete U turn and totally change my plan and how I create work. I don’t have to make huge decisions that affect hundreds of people, but at the same time I have felt like a small island more than ever, and at times so very isolated and powerless!
My producing team (Alice Massey, my Co-Producer and Holly Bond, my Assistant Producer) and I have adapted to remote working, keeping in touch via shared working documents on Google Drive with lots of Whatsapp messages and video calls. At the start of lockdown, when all of our 35+ gigs for the year were being cancelled, we took stock and made a bit of a plan about how we could adapt to the situation. We came up with the idea of regular online content and the creation of an audio piece, so that’s what we did!
Can you tell us about The Anarchist’s Mobile Library which you have made for lockdown touring. What’s it about?
The Anarchist’s Mobile Library was originally a show that toured in a 1970s pop-up caravan called Sydney. I won the caravan in 2018 and made the show last year with support from Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Literature and Latitude Festival. It was about encouraging young people to engage with literature, write stories and change endings, but also to look around them at the ‘stories’ that are being played out in the world. We wanted to encourage them to change the endings of those stories too. Literature and activism for 7 year olds!
Obviously an intimate, interactive show is the Covid nightmare so we repurposed an ACE grant we received at the start of the year to subsidise our tour and created an audio version of the piece. Originally I wanted to create an adaptation of the show, but I didn’t want it to be another screen-based thing for families. How can you encourage families to step away from the screen and the sofa, and physically act out the adventures together, like they did in the original show?
We decided that an audio piece would work best and set about creating it. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure (but not in those words, thanks to the copyright) interactive story experience, where audiences are transported to 6 different story settings – a witch’s kitchen, space, through the magic wardrobe, and then an incredible immersive sound design by Chris Menes and narration from myself takes them on the adventures. They have to answer questions and make difficult, slightly moralistic decisions along the way…then deal with the consequences! We’re creating a D/deaf accessible version with the amazing David Ellington at the moment that will be released on the 21st Nov, thanks to a commission from The Library Presents.
We didn’t stop there with adapting the piece, however. We received a commission from the National Rural Touring Forum and Pound Arts in Corsham to trial a Covid-safe live version of the original piece too. So in October, we took the caravan to a small town called Calne and brought a load of story postcards with us, that said ‘Once upon a time in Calne…’ on them. Along with performers Peta Maurice and Charlotte Dubery, we performed an adapted version of the show outdoors, scooping up family bubbles from the park and bringing them towards the caravan (at a distance!) We played improvised story games with the audience’s suggestions, then encouraged them to write their own stories on the postcards. We then collected the 40+ postcards up and spent a day at Puppet Place collating them all into one mad mega story. Then illustrator Camille Aubry made them into a zine. So this gave us a completely different take on the project, plus a third version of the show that we hope to tour next year too.
How can people watch The Anarchist’s Mobile Library?
The audio adventure is touring venues and theatres at the moment and is available to play now until 31st December via ‘The Library Presents‘. You just need a device that can play sound and access the internet – so a smart phone, tablet or computer.
Looking at the wider picture, what do you think artists like yourself need to support your work in these ongoing challenging times?
We need money! It’s great that a lot of the venues and large companies were bailed out with the government’s funds but I’d like to see more support for freelancers and small companies like ours. It’s also so important to have someone bigger than you ‘flying your flag’. I’ve found that so helpful recently with Pound Arts, Farnham Maltings and the NRTF backing us, and another commission from The Library Presents. So often, as a small company/independent artist, it can feel that we are doing really great stuff but no-one knows about it – like you’re just shouting into the wind. So it means such a lot when an organisation with proper infrastructure and a bit of clout can shine a light on you and just say “Hey, I see you and I think you’re doing great stuff”. Without that, and access to our audiences at the moment, it’s just very, very hard.