Provocative Ramblings on Puppets – Stop Motion Or Otherwise by Barry JC Purves [Part Three]

Barry JC Purves is an OSCAR and BAFTA nominated animator and director, who also directs and designs for theatre and teaches the art of animation.  In this, the third and final in a series of insights, he considers the the art of artifice and stop motion animation as a puppetry form.  [Read Part One | Read Part Two]


 

462977_10151088927322388_31257347_oEvery time we see a puppet, we are aware of the technique, well the technique becomes part of the performance. We know the limits of the materials, the puppet, but something much richer is happening. Currently, Broadway is enjoying the colourful spectacle of Bette Midler playing Dolly Levi, but I doubt that there is ever one second where the audience forget they are watching Ms Midler, and just enjoy ‘Dolly Levi’.

Midler is the whole point. Puppets are free of this overt baggage (oh dear, I didn’t intend to call Ms Midler an overt baggage), but they are still invariably a reflection of their manipulator.  I hold no truck with actors having to be cast to resemble other members of their onstage families, or being criticised for not being the right age of the character, as long as they can deliver the performance – we so often get bogged with everything being so literal, when there is nothing literal about theatre or even film. Orchestras, scenery, costume, delivery, lights, editing all throw any sense of the literal out of the window in the non-existent fourth wall. Oh how I would like to cast the identical twins, the Dromios and the Antipholus’, and this has to have been done, as wildly different physical, and racial performers. If the characters tell me they are identical, then I believe them. If a puppet of bamboo convinces me that he thinks he is a dragon, then I’ll go along with it.  Puppets rise above all the dull literal, and have to celebrate their artifice, and enjoy the metaphor that they are. I’m not sure that being literal has any place in any of our work.

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A still from my film ‘Achilles‘ (1995) , a very theatrical film – ‘theatrical’ in that the artifice allows everything to have a significance and not get bogged down with the literal.

My own area of puppetry is stop motion, and to the public the manipulators have disappeared and the characters are happily performing by themselves. This is of course far from the truth, it’s just that the animators are hidden, not through wearing black, or out of the light, or under a set, or at the end of cable out of sight, but we are there, just in between the frames. We are still touching the puppets, often leaving our fingerprints in the clay, or unavoidably ruffling the clothes. But we are there, and the characters, despite what lexicon of movement they have been given by the animation director, still reflect the animators’ own body language.

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A still from my film ‘Tchaikovsky – An Elegy‘ (2011).

There is as much of a connection as between a ventriloquist and his character. The hand is still involved, and for all the hi-tech developments of frame references, and playback, and onion skin (a device that shows the previous frame as an opaque layer), the hand and plain concentration are still the best tools. Stop motion has developed enormously and many puppets often now have replacement faces and often different body shapes, offering an enormous range of stretch and squash that mere mechanics might not provide. As usual with new technology, there is resistance and, personally, I’m a bit hesitant about anything that takes some of the performance away from the animator’s hand, just as I’m cautious when the performance of puppets on film is created in the edit suite, or when the previously mentioned scenic delights are provided by digital means – ah how ironic, that digital also means to do with the finger, as well as the 0’s and 1’s.

The beauty of puppets is that they have limits, and that they have physics that we conquer. We get a huge amount out of little. They are there. I like the rawness of a puppet, and the integrity of a complete puppet. Having stunt puppets for different scenes and with different capabilities, to me, takes away some of the basic essence of a puppet, which is the direct contact between the puppet and the puppeteer. This cannot be lost or diluted. The audience can feel this communication.

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Me animating one of the many intimate scenes from ‘Achilles’ (1995).  A Bare Boards production for Channel Four Television.

As long as puppets continue to celebrate artifice; continue to be worked obviously by hand, and continue to be their manipulators’ voice, and this is especially effective when the manipulator, through reasons of gender, race, politics, culture, disability and such, is unable to speak up for themselves, well, puppets have a lively future. Hopefully, I’ll still be involved in this utterly beguiling world, telling the world what I think, but through the more eloquently articulated actions of my puppets.

 

[Download the full article as a PDF ]

 


The full article is now available to download in PDF format.  Read further insights and information on the art of stop motion animation in his excellent publications.  Find out more about his film and theatre work at his website: www.barrypurves.com

Provocative Ramblings on Puppets – Stop Motion Or Otherwise by Barry JC Purves [Part Two]

Barry JC Purves is an OSCAR and BAFTA nominated animator and director, who also directs and designs for theatre and teaches the art of animation.  In this, the second of a series of insights, he considers the appeal of puppetry on stage and screen, and the special relationship between puppeteer and puppet.  [Read part one here.]

 


462977_10151088927322388_31257347_oIn the theatre puppets are now being allowed to be puppets, and are revelling in their very artifice – and they are everywhere. This is not just due to the respect given to the ‘War Horse’ characters but also because digital technology is becoming so extreme that we are not sure what we are watching, and many of us are tending to enjoy more obviously handmade arts.

It’s telling that the Royal Exchange’s production of ‘Little Shop of Horrors’, from two years ago, finally gave Audrey II the ability to race round the theatre’s stage by putting the puppeteers outside the plant, and having their performance very much part of the show. Before the puppeteers were hidden inside Audrey, giving her a very stolid presence.

We know special effects are an effect but a naïve thought crosses out brain, muttering ‘ah, computers’, and whilst computers can do anything, that lazy thinking denies the craft and skill of the computer artists. Some of the wonder has gone now there are no limits. But that is part of the point, computers can do anything and thus not everything is surprising or interesting. Increasingly digital projections are used as scenic elements on stage, and whilst our collective jaws are on the floor and we are dazzled, part of us, part of me certainly, feels disappointed that these effects were not achieved through good old scenic design skills. This is the same disappointment that we feel when seeing our favourite model’s before and after Photoshop’ images, not to mention the feeling of being cheated. The camera never lies – like heck it doesn’t!

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Puppeteers at work for Pickled Image’s show ‘Yana And The Yeti‘ are clearly seen as part of the performance [Photo: Adam DJ Laity]
This is not being resistant to technology, but it is about enjoying and being part of the trick, and a trick must have a limit to work. You have to show the top hat is empty before you can produce the rabbit. To some extent, you have to show the mechanics and limits of a puppet. Many a child had their life changed by a magical transformation scene at their first pantomime. A digital scene transformation is impressive but it is cold. On stage we are presented with an empty box but within those limits we see luscious visions transforming before our eyes. We know the limits and yet we are astonished. Take those limits away, and we are all a bit ‘meh!’ Watching the overdose of digital scenic effects at this years’ Eurovision was like having a head full of exploding candy and equally as unsatisfying. If only there was an element of physical stagecraft. The hand, the human…

With a puppet, we are always aware of it being a puppet, and yet aware something else is happening. We are moved, shocked, outraged or whatever.   It matters not that we see the cast of ‘Avenue Q’ holding their puppets or that we see Nina Conti’s hand clearly manipulating her Monkey puppet, in fact it would be a lesser act if the Monkey was presented as a complete, separate character.  The puppet is the device, and the whole point actually, that allows her to be many things that perhaps she may not be off stage, and seeing a physical connection emphasises the essential point that you can’t really have one without the other, as they are both sides of the same coin. There are dozens of photos of animators, puppeteers, and sculptors staring lovingly at their creations – we could almost be looking at Hamlet and Yorick again. Perhaps they are all looking at themselves. Alter egos, conscience, therapy, cathartic devices – we are bound to our puppets, and they are unforgiving reflections of ourselves. They are our true voices.

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Myself and the puppet from ‘Tchaikovsky – An Elegy‘ (2011, studio M.I.R.)

And we are back with Shakespeare and his fools. Their role in the world of the play, through their folly, is to be able to say the truth, totally unhindered. They have a license to be true. Lear’s fool is almost an invisible friend, as he has so little direct involvement with the other characters.

jack pointRichard Haynes’ illustration from my book, of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Jack Point.

He tells Lear the absolute truth, and only when Lear accepts this, does the Fool fade from the play, his work done. Lear’s fool is Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket, and Harvey, or even our own teddy or pet.  We confide in them and make sense of our days. I love that fools, too, usually have a folly stick, a puppet, so they can comment further, and who can blame their provocative speeches on an innocent puppet?

My favourite example of this has to be the film of Mary Poppins. The poor Banks family are very damaged, and the more earthly nannies incapable of healing, but upon the children’s request, there arrives the enigmatic Mary from nowhere. Over the course of the film, she heals the family, and then, when the wind changes, she is ready for the next family.  The Banks are too wrapped up to say goodbye, and this hurts Mary, even though she is practically perfect and this is as it should be. It takes her parrot umbrella, a puppet no less, to voice her true feeling. He is quickly silenced for being too honest.

 

mary poppins02Illustration of Mary Poppins by Richard Haynes
for my book ‘Stop Motion – Passion Process Performance.’

Everywhere, we storytellers have to find this external device to constantly reveal our characters inner voices. The film is called ‘Mary Poppins’, not ‘The Banks’, and what little we know of her comes from the umbrella or the equally odd chameleon like Bert. The umbrella serves much the same purpose as Yorick’s skull. Though the skull is a seemingly inanimate object replete with resonances, Hamlets often act out a scenario with it – a performance, and that is what suddenly makes this a puppet. Without the element of performance, the puppet is just a doll or a prop.

It seems the more basic the puppet, the more we can read into it, and the more potent it becomes. Simple Kermit, with the hand barely hidden, is still the most rich and complex of muppets. A glorious live action /animation short, ‘Little Face’, has Adam Buxton come face to face with his childhood invisible friend, who is little more than a floating yellow balloon with spindly legs. Through this balloon, which no one else acknowledges, we learn how all Buxton’s aspirations have come to naught.

 


In the last article in this series of insights, Barry will discuss the art of artifice and stop motion animation as a puppetry form.  Read further insights and information on the art of stop motion animation in his excellent publications.  Find out more about his film and theatre work at his website: www.barrypurves.com

Bristol Festival Of Puppetry 2017: A Peek Behind The Curtain

If you are anything like me, you wander around puppet festivals with the wild-eyed wonder of a child, taking dozens of photographs of all the shows, walkabout puppets and street performers to be filed away later in a folder marked ‘puppet festivals’; sparing barely a thought for how all this magic happens. Today we take a peek behind the curtain to find out what it takes to put on a successful festival.

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The Puppet Carnival Parade

Bristol Festival of Puppetry, first launched in 2009 is a bi-annual event organised by co-producers Rachel McNally, CEO of Puppet Place and Chris Pirie, Artistic Director of Green Ginger. Working in collaboration with some of Bristol’s best-known venues, it has brought some of the most talented UK and international puppet artists to our city. Growing in ambition and popularity each time, it has worked hard to change the public perception of puppetry as a marginal art form and make it an integral part of Bristol’s public and cultural life.

The first Bristol Festival of Puppetry in 2009, brought to life through a partnership between Puppet Place and Aardman Animations was a celebration of local puppet artists and talent, supported by the generosity of Pickled Image, Green Ginger, Full Beam Theatre and Tobacco Factory Theatres. Two years later, the festival was decidedly more international, with partnership support from Nordland Visual Theatre from Norway, who have since gone on to work alongside Puppet Place in all subsequent festivals. Artists from the USA, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia added a global flavour to the festival, delivering a range of shows and workshops at the Tobacco Factory Theatre and the nearby and now sadly missed Brewery Theatre.

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Still from: The Smoking Puppet Cabaret

In 2013, the festival explored the work lying at the outer edges of puppetry, delivering an eclectic program of events, workshops and performances which encompassed both the traditional and experimental and featured a diverse range of puppetry styles and techniques. 2015 saw an expanding festival spread its wings across the city with events and performances at several landmark venues including the Arnolfini, SS Great Britain, M Shed, Puppet Place and the Control Room at Redcliffe Bridge whilst still retaining its all important social hub at Tobacco Factory Theatres. That year BFP also partnered with Watershed, allowing the festival to successfully present its film programme in a dedicated cinema venue for the first time, thus enabling it to reach new crossover audiences. This collaboration has proven to be so successful that, together with Tobacco Factory Theatres, the Watershed is one of the two festival hubs for 2017.

And so to BFP 2017. I caught up with Chris Pirie, co-producer of the festival, to find out about the plans for BFP17.

Hi Chris, thanks for taking a few moments to talk to us about BFP17. The previous four festivals have been tremendously successful for artists and audiences alike, how are you planning to build on that success with BFP17?

No problem Stephen, happy to help. Although there is no doubt about the popularity of the festival with local audiences and artists from both near and far, when we analysed the measurable outcomes for the 2015 festival it became very clear that our engagement with the public was not reaching as diverse an audience as we might have wished. Only 11% of our audiences described themselves other than ‘white British’ with a similarly low number identifying as having a disability. We are committed to addressing the issues those figures raise by embracing a focus on diversity and inclusion in BFP17.

What specifically is being planned for the festival to increase the diversity of audiences and artists?

We have invited a number of artists to perform at this years festival who will not only appeal to, and cater for, a more diverse audience but many of whom are in some way additionally challenged by a disability themselves. We have two exceptional companies coming from Canada; Equivoc and Les Sages Fous, who both produce stunning non-verbal performances and innovative Dutch artists Bontehond who use iPads to make engaging and accessible theatre. We also welcome Hijinx, a highly regarded Welsh company of learning disabled performers as well as the celebrated companies Theatre-Rites and Stephen Mottram who transform the most unlikely of materials into striking entertainment. We are also pleased to welcome Rouge 28, England’s most ethnically diverse puppet company to the festival as well as supremely talented South West-based artists Barnaby Dixon and Tessa Bide.

We’re also looking at issues of diversity in our film programme at Watershed, notably a programme dedicated to showcasing female talent in puppetry and animation, on screen and behind the camera.

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Still from: “Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant” – a short film in the BFP17 Film Programme

Are there other activities and events or organisations you will be partnering with for this festival to help achieve your ambitions for greater diversity at this festival?

Yes, in association with Diverse City and Doing Things Differently we have organised a three-day meta-festival of workshops and discussions that ask what is puppetry’s unique gift to the diversity agenda? We have invited specialists from across the diversity spectrum to participate in helping us understand the skills we need to learn to enable us to work with and for, diverse audiences. This will culminate in a Call to Action to identify goals and strategies, both as individuals and as a sector, to help us address diversity in all our future activities. We will be building on our existing relationships with the Family Centre for Deaf Children, Bristol Physical Access Chain, the Bristol Old Vic as well as Hijinx, David Ellington and our partners in this initiative, Diverse City and Doing Things Differently.

That all sounds fantastic, are you planning to ensure a legacy from the festival continues into the future?

Absolutely, we are creating a Diversity Focus Group made up of festival organisers, venues, artists and others to evaluate the success of our activities and ensure that we maximise the potential in any learning from these events during the festival. Overall, we hope that the legacy will be meaningful and sustainable, making diversity awareness an inveterate part of what Puppet Place does and help it become a powerful advocate and agent for change in our sector.

How is the festival kicking off this year?

The first weekend will start with a very loud and brash Creatures of Bristol Carnival parade along North St. – a popular and eagerly anticipated feature of previous festivals. We will be working closely with both the Highways Dept. and the police as well as expanding our team of volunteer stewards as we had hundreds of people unexpectedly joining the procession and even more watching last time!

What part of organising BFP17 have you enjoyed most and what part has been the most challenging?

Both Rachel and I travel extensively in our work and it is a great honour to have the opportunity to bring exceptional artists and outstanding performances from around the world back to Bristol. The financing of a major public event is always a challenge and we are very grateful to have received generous support from a number of sources, including Arts Council England, Aardman Animations, Nordland Visual Theatre, Bristol City Council and our two principle venues, Tobacco Factory Theatres and Watershed.

Thank you again for taking the time to talk to us about the festival and the challenges you have faced to bring it to Bristol again this year. Are there any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers about this year’s festival?

As the festival draws ever closer and with much of the planning in place, we are now looking forward to the full programme being published and tickets going on sale. We are excited by the surprises and treats we have in store, and confident that our audiences will have a fantastic time at this year’s festival.

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Interview by Stephen Barrie Watters


The Bristol Festival of Puppetry runs from September 1 to 10 with live performances at Tobacco Factory Theatres and animation at the Watershed.

Tickets can be obtained from the venues and a full programme of events will be available after our launch event in mid-July.  Keep an eye on the BFP17 website for further details coming soon.  Stay up-to-date with all the latest BFP17 news and announcements via our Newsletter, Facebook and Twitter.

 

Provocative Ramblings on Puppets – Stop Motion Or Otherwise by Barry JC Purves

Barry JC Purves is an OSCAR and BAFTA nominated Animator and Director, who is passionate about the art of film-making. As well as his film work, he directs and designs for theatre and writes about, teaches and promotes the art of animation. In this, his first in a series of reflections, he considers how puppetry in its broadest sense serves as a means to express inner-most worlds and connect with audiences in visceral, tangible ways. 

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So, here I am, and I want to talk about myself.

I want to share my opinions, my loves, and my experiences with the world, or with anyone who will listen or read. I want to shout, before I go, that I was here. I want to question the world as I have seen it. I want to pass on what has excited me, or what I have learnt, and I want to warn others. I want to show, that however small I may be, that I have mattered.

This has been the familiar cry since we all sheltered in fire lit caves contemplating the day just gone, and wanting to celebrate our hunt or a birth or a death. A cave wall was a blank canvas, and became suitably adorned with stickmen figures, showing various sequential events, almost as a storyboard. There was even a suggestion of movement with the various buffalo sporting eight smudged legs in various positions. Maybe in the flickering firelight, these drawings gave an illusion of life.

But most interestingly, next to the drawings were several handprints, in dried blood or mud, screaming ‘I was here and this was our story’. The hand; the humanity so much in evidence. We’ll keep coming back to that. These paintings, showing the progression of the events, have already broken the fourth wall, editing and shaping events, cutting out the dull bits, to make an interesting, and personal story. Every story is just the best bits of an event, told with much construction, and with just the bits that are significant or contribute to the tale. No story is simply a record. Artifice is rampant, and was even back then.

Flash forward a good few centuries to 1434, with Johannes/Jan van Eyck and his world-changing surprisingly intimate and domestic portrait of ‘The Arnolfini Betrothal’. This is a picture crammed with potential symbolism that has had the art world arguing for centuries. Claiming to be the first oil painting, it could be also seen as the first business card. Yes, there is a documentation of the wedding, but there is also the undoubtedly amazing display of skills – he can paint oranges, he can paint wood, he can paint fur, he can paint perspective, glass, brass, and so on.

It is an outrageous display of talent, and Van Eyck even has the understandable audacity to place himself in the mirror at the back and very prominently add his signature ‘Johannes Van Eyck fuit hic’. If there had been Facebook back then he would have had his own page and many likes. Yes, this is recording a real event, but it is doing so in a wonderfully artificial and theatrical display. There is a real, even if unnatural, sense of presentation. Something is so gloriously fake but it is also telling the truth, and in probably a more interesting way; the celebration of artifice that will come to define art.

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‘The Arnolfini Betrothal’, Johannes/Jan van Eyck

Jumping back a bit, the ancient Greeks, for example, were happy to take away the individual personalities of the Chorus performers by putting them in masks, and this way, not only could they be heard in the huge amphitheatres thanks to the acoustic properties of those mouths, but their artificial and usually neutral faces allowed them to become whatever Aristophanes or Euripides wanted – anything from clouds, wasps to weeping women, or even a public conscience. The artifice allowed a more directly honed and honest presentation. The structure of the plays, alternating consciously between scenes with two actors and then with the chorus, and all the while using deliciously heightened language and singing, cannot ever be said to be realistic but there were certainly realistic issues being discussed. Even the very nature of theatre, with Aristophanes, were discussed – the Meta the better.

And glancing forward once again by the great medieval Mystery plays with the moral dilemmas facing Everyman personified, and ‘The Castle of Perseverance’ with its human representations of abstract ideas of virtues and vices, we race to Shakespeare. For all his psychological observation that still holds oh so very true today, he was one of the most consciously artificial writers. His plays, simply, are not realistic in the slightest, no play is or can be, but we can recognise the joys and torments of the characters. His Chorus striding boldly onto the stage in invariably overcast daylight to ask for some hush and a use of imagination leads to a shared experience. A game, a partnership, a play. Play.

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Shakespeare, and the Globe, from my film, NEXT, Aardman Animation 1989

Hamlet is probably one of the most theatrical plays ever written, but that does not stop it becoming one of the most astute. It’s possible to think that the barrage of tricks Shakespeare uses to reveal the characters’ thoughts, might get in the way of the narrative and the characters, but no. With the right approach and integrity, none of the audience would question that a plainly artificial character such as a ghost can kick start and carry the weight of the great tragedy. Along the four hour heavy traffic of that stage, Shakespeare throws in many theatrical moments of fakery that allow the characters to reveal their thoughts or further the plot. There is madness, song, platitudes, soliloquies, fools spouting the truth, as well as the magnificent play within a play of The Mousetrap – a wonderful device to echo the situation in the play and to sum up the journeys of all the characters so far in a condensed and highly enjoyable scene, all the while setting up the exposure of Claudius.

Best of all, is Yorick’s skull. This simple, resonant prop becomes a device that allows Hamlet to be profound in a way normal conversation would prohibit. This is some external and knowingly artificial, or theatrical, trick to allow the audience to understand the internal workings of the characters. These devices, the external expression of internal thoughts, are at the very core of all drama and storytelling in whatever medium. We just have to find that device that allows us to interestingly spill forth our ideas.

The mask can be physical or otherwise, essentially a liberating device, such as a red nose, a wig, a piece of costume, white face on a clown, or Charlie Chaplin’s tramp persona, or Bart Simpson’s yellow skin, a gloriously witty epigram, a piece of music that allows us to dance, a clever rhyme, or a funny walk, or a song, or a slash of unexpected colour or a change of perspective, or a striking composition or an angle of the camera. In our own lives, we often talk through a third person to address a partner, or through Facebook, or we talk to our cat or teddy; a change of perspective that makes sense of our days. This device, this change of perspective could even be a simple cup of tea offered as an invitation to open up – it’s seldom about the actual tea.

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My own very stylised and artificial set for a stage production of Sherlock Holmes, its’ fluid artificial space allowing for many locations and tricks.

This device can also be a musical number – remember Laurie in ‘Oklahoma!’ worrying about which suitor to take to the dance that evening? She doesn’t know who to choose so she dances a dream ballet in which the different scenarios are played out. A moment of great artifice making sense and clarity of a dilemma. With these safe, distancing devices we touch on myths and fables, and even religion – heightened stories to guide us and to warn us and to instruct us and to entertain us. Time and time again, artificial devices speak the truth, a mask that reveals. It’s safer, and more imaginative to use metaphors than mere didactic narrative.

This ‘mask’ can also be the theatre space or the camera itself, or a technique, such as animation or, yes, a puppet. It is something that distances the real us, but allows us to speak unhindered. We need an audience, or witnesses to our lives that won’t judge, and speaking through a ‘mask’ is more comfortable, and dramatically interesting.  Puppets, whether animated on screen through stop motion, or manipulated live in front of us, are most joyfully fake, and work best when we see the technique, and yet something else rises above the technique and communicates to us.

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Illustration from my book by Saemi Takahashi, showing the Kuroko operating a Bunraku puppet in full view.

Gone, essentially, are the days when puppets were used, as a last resort, pretending to be live action. King Kong, for example, was animated only after other methods did not deliver, and I suspect a stop motion puppet, today, devoid of the stylistically beautiful and distancing black and white photography, placed in a live action background would fail to be credible, though there are still, happily, some studios producing amazingly convincing animatronic creatures. Today computer graphics can happily and seamlessly put convincing fantasy characters amongst live actors, though secretly we still prefer those animatronic characters, as we know they have been built and that there is a human hand involved somewhere, and that this produces some random element to their performance. This is of course irrational as there are still human hands involved with computers.

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‘King Kong’ (1933)

Maybe it is the element of spontaneity and slight erraticism we respond to, and more importantly, the fact that they exist and could be touched – we will never lose the need to touch things. Puppets, animatronic creations, stop motion figures all are clearly tangible, dead inanimate objects, but they are given an appearance of life. Again, it about confounding the norm or the rational. We know a puppet is wood or clay or fabric, but through the performance, we are moved and engaged and willingly believe. It takes some contribution from ourselves. Enjoying the performance is one thing, but enjoying the performance in spite of or because of the technique is far more satisfying.

 


In the next article in this series, Barry will examine the appeal of puppetry on stage and on screen, in particular against the backdrop of computer generated imagery in our digital age. [Read part two here.]  Read further insights and information on the art of stop motion animation in his excellent publications.  Find out more about his film and theatre work at his website: www.barrypurves.com

What kind of an artist do you want to be?

In this series of articles, Stephen Watters, Co-Founder of ‘That Creative Thingy Wotsit’ and Puppet Place Associate Artist, takes a look at the business realities behind all creative enterprise and examines exactly what it takes to start and grow a successful creative organisation.

If ever there was a question which begged an obvious answer then that must be one. Of course you want to be a good artist and you want to be successful. As a new or emerging artist, there is little that I or anyone else sat at a laptop keyboard can do to help you with the first part of that wished for outcome. It’s mostly down to your latent talent, how hard you apply yourself to honing your craft and ongoing development, copious amounts of hard work and determination and a healthy dollop of good luck.

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The second part however, being successful, is something that I and other more experienced and worldly wise business men and women just might be able to do a little something to help with. Hang on a minute, did I just describe myself as a business man? Yes, I did. And therein lies one of the first obstacles we need to address. As much as I, and probably you too, love to describe myself as a creative artist or professional performer, what I am in reality, and most of all, is a businessman. I’m in the business of making a creative product, marketing and selling it to the public and doing so at a profit. If I don’t succeed in doing that I’m either going to be a starving artist or have to go back to being a wage slave.

Urban myth has it that 8 out of 10 new start-ups fail within the first 18 months. Something as often repeated in business circles as strong & stable is by a Conservative party devoid of real policies to offer the electorate this election cycle. The facts, according to recent Office of National Statistics are that around 42% of new businesses are still functioning five years after start-up. The inverse of that is obviously that some 58% of new businesses are not.

The reasons behind those failures are probably as many and varied as the number of businesses themselves, but there are some reasons which appear time and time again regardless of what type of business it is, including creative ones. These ‘common causes’ appear with a frightening predictability and whilst they can, and do, cause business failures all on their own they are invariably only a part, albeit a large part, of what cause many businesses to fail.

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I am fortunate in that I get to chat with lots of graduates of performing arts courses and other people considering a change of direction by becoming a creative artist, or a business person as we now know better to call them. I always ask them, what were you taught on your course about business planning, marketing and financial management? The number of times these subjects have been barely touched upon, for me as an experienced businessman, is quite shocking. It’s akin to sending the students out to make their way in the real world without a map of how to get to where they want to be.

And so to the reason for these articles. By spending an appropriate amount of time and effort to at least make yourself aware of the basic skills and know-how needed in these key areas, a lot of the risks to your success can at least be minimised. We are going to concentrate on just the three key elements of starting a new business I mentioned earlier, the business plan, marketing and finance/funding. Not because these are the only three that matter, but because they are the three that probably matter most if the questions asked of me by people just starting out in business or the statistics on business failures are anything to go by.

So we are going to start with the business plan. I know, I know, you’d all rather I just cut to the chase and talked about the money, ‘the kerching’, and I am. It just doesn’t look like it to the uninitiated. But as you will learn, by experience rather than just by me telling you it is so, the business plan is always about the money.

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I was chatting to my business partners about these articles and how best I might get across the importance of the business plan to someone starting a new business as a sole trader or a new partnership where neither party has run a business before. Our MD Rachel, as smart a business person as I have ever worked with, asked me how many business plans I had written or been involved in writing. I ran out of fingers and toes at twenty and probably could have added more to that list had I needed to. So you’re very experienced and well practiced in the dark art of business planning she added, so tell the readers how much time and effort you are putting into the writing of our new business plan and let them figure out that if someone with so much know-how and experience needs to put that amount of time and effort into a plan, and they find themselves doing less, then the chances are they aren’t putting in as much into it as they probably should. Told you she was smart.

Our new business will involve us, as a CIC, taking creative artists and theatrical performers into residential care homes to work with the elderly, the disabled and people suffering from dementia in an effort to enhance their lives, mitigate the loneliness and social isolation they experience and make them happier if we can.

So far, I have attended two arts council funding workshops, will be taking a two day course in strategic funding planning with the Directory for Social Change in London two weeks from now. I have spent over 60 hours in care homes talking to people with dementia, their carers and their families. I have spent at least 40 hours doing market research into charities and other groups who work in a residential care environment engaging residents in some form of ‘arts’ based activities. I have read several reports into the benefits of arts in a care environment by Age UK, the Arts Council, the Baring Foundation and others. I have spent many hours in meetings with my two partners, who have both put in as much time and effort as I have, and I have studied in detail the business plans of several successful arts-based businesses including the Tobacco Factory and Theatre Bristol based here in the South West. All this has accounted for about a third of the time and effort I have put in so far, and what stage are we at? We are just about to start writing our first draft of our new business plan this weekend.

It is tempting for me to tell you that you need to do this process well if you are planning to apply for funds from the Arts Council, Charitable Trusts and Foundations or other funding bodies and you will, but more importantly, you will need to do it well to give your new business its best chance of being successful. If your business plan ends up in a file only to be dusted off and brought out when needed for a funding application then I can tell you now, it’s not a good plan. A good plan is a living, breathing document which guides your business through those troublesome early years and ensures you become one of the 42% of businesses that stick around and not be part of those sad statistics of businessmen and women who, for whatever reason, didn’t quite make it this time.

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Lack of column inches and the necessity for this article to be of an introductory nature prevents me from going into detail about your business plan and its contents. What I can do however is to point you towards what I believe to be an excellent guide, commissioned by the Arts Council and written by Dawn Langley and Susan Royce of Alchemy Research & Consultancy. Spend time reading through it. More than once if you need to. Take time to make sure you understand the methods and models they are introducing you too. There are lots of good quality YouTube videos to explain SWOT & PESTLE, resourcing, and monitoring & evaluation for example which will build upon your understanding of the planning process and the business tools these excellent authors touch upon in their guide. Find other similar businesses who have published their business plans on-line and take the time to learn from them. I promise you, if you put the same amount of hard work and determination into this process as you will into trying to become a ‘good’ artist, you will for sure also be a successful one.

 

Article by Stephen Barrie Watters


Next time, we are going to delve into the challenging world of finance. It makes sense to do that before we cover marketing because, after all, if you don’t get the finance in place to pay for everything, including your wages, there is a very good chance there will be no product to market to the public. We will look at the best way to successfully apply for funds from the government & Arts Council (£1.1 billion), charitable trusts and foundations (£5.6 billion) and UK company giving (£420 million) and how best to access the £200 million and growing funds accessed through various crowdfunding platforms here in the UK in 2016. Until then, don’t let the difficulties and frustrations of writing a good business plan put you off going for it, one of the very few things that can be guaranteed in life is that the best boss you will ever work for is YOU..!

The Model Artist: An Interview with Max Dorey

Max Dorey is a set designer, modelmaker and resident artist at Puppet Place.  His work has earned Off West End award nominations for ‘Best Set Design’ and ‘Best Design’ in the UK Theatre Awards.  We caught up with him to talk about his passion for modelmaking, why it is important in his artistic practice and how models can tell their own stories.

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Picture: Max Dorey

What interests you about modelmaking?
I never did any ‘proper’ modelmaking per se until I started doing theatre design at university, though I had had a go at bits and pieces, and have always made things. I think as I’ve started to use modelmaking as a tool in design rather than an end in itself it means it’s always been something that serves to tell a story and to be something which needs to engage the viewer, either as a theatre tool or as an art object.

I’m always learning new skills, and it’s great to discover a new technique to help you try new things, but it also means that you can quite quickly put together something that feels ‘real’ or begins to tell a story, without worrying when it’s ‘finished’ or ‘perfect’. As I’ve done more modelmaking, I’ve discovered that it’s interesting to play with these ideas at a scale and let people start to tell their own stories from the model without the need for the play at all. It’s something which can be practical, a hobby, or artistic, and so far it’s been the easiest way I’ve found to express ideas.

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Picture: Max Dorey


What aesthetics, materials and subject matter do you tend toward?

Generally, I’ve always had an interest in broken down, grimy and used materials – there’s something so engaging about the ‘reality’ of a space or object when you start to break it down and notice the little chips and dents that start to tell the story of a design or prop. It’s the part when the model will really start to come to life. I’ve started to move into cleaner and more stripped back designs in theatre work, but I’ve also just started working on a series of art objects that really take the broken down, rusted aesthetic to it’s full, and hopefully give the impression that we are looking at something with a real history and life to it.

Some of the themes I’m really interested in are the relationship between design and nature, separation and a need for a space of ones own, climate change and our relationship with each other in dealing with it. I like isolating these moments to really examine them, I’ve started to get a lot of interest in scaffolding and supporting structures. I like retro design, too, I love anything with graphic design from the Victorians right through the 60’s and 70’s. We have a bunch of packaging from the GDR at home that we got in a flea market in Berlin. It has a lovely simple and lively quality to it. Basically the trash around a product, boxes, bottles, etc, all are interesting, artistically, and in setting a scene in place and time.

 

What commercial works and exhibitions have you been involved in?
I’ve done a few bits and pieces over the last few years – I started making puppets. I’ve sold stencil paintings, props, illustrations, and other bits. I’ve displayed my theatre work and models as a finalist for the Linbury Prize for stage design at the National Theatre, as well as the Society of British Theatre Designers exhibition in Nottingham, and exhibited some of my illustration work alongside the stories they were drawn for.

When I was at the RSC as an assistant designer we also did various bits of front of house exhibitions, and helped design the foyer for the new incarnation of ‘the other place’ when they first reopened for the Midsummer Mischief Festival. Currently, a book I’m a co-author for is on sale in UK bookshops, published by Penguin. It’s a book of odd and silly haiku written under the guise of pen name Gordon Gordon, called “Is that all you people think about? A modern Haiku collection”. It’s great! everyone should buy it in triplicate. I also have been selling ‘treecups’, model scenes in tea cups and coffee cups.

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Picture: Max Dorey

What projects do you have in the pipeline?
I’m currently designing a directors festival for the Orange Tree theatre, another show at Central School of Speech and Drama, and have a schools tour of Julius Caesar in the works for The RSC. I’m hoping while we’re there to be able to push through a personal theatre project we’ve been looking to RnD for a while, and the next step for my own work is to get some of the various projects which are pure modelmaking to completion.

I’ve been working on a set of trash spaceships to display at the Tobacco Factory during the The Bristol Festival of Puppetry, made entirely from junk and scraps rescued from the bin. Another project that I’m hoping to get pushed forward this year is a huts project.  I’m aiming to make a shanty town of huts, one for every country on earth, and a set of robots whiling away their days aimlessly, as well as illuminated shadowboxes. It’s great to push through a project add see where it takes you, but it always takes the initial push before you start seeing where it will go – Instagram is great for that. I can put out my latest work and get an immediate reaction. I’ve set up a secondary account to @maxdoreydesign called @dreamyoxdesigns where I’m hoping to put out anything which is purely for sale for it’s own sake, to differentiate between my theatre and making work.

 

Interview by Emma Windsor

 


To find out more about Max Dorey and to view his portfolio of work visit his website, twitter or Instagram.  For a full list of productions Max has worked on, see his CV.  Read an interview with Max about his theatre design work on our News Blog here.

Marlborough Puppetry Festival: An Interview with Event Director David Leech

David Leech is an event director, performer and puppet-maker of the famous Pelham Puppets. For 15 years he had a puppet theatre in Dorset.  Now he continues to design and make puppets for children and for professional puppeteers.  To Mark the 70th Anniversary of Pelham Puppets, David produced the Marlborough Puppetry Festival in partnership with the British Puppet & Model Theatre Guild and with the support of Marlborough Town Council. 

 

The first Marlborough Puppetry Festival will be held on July 8th and 9th in 2017. How did it come about?

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A year ago, it occurred to me that 2017 would mark 70 years since Bob Pelham started his company and I had twice, on the 50th and 60th anniversaries, tried unsuccessfully to mark the occasions with some sort of public celebration. However back then, I was met with indifference and apathy, but one evening last year, I thought, ‘let’s try again!’

My first action was to email one of the Town Councillors with my idea for a puppet festival – maybe Marlborough would be ready to embrace the idea? Despite the lack of funding and the failed funding bid from the Arts Council, I’m happy to say that the Town Council have been very supportive, both with providing the venues and making a £1,000 donation.

The Town Clerk especially has done far more than I ever expected in helping to bring it all together. There is a great team of volunteers working hard locally, so they are helping with local fundraising and event management. It’s strange how things change with time.  There’s now a great appetite for nostalgia and the retrospective, once people realise that what they once had has gone forever.

For over thirty-three years Bob Pelham spent almost every working day designing and supervising the manufacture of his award-winning puppets. Bob Pelham once said, “the puppet world is more appealing and lovable than anything I know. A world of fantasy and mystery in which live a host of intriguing little people with their own characters and temperaments, a law unto themselves, neither animals nor humans, yet always ready to please.” Bob Pelham’s unique puppets came to be loved by children all over the world. Pelham puppets are special and it required a special person whose aim was not to create a ‘big business’ but to produce something new, creative and imaginative for people to enjoy.


You have had a long career as a puppeteer, producer and a puppet maker. What made you want to work within the puppetry world? Could you also share your favourite memory regarding your experiences at Pelham Puppets?

I asked my parents for a dog when I was seven years old and what they got me was a wooden dog on strings, which was a Pelham puppet. And I still have the same one. Then I got more Pelham puppets from the local toy shop and me and my friend started to do shows together when we were eleven years old. I wrote to Bob Pelham and told him about our shows and he wrote back and eventually I met him.

I have many memories from my time at the factory and Bob Pelham’s home. I knew Bob Pelham from age 11 and used to visit once or twice a year every year and stay at his home for a week during school holidays and work in the factory. He never paid me. I was “paid” in puppets! He would say, “Go into the stock room and help yourself.” I would select about four puppets and make my way to his car for the return journey to the train station, but he’d say, “That’s not enough!” – and load me up with several more puppets. I could hardly manage them on the return journey, struggling on and off trains with several carrier bags full of puppets. In that way, Christmas always came early.

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Bob Pelham in 1947

A few years after leaving school I eventually moved to Marlborough and I worked in almost every department in the factory, except for the Sewing Room and the Moulding Room. I couldn’t get used to those industrial sewing machines, they were like machine guns going off, they just went too fast for little old me and I avoided the Moulding Room, mainly because of the smell! However, I look back now with great affection for those years, I reckon with rose coloured glasses to some extent.  Imagine working in a factory with over one hundred ladies, when you’re just a young lad.  I quickly learned not to get involved with “work-room gossip!”

Today, there is no sign that the puppet factory ever existed, apart from the fact that the area is known as Pelham Court. However, during the summer months the ducks still paddle and quack along with the stretch of the River Kennett that ran through the factory site, but the sounds of drills humming and hammers tapping and the aroma of sawdust and coffee have long since gone.

I started to research and writing about the history and development of Pelham Puppets (with Bob Pelham’s help) sitting in his favourite armchair in his living room at his home one November evening in 1973. It took 35 years to finally get the book published in 2008 and then, lo and behold – a Marlborough publisher did it! Crowood Press in Ramsbury.

 

What are you most excited to see during the festival?

For me one of the highlights will be to see the old Pelham Puppets from 1947 and to meet the people I used to work with for 40 years ago. In the Town Hall, we will have the “Bob Pelham World of Puppets” exhibition. This will include over 150 puppets beautifully displayed and set into scenes and depicting the various ranges and characters produced from 1947 to 1986.

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David Leech (left) at the Opening Parade in Stone Staffs in 2015 with the local Mayor and giant puppets by Clive Chandler.

Another exhibition in St Peter’s Church – “A Walk Down Memory Lane” – featuring puppets and other items from the Pelham Puppet factory and photographs of the people who worked there and how the puppets were produced. Visitors will be able to meet with former employees who will share their personal memories about their time working at the factory and about the work they did. Entrance is free and this presents a lovely opportunity to learn about Pelham Puppets first-hand from some of the people that made them.

Thirdly, with the help from Michael Dixon, we will have a special exhibition in Marlborough’s newly opened museum within the Merchant’s House, which will include the Hogarth Collection.  Jan Bussell and Ann Hogarth were a great help to Bob when he first started his business in the post-war years and we will have some of the first puppets produced from 1947-1949 including the very first Scotsman puppet, “Sandy MacBoozle”, which Bob Pelham made on June 22nd, 1947.

I noticed that in addition to the wonderful exhibitions, the Marlborough Puppetry Festival will offer several indoor puppetry performances, outdoor shows and workshops, aimed to enable you to reach new audiences and many who might not have seen a puppet performance before. 

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Promotional flyer for Marlborough Puppetry Festival

Bob Pelham (1919-1980) always encouraged people to get involved with the world of puppetry and now, many of the professional puppeteers appearing at the festival started with Pelham Puppets.  So I hope this event will also serve as a showcase for British puppetry too.  It is not a ‘dying art-form’ as many seem to think. It is very much alive! And Bob Pelham’s legacy and influence have a great deal to do with that.

I agree with you, David, it sounds like this festival will be a remarkable celebration of Pelham Puppets and British puppet theatre and the great impact that Pelham Puppets had on the young puppeteers, now part of the professional puppet theatre culture in the United Kingdom.

Interview by Marika Aakala

 


The Marlborough Puppetry Festival will run on the weekend of 8th and 9th July 2017. To find out more about the festival, visit the British Puppet & Model Theatre Guild’s website and keep an eye on the Festival Facebook page for all the latest news and announcements.  Find out more about David Leech and Bob Pelham at the Pelham Puppet website here.