In this Puppet Place podcast, artist Corina Duyn talks with Emma Windsor about her ‘Invisible Octopus’ project. Corina worked with Dr. Emma Fisher through a mentoring bursary from the Arts & Disability Ireland Connect Scheme, to explore alternative forms of puppetry to accommodate the physical challenges due to her chronic illness/disability M.E.
What a treat it was to have been able to talk to Jim Parkyn, whose thumbs and fingers have moulded the faces I’ve watched on TV as a child and now as an adult! Jim’s a highly skilled model and puppet maker best known for his work on things such as “Wallace and Gromit”, “Chicken Run” and now for his Instagram streams of “Community Clay Time”.
It’s here that he demonstrates how to make plasticine models in real time before our very eyes. Viewers send him comments and pictures of their masterpieces for him to share with the world. He can make just about anything! (Interview with Amy Baker.)
Image from instagram @jimparkyn
Could you tell us a little bit about your life as a puppet maker and how you got into it?Well! It’s been a long time. I have been working in animation for 22 years now as a freelance model maker and have worked around the country for various studios, including Aardman Animations. Over the years I have worked on Chicken Run, Robbie the Reindeer, Wallace and Gromit, Pirates in Adventure with Scientists, Creature Comforts and Shaun the Sheep, as well as several small series and a string of commercials.
I am now a senior model maker and Aardman Ambassador, as well as running my own very small studio. In recent years I have worked more in the live circuit, running workshops at schools and universities, festivals and corporate team builds and teaching at the Aardman Academy.
I know Community Clay Time has been valuable to so many people and families in the lockdown period (including me!). What were your reasons for starting that up?
The reason I started community clay time was finding that, faced with no work and being in lockdown, I really missed putting on a show every day and how much I enjoyed sharing what I do and teaching those skills to others. When faced with what to start with, I thought the reason we are all still here is because of the virus, so let’s start there in a fun and not threatening fashion. Rainbows seemed a natural second step as it was something different to put in your window and a visible encouragement to people as they pass their neighbours houses.
Community clay time has been such a comfort for me. It provides me with structure in a fractious time which I had lost. I have daily interaction with the audience (albeit written on a timeline), which is encouraging and a constant reminder of how lucky I am to be doing what I do, and is also an artistic challenge to create something new every day that people will want to make.
What sort of role do you see arts and puppetry having in the community?
I think that this is an interesting time for the arts and especially puppetry as both seemingly are reliant on a physical audience. There is a new challenge to find a platform for your story or message and this could be seen as a brave new world of new and exciting avenues for expression.
Puppetry is such a brilliant medium for telling stories and communicating in a way that is unlike any other. There is a level of interaction between the puppet and the audience that is unique and the challenge now is how to have that using new technology and ways of performing. I am excited at the prospect of seeing new projects and how we might share that with a larger audience despite the social distancing.
Is there a project in your career that has influenced you the most?
The very clear influence for me throughout my career – and is certainly manifest in Community Clay Time – is Creature Comforts. The simplicity of concept and the purity of the concept is still compelling and something that I return to time and time again. I think I just like making funny animals!
Do you have any special hobbies that keep you sane whilst being locked down?
I have re engaged with some old projects I had neglected through workload previously. So I am print making, wood carving and foraging the abundance of wild foods popping up all around us at the moment when I’m not pushing plasticine. I’m not sure they are special hobbies but they are certainly a stabilising element in this time.
Wallace or Gromit?
Join Jim each day at @JimParkyn on Instagram to learn how to make a variety of curious creatures, selected at random on a weekly basis! You can also learn more with Jim and other professionals with courses from the Aardman Academy. Find out more on Aardman’s website: https://www.aardman.com/course/
Beverley Puppet Festival is one of the UK’s largest celebrations of puppetry in all forms. This year however, due to the extraordinary times we find ourselves in, we are experiencing this festival in an entirely new way. Puppet Place’s Martha King spoke with Co-Artistic director, Kerrin Tatman, to find out more about the events still in store for us and how to access them.
Hi Kerrin, would you be able to tell us a bit about Beverley Puppet Festival? What would we usually expect from this event?
Every two years, the award-winning Beverley Puppet Festival attracts 13,000 people to the quiet East Yorkshire town for a weekend of performances, workshops, free outdoor theatre and much, much more. Giant creatures roam around the Beverley’s town centre streets; tiny, magical worlds are revealed to unsuspecting audiences in the Friary Gardens and many indoor shows for all ages including adults take place at various venues across the town, including at East Riding Theatre.
The festival has grown to be a much-anticipated event of family arts provision in the Yorkshire calendar but also as a meeting place for puppeteers from around the country and internationally. The Scratch Space offers a platform to puppeteers wanting to try out new ideas to get feedback from a critical audience – the five selected companies receive a festival pass and a small bursary so they can fully immerse themselves in the festival. Networking meetings through Puppeteers UK and Equity take place as well, allowing puppeteers to take part in sector conversations.
Our usual programme of around 30 events across one weekend caters for all ages and genres of puppetry, including some of the best adult puppetry shows from the UK and overseas. Previous visiting international companies include Close-Act, Sofie Krog, Magische Theatertje, TAM-TAM objectentheater, Zero en Conducta and Compagnie with Balls. We always try and make sure that there is something for everyone – from comedy to the avant-garde – and so that everyone can understand that puppetry is for them, no matter their age or interests.
Of course, due to our current situation, the Beverley Puppet Festival has been slightly different this year. How has it differed and how will you continue to bring us content from the event?
We made the decision early on in the coronavirus epidemic that we didn’t want to cancel. Cancelling would have meant the loss of income for the full team and programmed artists, plus our audiences would be in lockdown without their biennial dose of puppetry arts. Instead we decided the only way forward was to go online. All of our pre-programmed artists (apart from two companies) and a few new editions were re-commissioned to design, create and film 25 videos of puppetry-related activities that could be completed by audiences in their homes using simple materials. Three activity videos per week are being posted on our website until July 12th 2020. Activities range from shadow puppets, moving mouth puppets, illusions, rod puppets and even a step by step guide on how to create a toy theatre.
We will still be running the Scratch Space but instead the 5 selected companies will perform their work-in-progress pieces through live streaming on our Facebook account across 5 Fridays in June / July. We were able to open this opportunity up to international artists for the first time due to it taking place online and are thrilled to have puppeteers taking part from Puerto Rico, Italy, Greece, as well as two from the UK.
The third main output we are focusing on for 2020 is our Education Project, which saw festival Co-Artistic Director / Founder Anna Ingleby of Indigo Moon Theatre create shadow puppet theatre packs sent into Beverley care homes. Residents under the assistance of care workers can play and create shadow stories, with participation from family members on Zoom / Skype. With families not being able to visit residents during this time, we wanted to put together a project that would creatively draw families together through digital means.
All activities are free, however we ask audiences to consider making donations to our Go Fund Me page. The money raised will be split between the festival delivery costs and some of our usual partners who missed out due to the festival going online, such as East Riding Theatre, our caterers, marquee hire company and festival technical team.
What inspired the chosen theme ‘Back to Nature’?
Our festival theme of ‘Back to Nature’ was already in place before the transition to an online programme. We chose ‘Back to Nature’ to inspire people more about our natural surroundings and to raise awareness of the climate crisis. The theme feels more relevant than ever with what is happening in the world right now.
Originally we had planned for giant birds, tortoises and sea creatures to greet audiences on Beverley’s streets, but instead now all of the festival activities are linked to the theme in some way. Some activities teach people how to make animal puppets; others ask audiences to collect and use materials from their gardens, and one even shows people how to make a potato marionette monster! We hope that during these difficult times, the festival theme keeps nature and the environment at the forefront of people’s minds and if they are unable to get outside at the moment they are at least bringing a little bit of nature into their households through these activities.
Will Beverley Puppet Festival go ahead in its usual format at a later date?
We have repurposed all of our secured funding to deliver the online version of the festival. For this reason, as well as team members being involved with Moving Parts: Newcastle Puppetry Festival on alternate years, the next live Beverley Puppet Festival will be the 10th edition in 2022.
Although the online festival is unchartered waters for our festival team, we have been looking at the change as an opportunity to develop the event for future years. For instance, we are still printing a brochure of the 25 activities on offer but rather than distributing these nationally and regionally as normal, we are focusing on our immediate geographical audience by sending them to every single household in the Beverley area and surrounding villages.
We’ve used the time to develop a festival app (available through Apple App Store and Google Play Store) so that people can access puppetry content easier and quicker, and we hope to repurpose the foundations of this app for future live festivals. We’ve explored new ways to improve our festival image and branding, such as commissioning artist Rachael Horner to design the front cover of our brochure rather than using a photograph. Rachael’s beautiful design is a real-life collage of a pop-up toy theatre which we hope will inspire audiences to get involved in the activities on offer. To help us deliver this online adventure we have also brought on a new team member Rachael Jones as a Digital Specialist to train the team up and help us reach as many people as possible.
Do you think the restrictions to our way of living due to Covid-19 could influence a new way to experience live puppetry in the future?
We have to keep positive and obviously the ideal will be that after this is all over live puppetry and other arts events can go back to normal as soon as possible. Although putting the festival online is an exciting adventure for us and our audiences, we will be thrilled to deliver the festival as normal again in 2022 – but maybe with some additional digital elements that we wouldn’t have thought of including before!
That being said, we will emerge after the Covid-19 crisis into a different world and no one knows what that will look like yet. Arts funding (in England and Wales at least) is currently in flux with necessary emergency grants being given but resulting in rolling Project Grants coming to a halt. This will affect puppetry and arts organisation in 2021, unless rolling Project Grants are reinstated very soon. For instance, unless Project Grants are reinstated by September 2020, Moving Parts: Newcastle Puppetry Festival will not be able to happen as planned in April 2021. Adaptation is key though and in the case of the latter we will push the festival back to October 2021. There is also concerns about people not buying lottery tickets in the current climate which may affect arts funding and more worrying, a potential ‘hangover’ after lockdown of audiences not wanting to attend live events for a lengthy period of time.
Puppetry, as with other art forms and lots of different industries, is having to adapt to the situation. It is brilliant seeing lots of puppeteers putting up activities and performances online around the UK and internationally. People are coming together more than ever before across social media and with puppetry being a primarily visual art form, puppetry will withstand the current challenging circumstances. But we must fight it together – watch puppeteer videos, share knowledge, look at festival programmes, support organisations and artists in need. We will get through it and puppetry will be stronger on the other side.
The festival is live NOW until 12 July and the full festival programme can be downloaded at www.beverleypuppetfestival.com You can also follow the festival and find more information on their facebook page @BeveryleyPuppetFestival and their twitter account @Bevpuppetfest.
Heather Henson’s (daughter of Jim Henson) extraordinary puppet TV series ‘Handmade Puppet Dreams’, featuring different directors, has recently been released on Amazon Prime. There are 16 short films within the series which feature the work of puppetry artists around the country, showcasing the various forms of puppetry and storytelling styles of top-notch storytellers active in puppetry today. We caught up with Heather and Producer/Director Sam Koji Hale to find out more about this eclectic puppetry short film collection.
Handmade Puppet Dreams is a long established series of puppetry short films that was collected in editions and is now available to watch on Amazon Prime. How does it feel to see so many puppetry films released to such a wide reaching audience in one hit?
Heather Beth Henson (HMPD Executive Producer): Launching on Amazon Prime is very exciting! We’ve been screening these films at various festivals to get them out there, but it’s been a challenge. Now, anyone who has Amazon Prime can just click on the film and watch it right there in the comfort of their homes! We’ve been making these films for years – for the love of it – but now the Internet has gotten to the point where all this streaming is available for content, and we can put it on Amazon Prime and reach a number of countries we couldn’t before. We have access to communities that we never thought were possible, who we hope will watch these films. We want everyone to see this cool art form – it’s so unique. It’s not like anything you’ve seen before. It’s like animation, BUT it’s not! It’s puppetry – with puppeteers moving things in real time and making worlds and characters. Each artist has made their unique world, brought life to it and put it on film. And now you’re just a click away from watching these films – to see these artists and their artistry. It’s very exciting – I’m proud that we are able to do this.
Sam Koji Hale (HMPD Producer/Director): It’s great to land at Amazon Prime and present our short films there! Short films are a great format for modern viewers, who have just little snippets of time between their busy life schedules. You can watch a short bit, go do something, then sit down later and watch another short. It’s a place to discover a wonderful variety of stories in small doses! So we’re very happy to be in one place that many people can find these puppet films.
What makes the short film format particularly appropriate for Handmade Puppet Dreams? What does it offer that maybe feature-length production does not?
HBH: Handmade Puppet Dreams is a collection of films where independent artists make unique, compact pieces of visual artistry. We call it “Handmade Puppet Dreams” because the idea is to allow artists to let their “dreams” come to fruition in short puppet film pieces. It’s already pretty rare to be a puppeteer and most puppetry is in theater, so I wanted to make sure there was a place for puppeteers making films, an umbrella for independent people making their puppet craft or artistry in the recorded medium and sharing with a community. That’s what we’ve helped to create and nurture with the shorts.
SKH: Doing shorts is a way to showcase existing and emerging puppetry artists. They have a year to make something 6-10+ minutes on a fixed budget. It’s a challenge both creatively and logistically. We want to help give filmmakers who work with puppets a chance to express their idea and show their talent without the deep, time and budget-intensive investment of a feature film. What we do is provide a place to gather puppet storytellers and showcase their talent in a small package.
Handmade Puppet Dreams is highly eclectic, featuring work that audiences will no doubt already feel familiar with from popular culture (notably ‘Lessons Learned’ directed by Toby Froud) through to works from emerging or unknown artists. What does this offer audiences? And who will this appeal to?
HBH: Each of these puppet films is a unique gem, as different as the people that are making them. Some are marionettes, some are tabletop puppets, some are puppets you didn’t even know existed until you saw the artist using it in this way. It’s a collection of a variety of different artistic techniques and styles, all in this world of live performed objects. Toby Froud (“Lessons Learned”) is an amazing artist! He’s got these great genetics – the son of Brian and Wendy Froud (“Dark Crystal”/“Labyrinth”) – and Toby’s a spectacular puppet builder, sculptor, craftsman. He has this great vision and did a lot of work on it with a huge crew. We’re very proud to have it in this collection. It’s gorgeous with amazing characters like the Spider Woman!
Other familiar touchstones include “Harker” out of Orlando, Florida done in the style of “Nosferatu” – black and white German Expressionist films; the classic tale of “Ichabod” with puppeteer Hobey Ford’s amazing mechanisms and puppets; and an adult retelling of the Russian mystic “Rasputin” with Jamie Shannon’s unique and funny puppets. We want everyone to see this cool art form.
SKH: Our audience is as eclectic as our filmmakers’ backgrounds. Kevin McTurk (“Narrative of Victor Karloch”) taps in to the Hollywood creature/horror film world of which he’s a part. John Kennedy (“The Sure Sheep”) reflects the sweetness of Sesame Street, which is his background. Pam Severns (“Bunny Love”) takes a popular live comedy she tours and brings that unusual love story to grown-up puppet lovers as a short. Our films are a place to find variety, discover new artists to follow, and show the breadth and depth of puppetry out there today. We hope it’ll be a place for people to discover the unexpected!
In our modern age of high-tech computer generated imagery, what is it about puppetry that endures? What do you love most about this art form?
HBH: Thanks to availability of technology, there are more puppet films being made now, since cameras and the Internet are more accessible and people are becoming masters in their own unique places. Technology – high-end technology in people’s hands allows people to do things like green screen and rod removal – the kind of things that used to be available only at the high end companies. Now they are in individuals’ hands – it’s extraordinary! But I really do like that many of our films are made simply, so someone watching can say “I can do that!” and be inspired to make their own film. To show that puppetry is very accessible. A lot of our films are accessible and I hope they will inspire people to make things and puppeteer them in front of the camera and tell stories this way. I hope people are inspired by this series – to make their own film.
SKH: I think with puppetry there’s a kind of tug-of-war conversation happening. There’s a part of the community that rejects technology for what puppets represent – the real world, practical, tangible storytelling forms. And there’s a space in the community, where I’m operating, trying to figure out the balance between technology and old forms. My work, for example, centres around the puppet, but also looks for a way to enhance their world that is a mix of real and digital. I think what we all love is the physicality of the object, the things that we can sense have real mass, intent through performance, life through art. What takes a team of computer artists to imbue a believable “reality” can be achieved be a really well-built puppet in a skilled one or two puppeteers’ hands.
I think this art form endures because there will always be someone out there that takes an object and then follows that urge to give it life. To make the inanimate suddenly alive! Puppetry is a vessel for our liquid imaginations. That’s what I love about the art form, and the ability to be chameleons – to become whatever you imagine.
That’s powerful alchemy!
Interview with Emma Windsor
It was a pleasure to interview Tim Allen, an acclaimed British stop-motion animator whose filmography spans far and wide. His character animation and performance skill can be found in well loved films and programmes such as ‘Corpse Bride’, ‘Isle of Dogs’, ‘Postman Pat’, ‘Chuck Steel’ and ‘My Life as a Courgette’. Read on to find out why he enjoys moving small fiddly puppets millimetres at a time!
What led you to become an animator?
Well I’d always loved programmes like ‘Morph’, ‘Chorlton & the Wheelies’ and ‘Wind in the Willows’ as I grew up. As an art student I loved ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ but never realised that was even a career option. Once I discovered there were university courses available that taught animation, I was completely in love with the idea that I could chase this new found dream!
After uni, I spent one and a half years approaching every stop motion company I could find in the UK. I phoned and posted them my showreel, then arranged a visit to show my portfolio of model making work also. I did unpaid work experience at a few places, before getting occasional assistant model making work. I was speaking to as many friends as possible to find out where and when opportunities may be, and who to contact. My first animation job was offered to me basically because they were happy with the quality of my animation, plus I was super hard working and cheap!
Tim painting a set piece he’d made in his early career.
You’ve worked on so many projects. What’s been the most enjoyable or challenging?
There are so many! I was of course proud to have been able to work on ‘Corpse Bride’, ‘Frankenweenie’, and ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’. ‘Creature Comforts USA’ and ‘Shaun the Sheep’ were a real privilege, as was being Supervising Animator for ‘Magic Piano’ and for Disney on ‘Club Penguin’. The child in me was very proud to do things like ‘Postman Pat’ and ‘Fireman Sam’. I always try to earn and appreciate the chances I’m given. I also love intimate short projects like ‘Bunny and the Bull’ where we had an insane two week schedule and little budget but had a wonderful time working day and night with a small crew, bonding on a unique creative project.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” 2009 miniature puppets.
What are the key ingredients for successful animated performance?
For me the key ingredient is creating the moment within the film that is required. This is a combination of elements. First and most obviously we must believe the character, that they are engaged with the emotion and thoughts of that moment. Secondly we are also creating a sense of atmosphere as appropriate for the moment in the movie. Is there a sense of urgency, panic, peace, romance, rage at boiling point, etc? The camera angle, lighting, composition, timing to music and more all come into play to enhance this. The shot also has to be timed correctly. You have a limited number of frames to convey what you need to so you keep certain moments efficient to linger on other aspects. It is a refined decision making process. Lastly, and in keeping with the last point, you are directing the audience’s attention to watch and feel what you want them to see, and equally what you want them to not notice. They will be drawn to different parts of your puppet’s body as you highlight eyes, hands and other key details in the same way that a painter designs their composition.
Photo from the “My Life as a Courgette” 2016 production.
You’re currently teaching workshops on character animation. Could you tell us a little more about that?
I started doing bits of teaching and guest speaking early in my animation career, so I’m almost as experienced at communicating about animation as I am actually doing it. As I found myself being asked to teach character animation more and more, I came across recurring issues that students stumbled into, so my classes kept evolving to best help them reach their end goal of believable stop motion character performance. I’ve found that firstly people normally need a period of time to understand how to control a puppet and focus on balance and human movement, before going deeper into acting and emotions.
This is complicated by the fact that animation takes years and thousands of hours of practice to get to a higher level of proficiency. My problem is I’m normally given just days to enhance a group of student’s work. I’m constantly improving the techniques I use to help the students absorb as much understanding as possible in a short time. It’s a version of developing ‘muscle memory’ through repetition and gradual increases in complexity. Repetition and simplicity is the key to help retain understanding, but I avoid boredom by adding layers of ongoing progression. I love the art of seeing how different people absorb and respond to new information. It is a fresh challenge for me to tailor how I present ideas to each individual.
“Isle of Dogs” 2018. The animating of the sushi sequence.
Interview with Amy Baker
Heather Henson’s ‘Hand Made Puppet Dreams’ is now live on Amazon Prime. This is an eclectic collection of selected puppet shorts brought to you by IBEX Puppetry, Heather’s personal project. She has certainly produced one of the most diverse puppet film selections that you will see anywhere. And she clearly has a flair for seeking out some of the United States’ finest, and at times most peculiar, handmade puppet film makers!
There is a huge amount of diversity; from the most beautifully and carefully crafted to the epitome of homemade. There are clear stand out films that are a ‘must watch’ for any puppet film enthusiast or aspiring film maker and there are others that prove that with a camera and a sock puppet anyone could be the next Spielberg!
One of the most extraordinary is ‘Junk Palace’ directed by Lyon Hill. Based on a macabre true tale of two brothers whose hoarding takes them to the extreme. The craftsmanship of these elaborate paper cut-outs is breathtaking and the perfect balance of a gripping story and a striking visual style draws the audience into the darkness of its soul.
‘Junk Palace’ directed by Lyon Hill
Another exceptional piece is Sam Koji Hale’s ‘Yamasong’. This is short film made prior to the full motion picture is surreal, elemental and disturbing in equal measure. With a masked patchwork girl and a tortoise fisherman chasing a fallen star! I’m looking forward to seeing more work from Sam in the not-so-distant future.
‘Yamasong’ directed by Sam Koji Hale
Toby Froud’s ‘Lessons Learned’ is magical and sumptuous. With a real flavour of Henson’s ‘Dark Crystal’ (Toby was production designer on the recent Netflix series) and the haunting atmosphere of Dartmoor National Park. This is a story of a boy whose inquisitiveness gets the better of him and falls into a world not intended for him. Striking design, a poignant narrative and expert puppetry make for rich viewing.
‘Lessons Learned’ directed by Toby Froud.
There are others in the series that are curiously creative and oddly beguiling like ‘The Narrative of Viktor Karloch’, voiced by Christopher Lee and Elijah Wood. Kevin McTurk’s film has a dark and sinister tone and, with haunting doll like puppets, coaxes us into the genre of puppet horror. ‘Harker’ and ‘Melvin the Birder’ deserve attention, and it is also worth checking out ‘Crane and Tortoise’ to see some beautifully executed puppetry.
Others in the series left me a little bemused but one thing is for certain – it is fantastically inspiring to see puppetry used on screen in so many diverse ways. Wouldn’t it be exciting to see more ‘Handmade Puppet Films’ and perhaps even ones made here in the UK? Hey UK puppeteers! How about it?!
Review by Josh Elwell
Handmade Puppet Dreams is available to watch on Amazon Prime now. To find out more about the series and IBEX Puppetry, visit the website: www.ibexpuppetry.com
RAT is a retelling of The Pied Piper of Hamelin through shadow puppetry and sounds influenced from Eastern Europe. We’re very excited that the rats have been let out of the bag and are currently bringing this highly accessible and invigorating experience to venues across the country. Developed and created by theatre maker / multi instrumentalist Louis King.
Puppet Place’s Martha King caught up with her brother Louis, along with puppeteer and visual designer Ailsa Dalling, to talk about the process behind RAT.
Hi Louis, can you tell us a bit about the show and why you chose this story?
Louis: RAT is a reimagining of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. We’re telling this story with shadow puppetry and live music, without the use of spoken word. As a musician I’ve always been interested in The Piper, and telling a story that features music at its heart was an exciting challenge to take on.
Some of the themes present in the story include responsibility, migration, deceit and political corruption. One of the first questions we asked ourselves when exploring the story was “who are the rats?” During our first week of development, the world was in the middle of an immigration crisis. You may remember Katie Hopkins described those arriving to European shores as “vermin” – this greatly influenced our thought process when making RAT. While immigration is still an unsolved problem in our world, times have moved on, and we now find ourselves surrounded by incredibly powerful politicians; the Mayor Character in our story is very much of this ilk.
And so by exploring the “rat” in our society, we have turned a children’s fable about paying one’s dues, into a current and relevant political allegory for our times.
The music is very central in RAT. What influenced you musically and were there any changes made in terms of a traditional theatre experience due to the musicality in the piece?
Louis: When exploring the history of The Pied Piper and it’s origins, there are various theories about where the children were taken. The most prominent of these is that they were taken to Eastern Europe, in particular Poland and Romania. And so as a band we have been exploring Klezmer and traditional Jewish tunes. This style of music has informed much of the score written for RAT.
However, because of the instrumentation in The Rat Affair we were able to explore other genres such as soul and funk. And so the music is essentially a whirlwind of styles all mixed up together. It’s a weird pitch to have a folky number with accordion and violin followed by a full on soul track with electric piano and tenor sax, but it weirdly works very well!
Applying this to the story of The Pied Piper is a whole other beast. I wouldn’t say that we have changed the traditional theatre experience, but I would say that we are blurring the lines between theatre and gig. And arguably, rather than challenging theatre, we are most likely challenging the form of how live music is presented.
Ailsa, what is your puppetry background and have you had to adapt your technique to fit with the storytelling in RAT?
Ailsa: I trained at the Curious School of Puppetry under Sarah Wright in 2016. Shadow Puppetry and projection were a module on the course, which I found very inspiring at the time. In particular, the teachings of Steve Tiplady and Liz Walker. Since then I have continued to experiment with those techniques and combined it with my background as an artist. For example, in RAT, I am using Lino-prints as part of the aesthetic and visual language of the show.
As a puppeteer in theatre the majority of my work is using rod and table top puppets, so it has been interesting developing RAT over the last two years as it’s all shadow puppetry. Although the same basic principles still apply, the puppets are all 2D and mostly made of paper, which in itself is a new skillset to work with.
This show is visually so important as there is no use of language. Can you tell us a bit about the decision behind this and the challenges you faced when telling the story through images?
Ailsa: The choice not to use language, spoken or written, was something that was decided very early on in the RAT development process. We wanted to make a show that was accessible for all audiences; the story of the Pied Piper crops up in many different cultures and is told all over the world. We hope that in our telling, in bringing together different styles from across Europe in both the music and visuals, we weave the current political climate into this story.
The challenge in not using words has meant that we have had to really develop the visual language within the show. It has surprised me how often I’ve been tempted to put words in but pushing past that I’ve found some of my favourite images. The music and sound design have to tell the emotional journey of the characters just as much as the visuals, which is more common in film. Sivert Christensen, our director, is a filmmaker which has been really interesting when it comes to deciding how we visually tell the story. We talk a lot in rehearsals about where the ‘camera’ is and how we as puppeteers can lead the audience’s eyes to what they need to see.
What’s next for The Rat Affair, have you any ideas for future projects?
Louis: We will tour RAT over the next month or so, and start thinking about a second bigger tour in 2021. The Rat Affair also perform as just a band and we will be playing a lot this Summer in venues and various festivals across the UK.
Moving forward I think the whole company will come together again at some point to make new work but at the moment it’s not entirely clear. There is talk of turning this show into a short film, using the artwork designed by Ailsa Dalling, so maybe that will be the next project?!
Interview with Martha King
RAT will be shown at The Loco Klub, Bristol, on the 8th March. Click here for tickets.
Aardman’s music video for Coldplay’s title track ‘Daddy’ on their forthcoming album is a poignant tale of a little girl searching for her father that uses puppetry and animation to create its beautiful, dreamlike imagery. We caught up with the Director Åsa Lucander and puppeteer Katie Williams to find out more about the production.
Åsa, it is clear that a handmade aesthetic was important for the production but why traditional puppetry? What did traditional live-action puppetry bring to the production over stop motion puppetry, for example?
[AL] Quite often a decision to create a certain style for a project is something that develops for a variety of different reasons. When you are working on music videos, what you have acting against you is time and budget, even for big bands like Coldplay. I would have loved to build a real physical set for the whole film, but that would have taken months, which we didn’t have. However when you have restrictions you come up with creative ways to execute your vision, and I’m so happy with the outcome for this film. It gave me an opportunity to include different media and they all supported the sense of surrealness and magic that I was after for the film.
I was also fascinated with the artistry of puppeteering. Every performance of a theatre play is slightly different, and the same goes for live action puppetry on screen. There’s something fascinating about that notion; scary but fascinating. Scary, because in order for a take to be successful the whole shot needs to be perfect, you can’t edit a take much in post. All the poses, positions, movements, emotions and timings need to work. Every take is unique and it makes improvisation a much bigger part of the process, whereas in stop motion everything is much more planned, calculated and precise. It took me a while to get used to this, but once you do, you embrace it. It’s a very collaborative and wonderful process and medium to work with.
In puppetry, the question of whether to reveal the mechanics of puppetry (the puppeteers, strings, rods, etc.) is a hot topic! Interestingly, in ‘Daddy’ you mix this up, green screening the puppeteers, yet revealing the strings for other puppets. What was the thinking behind this?
[AL] I think there is something magical and obviously theatrical about the way puppets move. There is a restriction to what you can do with the puppets, yet they have a way of moving that is unique and raw, yet has a sensibility that you wouldn’t be able to achieve in the same way through stop motion. The whole film is about the girl’s fragmented memories about her father and I wanted this to be reflected in the style as well. One line in the song goes, “Daddy won’t you come and play” and I hung on to the notion of perhaps the girl had memories of playing with a puppet theatre with her dad. With that in mind, I left in the strings for there to be a nod to puppet theatre and I had the houses hanging down on strings, almost like a set from a theatre play. Most importantly I didn’t want there to be too many rules about what I could and could not do. Like in dreams and memories, dreams are fragmented, memories only partially clear, a surrealness exists that is only in our minds.
Katie, You worked as a puppet maker and puppeteer on the production. How did you get involved? And what did you work on?
[KW] I was part of the puppetry team led by Brunskill & Grimes. We created the puppets and then puppeteered them for the shoot. I have been working with Brunskill & Grimes on and off for a few years, so when they were asked to work on the project I jumped at the chance to join the team.
The puppet making was very much a team effort. I was working alongside Jimmy Grimes, Jo Lakin and Hugh Purves, and I mostly worked on the little girl puppet. This character was created in two different scales; a large version (roughly 40cm) and a small version (roughly 15cm). I was responsible for sculpting her hands, moulding and casting her hands/head, making aspects of her costume and styling her hair.
During the shoot, I was one of three puppeteers on set. I puppeteered the little girl’s feet, hands and even her hair for some of the underwater shots. I also puppeteered one half of the whale, the rowboat and the kite. When I wasn’t on set, I was busy preparing the puppets for their next shot, which included general maintenance as well as changing the positions of rods or sometimes switching the rods out completely in place of strings.
It looks like there’s quite a range of methods used in the puppet fabrication. Did the team make these fabrication decisions based purely on the required movement or were there other factors to consider?
[KW] There were a range of different methods used to operate each of the puppets. This was explored most thoroughly with the large-scale little girl puppet. This puppet is in essence a table-top puppet operated with rods by three puppeteers. We used this basic principle in lots of variations. Each of the rods could be removed and repositioned in various different locations. For example, the rod in her head could be positioned to come straight out of the back of her head or from either side of her head. The same puppet could also be manipulated with strings. For the underwater and falling shots the movement quality needed to be smooth and fluid. Operating this puppet with strings aided in achieving this slow, subtle movement.
When making these decisions the movement quality was always of paramount importance. However, we also needed to consider the practical aspects. The two key practicalities to consider when puppeteering were shadows and rods/strings. If a puppeteer was casting a shadow across the shot we would need to adjust the performance to avoid this. This could be as simple as moving the rod in the back of the puppet’s head from one side to the other. Or that only two puppeteers would operate the puppet and we would temporarily glue the feet down.
Did you have a favourite puppet?
[KW] My favourite puppet is definitely the large-scale little girl – but I might be a little biased! I also fell in love with the ocean. This was designed and created by our very talented Set Designer Helen Javes. It was essentially layers of large plastic sheet laid over a frame. Each individual wave was painted and scrunched to perfection. This was puppeteered by Jimmy Grimes from underneath the frame. A subtle sweeping movement would create crashing waves.
As the production uses 2D animation and composite to create it’s imagery, what was it like to puppeteer to those objects that weren’t there? What was it like wearing those green suits?
[KW] Both the fish and raven are 2D characters that were added in post-production. During the shoot we needed to imagine these characters were there, so just like an actor you have to draw on your own imagination to bring these moments to life. The quality and mood of our performance was definitely enhanced by Asa’s decision to play the track throughout the shoot. Certain beats in the music became key moments of performance. There were also certain technical aspects like eye line that were aided by a simple location marker on the puppeteer’s monitor – a little dot on the screen that represented where the fish or raven would be.
Haha! I secretly quite like the green suits. I did get some strange looks when I wore it into the workshop as I ran in to quickly tweak a puppet.
What are the key differences between puppeteering for stage and puppeteering for screen?
[KW] Although the skills of a puppeteer are transferable between screen and stage there are a number of differences and subsequent challenges when working in these two mediums. Focus is a key difference. When puppeteering for stage, the puppeteer looks directly at the puppet and in doing so draws the audiences’ focus away from themselves and onto the puppet. In screen performance, the puppeteer looks directly at a monitor so they can observe their performance first hand and make adjustments to their framing and eye line. The biggest challenge of always looking at a monitor is being aware of your surroundings, including the other puppeteers. What you see on the screen is often a completely different perspective. On screen it might look like the puppet is perfectly positioned to sit down when in reality it is about to fall flat on its face!
Another key difference is the scale of the puppeteer’s performance. Puppetry for stage can (and often needs to be) larger in scale. The puppeteer needs to be able to convey their puppet’s message all the way to the back of the theatre. As a result, puppets for stage are often made at a larger-than-life scale to aid in this communication. Comparatively, screen puppetry is subtle and specific. When puppeteering in this medium every tiny movement of the puppet is picked up by the camera and in turn magnified.
I love both stage and screen puppetry for different reasons but if I had to choose it would have to be screen puppetry. I love the challenge of trying to hit your mark whilst still delivering an authentic performance. And of course the added pressure of trying to nail it in just a few takes!
Interview with Emma Windsor
To find out more about the making of ‘Daddy’, read Åsa Lucander’s article ‘Behind The Craft’ on Aardman’s blog, which details the full creative process, use of 2D animation and crew credits. Watch the official music video ‘Daddy’ on YouTube here.
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Award-winning company Theatre-Rites is a field leader in the creation of experimental theatre for children. Their latest co-production with German company Schauspielhaus Bochum aims to bring neuroscience to audiences in entertaining and visual ways. Emma Windsor caught up with Theatre-Rites’ Artistic Director Sue Buckmaster to find out more about how this modern day Pinocchio tale was born.
Can you tell us a little about the story of ‘The Incredible Tale of Robot Boy’?
The Incredible Tale of Robot Boy is a large scale show which has been co-produced by Theatre-Rites and Schauspielhaus Bochum in Germany. Initial development support came from Wellcome Trust and Polka Theatre. It is inspired by the idea that, if Pinocchio was to be created today, he would not be made by an Italian woodcarver, but by a team of Global Scientists.
We tell the story of how a group of cutting edge Neuroscientists make a brain from scratch and put it in the body of a robot boy. They do this to advance their studies of how neurobiological methodology can be used to help those with prosthetic limbs or with neuro-degenerative disease. However, what they actually learn about is what makes us human and how to face the responsibility of looking after their young creation, who rapidly becomes more sentient and playful. The show aims to both entertain and introduce the audience to concepts of neuroscience in fun, highly visual ways. It is suitable for anyone over six.
‘The Incredible Tale of Robot Boy’ is a project that was developed from the ‘Animating the Brain’ project funded by the Wellcome Trust. Can you tell us about the aims of that R&D project?
Six years ago I decided I would like to learn a little more about Neuroscience. I collaborated with puppeteer/performers Charlotte Dubery (who is Associate Director to the production in Germany), Mohsen Nouri and Simon Palmer. I personally wanted to understand the language of neuroscience, consider the ethical implications of its advancements and see how it could increase my understanding of the power of the puppet on stage. After all, a puppeteer literally offers their brain to become the brain of another object.
Wellcome Trust funded the initial stage that allowed us to do research with neurobiologists Matthew Grubb and Laura Andraeae. We learnt about basic neuroscience and its various applications. As a Theatre-Rites project it was also important to ask: how can we make the study of the Brain interesting to children? With the scientists we had imagined creating a brain from scratch and had discovered how neurobiologists manipulate or investigate neuron activity in their daily practice. Next I wanted to put that imagined brain in a puppet body of a child so that children could relate to it more directly. That enabled us to explore the brain/body connections discovered by understanding neuron activity in the brain regions. This related to the methodology I use as a Puppet Whisperer, slowly bringing a puppet to life.
We commissioned Stitches and Glue to create the puppet. It became the stunning Robot Boy. As part of our research we visited year 6 children to ask them what interested them about brains and to ask their teachers about what already existed on the curriculum. Polka Theatre allowed us to try out ideas during their Brainwaves Festival where we presented a sharing and Q&A session to children and those interested in science and the arts.
After the sharing we were asked to take Robot Boy in to Great Ormond Street Hospital for a residency to meet families with children who were experiencing neural illness. We also met doctors and play therapists who were making key decisions about offering brain intervention reparation techniques. This was very different to the clinical world of our earlier scientists who dealt with neuron clusters, sliced and dead brains. We were now embarking upon emotional and ethical issues raised by developments and opportunities offered to children through advancement in our understanding of how the brain works.
The set/puppet design in the show is particularly eye-catching! Can you tell us more about the design concept and fabrication?
After 3 years of research we had our beautifully designed central puppet character by Stitches and Glue and we were ready to start turning our research into a visual theatre show. I shared ideas with writer Jimmy Osborne and we slowly created a script. Joanna Scotcher came on board as Designer and she proposed the stunning laboratory setting with a sci-fi aesthetic which was constructed by the in-house team in Bochum. Within that set she provided a series of pentagon and hexagon surfaces which could be projection mapped to receive imagery created by video artist Dick Straker. This was inspired by the graphics of neuroscience and the images from EEG monitors and MRI scans. Along with Lighting Designer Wolfgang Macher a stunning visual world has been created on stage inspired by a cutting edge Laboratory and the real things found there, as well as the imaginary world of Robot Boy’s Dreams as his brain becomes more human.
‘The Incredible Tale of Robot Boy’ opened at Schauspielhaus Bochum in Germany and will run there over Christmas. How has it been received so far? Will it tour in the UK?
The show is now part of the Schauspielhaus Bochum’s repertoire and is performed in German by their ensemble of performers. Theatre-Rites also introduced two puppetry skilled guests to join the ensemble: Markus Schabbing and Franziska Dittrich. It will run over Christmas until the end of January, then it is part of the repertoire of shows that the Theatre can present throughout the year. It is not specifically a Christmas show.
It is performing to an audience of 800 at a time, either schools or families, and it will have reached over 20,000 by Spring. So far it has engaged people with its beauty and braveness. It has been acknowledged for taking a current and not necessarily child-friendly subject and making it accessible, fun, beautiful and inspiring.
We are now looking into the possibilities of bringing the English version to the UK.
After 20 years of running Pickled Image this is a new and exciting direction for you and your work. What is it that has led you to the conception of Opposable Thumb Theatre and what is it for you that makes it a new and different adventure?
I formed Pickled Image in 2000 with Vicky Andrews, who had a background in sculpture and theatre design. We made fantastic shows and have garnered a reputation for making quality puppets shows. Pickled Image perform many different types of show from family entertainment, street theatre, cabaret and adult performances, all with many types of puppetry, but after 20 years I felt I wanted a change and to concentrate on making bronze sculptures and to look at making more challenging, subversive theatre. Although Coulrophobia was a Pickled Image production, it typifies the style of work I’m passionate about. It’s anarchic and silly, but it has hidden depths. We are using it as a launch pad to get Opposable Thumb on the map until we make our new show, which we are currently in negotiation with NVT to co-produce.
Meanwhile Vicky is taking Pickled Image to greater heights (& audiences) with her brilliant shows ‘Yana and the Yeti’ and ‘ Woodland Tales with Granddad’.
You have seen huge success with Coulrophobia and have played to packed houses, rave reviews and standing ovations since 2014! The show is part of The London International Mime Festival in January and then you are back home to the Wardrobe Theatre in the Spring. What else lies in store for this acclaimed production?
We have just been taken on by Ali Robertson ( formally from the Tobacco Factory Theatre & Kneehigh) as our producer and he’s really on the ball, inviting potential bookers, collaborators and co-producers to LIMF to see Coulrophobia, plus we’ve also got bookings for festivals in Spain, Norway, Estonia, Bulgaria, Portugal and others in the pipeline. It’s great that the show has this type of popularity and, despite being in English, it still works where it isn’t widely spoken. The show is visual enough to speak for itself.
Coulrophobia skilfully combines slapstick, clowning, puppetry and anarchic comedy. How important to you are these elements? Can you tell us a bit about your creative process and where you find the fuel to feed this fierce creative fire?
Coulrophobia was a show that had been gnawing away at the back of my mind for a fair while before I was actually ready to make it. I had made ‘The Shop of Little Horrors’ for Pickled Image in 2013 and had drafted in Adam Blake as a performer/puppeteer to work with me on the show. Adam hadn’t had a vast amount of theatre experience, but had done quite a few clown workshops and was a natural performer, very funny and quick to learn puppetry. It seemed like a logical step to make another show together. For ‘The Shop of Little Horrors’ we played with classic horror tropes and ventriloquism, but we wanted the new show to be more extreme, physically and emotionally. Initially we toyed with the idea of violence, towards each other and the audience. We went to stage-fighting classes, trained with swords and guns but then decided that wasn’t really who we were. We just wanted to be silly instead. I have been working with puppets for about 28 years, but mixing it up with latex masked characters, so replacing the mask with clown makeup wasn’t a big step. I wanted to keep puppets within the show, but didn’t want to make a ‘puppet show’. An early tagline was ‘crap clowns do puppets’. The mime just wrote itself in, existential angst is always lurking and the big shoes I painstakingly made.
Adam & I discovered that we were a pretty good team whilst working on ‘Shop’. Our characters accidentally reflected us in life, Adam young and keen and I old and grumpy, but together we seemed to bring out the best in each other. Once we decided that we were going to make a new show, we knew we were going to play on our differing characteristics, exaggerating them to comic extremes. I knew John from seeing Peepolykus shows since the mid 90’s and getting to know him in Bristol (everyone knows everyone here). I really love John’s humour and his style of theatre and he seemed like a natural fit for Coulrophobia. The devising process consisted of us locked in a room attempting to make him laugh. Adam & I threw ideas at him and he would turn them on their heads. We played lots of status games, satirising traditional circus routines (we worked for days on a crap juggling routine, but you have to be good at a skill to convincingly make it look bad, so that went out the window). We worked a few days with a choreographer and even spent some time with a magician. John’s main task was to take the huge amount of material we came up with and hone it into a cohesive show.
I’m sure readers will be keen to know what lies round the corner for Opposable Thumb? Is there a new show brewing behind the scenes? Are there other aspects of the work that we can look forward to in the coming year?
We are currently in discussion with Nordland Visual Theatre, Norway, where we made Coulrophobia, Yana and 3 other shows, about a new co-production in 2021. The working title is ‘Big Boys Don’t Cry’. I’m not saying more until we have the go ahead, but it will be a very different show to Coulrophobia, but with many many familiar traits. Also Adam & I are talking about making a cabaret show using bits of old stuff, new stuff and stuff we make up on the spot, but as Adam has just had his 2nd child and has quite a lot of other work with WyldWood, we’ll have to fit in around his super busy schedule.