Puppet Place CEO and Co-Producer of the Bristol Festival of Puppetry, Rachel McNally, ponders what is puppetry? What does puppetry mean to us and our sense of humanity? In fact, why does it matter at all..?
“My interest in puppetry first came about as a result of seeing Green Ginger’s show, Slaphead in Bristol many years ago. It was the first time I really came into contact with the uncanny and unnerving quality of puppets. After many years of enjoying theatre, I had discovered something different. This quality of difference is something I am still fascinated by today and continue to discuss with my colleagues at Puppet Place including Chris Pirie (Director of Green Ginger and now Co-Producer at Bristol Festival of Puppetry) and Dik Downey (Pickled Image Co-Director and Slaphead of the show).
I gave a talk a few years back at Bath Spa University. Has The Popularity of War Horse Killed Off Innovation In UK Puppetry?
I argued that War Horse was not a puppetry show but a show with puppets, with the puppets used as an inspired tool as part of a broader theatrical language to tell a story. I then went on to try and define what I thought a puppetry show is – not entirely successfully – what I was trying to articulate was that form drives content and vice versa.
The examples of this I would cite are:
The Paper Cinema, who use cut out illustrations with music and a narrative technique akin to that of a film editor to create their shows: diving in and out of their illustrations via a live feed from a camera to a projector screen. As with all puppetry, the act of seeing how the “trick” of bringing the illustrations to life is achieved amplifies rather than diminishes the illusion.
Count To One, directed by Zaha Sabri. Inspired by the poetry of Omar Khayyam, the show is set in a dreamscape made up of circles of potters’ wheels. In the show, three soldiers put down their weapons and give their dreams life through the spinning of the wheels and the constant moulding of the clay by their hands. One memorable scene shows a woman’s journey from girl to mother: meeting her lover at a party, making love, becoming pregnant, giving birth, nurturing her child. What makes this so powerful is the constant transferral of the clay from mother to the son as the one ages and the other grows from child to man. There is no sentimentality, it is a beautifully crafted piece of puppetry made poignant and subversive by the strict censorship of Iran. In a country where women and men cannot touch in public, this type of puppetry offers a subtle challenge.
Dafa Puppet Theatre’s The Smooth Life uses found and everyday objects to tell the story of Husam Abed, a Palestinian boy growing up in a Jordanian refugee camp. Husam is performing his own life story for us as we sit around the dinner table waiting for the pot to boil. The show starts with Husam lovingly placing grains of rice on the table to show us his family and where they all are on a map of Palestine, with each grain of rice we get a little glimpse of their character. Time inevitably passes and the moment comes when Husam sweeps the rise from the table with the simple words, “and then this happened”. Throughout the show, Husam invests simple objects with a rich symbolism to drive the story and to highlight the value of things in our society and what it means when you have nothing and no society.
From these examples, for me at least, I’m clear that puppetry is much broader and more interesting than any one particular form and I no longer want to talk about the boundaries and outer edges. In my role as Puppet Place’s CEO I have endless discussions and comments with funders, filmmakers, puppeteers, audiences, theatres on any of these themes:
“Puppets are marionettes. No, a stop-motion model isn’t a puppet. A show with a toy train is not a puppet show. I want my money back.”
I think I’m done with this now! So to re-frame my title… Puppets Are Dead. Long Live Puppetry! Here at Puppet Place, we’ve taken Penny Francis’s definition that puppetry is the “art of bringing the inanimate to life” and made that the beating heart of what we do. This is reflected in the practice of our community ranging from creative robotics, to stop motion and theatrical puppetry and how we programme Bristol Festival of Puppetry.
But why does any of it matter? This is the part I always struggle to articulate, but I’ll give it another go…
If a lump of clay, a slab of meat, an illustration on a stick or an exquisitely crafted marionette can all be understood to convey meaning and create empathy with an audience, this tells us something important about puppetry. “Puppetry” has a unique metaphorical voice, a narrative of materiality which enables us to communicate in ways that are different to conventional language and verbal reasoning. To restrict it to being a “theatrical tool” is to diminish its power and limits ourselves as human beings. I realise that’s quite a claim.
So why is puppetry important to our sense of humanity?
As human beings, we communicate in so many ways. As conscious beings we talk, we reason verbally, we listen, we articulate. Much of this type of communication is based on an assumed common language – it may be English, French, Farsi or Jargon. However, as we know, these languages are also barriers if you don’t have them. So if you don’t have a common language how do we communicate – is it possible? Yes, but you have to rely on other forms that are often part of our more unconscious forms of physical expression e.g. gesture, movement, expression, physical stance, breath.
From firsthand experience, when I was part of the jury for Puppet Is A Human Too Festival in Warsaw where the common language was Russian (which I do not speak), I can tell you it is possible. It’s much harder but immensely rewarding. In this situation, we are having to work harder on both sides of the conversation to understand and be understood, to create meaning and it forms a common bond. We have to forgive confusion, accept we might be interpreted differently and be patient with each other. Be empathetic. Hierarchy and status go out the window – it doesn’t matter who you are, how many languages you speak, how linguistically confident you are, everyone is on the same level. And I think this is a similar process to what happens with puppetry. As the art of bringing the inanimate to life, we are imbuing “objects” with a gesture, movement, expression, stance and breath to create meaning. We are making ourselves as audiences and puppeteers work harder to communicate.
We are asking each other to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be through puppetry and in doing this we are starting to think slightly differently, to make intuitive leaps of the imagination and leave ourselves open. In this interpretation, puppetry is an amazing methodology to make us into better people. It’s also fun and there is literally a “puppetry object” to suit everyone, whether it’s a turnip, a robot or a giant horse puppet. It also works in all settings from theatres to cinemas, it works in libraries, it works in labs, on the street, in the digital realm, anywhere. It’s a universal theory of everything.
The art of bringing the inanimate to life becomes a way to bring humanity together and think differently and this feels very important. Our political and social landscape is very volatile at the moment. There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty about the future, there is an upturn in racism since the EU Referendum and we continue to face economic conditions that hurt the most vulnerable in our society. It is precisely these groups that puppetry is best placed to help and support. It can communicate these different stories in our society and do so in a way that gets under our skin and makes us want to understand.
But what is the role of the artist/puppeteer in all this?
Facilitators, workshop leaders, etc….Well yes, but to confine artists in this way is reductive and rather boring. I think there is potentially a different role, much more challenging, but much more exciting. I think it’s always been there, but we need to be explicit. ‘Artists’, ‘Puppeteers’, ‘Creatives’ – whatever your terminology – I think we can define them as:
Ambassadors of Ideas.
As with artists, an ambassador’s role is varied. Sometimes it’s doing the fun stuff, going to parties, handing round the chocolates. However, there is also a tougher job, keeping lines of communication open with people whose views are opposite to your own, creating deals and agreements that allow for great co-operation and stepping into dangerous territory and keeping the peace.
As ambassadors of ideas, I would like to see all of us who think of ourselves as artists, puppeteers, creatives and producers keeping the fun, but also really owning up to that responsibility to keep the ideas flowing, challenging prejudice, stepping into that dangerous territory and creating opportunities for communication and empathy where none exist.
If we are living in an “alternative fact” society and there is no longer a common language, then puppetry is the perfect way to communicate, to bring us together and make us human to ourselves and each other again.
By Rachel McNally, April 2017.
Rachel McNally is CEO at Puppet Place and Co-Producer of the Bristol Festival of Puppetry. She has previously worked as a producer and tour booker for Full Beam, Pickled Image, Stuff & Nonsense Theatre Company and The Devil’s Violin Company. More information about Puppet Place can be found on our website at: www.puppetplace.org