Monthly Archives: February 2018

Puppetry In… ‘What is Australian Puppetry?’ Part One

In this, the first in a two part feature about puppetry down under, notable puppeteers discuss what defines Australian puppetry and sets the scene apart from puppetry in other cultures.  This article is edited by Kay Yasugi, Pupperoos (New South Wales) and General Secretary of UNIMA Australia.

17952805_10158526630080114_7509519809466400408_nWhat is ‘Australian’ Puppetry? We are the world’s oldest and youngest nation, when considering our Aboriginal heritage dating back over 60,000 years, as well as British colonisation only 200 years ago. We don’t have a long Puppetry tradition like ‘Punch and Judy’ in the UK, and have had to define what is ‘Australian’ Puppetry along the way. When approached by the Puppet Place to write this article, I knew that I could not answer this question on my own. Australia is a cultural melting pot, and so is our puppetry. It seems only fitting that this article be a collection of thoughts from various puppeteers around the country – a rich and complex ‘puppet soup’, if you will.  So, below are thoughts from notable puppeteers and other practitioners working in the puppetry sectors in Australia today:


Richard Hart from Dream Puppets (Victoria) and President of UNIMA Australia:

Over the last century, Australia has become a multicultural nation based on immigration and for much of that period, mostly in denial of the previous indigenous nations it replaced.  This is slowly changing.  I am mentioning this as a background, as the brief European/Asian history of Australia combined with the remerging indigenous cultures, creates a distinctive artistic mix.  Also, artists do not create in a vacuum.

Australian puppetry culture has been geographically distant from others, both nationally and internationally. Also, there does not seem to be any established artistic “rules” except by those who already have them.  All puppetry traditions I know of in Australia have been brought in from other cultures.  Australian’s exposure to the puppetry arts has been increasing, via a few training opportunities with arts institutions, however, many depend on the occasional workshop if it is in their area, or the internet and other social connections.

Despite these apparent limitations, there are many individuals, groups and to a lesser degree, companies, who perform a variety of styles of puppet theatre to Australian audiences on a daily basis in schools and kindergartens. Adult puppetry is also performed in festivals, which occur regularly.

Les Méduses by Black Hole Theatre
Les Méduses by Black Hole Theatre, Victoria (Puppet Design & Construction by Joe Blanck at A Blanck Canvas)

My view is that Australian puppetry is quite healthy and growing, with different groups having their own references and becoming very successful nationally and internationally.  Whether we have a distinctive style may not be obvious to us, but possibly recognised by other countries.  Maybe the content or presentation, the way we speak, that anyone is an Australian regardless of their appearance, etc.

Puppetry in Australia is not the exclusive preserve of traditions and who can do it. Many artists from other disciplines, architects, solicitors, accountants, miners, chefs, ….., have and are exploring it, some even making it their career.  I think Australian puppetry is diverse, as it should be, and evolving as a combination of many elements. We are baking new and different cakes, so to speak.


Richard Bradshaw, NSW:

The city with the most puppet activity is Melbourne, but the companies there tend to be small, except for Creature Technology Company (who created ‘King Kong the Musical’) and A Blanck Canvas, both of which make large-scale puppets, some with remote-controlled features (there is a growing business of this style of puppetry.)

Creature technology king kong
King Kong puppet created by Creature Technology Company (Photo: James Morgan)

There is also the ImaginArta Australian Puppet Centre run by Sue Wallace from Sydney Puppet Theatre. They have shows every Sunday and run workshops occasionally. They also have a small collection of puppetry books.

At present puppetry does not have a strong following in the general public. However, there is a growing interest in puppetry in schools, and is part of the curriculum in some states.  There is no dedicated course for professional puppeteers although there has been one at the Victorian College for the Arts in Melbourne in the past.  Puppet companies (especially Spare Parts Puppet Theatre in Western Australia) offer short-term courses from time to time.  Some puppet-making is also included in the production course at NIDA (the National Institute for Dramatic Arts) in Sydney.

50 years ago it was rare to see an actor on stage with puppets in an Australian puppet show, but these days live actors are often seen, and the actual puppetry can be minimal.  I am unaware of any great regional difference, except perhaps that Terrapin Puppet Theatre may use more object theatre.

Murray Raine Puppets ''Simone & Monique'' RESIZED and CROPPED
Murray Raine (Murray Raine Puppets), Victoria

Puppeteers are principally playing to children, especially to school audiences where some box office is assured.  There is a limited market for adult puppetry, notably in small venues in Melbourne.  We know of one puppeteer, Murray Raine (Murray Raine Puppets), who plays principally to adult audiences but he meets them on cruise ships.  It would be very difficult to make a living playing puppetry for adults (by that name) and the most successful Australian puppeteer catering for adult audiences is based in The Netherlands [Neville Tranter]. Sometimes a single puppet character has had success with adult audiences on TV and can then play to live fans.  A current example is Heath McIvor’s purple puppet ‘Randy’.

Randy puppet
‘Randy’, a puppet performed by Heath McIvor (Melbourne, Victoria)

Angie Macmillan, VIC:

Australia as nation is still developing its own culture which is being influenced on all levels by a multitude of traditions from all corners of the globe. Because we are not yet bound by centuries-old traditions that can limit things being done a certain way, we have the freedom to explore the arts in our own way. We can look at puppetry culture and traditions from all over the world and take from them the things that interest us and appeal to us and reshape it to give us a new perspective, experimenting with new ideas to make our own meaning that fit into the context of life here in Australia and our cultural evolution.

Dennis Murphy (
Murphy’s Puppets), NSW:

Australia is a multicultural country.   Since 1945, over 7.5 million people have emigrated to Australia. Our overseas-born resident population is estimated to be 30 per cent of the population.  This is reflected in our Puppetry. I have known puppeteers here from Romania, Greece, Slovakia, The Czech Republic, Italy, the UK, the USA and Egypt.

Dennis Murphy (Murphy’s Puppets) at the Tarrengower Puppet Festival, Victoria, 2012 (photo by Kay Yasugi)

I am another example of multiculturalism. I was born in the USA, studied Puppetry in Europe and Indonesia. I perform Italian Commedia dell’Arte comedies adapted to Australian audiences.

P.S. We also eat well down here thanks to multiculturalism.


Edited by Kay Yasugi


In the next installment in this two-part feature, Kay Yasugi talks to Brett Hansen (Larrikin Puppets), Lynne Kent (ThingMaking), Tim Denton (AboutFace Productions), and Annie Forbes (AboutFace Productions) about what makes Australian puppetry unique and exciting for them.


Where to find out more about Australian Puppetry

UNIMA Australia –

UNIMA Australia is the official puppetry organisation of Australia. We welcome members from all over the world, and have regular newsletters with updates on puppetry happening around the country and abroad. For more information about membership, please go to

ThingMaking –

In their 2004 publication, The Space Between: The Art of Puppetry and Visual Theatre in Australia, Peter J. Wilson and Geoffrey Milne asked: “Where, then, do we think puppetry and visual theatre might go in the next twenty years?” (Wilson and Milne, 2004, 117). While it is not quite yet twenty years since this question was posed, the interviews conducted for ThingMaking ( turn to the practice of Australian puppeteers to provide some answers. In a context of a lack of puppetry training institutes in Australia, and drastic government arts funding cuts, the interviews are presented as audio podcasts and are publicly available as an avenue to communicate this research to other professional puppet makers and performers.

Facebook Groups:

UNIMA Australia (public page)

Puppet Builders of Australia

Hand in Glove: Puppetry in Sydney/NSW

Puppetry Melbourne



Projection: First Light – An Interview with Michael Chu

michael_chu_cropped‘Projection: First Light’ is a new game in development by Shadowplay Studios (and published by Blowfish Studios) which follows the adventures of Greta, a girl living in a mythological shadow puppet world. We spoke to the game’s designer, Michael Chu, about the forthcoming puzzle platformer that will explore the history and global culture around shadow puppetry.


‘Projection: First Light’ is a shadow puppet adventure about light manipulation, curiosity and lost art.  Can you tell us about the background to the game – how did you come up with the idea and why did you decide to use shadow puppetry?

A game jam I attended had the theme “So close.” I was reminded of times I would put my hand close to a ceiling light in my home and have fun making shadows. I made the first round of Projection here, and the shadow puppets lent themselves naturally to a game mechanic about manipulating shadows. It wasn’t until Global Game Jam that I made a prototype of the mechanic which we see in the game now. The prototype got people excited and so Yosha and Jared joined me.


The visual aesthetic for the game draws on a wide variety of art styles from Indonesian to Turkish and Chinese shadow puppetry.  How did you research this? 

The first iteration of Projection drew heavily from Lotte Reiniger’s art style. Moving forward though, we visited shadow puppeteer Richard Bradshaw, who gave us a run down of how we should explore the different worlds in the order: Javanese, Chinese, Turkish/Greek, and 19th Century European. He gave us a tour of his workshop and we recorded a lot of footage with how the shadow puppets moved. He also spent about 5 minutes to make a simple puppet for our artist to reference. Since then we’ve just been watching a lot of shows online and looking up the traditional art styles. We also read up closely on the stories to try capture the themes and morals, and not simply have the characters plopped into the game. After all we didn’t want to misrepresent the characters.

We have a couple of challenges that we’ve set up for ourselves. The puppets we reference adhere to proper shadow puppet physics, so for instance, the Javanese puppets do not have moveable leg joints. So we make them hobble side to side to replicate this movement. We also have no dialogue in the game and try tell as much through animation as possible. One last problem we’ve come across is the black and sepia colours of a traditional shadow puppet canvas. Unfortunately this seems to be a popular look for many Indie games, so we’ve tried adding more background colours since technically you can have coloured sheets as backing.


What do you think the particular appeal of shadow puppetry is for gamers? And what do you think will appeal to them most about the game?

We’d like people from any background to be able to hop on and play the game, and we’d like to think there are 3 core pillars to differentiate our game:

1. Unique shadow mechanics – Shadows are a natural phenomena that everyone understands, but it adds so much complexity once you give it physics.

2. Art Style – Shadow puppetry is a world heritage art. There is appeal in exploring something familiar which hasn’t been seen in great detail. It’s given us a chance to explore our own cultures!

3. Narrative – We’re exploring the stories of epics from different cultures. We like to think we’re helping pass on these stories through an interesting medium.

The shadow puppets came after the shadow mechanics, so we weren’t really influenced by other games, but by design of what made sense.  I have seen games which use puppets, but I haven’t seen shadow puppets. There are also games which use shadows as an interesting mechanic, but I don’t think there’s a game which uses shadow physics like ours. That said, the amount of video games out there now is staggering, so I wouldn’t be surprised if someone linked me a shadow puppet game.


We’re aiming for Q2 this year, but please be gentle if we miss our mark.

Find out more about Shadowplay Studios at their website and development blog  Keep up-to-date with the latest on ‘Projection: First Light’ via Facebook and Twitter.

More than ‘Stuff and Nonsense’: An interview with Niki McCretton

Plym 039_previewNiki McCretton is a theatre maker, performer and Artistic Director of Stuff And Nonsense Theatre Company.  She also runs her own theatre – The Lyric Theatre, Bridport – and is a Puppet Place Associate Artist.  She is an expert in working in early years settings and inspiring the creative energy of all ages. She has been theatre making for over 25 years  (including award-winning National and International tours with Wormhole, Relative, Space 50, Muttnik, Hoof! and Horseplay).

In this interview we talk to Niki about her new production of The Gingerbread Man and about her work with early years children. She talks about her personal creative approach and about her own theatre The Lyric in Bridport.

Your company ‘Stuff And Nonsense’ are about to open a new 
production of ‘The Gingerbread Man’. Please tell us about how you came to choose this story and about your creative approach to putting together the production.

We chose the story for a few reasons. We were looking for something that parents would feel excited to bring their families to see.  This story interested me as I always try to find a connection – a way that children may look differently at things.  I thought if they are going to relate to the Gingerbread Man, what would they enjoy or find challenging.  The idea of being on the run as soon as you are sentient and having to learn from your own experiences and wits feels exciting and tricky. It felt like there was some depth to explore here, as well as some great adventures. I love to adapt stories and we work with children in the process of creation to find what they find fascinating.


Gingerbread Man_2_preview.jpg
Image by Rebecca Pitt Creative

You have a particular expertise in working with early years. What is it about this age group that particularly inspires you?

I do. I work with an action learning organisation called 5x5x5=creativity.  Through that practice I have learned to work with really young children and how to support them in their creative ideas.  It is a process of finding their fascination and then designing provocations to send them on an immersive journey.  What inspires me about them, is to become a collaborator with them and learn alongside them in an equal and honest way.  They are, of course, brilliant creatives with bold ideas and few boundaries.  I often notice when we are performing that they have a much stronger steer than the adults as to what is about to happen.  Much better intuition and reading of the non-verbal.  They are also challenging as they can see immediately if someone is being inauthentic.  They also make me laugh a great deal!  Find out more at

Stuff And Nonsense has its own particular style of children’s theatre. What is it about making theatre for a family audience that is most important to you?


Emperors New Clothes (97 of 192)_preview
Image by Louise Froggatt

My main thrust of the work, apart from the previous questions, is to create work that will connect people through a shared experience.  I do not enjoy watching productions that are only for the children and that the adults are bored or disengaged with.  I would say the most important thing for me is that the family are talking about the show afterwards together, sharing the bits they loved and talking about why things happened and how the characters feel.  I really enjoy it that some adults come with a slightly tired energy, maybe they are looking forward to a sit down! And then afterwards they keep saying how much they enjoyed it and are surprised.  I think it is important not to dumb down the work that as a theatre-maker, you want to make – rather check that it will resonate with each age group and keep editing and amending on tour as you learn.  If the parents are bored, the work will never be spoken of again and the shared experience lost.

As well as having connections with other theatres, you have your own theatre base in Bridport. Can you talk a bit about your home at The Lyric.

The Lyric is an old theatre, built in 1742.  Our patron is Chirs Chibnall (writer for Broadchurch and Dr Who) and his company ‘Imaginary Friends’ supports writers.   We have two spaces:  a 150 seat theatre with a stage and little proscenium, full of charm with flocked wallpaper; and a studio space upstairs where we can make puppets and props and hold workshops.  We also have  a veggie/vegan cafe called ‘Bearkat’ that serves food and coffee.  We are community oriented and programme professional work as well as running a series of masterclasses.  We also support artists to create work – this is the main reason for having the space.  We are non-funded and, while the building is under my watch, I am determined to support as many creatives as possible.  It is a tricky time in the arts right now and really important to give artists residency space and a place they can make a mess and feel at home.

 The Gingerbread Man tours the UK from 10th Feb 2018. For tour dates click here.
To find out more about Stuff And Nonsense Theatre Company, visit the website at and get the latest news on their Facebook and Twitter feeds.  You can also find out more about The Lyric Theatre here.


Lizzie Makes! An Interview with Elizabeth Johnson

lizzie_johnson_portriatElizabeth Johnson is a freelance fabricator for animation, theatre and public engagement works, and resident artist at Puppet Place.  She graduated from the Bristol School of Animation in 2013 and has since worked with some incredible companies based in theatre, puppetry and robotics.  She is driven to learn new technologies to compliment interactive design and performance. 


Can you tell us about yourself and your work as a stop motion animator and model maker. What’s your background and how did you get into animation?

When I was at college really wanted to get into film production, but after not being able to make up my mind of what course to go for, I decided to do an art foundation instead, which happened to coincide with the year that Laika’s ‘Coraline was released. I went and saw that film at least 4 times at the cinema – the magic of it just didn’t get old for me, which got me thinking about doing animation. It was the perfect combination of all my interests, story telling, film making and fabrication. Hoorah!
Lizzie Johnson Music Video
Still from music video ‘Higher Love’ by Hanami Family
I studied animation at UWE, and through that discovered Puppet Place and swiftly fell in love with the community and work that was being created here. Since graduating, my work has broadened from just working in animation, although the skills I learnt from studying seem to be forever useful – and since graduating made a stop motion music video for a friend of mine

Thanks to the companies I’ve worked with over the last few years, Rusty Squid and Pickled Image in particular, my imagination and artistic direction has begun to lean more towards design and fabrication for interactive and immersive art works.
neutral puppet large 1
Neutral puppet for Rusty Squid Summer School
Pickled Image Yana
Set from ‘Yana and the Yeti’ by Pickled Image
You were recently involved in a collaborative project with Puppet Place resident artist company, ‘Rusty Squid’.  Can you tell us a bit about that?

The last project I worked on with Rusty Squid was their channel 4 documentary, ‘How to Build a Robot’. It was an amazing experience to be a part of. I got involved through working with them previously as I’d been working as their studio assistant for a couple of months and before that had made some neutral puppets with Rosie and Dave for their summer school.
neutral puppet - small
Neutral puppet for Rusty Squid Summer School
The team working on the project was amazing, it felt like Rusty Squid had brought the most extraordinary group of talented people, I knew how lucky I was to work alongside them and see their process develop throughout the project.

My role on the project was assistant fabricator to Designer/Fabricator/Engineer, Emma Powell – this was a brilliant opportunity as I’d worked with Emma before so knew a bit about her process and she’s a brilliant teacher so I never felt out of my depth – she supported me in developing my skills as a fabricator and was always open to discussing her thoughts and ideas with me, making me feel really included and valued in the fabrication process.
Lizzie with friend: ‘How to Build a Robot’ with Rusty Squid.

The most challenging thing about this project was the time we had to complete it in, as David says in the documentary – the team could have used at least twice the amount of time we had. Also, I had another project lined up from the start of December and so didn’t get to see ‘How to Build a Robot’ through to completion which was a real shame.  It felt very wrong to be leaving a project before it had finished. The camera crew was tricky to navigate too, although I did very well at staying out of shot for the most part! We had to accommodate their requirements for filming which meant altering the studio lighting to just using spot lights – not awful, and after doing stop motion animation low lighting seems kind of familiar, but still, for fabricating it isn’t ideal!

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a project with my fellow animation graduate, Katie Hood. We’ve been commissioned by the National Trust to make a bespoke installation for their property Wray Castle, up in the Lake District. Its going really well so far and has been so enjoyable to work on an installation like this.

As well as this I’m working as an assistant artist for Go Sketch which is an after school arts club based in primary schools across Bristol – its great fun and hopefully it will help to encourage some future artists!

Also, I’ve started a craft club up at Better Food (where I have a part time job). It’s a couple of hours long on Thursday evenings in the Cafe, a group of us get together and I come up with fun little projects that give people the chance to try out new processes and just take a bit of time out for themselves and to enjoy being creative. Its really helped me take time out to do a little crafting just for me too!

What projects do you have in the pipeline?

In the pipeline…. I’m working with Hannah and Rachel at Puppet Place HQ to set up a puppet making club for kids, we’re going to do an initial 4 week run in March which is great!  Also Katie and I have been really inspired by the project by the National Trust and so are applying for other funding opportunities and commissions to hopefully get to design and make other interactive installations.

I’m most excited by opportunities that allow me to make accessible work that has a social impact, I want people to find fun in art and be surprised and inspired by it.

To find out more about Elizabeth’s work, see her Facebook page ‘Elizabeth Johnson Makes‘ or read her blog.

Saturday Puppet Club with Elizabeth Johnson
A friendly Saturday morning puppetry club for families. Puppet maker, Lizzie Johnson, will take you through the process of creating your very own puppet, building craft and artistic skills each week. Find out more on the Puppet Place website.

Review: Manipulate Festival 2018

Sabine Molenaar: Almost Alive

Now in its second decade of supporting the work and creative development of artists from Scotland and around the world, Manipulate Festival is Scotland’s foremost celebration of innovative visual theatre and animated film.  This year continued in that tradition, with an eclectic mix of animated film, object theatre, dance and visual art.

The first day was an animation feast, with a full afternoon and evening of programmes covering a range of production in stop motion, puppetry and 2D.  Programmes reflected conventional narrative and abstract works, including a showcase from ‘Punto Y Raya’ (Spain’s ‘Dot and Line’ Festival) and our own ‘Women in Puppetry & Puppet Animation’ from Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2017.  In addition to the straight ahead screenings, we were also treated to guest-curated programmes, notably retrospectives from comic book artists turned animators, Alberto Vasquez and Khris Cembe, and the Estonian animation artist, Ülo Pikkov, which provided a deeper insight into each collection.

Ruka (The Hand) directed by Jiri Trnka.  Screened as part of ‘Fighting Modernists’ retrospective showcase curated by Ülo Pikkov

Animated work that caught my eye included Chloe Leseur’s ‘TIS‘, a production with a clever use of paper cut out animation in a 3D space that explores themes of disability, becoming and healing.  Also Marco Jemolo’s noir animated short-film Framed made us think by using the stop motion process as a metaphor to explore the role of the individual in society in a frank yet light-hearted way.

Production still from ‘Framed’ directed by: Marco Jemolo

The live performances didn’t disappoint either.  Although the festival celebrates art forms beyond even our broad definition of puppetry, it felt clear what the connections are and thus served to inspire, as well as entertain us.  The overall live events programme offered an interesting mix of visual theatre including: object manipulation, dance and installation works with many overlaps in individual performances.

Ariel Doron’s ‘Plastic Heroes’.  Photo by Anael Resnick.

The curation style was to schedule performances with similar forms and themes in succession, inviting the audience to consider the work overall, as well as appreciate each individual performance stand-alone.  The quirky yet mischievous humour of the object theatre performances shone for me, in particular Ariel Doron’s ‘Plastic Heroes’, a cheeky yet innovative performance that used toy soldiers with hilarious effect.

By contrast, the physical theatre performances were powerful, often exploring darker themes and movement that challenged expectations.  ‘Achilles’ from Company of Wolves, offered a violent, gritty insight into the classical legend.  Likewise Sabine Molenaar’s ‘Almost Alive’ challenged its audience with visceral motion pieces that explored primal themes.  Although I found both these works a little laboured at times, it certainly shook up any preconceptions of both narrative and performance I might have had.

A fascinating performance incorporating object and physical theatre was delivered by Ramesh Meyyanpann, whose darkly comical ‘Off Kilter’ followed one man’s gradual discombobulation with an ingenious use of sleight of hand illusion and amusing (yet anxiety provoking) non-verbal storytelling.

Ramesh Meyyanpann: Off Kilter

Manipulate Festival also provides a platform for emerging artists and work-in-progress with Snapshots and Testroom.  These short performances allow feedback to be solicited at various stages in development, and provides good opportunity for audiences to see and shape future productions.  Among the fledgling works were some stand out performances, notably ‘Hand//Shake’ by Katie Armstrong, a short dance performance executed with great expertise and humour, and ‘Rendition’ by Freda O’Byrne from the Curious School of Puppetry, which is shaping up to be a moving production that will shine a light on the de-humanising practices detainees have been subjected to on CIA detention.

We ended our festival experience on a truly magical note, with whimsical, warming works from France’s Velo Theatre and Flop & ATH Associés.  ‘Dal Vivo’ from acclaimed performance artist Flop, brought beautiful animation to still life with the ingenious use of projection through all manner of quirky apparatus, fashioned from everyday objects.  Yet  the pièce de résistance for me was Velo Theatre’s ‘The Frog at the Bottom of the Well Believes that the Sky is Round’ – an enchanting performance experience that offers a slice of childhood that is simply unforgettable.

Flop & ATH Associés: Dal Vivo


Review by Emma Windsor


Founded in 1984, Puppet Animation Scotland champions puppetry, animation and visual theatre both in Scotland and internationally. Puppet Animation Scotland is a Creative Scotland Regularly Funded Organisation. They produce two festivals; manipulate Visual Theatre Festival and Puppet Animation Festival, each year. Find out more at the website: