In this, the last in a two part feature about puppetry down under, notable puppeteers discuss what defines Australian puppetry and sets the scene apart from other cultures. This article is edited by Kay Yasugi, Pupperoos (New South Wales) and General Secretary of UNIMA Australia. The first part can be read here.
What is ‘Australian’ Puppetry? We are the world’s oldest and youngest nation. 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 further thoughts from notable puppeteers and other practitioners working in the puppetry sectors in Australia today:
Brett Hansen (Larrikin Puppets), QLD:
Over the years we’ve seen our own quirky Aussie takes on the various styles of puppetry such as marionettes, shadow puppets and even Muppet-style puppets. A lot of this is evident in unique children’s television shows such as Mr. Squiggle, The New Adventures of Blinky Bill, Lift Off and The Ferals.
Now that television puppetry isn’t as common as it was between the 1960s and the early 1990s, puppetry in Australia today is mostly performed live at parties, schools, childcare centres, festivals and theatres.
I would consider much of Australia’s modern puppetry work to be experimental and thought provoking, with many productions tackling serious issues. These Australian puppets are often abstract and made using recycled objects. Many would consider such puppetry as “high art”, alongside ballet.
Lynne Kent (ThingMaking), VIC:
In answer to the question ‘what makes Australian puppetry?’ I would argue that it is the willingness to take risks with creating hybrid forms of puppet theatre. This hybridity gives a nod to, but is not bound by, tradition. Australian puppetry has explored and continues to investigate new technologies in both the process and the product of the work.
Tim Denton, AboutFace Productions, VIC (originally from New Zealand):
The isolation of both New Zealand and Australia means that, because often a lot of puppeteers (and people who want to be involved in Puppetry in Australia and New Zealand) only saw things from television and couldn’t have a hands-on understanding of it, they had to work it out their own way… that’s why I think Australia and New Zealand seem to be innovative, because they’ve found a different way of doing things.
Annie Forbes, AboutFace Productions, VIC (originally from New Zealand):
A particular challenge facing Australian puppeteers is whose stories do they tell. At the moment, Indigenous culture is reasserting itself, reclaiming their own stories. So it’s no longer appropriate to do European versions. With the Question, ‘What is Australian Puppetry?’ you also have to ask ‘How do you express it?’, ‘Who can tell those stories?’ I think that’s a really significant issue.
Another key challenge is the digital age. People are experiencing the world in a different way through screens. Though touching screens, looking at screens, interacting with screens, and I think that poses a particular challenge to puppeteers. People are changing so they don’t necessarily think about buying a ticket to see a show. I think it’s harder and harder for puppeteers to go to schools now.
But I have to have faith that people can be charmed and beguiled by a puppet.
At the end of the day, I’m not sure if it is possible to define what ‘Australian Puppetry’ actually is. It doesn’t have a distinctive style or aesthetic, and yet there does seem to be an Australian ‘attitude’ or ‘approach’ towards puppetry. As Sue Wallace from Sydney Puppet Theatre put it, Australian puppeteers are ‘Bower Birds’. With the absence of traditions and ‘rules’, we are free to take and adapt whatever we like. What a myriad of choices we have with our multicultural palette!
Our isolation from the rest of the world has forced us to reinvent puppetry for ourselves, and we are known to be experimenters. Although there is a lack of formal training available, we are an inventive bunch and we seek knowledge and skills where we can. There is growing interest in puppetry in education, as well as the continued presence of puppetry in theatre, film and various festivals. It would be interesting to see how this affects the development of puppetry in the future, amidst challenges of funding, training, technology, and the stories we tell as a nation and as individuals.
Read more about Australian puppetry in the first part of this article, where notable puppetry practitioners Richard Hart ( Dream Puppets & President of UNIMA Australia), Richard Bradshaw, Angie Macmillan, and Dennis Murphy (Murphy’s Puppets) give their thoughts on what makes Australian puppetry great. [More…]
Where to find out more about Australian Puppetry
UNIMA Australia – www.unima.org.au
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 http://mp.gg/a1u-t
ThingMaking – www.thingmaking.net
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 (www.thingmaking.net) 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.
UNIMA Australia (public page)
Puppet Builders of Australia
Hand in Glove: Puppetry in Sydney/NSW