Sue is the Artistic Director of Theatre-Rites and the fourth generation of theatre practitioners in her family. She is a theatre director, puppetry specialist and teacher, and has worked with the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Young Vic, Sadler’s Wells, South Bank Centre and Complicite. We caught up with her to find out how it all began and about her latest show, ‘Beasty Baby’.
You are Artistic Director at Theatre-Rites. How did you become involved in theatre, and in particular puppetry?
I come from a long lineage of performers. My great grandfather was a music hall entertainer, my grandfather a concertina player, and my grandmother was a musician in a group called The Musical Elliots. My mother was also a member of this group for a short while before she met my father, a puppeteer.
Sue’s grandparents in action in The Elliots (1936)
My particular interest and connection with puppetry began at birth. My father was a professional puppeteer, who performed a traditional marionette cabaret around holiday camps, hotels and working-men’s clubs, so my initial training came from that family apprenticeship. After graduating from university, I worked as an actress, before discovering that my creative passion was as a director and maker.
This exciting time, whilst nurturing my puppet and mask making skills, connected me with a variety of peer practitioners including Steve Tiplady of Indefinite Articles; John Wright, mask expert and co-founder of Told By An Idiot; Rufus Norris, now Artistic Director of The National Theatre; Jenny Sealy, Artistic Director of Graeae; Phelim McDermott of Improbable and various visual artists involved with the work of Puppetworks (a large-scale outdoor performance company in the style of Welfare State).
In 1989 I received an Arts Council Bursary for the extension of my puppetry skills and I furthered my training with David Glass and the Czech Puppet Company Drak. I also spent 3 months studying the arts of Southern India. In 1997 I received a distinction for my MA in Contemporary Theatre Practice at Essex University in which I combined a study of psychoanalytical thought with my views on the power of the puppet. I received an Honorary Doctorate of the Arts from Essex in 2018. Throughout this period I became a specialist puppetry director and worked with David Farr, Complicite, the RSC, The National Theatre and Tara Arts amongst many others. It was through working as a puppetry specialist with Pop-Up Theatre that I first met Penny Bernand, with whom I set up Theatre-Rites.
What does puppetry enable you to explore?
I love the way the puppet art form brings together many approaches ranging from direct performance to construction, visual art and movement. It also has a strong heritage across cultures. It can be both truly accessible and highly conceptual, with a power beyond language. I had music, making and performing in my blood so puppetry was an ideal art form for me to continue my artistic discovery.
My work is driven from a psychological understanding of our existence. I see the puppet, or an imbued object, as an opportunity for self-recognition. It offers the chance for the audience to look at an imitation of their own human predicament, whether literally, figuratively or abstractly, enabling them towards self-realization. Placing puppets/objects alongside actors on stage is very powerful. This juxtaposition of the fake with the real helps us see our reality more clearly. I thoroughly enjoy this when it seems to reach both adults and children, both trying to share the process together.
It is the triadic nature of the art form that particularly interests me. The relationship between the manipulator and their object and the object’s relationship to the audience. I am interested in how much we can find out about the psychology of the actor’s character on stage by how he or she handles or projects their emotions through their props/important objects. It is as though they are representations of the actor’s inner psyche, taking on their alter ego and repressed desires.
I like to work with abstracted puppet forms, often enjoying how a group of objects can be brought together to momentarily form a figurative shape, only to re-create itself and re-form its sense of self. I believe that these abstracted, less illustrative forms are more open to the varying projected beliefs of the audience and connect to our celebration of our own abilities of survival and re-invention in the bigger picture of evolution, and natural, political and emotional change.
Puppet and object play is very funny; it is full of nonsense and parody. I adore watching a spirit of play being triggered in people by the very act of them being able to hide behind something. The puppet for me now is ANYTHING that I can manipulate. A figurative puppet, an object, a projected image, a space, or an actor. Therefore, the specifics of puppet theatre become less important and yet, for me, lie at the heart of everything I create.
‘Beasty Baby’ will be at Tobacco Factory Theatres over this festive season. How did the idea for the performance first come about?
When Penny Bernand and I founded Theatre-Rites in 1996 I was about to start my own family. One of our first shows was created whilst I was pregnant with my first daughter and toured the UK and the world during her first 3 years. Tara, now 21, came to an occasional rehearsal but most of the time I was very clear that when I was with her, she had my full attention and when I was at work, she was being looked after. I never assumed that these two things could be combined. However, the content of the work was highly influenced by the time I spent with Tara. My research into child development impacted on my work and my mothering. I felt whole as an artist, partner and mother.
Recently I have been reading many blogs and articles about the experience of being a Mother of young children and being an artist. No longer is the subject out of bounds or hidden behind closed doors. The story is out. Bringing up a young child, whilst juggling a career and your relationships, is both rewarding and highly challenging and there is no professional training for it, other than referring to your own parenting or listening to the advice and pressures of peers meeting in the playgrounds or playgroups.
So, 21 years later, my two daughters, Tara and Nuala, now 21 and 18, are bold, brave, brilliant and sometimes still beastly. Making this show was a wonderful opportunity for me to ponder on the joys and challenges of bringing them into the world and to inspire others to embark upon the adventure of parenting. It was a process which gave me the opportunity to reflect on my personal journey. It led to the creation of Beasty Baby, originally a co-production between Theatre-Rites and Polka Theatre for Christmas 2015. This year we are delighted to be bringing it to The Tobacco Factory in Bristol, supported by our Associate Director, Elgiva Field.
What is Beasty Baby about?
In 1997, when I was creating Theatre-Rites’ The Lost and Moated Land (my first production for under-fives) I was in an idealised place, just imagining what it would be like to have a baby. The show was magical, abstract and mythical. Beasty Baby is different. It starts with realism and my real experience; the very real objects used and the rituals created when raising a young child, the sleepless nights, the overwhelming sense of responsibility and the way your life is turned upside down. I wanted to draw upon my memory of this mind-blowing aspect. However I was still looking for the Magical Realism; the transformative qualities that these real objects have, and how I could still create a mythical landscape to play in, in order to reveal the joys and revelations of caring for the early years of a human being.
This leads to the main focus of the piece: the need to recognise, as parents and children, the importance of regular rituals. However we should also be careful about trying to compartmentalise all our needs like a tick-boxing exercise. We often learn most during playtime, but I have noticed how even “playtime” has become an activity to be purchased and facilitated so that the parent or teacher can tick the box and say “job done”.
I wished to explore how we cannot truly parent and teach our children the basis of intimate love unless we learn to love what is best in ourselves and our children – and of course what is worst in ourselves. The terrible two year old who has yet to manage their desires, or the parent who is at the end of their tether due to lack of sleep or the constancy that childcare insists upon. It is not about being perfect children or perfect parents. It is about being fully rounded individuals.
Even very young children have a whole range of emotions and a whole range of ways of learning to manage and communicate them. Some have very difficult feelings. No parent or child should feel the pressure to be perfect and everyone must feel that they can find help within their community to share the emotional journey. Once we channel these trickier emotions, the more we create unique and dynamic young people. Beasty Baby takes you on a whirlwind of emotion, all beautifully underscored by our talented Composer Jessica Dannheisser.
Our central protagonist is Beasty Baby, a puppet cleverly made by Naomi Oppenheim. We also have three performers, Teele, Scott and Elliott, who each have excellence and dynamism in their artistic field. In this show we are not concerned with the perfect 2 x 2 family or who gave birth, we are interested in how we can all contribute to raising our children, regardless of who you are or what defines your sense of family.
Beasty Baby is looked after in a small wooden hut amidst a Nordic mythical landscape, designed by Verity Quinn, providing our snowy Christmas setting. The pathway of growing up is often a wilderness. The celebration of play as opposed to early testing for under-fives is at the heart of the story; the sense of a whole community raising their children together and allowing our children to have free play. Beasty Baby will appeal to 3 to 6 year olds and those that care for them. It will also appeal to Artists interested in combining actors and puppetry on stage, or people thinking about having babies.
I love that for 50 minutes both adult and child can reflect, laugh and emotionally recognise what is relevant to them at that particular moment in time – it’s important that they can do that together. And, at the end, they will feel really warm and know there is a wonderful beauty and beast in all of us.
Theatre-Rites is collaborating again with 20 Stories High, and this time we’re making a hip hop puppetry show for 3 to 6 year olds, and everyone who looks after them. Big Up! features the incredible talents of beatboxer Hobbit, singer/performer Dorcas Seb and puppeteers Clarke Joseph Edwards and Iestyn Evans. Touring in Spring 2019, opening at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool on February 8th.
No matter whether you are big or small, the world is full of rules. Sometimes we make our own rules, sometimes we don’t know the rules and sometimes we want to play by different rules. What happens when a Beatboxer, a Singer and a Puppeteer arrive on stage but nothing is ready for them? No set, no instruments, no puppets. No rules.
Big Up! is perfect for little people who want to be big, and big people who … just might have forgotten how to play.
Interview with Emma Windsor
Beasty Baby is at Tobacco Factory Theatres from 06 December to 06 January. Find out more and book your tickets on the website. To find out more about Theatre Rites, visit their website and get all the latest news on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.