Part 1 – The Journey Begins
Josh Elwell talked to Puppeteer Rachel Leonard ahead of this extraordinary and epic journey across Europe at such a pivotal time.
I caught up with Rachel Leonard on board her 125 year old narrow boat (which you can find listed in the National Historic Ships Register) on the edge of Bath. We spoke just as she was about to go into a week of R&D for a new project, with the team behind Little Angel’s The Journey Home.
Rachel has been performing with puppets for nearly 30 years, having learnt her trade at Little Angel and The Puppet Theatre Barge. She works with many exciting companies, from Handspring and Little Angel to the National Theatre, the RSC, and Kneehigh. However, like so many other performers she has felt the effects of the last year with all its huge challenges.
We began by talking about ‘resilience’ and ways that freelance puppeteers have managed to negotiate these crazy times. One of Rachel’s survival techniques is ‘living small’. She lives on her boat and keeps her outgoings to a minimum. She believes this lifestyle affords her a huge amount of independence. Living this way enables her to be a little more selective than most, and to be able to engage with projects that have real meaning for her. It is one such project that drew me to want to talk to Rachel in the first place.
Some of you may have caught sight on social media of an extraordinary giant puppet girl called, Amal. Amal is the focal point for a project called The Walk, the epic journey of a 9 year old refugee girl travelling 8,000km across Europe to find her mother.
Little Amal will start her journey at the Syria/Turkey boarder in July this year and make her way through Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and France, before reaching the United Kingdom in November. Amal has a hugely important purpose – to shine light on the struggles of the many refugee children she represents.
Along the way cities, towns, and villages will welcome Little Amal with art – from major street parades and city-wide performances of music, dance, and theatre, to intimate community events. Little Amal will connect with young people from refugee and non-refugee communities through creative learning projects, developed specifically for each location.
The Walk is being produced by Good Chance Theatre, famous for their work in The Jungle in Calais. Good Chance have joined forces with Handspring Puppet Company to design and build Amal, and Rachel is one of the puppeteers who will be animating Amal in this hugely exciting and important project.
Rachel was fizzing with excitement about Amal and said that she feels it is perhaps one of the most important projects that she has ever been a part of. Involved in the development of the The Walk from early on in Amal’s creation, Rachel will be one of the international team of puppeteers operating her from inside and out.
The team will rotate; taking turns working her arms and supporting her back (with rods, from the ground) and working from within the puppet, at Amal’s ‘heart’. The heart position is the most complex; requiring the wearing of stilts to create her legs, and a backpack harness to take the weight of the puppet. The operator in this position is controlling her head and facial expression from a ‘harp-like’ construction of pulleys in her tummy. Mechanisms have been kept low-fi to be as robust and repairable as possible along the route.
There is however just one electronic feature; her eyeballs, which are powered by a small battery pack and operated by a mini-thumb control. As it is not possible to see her face from within the puppet, attitudes and facial expressions must be learnt by muscle memory and through prompts given by other members of the team who can feedback instructions. Due to the tricky nature of this role and the heat that builds up with the exertion of it, the puppeteers will only do short stints inside the puppet. Rachel hopes that, with practice, they will get the changeovers, “Slick, like a pit stop!”
Rachel says, “She is magnificent as she walks through the landscape. You cannot help but feel for her. Despite her being 3.5 metres tall, children call to her, look after and care for her. She is both charming, mesmerising, and moving.”
Amal will walk into many different events on her 3 month journey. Each event will form important stages of her emotional development. Each meeting, gathering, sharing, celebration or carnival will serve as an important part of her overall journey and story. In her wake she will leave a legacy of sponsorship and scholarships for educational opportunities. Each event and stopping point in Amal’s journey will provide a catalyst for change and an opportunity to understand the plight of children just like her.
The project has been set back due to Covid and of course everyone is desperately hoping that this won’t happen again. However, Rachel remains hugely positive. She has agreed to talk to us again during The Walk, and then again once she has reached Manchester in November. In the meantime, Rachel’s bags are packed and the 8,000km road between Turkey and the UK awaits her and Amal’s footsteps.
‘May the road rise up to meet you and may the wind
be always at your back!’ – Traditional Irish Blessing
Good Chance needs your support to help make The Walk happen. The Walk‘s Step Up appeal is raising funds to support Little Amal‘s journey, the artistic and education programmes of The Walk, and the crucial work being done to raise awareness of the refugee crisis and advocate for young refugees to have access to an education.
Every young refugee deserves a Good Chance of fulfilling their potential.
Follow and learn more about Amal and The Walk.
And support via https://www.walkwithamal.org/support-us/
Interviewed by Josh Elwell