The Phoenix Rises! The Pickup of Puppetry Post Pandemic

A tantalising handful of exciting puppetry that is gearing up for the post lockdown world!

With people’s hopes pinned on theatres, venues, and events opening up this summer, many artists are gearing up to produce some dynamic new work for what promises to be a veritable cornucopia of creativity! We spoke to a colourful collection of companies, all of who are all planning their puppetry resurgence – from opera and science to festivals and flying dragons!

First I spoke to Sue Buckmaster at Theatre-Rites who have had a real ‘stop start’ of a year, but despite the set backs, and having turned much of their work digital, have managed to plow ahead with some exciting live projects for 2021.

RobotBoy by Theatre-Rites

Sue Buckmaster: Myself and the team at Theatre-Rites have had a busy Covid year.

First, our performance of RobotBoy at Bochum Schauspeilhaus, Germany, had to stop performing. It had performed to over 18, 000 young people, but was meant to continue. Therefore we made and edited a film version that is now doing a digital tour. The next showings are part of Animation Puppet Festival 2021 and The Croucher Science Week, Hong Kong.

My production with Akram Khan Company of Chotto Xenos had performed six times and then stopped. It has since had a stop/start world tour depending on the situation in each hosting country. Performances went ahead in Paris and Barcelona, but most have been delayed until later this year. 

The Theatre-Rites second planned tour of BigUp was turned into a digital sharing. The company were meant to offer employment for a 9 week tour. Instead they employed the team, who all offered an online series of events called BigUp at Home.

In the summer we created Talking Rubbish, an online performance for the Spark Festival. I also created two online Masterclasses on Puppet Whispering and Creating Site-Specific work. Liam Jarvis and myself finished writing the Book  ‘Animating Puppets, Objects and Sites’ and that will be available from Routledge Books in Summer 2021 as part of celebrating our 25th Birthday year. 

We have been auditioning, researching, and developing our new show using Zoom. This will be announced in April and will take place in July 2021.

We have also been developing a new collaboration with the Burg Theatre, Vienna. This will go into production Winter 2021 and will be a celebration, remembrance, and an understanding of Nature in light of our overuse of plastic. 

We are determined to keep art available for our young audiences and provide support for a sector which has been so badly hit by the pandemic.

I managed to catch up with Bristol’s very own Chris Pirie at Green Ginger who are partnering with The Royal Academy of Engineering and University of Bath, to develop an interactive STEM-focussed (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) performance experience for Key Stage 2 (KS2) pupils in Bristol, Bath, and the South West, called – RATLab.

Green Ginger’s RATLab 2021

Chris Pirie: Covid-safe performances of RATLab will be presented within a bespoke inflatable dome that is installed in school playgrounds in the Autumn Term 2021 and Spring Term 2022. The performance challenges and disrupts conventional narratives around STEM and uses innovative theatre techniques to reframe engineering as:

• Creative, exciting, and able to improve the quality of life.

• An option for those interested in the arts and sports, not just science.

• More diverse than publicly perceived.

The partnership project aims to inspire creative public engagement, raise awareness of engineering’s diversity and impact, and engage with those underrepresented in the field. RATLab confronts the negative assumptions around STEM that are commonly held by KS2/3 pupils. Recent RAE research shows that rapid child development around 7 years – as pupils move from KS1 into KS2 – affects how perceptions of STEM subjects form. It also highlights how these assumptions inform decision-making later on, in relation to GCSE/A Level and eventual career pathways. RATLab is an exciting intervention, designed to disrupt misconceptions before they take root in young, developing minds. 

Engineering research at UB has profoundly changed everyday life and this project celebrates these achievements, using GG’s puppetry and storytelling expertise to demonstrate how applied engineering positively influences our lives. The narrative content focusses UB’s work in developing new techniques and materials for joint replacement and research into sports injury that led to fundamental changes to the way rugby is played globally. Additionally, pupils will benefit from a learning experience in an innovative learning environment, away from everyday classroom activities.

I then spoke to Kerrin Tatman from Moving Parts in Newcastle who is delighted to have received funding for the 2021 Newcastle Puppet Festival!


Newcastle Puppet Festival 2021

Kerrin Tatman: It’s going to be different. It’s going to be safe, but spectacular. It’s going to be both live and online. It’s going to be in summer.

Normally the festival fills Newcastle’s venues and streets with puppetry performances and masterclasses from all around the UK and Europe. This won’t be possible this year for obvious reasons, but that isn’t to say that the 2021 event will be any less ambitious than usual. The main focus for 2021 will be a specially-commissioned, socially-distanced outdoor theatre spectacle that will be watched live and online by thousands of audience members. We are really excited about this – it is a big step for us and is moving into brand new territory. It will be bold, beautiful, and will transform one of Newcastle’s largely-unused public spaces into a puppet fantasy.

In addition to this, there will be a programme of talks, workshops, and small-scale performances taking place online over a month to sink your teeth into. A huge thank you to Arts Council England and our other funders for making this all possible.

More details to be announced very soon! Sign up to our mailing list to stay in the loop:

Big Boys Don’t Cry
Image design: Onela Keal 

Opposable Thumb Theatre are ecstatic and relieved to have just received match funding from Arts Council England towards making their new show ‘Big Boys Don’t Cry’. So, along with this and funding from Nordland Visual Theatre in Norway, plus support from The London Mime Festival, rehearsals can begin in mid-April.

They were originally flying out to Stamsund, on the Lofoten Islands to create the show, but due to quarantine restrictions they will be making it in Bristol. Dik is currently making puppets and props at Puppet Place and reliving his childhood dream of buying loads of Action Man in the hope that he can smuggle them into the storyline somehow.

‘Big Boys Don’t Cry’, intends to dissect the emotional complexities of being a father and losing one, in a riotous and euphoric explosion of colour, dance, clown, and puppets, or something like that!

Photo: Paul Blakemore

Tessa Bide is powerhouse of creativity! Here are her thoughts on the last year and her news for what is next…

Tessa Bide: After a real rollercoaster of a year full of some bleak lows but also some surprising, exciting highs, I entered my first R&D in over 2.5 years in February. Six years ago I wrote a story called ‘The Magic Snow Globe’ for a Christmas show commission and it’s sat on my hard drive since. It centres on a relationship between a girl and her grandma, and the girl’s journey to find snow, so we built an intergenerational R&D to support the project.

I lead outreach between a local group of elders, ‘Monday Club’ at BS3 Community Centre and year 5 students from Headley Park Primary. What I hadn’t expected, but what our partner Wyldwood Arts had guided us towards, was that soon, the intergenerational element became much more interesting than the classic adventure story with echoes of The Wizard of Oz.

The ten day R&D, working with a team of new collaborators I’d never worked with before, took a really interesting direction. It quickly became clear that making work this side of the pandemic is a very different experience. Artists so often serve to hold a mirror to society and reflect what needs to be celebrated, changed, or thrown away, and also to bring people together. This year has been so huge, we all felt we couldn’t ignore that in what we made. Very early on, we decided to ‘park’ the version of the show that would tour to studio theatres, and instead started workshopping community shows, a show on a beach, a show in a train carriage, shadow puppetry shows on windows of care homes…

This last year has made puppeteers and theatre makers rethink how and where they present their work, and at the moment, studio theatres don’t seem very relevant or, perhaps, exciting. Of course I’m sure they will be again, and I will always love performing on a stage, but at the moment, I think we’re in an exciting time where theatre and puppetry is getting to the masses in perhaps a more egalitarian way… bypassing some of the traditional gatekeepers.

What emerged from the R&D was a lot of learning about the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of good intergenerational, participatory work, and six shows that we want to make! Some centre around puppetry, after all we were working with gorgeous maquettes and shadow puppets from Isabel Lyster, but some don’t. Now we start the next step of talking to people about them and seeing which ones leave a mark and which ones don’t.

Over the next six months we are also digitally touring our co-production with Soap Soup Theatre, The Selfish Giant, via the Puppet Animation Festival and several other venues; and The Anarchist’s Mobile Library – both in its new digital audio/BSL format and, fingers crossed, live, in-person gigs this Summer around my neighbourhood in Filwood thanks to an Originators Fund grant from Bristol City Council. We’re still here, we’ve made it through, and we’ve done a lot of learning. Bring it on. 

Lastly, there is the awe inspiring ‘The Hatchling’ due to take flight 14-15 August 2021.

This summer, theatre-makers Trigger will stage The Hatchling, an extraordinary free outdoor performance featuring the world’s first flying puppet.

A dragon taller than a double-decker bus will hatch and roam through Plymouth, inviting the public to accompany her on her journey. On Sunday at sunset, The Hatchling will transform into a kite with a 20m wingspan and soar over the coast in a unique feat of artistry and engineering.

The Hatchling’s creative team includes puppetry expert Mervyn Millar, who was part of the original War Horse team, and Carl Robertshaw, a designer for the London 2012 Olympic Ceremonies and a five-time sport kite world champion.

Visit for the latest updates. There will be an article coming in our next issue taking a closer look at the team behind this project.

In conclusion, I take huge inspiration from those who have fought against all odds to keep things going and do what artists do best, which is to adapt, adjust, and accommodate to any obstacles that are put in their way. It appears that in some cases these obstacles only serve to make both people’s work and their resolve to keep creating even stronger!

All hail to the ‘Puppetry Phoenix’ as it rises from the ashes of the pandemic!

Interviews by Josh Elwell

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