Reaching Out Hands: An Interview With Kay Yasugi

Kay Yasugi, of Digital Seagull and Pupperoos, is a Sydney based creative, puppeteer, storyteller, and teacher, and the general secretary of the puppetry organisation UNIMA Australia. We caught up with them about their work in puppetry, including the recent ABC iView campaign, as well as the challenges that the Australian puppetry community has faced in 2020 and how they have come together in the face of that.

Bird of Light by Pupperoos / Kay Yasugi

Can you please tell us a bit about yourself, and how you came to puppetry?

I have been a puppeteer and puppet maker for 18 years, with a background in teaching and illustration.

My journey into puppetry began soon after I finished high school. I helped to run a children’s summer camp with other Christian volunteers in regional New South Wales, Australia. The following year they asked me to make a mascot for them so I went to my local library to get a book on doll making – but they only had puppet books. I picked up “The Usborne Book of Puppets” by Ken Haines and made a monkey puppet (based on Ken’s pattern for a Scottish clown).

Soon after that I attended a conference where I met Australian television puppeteer Mal Heap. Mal played one of my favourite puppet characters growing up – a cat called Modigliana from the Aussie nineties show ‘The Ferals’ – and he became my first mentor.

I continued doing puppetry while studying Primary Education at the University of Sydney, and found out about the London School of Puppetry (LSP) during that time. We actually had an assignment where we had to analyse a curriculum, and I chose to write about LSP’s Diploma of Professional Puppetry. I ended up doing that very course after finishing my teaching degree, thanks to a grant from my university and the puppetry organisation UNIMA Australia (of which I am now General Secretary). I learned so much from LSP’s Director of Studies Caroline Astell-Burt, who continues to be a great mentor. I’m also happy to say that one of the tutors for LSP is none other than Ken Haines, and I was delighted to meet him a few years ago and thank him for writing his book!

Now, I run workshops and perform shows with Pupperoos, focusing on education and children’s projects. I also do puppet commissions for film, television, and theatre through Digital Seagull.

I work in a variety of styles of puppetry including shadow theatre, rod puppetry, hand/glove puppets and marionettes (string puppets).

What have been the highlights for you so far creatively? And how does your own experience and background inform the work you do?

Some creative highlights include performing in ‘The 13-Storey Treehouse’ at Sydney Opera House, based on the book by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, and appearing on the ABC television program Play School (‘Through the Window’ segments) for their puppetry episodes.

Kay Yasugi and Dr Emma Fisher-Owen

In 2018, I received funding from the Seaborn, Broughton, and Walford Foundation for a research and training project at the University of Washington, Bothell (USA) to explore virtual technology and its application to shadow puppetry, as part of a global puppetry project with artists and researchers from the USA and Ireland – Dr Emma Fisher-Owen (Beyond the Bark Puppet and Installation Theatre), Ivan Fisher-Owen, and Rafael Silva. This was followed by an Artist in Residency with the shadow theatre company Manual Cinema in Chicago (USA) to work on their new show Frankenstein while also learning their shadow puppetry techniques.

I also received funding to research traditional Haenyeo women divers in Jeju Island, South Korea. In 2019, I created the show ‘Haenyeo: Women of the Sea’ which premiered at Figura Offida Festival, an international puppetry street theatre festival in Offida, Italy. Performing the show with my mother Youngkyu Kwon was a real highlight. It is about women, passing down traditions, and sharing our cultural heritage. Being half Korean and half Japanese, and moving to Australia when I was 3 years old, I think it’s really important to have diverse stories and cultures represented in mainstream theatre.

Haenyeo Diver puppet by Kay Yasugi in Jeju Island Korea 2019

You’ve recently been working with ABC on a campaign for their iView platform; can you please tell us a little more about the project, and how you came to be involved?

The ABC iView campaign was released in May 2021 to promote their free video-on-demand (VOD) service, with new personalised features that make it easier to enjoy outstanding programmes from the nation’s biggest collection of Australian content.

With so many other streaming services out there, puppets were a way to make the campaign stand out with something eye-popping, fun, and memorable.

With the assistance of Katherine Hannaford, I created two puppets that could change into four different characters – all designed in-house by ABC Made. They had dropping jaws, removable wigs/noses/eyes and could even play ping pong! Operating the puppets was a unique challenge, as I had to do stills, GIFS, and film in a studio and on location (crouching behind milk crates in an alley; and lying under a park bench dressed in a fluro green screen suit!).

Filming GIFs with Arj puppet – Kay Yasugi and puppetry assistant Eleanor Roberts

How did you come up with the personalities and designs behind the four puppets, Arj, Linh, Gloria and Vinnie, for the campaign?

The puppets were designed by ABC Made and the process for devising the characters was wonderfully collaborative. I worked with Creative Director Diana Costantini, Executive Producer Tasha Mahalm, Director Tim Brown, Senior Design Creatives Francesca Snow and Clare D’Arcy, Production Co-ordinator Agnieszka Switala and Production Manager Mark Risso-Gill. I really enjoyed bouncing around ideas and imagining the different characters and their quirks – Arj the hipster barista, Linh the college student, Gloria the boss lady, and Vinnie the ping pong player.

Certain aspects of their designs were determined by very practical limitations. I happened to only have 2 colours of nylon fleece available and with such a quick turnaround there was no time to purchase more from the USA (particularly with longer shipping times due to Covid). So the puppets were going to be blue and purple from the start, which thankfully suited the colour scheme of the campaign! We also used Project Puppet (USA) patterns as a foundation for the build, which really saved on time. Building the puppets in March also had one key advantage – it was right before Easter! I was able to purchase a bunch of hollow plastic Easter eggs to use for puppet eyes, as well as styrofoam eggs that I used to sculpt various puppet features and use as a base for Arj’s tall hairdo.

What led to the decision behind them being silent protagonists? How did that affect your approach to the campaign and the puppetry?

This campaign is for television, digital media, outdoor advertising (such as buses, bus stops, billboards, and train stations) and ABC radio, so it was important that the sound would translate across visual and audio mediums. ABC Made chose Aussie comedian Sam Simmons to be the narrator, and I think his distinctive and energetic voice matches very well with the quirky visual comedy of the puppets.

As a performer I often do the voices for my puppets, but the challenge of this campaign was to convey a puppet’s personality through visuals alone. We wanted to do things that only puppets could do – have their jaw drop, eyes ‘pop’, mind blown (with a confetti cannon) and play puppet ping pong. We made them in such a short period of time and I’m very proud of the end result.

Kay Yasugi with Linh and her mindblowing confetti canon!

You’re based in Sydney; how have the arts and creative industries, especially puppetry, been affected by the pandemic?

2020 was a very challenging year for Australians– with bushfires in January, floods in February and a global pandemic which is still ongoing. Most puppeteers lost gigs and other work, and the recovery has been varied depending on location and Covid numbers.

Theatres around the country are thankfully reopening (with limited capacity), though for artists who work in those industries it’s been particularly tough. The Australian government rolled out a support scheme called ‘JobKeeper’ and ‘JobSeeker’ which has helped eligible puppeteers to stay financially afloat for a time (the scheme ended in March 2021). Some have sought employment in other industries (e.g. teaching, personal training, running online workshops) and others are taking a break and using this time to create new work, develop scripts, and research. Some who have shifted to online puppet shows are even getting bookings from clients overseas, and there are some who are using social media like TikTok, Facebook, and Cameo to gain new audiences and get work.

With the onset of travel bans and social distancing restrictions affecting how we tour, perform, gather and connect, our whole industry has changed. Although many physical doors are closed at the moment, there has been an influx of virtual doors opening, allowing us to connect with artists all around the world.

How is the Australian puppetry community starting to find its feet again in the wake of it?

I have been quite involved with the puppetry organisation UNIMA Australia in our efforts to offer additional support to artists. When the pandemic hit we did more frequent mailouts, including information on helping artists who have lost work due to Covid-19, as well as links to online shows and other resources.

We have organised Zoom meetings with UNIMA members, with ‘think tanks’ (discussing how to create work online), relaxed maker sessions, ‘Puppet Doctor’ seminars (inviting expert puppet makers to give advice on puppet ‘ailments’), ‘Puppetry Nailed It’ competitions (fun and frenzied maker sessions), and special celebrations for World Puppetry Day and our 50th Anniversary. We also put together the Silver Linings Online Puppet Film Festival and invited people to participate from around the world. This year we launched a special 50th Anniversary UNIMA Oz magazine (Volume 1) – a project that was done completely online.

It has been great to see the Australian puppetry community start to get back out into the real world. Shows are touring around the country, including Bluey’s Big Play (based on the popular children’s television program). Puppet theatres and companies are putting on shows and exhibitions too, including ImaginArta Australian Puppet Centre (New South Wales), Erth Visual and Physical Inc (New South Wales), Terrapin Puppet Theatre (Tasmania), Larrikin Puppets (Queensland), and Dead Puppet Society (Queensland). Spare Parts Puppet Theatre (Western Australia) launched their large-scale installation The Last Numbat last year and have also organised shows as well as intensive training workshops.

We have found ways to be resilient and adapt to ever changing restrictions. I’ve seen a trend for more outdoor spectacles and installations (rather than traditional theatre indoors), as well as live performances which are also streamed online. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra put on ‘Peter and the Wolf’ with puppets made by Annie Forbes and Tim Denton (AboutFace Productions) – the production was digitally streamed and later (once restrictions had eased) performed to live audiences.

Puppet Mayhem – Fly by Niow

A highlight of this year was Puppet Mayhem in Melbourne, Victoria. It was A Blanck Canvas’ first major event to celebrate the launch of their new rehearsal and performance space – The Playground, located at Seaworks Maritime Precinct in Williamstown.

Following Melbourne’s long lasting lockdown, where we saw the arts and events industry come to a halt, over 850 people excitedly came out to experience a variety of puppet shows, multiple roving performances, mesmerising aerial works, workshops, live bands & DJ sets, and much more. It was a huge success, and both the audience and performers had an absolute ball.

We are looking forward to the Melbourne Festival of Puppetry (6-11 July 2021), which we really hope will go ahead in the midst of current restrictions.

I think that finding our feet requires us to reach out our hands in support of one another. We are a diverse, resilient, and adaptable community.

And what are your own plans for the future, can we look forward to any new puppetry projects from you in 2021 or 2022?

I am currently working as an EAL/D (English as an Additional Language/Dialect) teacher at a primary school, and am thankful to be able to use puppetry for language learning. I will keep teaching while also performing shows, running workshops, and seeking out interesting collaborative projects with others.

I am continuing my role as General Secretary of UNIMA Australia along with our new President Philip Millar (Puppetvision, Melbourne, Victoria). We are keen to make connections with puppeteers around Australia and overseas. For anyone interested in Australian puppetry, I recommend joining UNIMA Australia.

Also check out the Talking Sock podcast about Aussie puppetry practitioners.

You can discover more about Kay’s work and advocacy via:

Websites: www.pupperoos.com & www.digitalseagull.com

Instagram: www.instagram.com/kay_yasugi

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Pupperoos

Interviewed by Matt Gibbs

Kay Yasugi and mother Youngkyu Kwon

About mattgibbs

WGGB Award nominated writer, narrative designer, and editor. Part of Talespinners and Improper Books. Resident Puppet Place. (he/him, bi/pan)

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