All posts by Cat Rock

About Cat Rock

Cat Rock is a Puppeteer, Film Maker, Fabricator, Performer and Artist with a Masters degree in Theatre and Performance. She studied at the University of Kent and Indiana University in the USA, she has been working in the puppetry industry ever since. Cat has performed internationally and has worked with companies and industry professionals such as The Paper Cinema, Trigger Stuff, Mrervin Miller, Olly Tayler, Jimmy Grimes, Peter Elliout, Oddpost, Bedlam Oz and Greenpeace. As a founding member of the puppet film collective House of Funny Noises, Cat has now turned her attention to puppetry film and aims to create excitingly weird thought provoking media for theatre, installation and beyond. With a desire to tell stories from different perspectives and in unique visual ways Cat wants to challenge the medium of puppetry, pushing past convention and the expected. She is done with narrow representation and the predictable. Cat wants to show the public something they have never seen before.

Pupaphobia: The Fear of Puppets

As Halloween approaches, Cat Rock looks into puppetry’s relationship with horror. With thoughts from Aya Nakamura, Kathleen Yore, Mike Oleon, and the Puppet Place residents. Featuring a special interview with Sarah Fornace from Manual Cinema about their recent shadow puppetry creation for the 2021 film “Candyman”. Cat explores why and how puppets have been used to unsettle and terrify audiences over the years.

“Puppetry as an art form provides a powerful feeling of escapism and is especially good at tapping into our subconscious fears; bringing to the surface hidden imagery and diving deep into otherworldly places. Strange objects or handmade figures that appear to live, to breathe, and to think in front of our very eyes are like magic, interpreted uniquely by each viewer. What a liberating experience! Even when we present something horrid the audience are still thankful for the journey, still amazed at how a bit of papier-mâché and fabric had them transfixed!” (Kathleen Yore – Odd Doll)

Seaside Terror – Odd Doll

Pupaphobia, the fear of puppets, settling in next to the more common fears of Coulrophobia (fear of Clowns) and Pediophobia (the fear of dolls), is an extreme version of a common human reaction to puppets, one of trepidation, caution and disconcerntainty. A reaction that is still used in horror media as a tool to incite terror and fright in many an audience.

From the horror trope of the evil living doll to the use of puppetry in the creations of monsters, aliens, and creatures, puppets and horror go hand in hand. So it begs the question, are puppets really scary? And if so, why?

The idea of an evil living puppet or doll is so common in media that it could have its own subgenera. Demonic puppets and dolls have appeared in films as early as 1945 (and as creepy symbols even earlier) with Hugo the ventriloquist dummies appearance in “The Dead of Night”. Other films and series include Magic, Dolls, Childs Play (featuring the murderous Chucky), the Puppet Master series, Annabel, The Boy, and let’s not forget films that use puppets to enhance their creep factor such as the Saw franchise’s mascot Jigsaw. Even Pixar used spooky ventriloquist dummies in their most recent Toy Story film. It is a wonder that children’s toy shops even sell puppets and human figures any more!

The first time I remember being exposed to the evil puppet concept was with the Goosebumps children’s horror book series, and their title “Night of the Living Dummy” back in 1993. The book went on to have two sequels and is one of the most popular and well known books in the Goosebumps series. Targeting adults and children, and exploring all media, from film, tv, books, and theatre, you cannot escape the connection between horror and puppetry. 

Story by R.L. Stein / Cover by Tim Jacobus

One theory is that puppetry taps into the robotics and computer graphics principle of the “Uncanny Valley”. People have been studying this concept to find out why there is a fine line between a humanoid construction being either likeable or repelling. We connect with human-like creations, in fact we are drawn to them, but only to a certain point, when an invisible line is crossed and that thing becomes too human, like we become disconcerted by its presence. Does this switch in perception evoke a sense of trepidation because it seems as if the figure is trying to trick us, making us believe it is a person when in fact it is a construct? Maybe there is something about not seeing true life behind those realistic puppet eyes that just makes us squirm.

Assume we could make a robot more and more similar to a human in form, would our affinity to this robot steadily increase as realism increased or would there be dips in the relationship between affinity and realism.” (Masahiro Mori, 1970) Ref 1

Puppetry legend Janni Younge once said, “The puppet is a dead thing that’s brought to life.” (Ref 3). Breathing life into your puppet is one of the core fundamentals of puppetry, the magic of manipulation is that you can look at an inanimate object and see a living thing. You connect with it, you believe it, and you feel it.  Depending on the context this can be a wonderfully magic moment or one that can fill you with a sense of wrongness. Puppets are things that are not alive, but act as if they are, if that is not the basis for horror then I don’t know what is.

KWAIDAN – Rouge28 Theatre

Aya Nakamura is Associate Artist of Rouge28 Theatre and has performed in the Japanese Ghost Story show KWAIDAN, she says, “People tend to find puppets scary when puppets are figurative. I believe it’s because it imitates living beings and the viewers can perceive it as being alive yet also, they know that it is not real. They cannot tell exactly how or why it becomes scary. We, as humans, find things that we do not know scary.”  

Can you say that puppets are the living dead?

Puppet Place resident artist Ben Mars says, “They behave as if conscious, but that consciousness is particularly other.”

Perhaps, it is the relationship between audience, puppet, and puppeteer that can trigger us. It is so easy for an audience to imprint on a puppet. That’s why they are such amazing things to use in performance. But if we are using those puppets in a malicious and cruel way, or they themselves are being treated horribly, do we as an audience feel it more because we see ourselves in the puppets? Is our ability to experience these scary situations ourselves through the lens of a puppet what makes them a great horror tool? There is something to be said there also about this lens providing a certain amount of protection to the viewer; we can engage fully with what is happening but from the safety of our own seat.

In Chicago, there is a new theatrical experience taking place created by Rough House Theatre. “The House of the Exquisite Corpse”, a horror peep-show, puppet-theatre anthology, invites the audience to peer through keyholes, cracks, and hidden doors to discover surreal worlds that will terrify and amaze…

Mike Oleon from Rough House had this to say, “Puppets beg to be animated with vital life force, and fear is one of our most fundamental emotions. Fill a puppet with something that provokes that fear and you will find they are perfect vessels through which audiences can experience the most profound terror and emerge unscathed. That is thrilling.”

The House of the Exquisite Corpse – Rough House

Another very practical reason why puppets work so well in horror is that puppet design is only limited by a creator’s imagination (and budget!). Bodies can be elongated, features distorted, and finishings worn and damaged. Puppets can be made to look like something straight out of a nightmare.

As Chris Pirie from Green Ginger says, “It’s all about eye position. Too close together – uncanny. Too far apart – uncanny. Just right – really f**king freaky!”

We can bend puppets to physically resemble the thing that terrifies us. 

Aya Nakamura adds, “Puppets are good at taking the shape of the artists’ imaginations and visions. Puppet makers can create the creature as they wish. And their advantages are different from human actors. Puppets can fly and transform, they can have many tentacles or less limbs than humans. These help to make creatures and make them less ordinary humans or animals.”

From making slight unsettling changes to human figures to large leaps with tentacles, blood red eyes, and gnashing teeth, we can make puppets look like anything, and if we choose that anything can be really scary. 

Queen Takes Bishop – House of Funny Noises

Another notion is that puppets, dolls, and toys are closely linked to our childhood. At this early stage of life we are vulnerable, small inquisitive creatures, unknowing of the dangers of the real world that we come to learn as we grow up. The phrase ‘the past comes back to haunt us’ comes to mind, as a lot of our grown up fears come from our childhood experiences. Older siblings or bullies stealing and mutilating our favourite toys, clutching a doll for comfort whilst grownups argue in the other room, or staring at the freaky frog teddy in the dead of night just waiting for it to blink. By using puppets as a source of ill intent and evil, are we tapping into that childhood sense of vulnerability, uprooting those experiences that have come to mould us as adults?

It is also a time where our imaginations run wild and anything seems possible. Children learn and experience the world through play. By using these playful tools to create a sense of unease, are we tapping back into our powerful childhood imaginations, which now, as adults, are skewed to picture the dark as well as the light? Is that why an old, abandoned child’s playroom and warped children’s music can fill a person with dread? 

The House of the Exquisite Corpse – Rough House

As a puppeteer and puppet maker, I spend my life surrounded by weird, wonderful, and sometimes creepy puppets. I have never felt unsettled in their presence (apart from that one time I accidentally stumbled on a hunched over lifesize old man puppet in a pitch black Puppet Place, then I did jump), I feel in control of my tools and at my place of work. Is that it then? Is the idea of control a key factor? Puppets are designed to be controlled, manipulated, but often in horror there is a dramatic control shift, the puppet comes to life or is possessed for example. Is the fear of losing control physically represented by a puppet? In Nightmare on Elm Street 3 there is a Scene where one of the characters is forced to be a grotesque human puppet, manipulated by Freddy Krueger. In this example, this person could not be less in control. Perhaps, the lack of control of something that is meant to be controlled is what makes the fear of puppets a reality.

Max Dorey, from Puppet Place, makes an interesting comparison between puppets and classic novels, “Pinicio, perhaps the atypical and earliest puppet gone rogue, was written in 1883… Frankenstein, also about a creator losing control of their creation was written in 1818. The idea of a living doll I would say is scary because it is a total removal of power that then turns the aspect of control on its head.”

Interesting, that two very different stories have so many similarities when you start to think about them. The idea of control, taking it, losing it, wanting it, being tricked by someone who has it… Do we relate to this sense of powerlessness and futility when we see such a clear representation through a living doll? Do we relate to the manipulator, the controlled and the power struggle between them simultaneously?

Eloise Dunwell, from Puppet Place, adds, “Maybe what’s also strange is that performance can only come from what us humans can think up, so will it always be a representation of the psyche?”

Puppets need to be controlled by something, but by what? Perhaps the notion of a human manipulator scares us because we know how dark humanity can be. Especially when the identity of someone is removed. You need not look far on social media to see how people’s behaviour changes when they have the shield of anonymity. Does a puppet give that kind of shield if used by someone with dark intent, and is that what makes people distrust a puppet in certain instances? The puppet that you see could be so very different from the person hiding behind it.

Seaside Terror – Odd Doll

Humans can be scary, yes, but is it only people who can manipulate puppets? Puppets are literally vessels created to be controlled, so it isn’t surprising that puppets have been used in supernatural stories from ghosts to demons, voodoo to witchcraft. Do puppets give us the sense that we have created an unpredictable path between our world and another?

Emma Windsor from White Rabbit Animation says, “The notion of puppets and dolls as magic objects is deep rooted in our collective consciousness, I think. Pre-history, humanity was carving small objects that represented or were thought to capture the gods or supernatural forces, the The Venus of Willendorf figurine springs to mind. So I think this connection between small figurines and the supernatural is hard wired in most human cultures.”

If we grow up with this idea that puppets, dolls, and figures are innately magical, of course then we can use this to our advantage when telling stories of a dark nature.

No matter how you look at it, puppets are able to connect with audiences in a way that can draw out and enhance the fear within us all. So why are we drawn to the macabre and terrifying especially in terms of entertainment? One great example of a puppet horror stage show is Seaside Terror by Odd Doll. Stuffed with fun frights and ice cream chills, Seaside Terror is a celebration of British horror and British holidays of the 1970s.

Kathleen Yore, Artistic Director of Odd Doll, has this to say, “As an art form it provides a powerful feeling of escapism and is especially good at tapping into our subconscious fears; bringing to the surface hidden imagery and diving deep into otherworldly places. Strange objects or handmade figures that appear to live, to breathe, and to think in front of our very eyes are like magic, interpreted uniquely by each viewer. What a liberating experience! Even when we present something horrid the audience are still thankful for the journey, still amazed at how a bit of papier-mâché and fabric had them transfixed!”

Puppetry is an amazing storytelling medium by adding weight and engageability to new stories. When you create puppets you are creating a world with new rules. The characters, props, and set can all be manipulated to create this unique space, even the gravity can be different. You as the creator set your own laws. This merges so well with horror, where the unexpected and the twisting of reality can create unnerving stories. Again, back to the idea that something is familiar but a bit off. The fact that puppets are physical entities also enhances an audience’s connection with them. You feel like you can touch or be touched by them and bring you deeper into the world. This is why puppets and horror work so well on stage and on screen.

Kathleen Yore says, “I believe that great horror and great puppetry is all about well thought out visual imagery. Experimenting with light and dark, what we see and don’t see, like a living comic book, moving from one picture to the next. So it goes without saying that puppetry lends itself perfectly to the telling of a scary story.”

They goes on to say, “Working with puppets provides a license to see how far we can push things; puppets poo, their teeth fall out, or they can die in gruesome ways. Despite being presented with such darkness, audiences often find themselves laughing. Perhaps working with puppets provides a form of distance from the true horror of what we are presenting?”

Puppets allow ‘space’ (see Sarah Fornace interview) for the audience to fill in the gaps. What we imagine can often be more terrifying than what we are shown. You can address the subject head on but in an abstract or slightly removed way, allowing an audience to insert themselves or their ideas into the story. This is why we are seeing more and more puppetry being used in mainstream media.

In 2021, Candyman hit cinemas nationwide bringing with it an eerie shadow puppet film created by Chicago’s Manual Cinema.

Their piece was used in the trailer of the film and is referred to throughout, a powerful yet disconcerting framing device which enhances the tone, atmosphere, and surrealism of the film. 

I caught up with Sarah Fornace from Manual Cinema to talk about Candyman.

Candyman – Manual Cinema

So let’s start with this idea that puppets address horror and violence with a layer of abstraction that gives the audience space to connect with the material. Here is the part of our interview where we start touching on that subject… 

The shadow puppetry in Candyman is beautifully creepy, working well with the live action world of the main film to enhance key points, emotions and atmosphere. I asked Sarah why shadow puppetry was the right choice for this production… 

As we talked we dove deeper into why puppetry works so well to tell horror stories and why they chose puppets over other performance styles specifically for the Candyman film… 

I love that sentence, “…everything a puppet does is inherently meaningful.”

When we use puppetry to tell a story, as a whole production or as a selected section, we are highlighting the importance of that story. A bit like Shakespeare using iambic pentameter to capture attention at key theatrical moments, puppetry adds weight and importance to a story by its sheer presence. When used within a horror context we are highlighting, without words, the weight of these moments, drawing the audience deeper into the narrative where what they see will hold greater impact.

As Kathleen puts it, “Certain horror films have put the fear of clowns, masks, and puppets into some of our audience, but when a puppetry performance begins, the overwhelming sense of craftsmanship and perfect manipulation which portrays every thought, every breath, every moment of the story, quickly eradicates any doubts about how magnificent this art form is. But of course, being aware of this underlying fear is something we as artists can very easily use to our advantage if we wanted to!”

No matter how you look at it, puppets have the ability to target the fears within us all. From the ideas of control, power and lack thereof, to the physical designs, universal appeal and their reality warping capabilities; to connections with our childhood selves and the idea that the unknown is a thing to fear. Puppets can engage us in pleasant magical ways, but like most things there is always another side to the coin, the more you can connect with something the more power it holds over you. So when used in just the right (or wrong) way, puppetry can tell the most terrifying of stories.

So remember, treat your puppets nicely, just in case, because you never know what puppets get up to when you leave them behind closed doors…

Candyman – Manual Cinema

Article by Cat Rock 

Thanks to:

Sarah Fornace – Manual Cinema

See the full edited interview here

Kathleen Yore – Artistic Director of Odd Doll

Aya Nakamura – Puppeteer • Puppet Maker • Theatre Maker


House of Funny Noises

Puppet Place Residents and Associates

Ben Mars 

Max Dorey 

Eloise Dunwell 

Chris Pirie 

Emma Windsor


Ref 1 

In Search of the Uncanny Valley by Frank E Pollick

Ref 2 

Uncanny Valley

Rosenthal-von der Pütten, AM et al. Neural Mechanisms for Accepting and Rejecting Artificial Social Partners in the Uncanny Valley. Journal of Neuroscience

Ref 3 

Puppetery; Brinning a dead thing to life – Source CNN

An Interview with a Barbarian and a Troll

Cat Rock talks to Drew Massey (Co-creator/Puppeteer) and Colleen Smith (Puppeteer) on the upcoming Barbarian and the Troll TV puppet series being released this April on Nickelodeon. Get a behind the scenes look at the next big puppet series.

Hail and well met my friends! Have you heard the news sweeping across the land? A tale of adventure, mystery, and sentient axes?! The Barbarian and the Troll is an upcoming live-action puppet comedy series set to hit our screens later this year on Nickelodeon. Created by Drew Massey and Mike Mitchell the show will feature original puppet characters, beautiful visuals, and an all star comedy cast. This series is a must see for any lover of puppets, barbarians, wizards, trolls, or fantasy adventure. I caught up with Drew Massey, co-creator and puppeteer, and Colleen Smith, lead puppeteer of the show’s protagonist Brendar, about the production.

Drew, can you tell us a bit about yourself? 

Drew Massey (DM): Hi! I’m Drew Massey, a regular guy from a middle class family who grew up watching the Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Krofft shows, and tons of fantasy films. I’ve always loved to draw and tell stories, and I’ve always loved puppets. For years I’ve seen a lot of potential in that medium to tell stories in an engaging way. So I became a puppeteer. I’ve worked on television shows, movies with budgets big and small, and lots of commercials. 

Where did the story for the Barbarian and the Troll come from? 

DM: Mike (Mitchell, co-creator and director of The Barbarian and the Troll) and I had lunch one day. We had known each other for many years and were both excited about the idea of doing a show with puppets together. He suggested a show with a barbarian and I suggested adding a troll to it. There it was. Barbarian and troll. From there we tossed ideas back and forth to nail down the specifics. We both love fantasy films and have lots of similar references from which we draw inspiration, so it was a very smooth collaboration. We inspire and amuse each other, so we just kept pitching funny ideas and building this world.

Colleen, can you tell us a bit about the show? 

Colleen Smith (CS): It follows the adventures of Brendar the Barbarian and Evan the Troll. They travel across the land of Gothmoria searching for Brendar’s missing brother, picking up a hapless Wizard (Allan Trautman), a teen Owl (Sarah Sarang Oh) and a talking axe (James Murray) along the way. The cool part is, it’s all puppets. No humans to be found. There are only eight puppeteers on the whole show. So we all played a bunch of different characters, sometimes dropping one puppet to run and grab another one to enter the same shot. We filmed the whole thing in Vancouver, during Covid, so there was a lot of quarantining and nose swabs. 

Those who swab together slay together!

Photo by Sarah Oh

So Drew, why puppets to tell this story? 

DM: Puppets shows are very hard to pitch and sell, especially if they aren’t either super nasty or for very young children. We knew going in that selling our show was going to be an uphill battle, but we were determined to try to hit a sweet spot – a middle ground ripe for what we now know are called “co-viewing” opportunities, where hopefully there’s something for everyone, parents and kids alike. I think maybe because we had tried to do a show like this for so many years, each on our own, we knew the pitfalls. But we were doggedly determined to show people what we saw in our heads as being something really unique.

But to answer the question, ‘Why puppets?’ I would have to say because we wanted to break through a certain barrier with puppets the same way animation had done years before with Anime and CG. We were intent on removing the stigma of the medium and telling cool stories in a fantasy world without people being conscious of the fact that they are watching a puppet show. Time will tell whether or not we were successful. But we tried our hardest.

Colleen, tell us how you got into puppetry?

CS: I got into puppetry through improv. I trained, and now teach, at a theatre in Los Angeles called The Groundlings. It’s an improv and sketch theatre/school. When Brian Henson decided to train his puppeteers in improv, he brought in improvisers as well and trained them to puppeteer. That’s how I started to work for The Jim Henson Co. – first in the live improv show Puppet Up! and then in various projects like The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell (Netflix), The Happytime Murders (2018), and That Puppet Game Show (BBC).

How did you take to puppetry coming from your improv background? 

CS: One of the main rules of improv is eye contact. Which is impossible with puppets. I had to quickly readjust how I connected to my scene partners. I became a much better listener.  And I was so used to conveying emotion and intent through my body and facial expressions. Getting a puppet to cry, glare, or wince is not as easy as it seems. Watching people like Leslie Carrera Rudolph or Louise Gold taught me a lot about how to convey emotion through a puppet. Or, how to bend a puppet to your will.

Photo by Sarah Oh

You puppeteer Brendar, the fierce female warrior and protagonist of the show, what was it like to puppeteer her? 

CS: Fun and hard. The fun part is how still and small I got to be with her. My natural sense of humour and style is more subtle than what is wanted on most puppet shows, and sometimes I get lectured about going bigger. It was great to get to keep Brendar really still and stoic. (I mean really small; our director Mike says I barely moved her mouth in some takes.) But then, I get to flip to over-dramatic speeches or petulant and cranky speeches. If anyone saw That Puppet Game Show, Brendar has some similarities with Mancie. Frustrated, driven, and usually right. The hard part was the puppet is very long and heavy. If you’ve puppeteered, you understand what that means. But if you haven’t, it means you are fully extending your arm all the time. It leads to weird body angles and strange back pain. Brendar has a LOT of speeches, so by the end my right arm was jacked.

Spencer Grammer is the voice of Brendar, how does it compare to doing the voice yourself? Which came first, the puppet or the voice? How does working in a team like this affect the character development/performance?

CS: The vocals weren’t prerecorded for Brendar or any of the characters on this show. The shows were edited together and Spencer and the other voice actors did ADR after. All of the voices that are dubbed were cast about halfway into filming. I think pre-recorded vocals work when everything is set in stone or with short sketches, like with Crank Yankers. All of us were improvising throughout production. If we had a locked vocal track that would have limited what we could have done in the moment. So we took ownership of our characters. I’ve never worked on a puppet project where I was dubbed, so this was a first. I had a few moments where it was hard to figure out how to put so much of myself in her when I knew she would eventually be voiced by someone else. But I called Brian Henson and he reminded me that puppetry has always been a collaborative art form. Even if Brendar had my voice, Nicolette Santino would be responsible for so many of the funny and awesome things Brendar did with her hands. And when Brendar fought/interacted with other characters I played, or even herself, the other puppeteers all stepped in. I haven’t seen much of Brendar with Spencer’s voice yet, but I think it just adds a new layer to the performance. Basically Brendar is all of us, and we are all Brendar!

Put that on a T-shirt! Drew, how much of the show was pre-scripted versus improvised, given you had an amazing comedy team working on the show?

DM: Our writers were so great at hammering out the stories and keeping everything moving, the scripts were pretty much complete when we hit the stage. But there’s almost always room to put in extra jokes and find different character dynamics on the day, so that’s what we would often do when running scenes. Sometimes things wouldn’t be apparent until the actors and puppets were all on set together and scenes would get a few new jokes or attitude adjustments on the fly. And sometimes our cast would improvise something in the moment that was just so funny and true to the scene we would have to incorporate it. So I would say it was all scripted… but liberally enhanced.

Photo by Sarah Oh

What’s new and different about The Barbarian and the Troll, what exciting things can we hope to see when it’s released?

DM: The unique thing about The Barbarian and the Troll is that it’s an all-puppet fantasy comedy for adults and kids and it is gorgeous. Our Directors of Photography were just phenomenal in giving these puppets a visually cinematic treatment in a way that hasn’t been seen on television much. The stories are full of drama, comedy, magic, battles, and explosions.  The world of Gothmoria, where The Barbarian and the Troll takes place, is chock full of wondrous creatures and lush landscapes. It’s got posh dragons, hungry evil trees, creepy-cute gnomes, talking peppers, disgruntled skeletons, frosty ogres, wacky witches, mini-krakens, zombies, ghosts, and a mace-wielding Knight named Steve, just to name a few.  That doesn’t even cover our main cast! There are over a hundred new puppet characters in our show, which is just nuts. Prepare yourself an ocular insulin shot, because this show is wall-to-wall eye candy.

CS: I think the tone of the show is really different. It’s a show for kids, but we all let our humour creep in. Or I shoved mine in. And almost all of the puppeteers have worked together for a long time; we’ve been working as a ‘troupe’ for many years, so there is a familiarity to how we work together and how we interact. I think it will feel like a gaggle of friends rather than a cast. We also shot some scenes on location (in the freezing cold and rain) so the whole show is really beautiful. Tyler Walzak, our DP, the set designers, set dec, the camera crew, the puppet builders, wranglers, effects, props, and everyone are so talented! And the puppet designs by Mike and Drew are really fucking cool. Every time a new puppet came from LA, it was like Christmas. Oh, and the builders Jurgen Ferguson and Russ Walko, and Carol Binion who made the costumes… Everyone did incredible work. 

Wow, so a lot of the puppeteers had worked together before on puppet comedies, that must have been great to work with a group you are so comfortable with?

CS: It made the whole shoot fun and relaxed. We would trade lines and punch up each other’s jokes. Sometimes we would just change a line in the moment and trust that everyone else would just adjust in the moment. It also made assisting a lot more dynamic. Nikki would make Brendar do hand gestures that I do in real life. And Jeny (Cassady), who met us at the beginning of this shoot, did sillier and more fantastical gestures and poses for Drew and Allan’s characters as the weeks progressed. And Sarah on gnome hands… You’ll see!

Photo by Sarah Oh

Any show production stories you want to share?

CS: I believe I got hit in the head by every weapon in the show – Brendar’s sword, Axe, Sharon’s sword, a mace, a cup. And once I plowed directly into the camera jib. Don’t worry, Catering/Medical checked me for a concussion. And since we had so many fun new locations and sets it meant I got to pull fun new debris from my bra each week. Sand, snow (paper and or potato flakes), wood chips, yarn, and so on.

Or, there was a scene where Brendar had a dramatic line and I wanted a ‘nails on a chalkboard’ moment. I asked the director if we could have something like that. “Maybe she could sharpen her sword,” and before I even finished the question, props handed me a sharpening stone they had made ‘just in case’. That was how great everyone was. When you see the sombrero in that same episode, it has a similar backstory. 

Colleen, what was your favourite part of this production, any characters, scenes or experiences stand out? 

CS: The whole thing was such a crash course for me. I’ve been a puppeteer for about ten years now, but I’ve never been the lead character, especially on an action show. All the sword fights and stunts were really challenging and awesome. I also loved how collaborative Mike and Drew were about our characters. They really let me mess with Brendar and make her my own.

The last week was super intense. Lots of fight sequences and dance numbers and we were all exhausted. On one of the last days Nikki, Jeny (Cassady), Peggy (Etra) and I had to make a character run. The character had so many various limbs that it needed that many assists. The whole time we’d been filming, I kept getting the note to have my characters walk slower, but this time they let me run almost full out. The four of us booking it with this puppet while B Cam raced along with us was so much fun. I can’t wait for people to see it. It’s very much the definition of collaboration between the puppeteers and everyone else. It’s a short moment, but it’s my favourite. If you had seen me in the pilot presentation, when I was all too happy to have Alice Dinnean handle all the hard stuff, you would be real proud of my growth. 

Photo by Sarah Oh

Drew anything else about the production you want to share?

DM: This show was incredibly challenging to make, but I think it came out great and people are going to love it. Mike and I have already discussed where to go story wise with subsequent seasons and even with all the cool stuff in season one, there’s a lot more in our brains that we want to put on screen!

Oh, and some of us do ‘British-style’ accents in this, so I ask in advance for your forgiveness. Just remember that it all takes place in Gothmoria, which is a land of many accents, and not anywhere in the UK. There. Disclaimer over.

Ultimately, we all had so much fun making this show, and I think we made something pretty great. I hope people like it enough that they watch it again and again.

The Barbarian and the Troll is set to hit Nickelodeon in April 2021, so keep an eye out for this fantasy adventure like no other! The Quest is yet to come! 

Check out Colleen and Drew’s other work via:

Thank you to everyone the the Barbarian and the Troll production team including the puppeteers:

Sarah Sarang Oh

Nicolette Santino

Peggy Etra

Drew Massey

Allan Trautman

James Murray

Jeny Cassady

Can’t wait to see the show! 

Interview by Cat Rock

Saving Eyesight With Puppets! Interview with Katie Greenland

Cat Rock talks to Katie Greenland, Assistant Professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, from the Stronger – SAFE project about how they are trying to eliminate the Trachoma endemic in Ethiopia with the help of Puppetry.

Dr Wondu Alemayehu, from The Fred Hollows Foundation, explains how they are using remote surgical teams to implement the WHO endorsed SAFE Strategy.

Have you ever had an eye infection? A lot of us know the joys of eye problems, from a sty to keratitis, a rouge eyelash to the torment of a ripped contact lens. Many of us will know just how horrible contracting conjunctivitis is, I know I do! For most people, especially here in the United Kingdom, it is a simple trip to the pharmacy that will sort this problem, a few days of drops and you’re done.

But pretend for a moment that you live in a community where you do not have the resources or knowledge to treat your infection, where water is so precious and limited that you have to make a choice about who gets to wash their face. Picture seeing eye infections spread through your family and friends, causing them immense discomfort and pain, as you eventually watch them succumb to blindness. Now imagine watching all this unfold though your own infected eyes, knowing that this could have been prevented.

Tragically this is the case in many places as the trachoma-endemic rages on.

Photo Katie Greenland.

“Trachoma is an eye disease caused by infection with the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis. Around 190 million people worldwide live in endemic areas and require treatment. Trachoma is thought to spread through person-to-person contact and by flies that have been in contact with discharge from the eyes of an infected person. The disease is responsible for 3% of the World’s blindness, with more than 80% of the burden of active trachoma concentrated in 14 Sub-Saharan African countries. Ethiopia is the most severely affected country.”

The situation is dire and things desperately need to change. Trachoma is a mild eye infection mainly affecting children, the serious consequences come from repeat infections that over time cause scarring and eyelashes to turn inwards and scratch the eye which is very painful and can eventually lead to blindness. luckily the team behind the ‘Stronger – SAFE’ project are on the ground fighting this endemic. Using new and exciting ways to engage communities they hope to save the eyesight of millions… with the help of some puppets!

Meet Caltu, a young girl from the Oromia Ethiopia. She will be traveling around communities performing in a drama demonstrating face washing and other measures that can help prevent the spread and contraction Trachoma.

Caltu and her puppet designer and maker Izzy Bristow, 2021.

So what is ‘Stronger – SAFE’? 

‘Stronger-SAFE’ is a five-year project funded by the Wellcome Trust that will increase our understanding of how trachoma is transmitted, leading to the development and testing of new, more effective interventions and treatment approaches.

The ‘Stronger – SAFE’ project will include a series of community interventions that will target the caregivers of preschool children. The pre-schoolers are the most likely age group to catch and transmit this disease. The team hopes that by highlighting the importance of prioritising this age group, creating a campaign that is relatable and memorable, focusing on the importance of face washing, that they will help reduce the overwhelming presence of Trachoma. This will take place near Shashemene, which is about 200km south of Addis Ababa, in the West Arsi Zone in Oromia, Ethiopia.

“What we are trying to do is change face washing behaviour.”

Katie Greenland

How did you come to the idea of using puppets as part of ‘Stronger – SAFE’ and what do you hope puppets will bring to the program? 

Katie Greenland (KG): We are working in low literacy, quiet rural communities, which means we don’t have people who can read pamphlets or even posters, or things like that. They don’t have a lot of television, radio, and other media access. Things like roadshows and dramas are very popular; I was already planning a drama which is a standard approach for behaviour change communication.  

Because of the Covid pandemic, I was part of a team reviewing proposals for some FCDO (Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office) and Unilever Covid related funding. I saw a proposal form the Sesame Workshop, which received funding; it just made me start thinking, that if we were using puppets it might make the drama more memorable and maybe more attractive. I was thinking about what we could do to engage the children. It would be more fun with the puppets and they would then be able to interact with the children making it memorable. We could then use them in other elements like house-to-house meetings and small group events.

It would also help the mothers to remember that they need to prioritise these young children. This is one of the problems that is happening at the moment. People are washing their own faces and older children are washing their faces with soap before they go to school, babies are well taken care of, but there is a gap when it comes to this age group. We wanted to emphasize that person within the family. We have messages about prioritising preschool children, if you don’t have enough water for face washing it is these children that need to be prioritised. This goes against the norms at the moment (in Ethiopia) of who gets prioritised, which would usually be the head of the household and the man. Also With a puppet, you’re not saying your child’s face is dirty and needs washing, you have that degree of removal by saying it to the puppet. It’s easier to have the puppet say, “My face is dirty and needs washing…” rather than trying to make people feel that it’s directly talking about their family.

We all know how powerful puppetry can be, by adding this element into these already well received dramas you not only bring a new and exciting twist to the performance, but by making the child the puppet, the unique factor, you highlight the importance of that child in the story. You bring attention to them, make them the focus, and this will really engage the audience with the different face washing behaviours associated with that character.

What was the puppet design process like, what factors did you take into consideration when developing Caltu?

KG: Before we even engaged Izzy Bristow (the puppet designer and maker) we wanted to understand how puppets might be received, which is quite tricky with remote working because usually I would do that kind of work on the ground. I would have bought a puppet here that I could have taken with me to do some field research. Instead we had to do all that remotely, via our field team. We sent them images (of puppets) that they could then show in the communities and to a wide range of people, we could then understand what they thought of puppets. 

We learnt that basically people don’t really know much about puppets, that they really didn’t understand when they didn’t really look like a person. They’ve never seen them,  which is another reason why I wanted to use them. Because they are ‘novel’ I thought that would be what would make them memorable. It probably was a bit hard for Izzy… 

Izzy Bristow (IB): The Design Process for these puppets was a bit tricky. As a culture somewhat cut off from the visual shorthands and design sensibilities of the Anglo-European world that dictates most of what we think of when we think of “puppets for kids”, the Oromo (region in Ethiopia) focus group really didn’t like the simple and cartoonish look of muppets that they were approached with initially.

Even with forewarning, I went through three different initial design phases and then extensive tweaking of the final pattern to create a puppet realistic enough that the field team and focus group found appealing, but still achievable to make with the time and budget allotted. However, throughout the whole process I was supported incredibly well by the Stronger – SAFE team. Clair specifically, was there to answer questions and make sure my designs and suggestions were turned around quickly within their Ethiopia team.

KG: We had to be very careful that we made sure that she looked like a local person. We spent a long time thinking what colour she should be wearing; it couldn’t be linked to any political colours as there is a lot of political unrest in the area. We needed to be sure that her skin tone was correct and her features were correct; even her hair, because different hairstyles would have just meant that she wasn’t a girl from ‘here’. You have that balance of trying to get somebody who is from ‘here’ and also a slightly aspirational figure.

IB: It is an unfortunate truth that we live in a made world that is designed with white skin as a default, this made it difficult to find fabric that was the right colour to reflect the skin of the Oromo people. In the end I had to dye the fleece myself, which was time consuming but well worth it.

KG: There was a lot of back and forth about what she should wear and obviously making sure that her features were right and wouldn’t be offensive, this was really key. Each time there was an iteration we had to make sure, as best as we could in the current climate with all the movement restrictions, that we got as much community feedback as we could.

IB: This was the first time I’ve ever had to design anything that needed to be run by a focus group. It is definitely an interesting experience that wasn’t wholly good or bad. For some things like the costume, having feedback from so many people helped zero in on the ideal solution pretty quickly. It is very satisfying to know that everyone in a group responds well to a design. As for tricker things like the face, where the rendering medium is a shallow representation of the final, and where there are less common cultural touchstones to share ideas, having a lot of different uncertain reactions was a bit overwhelming at times.

A much harder challenge to overcome was my own design bias. It is one thing to understand that the client has different culturally defined ideas of what is cute and what is uncanny, and another entirely to act on it. Things like the super wide mouths of muppets that allow the exaggerated and enthusiastic movement we know and love were just as unacceptable and repelling as the ridged ventriloquist dummy style mouths. The solution to have a small almost immobile mouth was one I fought internally to the very end, but it was what the focus group liked best.

What stage is the Stronger – SAFE program at and what happens next? 

KG: It’s a big trial, so that means we have 68 clusters (a cluster is a small community of about 90 households), half of them will receive the face washing interventions which include the puppetry elements and half won’t. We are at the stage where we have actually started collecting data for our baseline, which we need to do before we intervene. We need to understand what are people doing right now; are they washing their faces with soap? When in the day? Who’s washing? All those kinds of things. Then we do the intervention and then after that we will measure the outcomes.

Hopefully, we would see that there’s more face washing after they have been exposed to our intervention. Behaviour change is really hard so we will also be measuring other things throughout the intervention; did they enjoy it? Did they remember it? Which aspects were most memorable for them and why? So even if we don’t see any behaviour change as a result, we hopefully learn a bit more about why. 

Stronger – SAFE are hoping to begin the interventions in the Spring. If all goes to plan, it will take about three and a half months to conduct with the 34 communities involved, then they will collect data again. They are hoping to have some initial results by the end of the year.

We all know the power of puppetry and what can be achieved through the exciting process of manipulation, design, and play. To see puppets being used for such an amazing project shows the breath of puppets and puppeteers potential. Puppets can entertain, they can inspire, and hopefully, alongside the hard work of everyone involved with Stronger – SAFE, they can help save the eye sight of so many people.

We look forward to talking with the Stronger – SAFE team in the future.

Find out more about the Stronger – SAFE project.

A big thank you to all the groups, charities, and people involved in the initiative:

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Ethiopian Ministry of Health

The Fred Hollows Foundation,

Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute,

Monash University,

The field Team,

Katie Greenland,

Ms Claire Collin (LSHTM),

Demitu Legese,

Meseret Benti,

Oumer Shafi (Fred Hollows Foundation, Ethiopia), 

And Izzy B (Puppets, Puppet Photos and Design Concepts).

Interviewed by Cat Rock