All posts by marika

Puppetry, Film & Women in Filmmaking: Interview with Mallory O’Meara

 

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Mallory O’Meara is an author, screenwriter and producer for Dark Dunes ProductionsHer latest film is Dark Dunes Productions’ feature-length puppetry film ‘Yamasong: March of the Hollows’.   We sat down with her to find out more about her passion for the puppetry, horror and monsters; the challenges of producing a live-action puppetry feature film and the role of women working in the puppetry and animation filmmaking industry.

 

We are incredibly excited to have the European premiere of the feature-length film ‘Yamasong: March of the Hollows’ as part of our programme at the Bristol Festival of Puppetry in September 2017. Where did the inspiration come from for choosing live-action puppetry to create a feature length film?

Dark Dunes Productions, the company I produce and develop for, is dedicated to showcasing the wonder of practical special effects. Every film we produce features some aspect of practical special effects, whether it is real make-ups, actors in monster suits, or puppetry. It’s our biggest passion. When we met Sam Koji Hale through his fundraising efforts for his film ‘Monster Of The Sky’ and he told us about his ideas to expand his award-winning short ‘Yamasong’ into a feature, we wanted to get involved. We were incredibly excited about Sam’s vision and the world of ‘Yamasong’ and the opportunity to collaborate. Everyone on the Dark Dunes team is a lifelong puppet fan. It was a great fit.

 

You have mentioned in an earlier interview that you used green screen work and it appears that some of the mouth movements are digitally composited in post-production. Does it affect the puppeteering and production processes when traditional puppetry techniques are combined with the latest digital technologies?

It absolutely does. One of the challenges of creating ‘Yamasong’ was integrating traditional puppeteering and digital and CG technology. The entire film was a fantastic learning experience. There’s never been a feature film like ‘Yamasong’ and the excitement of that trailblazing carried us through a lot of the frustration. Sam had a lot of experience with this integration process on his previous films. Combined with our incredible team of puppeteers, we were able to create something special.

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Photo by: Dark Dunes Production

 

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As a producer of ‘Yamasong: March of the Hollows’, what were your main tasks and roles during the production? Do you have any tips to other people who are hoping to go into producing for puppetry and animation?

As the producer that helped to creatively guide the project, I was not as deeply involved in the actual production phases of ‘Yamasong’. Adamo Paulo Cultraro, one of the other producers, guided the day-to-day tasks and decisions of the production, and my job was assist him in any way. Adam is a project management genius. I work more on the creative side of things, so I was busy with tasks such as editing the script, helping write new dialogue and voice overs, and collaborating with Sam and Sultan Saeed al Darmaki (our third Dark Dunes producer and CEO) on casting choices. My biggest and best tip for those looking to get into this world is to be friendly and get involved. Find your local filmmakers, find other people passionate about puppetry and animation, see what’s happening in your town or city. And don’t shy away from something you have no experience in. A big part of filmmaking is problem solving and thinking on your feet.

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Photo by: Dark Dunes Production

 

The key thread for Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2017 film programme is women in puppetry and animation filmmaking. As a Producer, Communications Director, Screenwriter and Author for Dark Dunes Productions, what are your thoughts on the role of women working in the puppetry and animation film industries?

Some of the greatest puppet filmmakers I know are women. It’s not that women need to learn to get good at animating and creating puppet films, it’s that they need to get the job opportunities and funding. I’m very excited by the recent push to give more women opportunities to get on set and get hired in film. I’m incredibly proud that ‘Yamasong’ is involved in that movement – nearly half of our cast and crew were women.  Animation and puppetry are just like any other types of filmmaking – they are desperately in need of more women telling stories and making movies.

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Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us. Finally, from your personal experiences, could you name some of the strengths that women working both in front of and behind the camera can bring into the world of puppets and storytelling for stage and screen?

The greatest things, among many, that women bring to a production is their experience and their vision. Women experience the world in a fundamentally different way than men. By having a production that is gender balanced, you get to look at things from many types of eyes. If you are telling a fantasy or science fiction story, the best way to imagine new worlds is with a diversity of input.

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Photo by: Mallory O’Meara

 

Interview by Marika Aakala


 

Visit the Bristol Festival of Puppetry website to find out more and to book tickets to see the European Premiere of ‘Yamasong: March of the Hollows‘ at 6pm on 10 Sept, followed by a Q&A with Mallory O’Meara and ‘Yamasong: March of the Hollows’ Director, Sam Koji Hale.

You can also see all our screenings for adults and children at Watershed throughout the Festival (01 – 10 Sept) and browse our full Festival programmeStay up-to-date with all the latest BFP17 news and announcements via our  NewsletterFacebookTwitter and Instagram.

SUPPORT OUR CROWDFUNDER!  Puppet Place are looking for your support.
The crowdfunder has some fabulous rewards – including festival passes for individuals & families, a personal tour of Puppet Place and a puppet tailor-made in your image!

Click here to show your support and claim your reward.

Marlborough Puppetry Festival: An Interview with Event Director David Leech

David Leech is an event director, performer and puppet-maker of the famous Pelham Puppets. For 15 years he had a puppet theatre in Dorset.  Now he continues to design and make puppets for children and for professional puppeteers.  To Mark the 70th Anniversary of Pelham Puppets, David produced the Marlborough Puppetry Festival in partnership with the British Puppet & Model Theatre Guild and with the support of Marlborough Town Council. 

 

The first Marlborough Puppetry Festival will be held on July 8th and 9th in 2017. How did it come about?

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A year ago, it occurred to me that 2017 would mark 70 years since Bob Pelham started his company and I had twice, on the 50th and 60th anniversaries, tried unsuccessfully to mark the occasions with some sort of public celebration. However back then, I was met with indifference and apathy, but one evening last year, I thought, ‘let’s try again!’

My first action was to email one of the Town Councillors with my idea for a puppet festival – maybe Marlborough would be ready to embrace the idea? Despite the lack of funding and the failed funding bid from the Arts Council, I’m happy to say that the Town Council have been very supportive, both with providing the venues and making a £1,000 donation.

The Town Clerk especially has done far more than I ever expected in helping to bring it all together. There is a great team of volunteers working hard locally, so they are helping with local fundraising and event management. It’s strange how things change with time.  There’s now a great appetite for nostalgia and the retrospective, once people realise that what they once had has gone forever.

For over thirty-three years Bob Pelham spent almost every working day designing and supervising the manufacture of his award-winning puppets. Bob Pelham once said, “the puppet world is more appealing and lovable than anything I know. A world of fantasy and mystery in which live a host of intriguing little people with their own characters and temperaments, a law unto themselves, neither animals nor humans, yet always ready to please.” Bob Pelham’s unique puppets came to be loved by children all over the world. Pelham puppets are special and it required a special person whose aim was not to create a ‘big business’ but to produce something new, creative and imaginative for people to enjoy.


You have had a long career as a puppeteer, producer and a puppet maker. What made you want to work within the puppetry world? Could you also share your favourite memory regarding your experiences at Pelham Puppets?

I asked my parents for a dog when I was seven years old and what they got me was a wooden dog on strings, which was a Pelham puppet. And I still have the same one. Then I got more Pelham puppets from the local toy shop and me and my friend started to do shows together when we were eleven years old. I wrote to Bob Pelham and told him about our shows and he wrote back and eventually I met him.

I have many memories from my time at the factory and Bob Pelham’s home. I knew Bob Pelham from age 11 and used to visit once or twice a year every year and stay at his home for a week during school holidays and work in the factory. He never paid me. I was “paid” in puppets! He would say, “Go into the stock room and help yourself.” I would select about four puppets and make my way to his car for the return journey to the train station, but he’d say, “That’s not enough!” – and load me up with several more puppets. I could hardly manage them on the return journey, struggling on and off trains with several carrier bags full of puppets. In that way, Christmas always came early.

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Bob Pelham in 1947

A few years after leaving school I eventually moved to Marlborough and I worked in almost every department in the factory, except for the Sewing Room and the Moulding Room. I couldn’t get used to those industrial sewing machines, they were like machine guns going off, they just went too fast for little old me and I avoided the Moulding Room, mainly because of the smell! However, I look back now with great affection for those years, I reckon with rose coloured glasses to some extent.  Imagine working in a factory with over one hundred ladies, when you’re just a young lad.  I quickly learned not to get involved with “work-room gossip!”

Today, there is no sign that the puppet factory ever existed, apart from the fact that the area is known as Pelham Court. However, during the summer months the ducks still paddle and quack along with the stretch of the River Kennett that ran through the factory site, but the sounds of drills humming and hammers tapping and the aroma of sawdust and coffee have long since gone.

I started to research and writing about the history and development of Pelham Puppets (with Bob Pelham’s help) sitting in his favourite armchair in his living room at his home one November evening in 1973. It took 35 years to finally get the book published in 2008 and then, lo and behold – a Marlborough publisher did it! Crowood Press in Ramsbury.

 

What are you most excited to see during the festival?

For me one of the highlights will be to see the old Pelham Puppets from 1947 and to meet the people I used to work with for 40 years ago. In the Town Hall, we will have the “Bob Pelham World of Puppets” exhibition. This will include over 150 puppets beautifully displayed and set into scenes and depicting the various ranges and characters produced from 1947 to 1986.

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David Leech (left) at the Opening Parade in Stone Staffs in 2015 with the local Mayor and giant puppets by Clive Chandler.

Another exhibition in St Peter’s Church – “A Walk Down Memory Lane” – featuring puppets and other items from the Pelham Puppet factory and photographs of the people who worked there and how the puppets were produced. Visitors will be able to meet with former employees who will share their personal memories about their time working at the factory and about the work they did. Entrance is free and this presents a lovely opportunity to learn about Pelham Puppets first-hand from some of the people that made them.

Thirdly, with the help from Michael Dixon, we will have a special exhibition in Marlborough’s newly opened museum within the Merchant’s House, which will include the Hogarth Collection.  Jan Bussell and Ann Hogarth were a great help to Bob when he first started his business in the post-war years and we will have some of the first puppets produced from 1947-1949 including the very first Scotsman puppet, “Sandy MacBoozle”, which Bob Pelham made on June 22nd, 1947.

I noticed that in addition to the wonderful exhibitions, the Marlborough Puppetry Festival will offer several indoor puppetry performances, outdoor shows and workshops, aimed to enable you to reach new audiences and many who might not have seen a puppet performance before. 

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Promotional flyer for Marlborough Puppetry Festival

Bob Pelham (1919-1980) always encouraged people to get involved with the world of puppetry and now, many of the professional puppeteers appearing at the festival started with Pelham Puppets.  So I hope this event will also serve as a showcase for British puppetry too.  It is not a ‘dying art-form’ as many seem to think. It is very much alive! And Bob Pelham’s legacy and influence have a great deal to do with that.

I agree with you, David, it sounds like this festival will be a remarkable celebration of Pelham Puppets and British puppet theatre and the great impact that Pelham Puppets had on the young puppeteers, now part of the professional puppet theatre culture in the United Kingdom.

Interview by Marika Aakala

 


The Marlborough Puppetry Festival will run on the weekend of 8th and 9th July 2017. To find out more about the festival, visit the British Puppet & Model Theatre Guild’s website and keep an eye on the Festival Facebook page for all the latest news and announcements.  Find out more about David Leech and Bob Pelham at the Pelham Puppet website here.

Yana and the Yeti: An Interview with Dik Downey, Pickled Image

Dik Downey is co-director, performer and puppet-maker of award-winning puppet theatre company, Pickled Image.  Their latest production, ‘Yana and the Yeti’ is a dark fairytale in the vein of previous works, which tells the story of a lonely little girl and the monster who befriends her.  We caught up with Dik on his way back from Norway, where the team have been developing the show. 

Hi Dik, so what’s new..?

Well, I just got back from Norway.  Tomorrow they’re doing a try-out dik_downeyrun though for a school of ten year olds in Norway (our target audience is 5+).  ‘Yana and the Yeti’ is a very beautiful, sad, funny and thought-provoking show about a young girl who comes from somewhere else, arriving in a small, remote, snow-bound village in the middle of nowhere.  Nobody understands anything she says, and she doesn’t understand them either.  The story is about her trying to be accepted and come to terms with her life as it is.

In the process, she gets lost in the forest and meets a very unexpected character… Well maybe not that unexpected as it is in the title, ‘Yana and the Yeti’ (laughs).  It is a tale about how isolated you can be until you actually start being understood and making friends.

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You took a team out to Norway to produce the show…?

Yes.  It started off in Bristol with a team of puppet-makers, which was myself (Dik Downey), Emma Powell, Lizzie Johnson, Katie Hood and two volunteers, James and Harry.  So we made the majority of the puppets and tiny village houses for the set here.  We then shipped the puppets and set pieces out to Norway in three flight cases.  Emma Powell and I then flew out to Norway with Dean Sudron, who is the lighting designer. There we were met by Linda Anneveld, who came over from Holland.  Linda, who used to work with a company called ‘The Lunatics’ made the costumes for ‘Coulrophobia’, so we were familiar with her work.  Her role was to make the costumes for the puppets in ‘Yana’, which was something that she’d never done before.  She loved it and made some exquisite costumes.

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After the first fortnight, the rest of the crew joined us:  Vicky Andrews (performer and co-director of Pickled Image), Emma Lloyd (Director), Nicky Warwick (performer), Adam Fuller (performer), Adam D J Laity (filmmaker/photographer), Simon Preston (composer) and Hattie Naylor, (writer) came also.  Adam Laity came with us to shoot images for stage projection on location.  Part of the show has a mountain and this image changes throughout the show depending on the time of day and weather conditions.  It was quite magical.

What was the development process of the production..?

Vicky and I came up with the original concept, then had meeting with Hattie Naylor and Adam Fuller (who knows our works very well, as he has performed in and written quite a few of our shows.)  Between the four of us we came up with a rough idea of the storyboard, which Vicky and I drew out.  That gave us a template to work from.  We then made the puppets and took them out to Norway.

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With hindsight, we could have done a bit more R&D in the UK to work out the story further because the team have had to do a lot of that whilst in Norway.  If we’d spent a bit more time in preparation here it might have been a bit smoother over there.  When we got there, we needed to make changes.  For example, we were going to use a lot more film footage such as scenes from point-of-view perspective using this miniature set that we’d built.  However, when we were there we decided that we didn’t want to do that as it would take away from the majesty of the mountain that was being projected throughout.  To project other images on top of it would have diminished this.

Another aspect that we didn’t fully understand was the complexity of timelapse photography.  When you see it used on ‘Plant Earth’, for example, it has taken months and hundreds of thousands of pounds worth if kit to achieve!  Adam has done a fantastic job making a beautiful final image, so that was good.

Being there, in Norway, and being surrounded by snow all the time did give you that ‘feel’.  It probably influenced Simon more than anyone else as he spent a lot of time outdoors doing field recordings of sound, such as the wind, which we used in the show.


The photos of the performance that I’ve seen look really cinematic…

Yes.  We’ve got these tiny puppets, which we were worried might be too small in the theatre but we think it will work in the sense that it is very cinematic.  Dean’s lighting is just so brilliant also; it really pinpoints this tiny little village and gives a wonderful look.  All the houses have lights inside; there are tiny little streets lights and a mountainscape behind it the lights up beautifully.  I think in a proper theatre with a blacked-out environment you’ll see all those tiny details because it is so focused.

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We use split images as well.  So in the village you will see a tiny Yana puppet standing underneath a street light, which ‘cuts’ to a table where you see a bigger Yana under a larger street light.

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So yes, it does have quite a cinematic feel and is aesthetically beautiful.  But the story is also very engaging.  Hattie has gone out of her way to make sure people cry… And then laugh!  It is quite emotionally heart tugging, as well as warming.

Interview by Emma Windsor


Yana and the Yeti’ will tour the UK throughout the summer.   For further information about the show and Pickled Image Theatre Company, keep an eye on their Facebook page or visit the Pickled Image website: http://pickledimage.co.uk  

Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant: An Interview with Suraya Raja

 Suraya Raja is an a director, animator and writer.  Her latest film, ‘Don’t Think Of A Pink Elephant’ enters the world of a teenage girl, Layla, who fights daily against compulsive thoughts and urges.  We sat down with Suraya to find out why puppet stop-motion appeals and what it can lend to this kind of filmmaking. 


suraya_rajaWhat is your background?  How did you come to be involved in stop-motion animation?  What is the appeal for you?

When I was a kid I used to write a lot. My Mum was a librarian and I really wanted to be an author. At the same time I was really influenced by my Gran. She was awarded a scholarship to go to art school, but she had to leave because of the war, and a lot of my family had been stonemasons, carpenters, and various types of crafts people. She had a lot of their old tools, and whenever I saw her we used to spend all our time making things.

Later on I took a degree course in Visual Communications at Leeds College of Art & Design, where I started to make documentaries, in which I used puppetry and object manipulation to tell stories. After this I went on to work as an artist on residencies and commissions, including a residency at Atlantic Center for the Arts in the USA, where I met a lot of filmmakers and puppeteers.

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Still from: “Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant”

 

It was whilst I was working with the Art House and English Nature that I discovered Czech and Eastern European puppet animation, which really inspired me. I realised that puppet animation is something that incorporates all of the things I love – story telling, film, characters and making things. I started to teach myself puppet making and took the 3 month animation course at UWE in Bristol. Living in Bristol, I was in a really interesting place in terms of exposure to puppetry and animation, and I supported Puppet Place during one of the festivals as a press writer. It was great and meant I got to see several shows. I also started to work in the animation industry, primarily in puppet making and model making for TV, commercials and film.

During my degree course and alongside my freelance work I had worked in homelessness, psychology, offending and substance use. I am really interested in how we think and behave.  I have an interest in stories, which inhabit the internal, of mental health, perception and the comedy of human behaviour and interaction. Often my ideas come from social interactions in the mundanity of every-day life, and sometimes from my background in this type of work.

It was my desire to tell stories that led me to going back into education and take the
Directing Animation course at the National Film & Television School.

 

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Still from: “Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant”

 

You recently directed the animated short film “Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant“, which is currently on the international film festival circuit.  What is the film about? Why did you choose puppet stop-motion to tell the story?

‘Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant’ is about a teenage girl learning to cope with intrusive thoughts; the kind of thoughts we all experience, like the thought of stabbing someone with a fork, or the urge to jump from a high place. The main character, Layla, fights daily against these thoughts, terrified by her potential to do harm.

The film is actually about her experience of puro OCD, a form of OCD that is less known about, whilst not being explicit that this is a film about a mental health issue. Generally unspoken of, intrusive thoughts like these are something we all experience. My intention was to present these thoughts, often bizarre, taboo and funny, in a way that we can relate to, and to then reveal the more serious and distressing nature of the problem for Layla. I also wanted to really get across the internal thoughts as they might be experienced, through the use of mixing animation with live action, and through the use of physical textures and sound.

I chose puppet stop-motion, partly because this is the technique I really enjoy working in, but also because it seemed a really good way to make an environment of multiple textures. The puppets are made to have a ‘skin-look’, whilst everything about the puppets and in the set is very textured. Apart from the sharp metal objects, everything else is soft, the idea being that this contrast will make the sharp objects more noticeably sharp. Hopefully the textures make the audience sense the feel, or the tactility of everything, so that the live action parts have a greater impact.

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Still from: “Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant”

 

I chose to use live action as the language for the internal thoughts. I wanted to give screen time to the internal thoughts without leaving the audience confused or tricked. It was also a sharp contrast to the puppet world and felt unpleasantly explicit.

 

Was it important to you that the central character, Layla, was female? Do you think that women have different stories to tell through stop motion?

I have a tendency to write more of my stories with a female as the main character and perhaps that’s because I’m female. I do think it’s important that we see more women on the screen, and as lead characters, as currently this ratio in film does not reflect society – by far.  I really do think that what we see on screen has a strong influence on our perceptions of people and what they can be, whether it’s gender or race, etc.  I think women may have different stories to tell, or that more stories could be told from a female perspective, and I’m always really interested in watching films that appear to be doing that.

 

What’s next in the pipeline?

I am really interested in working in story development and in animating.  However, at the same time I intend to continue working on my own ideas. I am currently developing a new project, which is a stop-motion adult series and am also pitching some ideas for children.

 

Interview by Emma Windsor

 


For more information about Suraya Raja and her work, visit her website: https://www.surayaraja.com/ and Vimeo Channel: https://vimeo.com/suraya

‘Crafted: The Art of Making’: A Documentary with Jan Zalud

Crafted: The Art of Making is a web series project that sprung into my head at a film festival. I have a continually growing interest and enthusiasm for crafts and the idea of making things by hand. In particular, how I could capture this on screen in a novel way and bring it to an audience artistically. I want to create films that championed ‘makers’ and beautifully showed their skill, without it having to be described. This series of films features no interviews, no narration and no music. Purely observational in style, detailing the various stages in the creation of an object, whether it an art or craft.”

Jacob Hesmondhalgh, Filmmaker

 


About the artist: Jan Zalud, puppet maker

Prague, where I was born, is dotted with puppet shops and theatres. Puppets and puppet-making seem to be part of the culture, and maybe that helped me to choose my path. It’s hard to know what came first – my fascination with wood, and what can be made from it, or my love of puppets and all things moving, such as automata. Obviously, the combination of the two wins every time.

When I started making puppets for the theatre, a majority of them were marionettes operated by traditional string controls. Other styles I made have included glove and rod puppets, bunraku/table top style puppets, and even some shadow puppets. Although a large proportion of the theatre puppets and props I have made have been for the Little Angel Theatre, I have also done work for, among others, The Royal Shakespeare Company, Treasure Trove Puppet Company, Theatre Rites, Theatre de Complicite, PuppetCraft, Almeida Theatre, and Simon Buckley Puppets.

About the filmmaker: Jacob Hesmondhalgh

After graduating with Kingston University with a degree in filmmaking, I started working on film sets, initially as a runner, and developing my portfolio as and when I could. Now, I work with various businesses to create promotional films and online content as well as producing work for art galleries in the north of England.

These ‘Crafted’ films I weave into my spare time, but the reception from them has felt really positive. I’m hoping to finish one at least every couple of months. I’m currently working for Lakeland Arts and their MOLLI Gallery will be expanding and adding two of my films for permanent display, one of which came from the first of these Crafted projects, set on Oak Swill Basket Weaver, Owen Jones.


To view the other films in the ‘Crafted: The Art of Making’ series, visit Jacob’s Youtube Channel.  To find out more about Jan Zalud and his work, visit his website: www.janzalud.co.uk

Puppetry Is Dead. Long Live Puppetry!

Puppet Place CEO and Co-Producer of the Bristol Festival of Puppetry, Rachel McNally, ponders what is puppetry?  What does puppetry mean to us and our sense of humanity? In fact, why does it matter at all..?   


AAEAAQAAAAAAAAOFAAAAJDc3MjVjNjg1LTEyYjUtNDY5ZS05Y2JlLTY3YzVlMzgyNjZkZQ“My interest in puppetry first came about as a result of seeing Green Ginger’s show, Slaphead in Bristol many years ago. It was the first time I really came into contact with the uncanny and unnerving quality of puppets. After many years of enjoying theatre, I had discovered something different. This quality of difference is something I am still fascinated by today and continue to discuss with my colleagues at Puppet Place including Chris Pirie (Director of Green Ginger and now Co-Producer at Bristol Festival of Puppetry) and Dik Downey (Pickled Image Co-Director and Slaphead of the show).

I gave a talk a few years back at Bath Spa University. Has The Popularity of War Horse Killed Off Innovation In UK Puppetry?

I argued that War Horse was not a puppetry show but a show with puppets, with the puppets used as an inspired tool as part of a broader theatrical language to tell a story.  I then went on to try and define what I thought a puppetry show is – not entirely successfully – what I was trying to articulate was that form drives content and vice versa.

The examples of this I would cite are:

The Paper Cinema, who use cut out illustrations with music and a narrative technique akin to that of a film editor to create their shows: diving in and out of their illustrations via a live feed from a camera to a projector screen. As with all puppetry, the act of seeing how the “trick” of bringing the illustrations to life is achieved amplifies rather than diminishes the illusion.

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The Paper Cinema, ‘live animation’ – cut out hand drawn illustrations animated live under a camera and projected. Picture credit: Paper Cinema.

Count To One, directed by Zaha Sabri. Inspired by the poetry of Omar Khayyam, the show is set in a dreamscape made up of circles of potters’ wheels. In the show, three soldiers put down their weapons and give their dreams life through the spinning of the wheels and the constant moulding of the clay by their hands. One memorable scene shows a woman’s journey from girl to mother: meeting her lover at a party, making love, becoming pregnant, giving birth, nurturing her child. What makes this so powerful is the constant transferral of the clay from mother to the son as the one ages and the other grows from child to man. There is no sentimentality, it is a beautifully crafted piece of puppetry made poignant and subversive by the strict censorship of Iran.  In a country where women and men cannot touch in public, this type of puppetry offers a subtle challenge.

Dafa Puppet Theatre’s The Smooth Life uses found and everyday objects to tell the story of Husam Abed, a Palestinian boy growing up in a Jordanian refugee camp. Husam is performing his own life story for us as we sit around the dinner table waiting for the pot to boil. The show starts with Husam lovingly placing grains of rice on the table to show us his family and where they all are on a map of Palestine, with each grain of rice we get a little glimpse of their character. Time inevitably passes and the moment comes when Husam sweeps the rise from the table with the simple words, “and then this happened”. Throughout the show, Husam invests simple objects with a rich symbolism to drive the story and to highlight the value of things in our society and what it means when you have nothing and no society.

From these examples, for me at least, I’m clear that puppetry is much broader and more interesting than any one particular form and I no longer want to talk about the boundaries and outer edges. In my role as Puppet Place’s CEO I have endless discussions and comments with funders, filmmakers, puppeteers, audiences, theatres on any of these themes:

“Puppets are marionettes. No, a stop-motion model isn’t a puppet. A show with a toy train is not a puppet show. I want my money back.”

I think I’m done with this now! So to re-frame my title… Puppets Are Dead. Long Live Puppetry! Here at Puppet Place, we’ve taken Penny Francis’s definition that puppetry is the “art of bringing the inanimate to life” and made that the beating heart of what we do. This is reflected in the practice of our community ranging from creative robotics, to stop motion and theatrical puppetry and how we programme Bristol Festival of Puppetry.

But why does any of it matter?  This is the part I always struggle to articulate, but I’ll give it another go…
pull_outs_01If a lump of clay, a slab of meat, an illustration on a stick or an exquisitely crafted marionette can all be understood to convey meaning and create empathy with an audience, this tells us something important about puppetry.  “Puppetry” has a unique metaphorical voice, a narrative of materiality which enables us to communicate in ways that are different to conventional language and verbal reasoning. To restrict it to being a “theatrical tool” is to diminish its power and limits ourselves as human beings. I realise that’s quite a claim.

So why is puppetry important to our sense of humanity?

As human beings, we communicate in so many ways. As conscious beings we talk, we reason verbally, we listen, we articulate. Much of this type of communication is based on an assumed common language – it may be English, French, Farsi or Jargon. However, as we know, these languages are also barriers if you don’t have them. So if you don’t have a common language how do we communicate – is it possible? Yes, but you have to rely on other forms that are often part of our more unconscious forms of physical expression e.g. gesture, movement, expression, physical stance, breath.

From firsthand experience, when I was part of the jury for Puppet Is A Human Too Festival in Warsaw where the common language was Russian (which I do not speak), I can tell you it is possible.  It’s much harder but immensely rewarding.  In this situation, we are having to work harder on both sides of the conversation to understand and be understood, to create meaning and it forms a common bond. We have to forgive confusion, accept we might be interpreted differently and be patient with each other. Be empathetic. Hierarchy and status go out the window – it doesn’t matter who you are, how many languages you speak, how linguistically confident you are, everyone is on the same level. And I think this is a similar process to what happens with puppetry. As the art of bringing the inanimate to life, we are imbuing “objects” with a gesture, movement, expression, stance and breath to create meaning. We are making ourselves as audiences and puppeteers work harder to communicate.

pull_outs_02We are asking each other to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be through puppetry and in doing this we are starting to think slightly differently, to make intuitive leaps of the imagination and leave ourselves open. In this interpretation, puppetry is an amazing methodology to make us into better people. It’s also fun and there is literally a “puppetry object” to suit everyone, whether it’s a turnip, a robot or a giant horse puppet. It also works in all settings from theatres to cinemas, it works in libraries, it works in labs, on the street, in the digital realm, anywhere. It’s a universal theory of everything.

The art of bringing the inanimate to life becomes a way to bring humanity together and think differently and this feels very important. Our political and social landscape is very volatile at the moment. There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty about the future, there is an upturn in racism since the EU Referendum and we continue to face economic conditions that hurt the most vulnerable in our society. It is precisely these groups that puppetry is best placed to help and support. It can communicate these different stories in our society and do so in a way that gets under our skin and makes us want to understand.

carnival_puppets
Bristol Festival of Puppetry Carnival.

But what is the role of the artist/puppeteer in all this?

Facilitators, workshop leaders, etc….Well yes, but to confine artists in this way is reductive and rather boring. I think there is potentially a different role, much more challenging, but much more exciting. I think it’s always been there, but we need to be explicit. ‘Artists’, ‘Puppeteers’, ‘Creatives’ – whatever your terminology – I think we can define them as:
Ambassadors of Ideas.

As with artists, an ambassador’s role is varied. Sometimes it’s doing the fun stuff, going to parties, handing round the chocolates. However, there is also a tougher job, keeping lines of communication open with people whose views are opposite to your own, creating deals and agreements that allow for great co-operation and stepping into dangerous territory and keeping the peace.

As ambassadors of ideas, I would like to see all of us who think of ourselves as artists, puppeteers, creatives and producers keeping the fun, but also really owning up to that responsibility to keep the ideas flowing, challenging prejudice, stepping into that dangerous territory and creating opportunities for communication and empathy where none exist.

If we are living in an “alternative fact” society and there is no longer a common language, then puppetry is the perfect way to communicate, to bring us together and make us human to ourselves and each other again.

By Rachel McNally, April 2017.


Rachel McNally is CEO at Puppet Place and Co-Producer of the Bristol Festival of Puppetry.  She has previously worked as a producer and tour booker for Full Beam, Pickled Image, Stuff & Nonsense Theatre Company and The Devil’s Violin Company.  More information about Puppet Place can be found on our  website at: www.puppetplace.org

Folk-Art, Storytelling and Technology: An Interview with Becca Rose

Becca Rose is an artist, designer and educator based in Bristol, UK.  She has a Master’s Degree in Design Education from Goldsmiths College, University of London and she works as a lecturer in media art and design at the University of the West of England.  We sat down with her to chat about her background, why puppetry appeals to her and how handcrafts and electronics can produce innovative new artworks.


What is your background? How did you get involved in puppetry? 

I would say that my practice ibecca_roses interdisciplinary. My work includes and involves puppetry, but also has many other cross-overs. I find it hard to pin down my work into a category.  I studied Literature and Art in Leeds, and about 6 months after I graduated (in 2009),  I started to develop work with Corina Bona and Roseanne Wakely.

Together we started a participatory and interactive puppetry company called “Gongoozler”. Our work was part performance, part storytelling, and part workshop and we made shows mostly in Bristol (at the Cube, Wardrobe, for the Harbourside).

 

Gongoozler at the Parlour Show Rooms_before it was the parlour showrooms_nocredit needed
Gongoozler at the Parlour Show Rooms.
gongoozler_interactive puppetry at the wardrobe_nocredit needed
Gongoozler interactive puppetry at the Wardrobe Theatre.

One key way in which puppetry has been transformative to my practice was through a research trip I made to India. In 2012, I received an international development fund from the Arts Council to travel to India. I thought I was going to explore Keralan shadow puppetry. But what I ended up learning about was the breath and diversity in the artefacts people used to tell stories visually there. The trip helped me to understand that puppetry is one way of telling stories through objects, and since I have been exploring the connections between stories and the way we engage with their physical artefacts in a number of ways.

Odisha Shadow Puppetry_no credit needed
Odisha shadow puppetry.

 

Your practice is strongly aligned with educational processes. What led you to connect education with puppetry?  What insights have you found?

I started teaching arts workshops at the same time as making artistic work, so for me, teaching and creative practice are intertwined. Saying that I have started to think more broadly about my role as an educator in recent years. I think there are huge issues with the education system as it stands, and in 2015 I spent a year doing an MA at Goldsmiths in Design Education. I did this because I wanted to learn more about learning, and about how we design learning. My understanding of how people learn was based on tacit knowledge I gained from teaching for 10 years. And on the MA I was able to underpin the knowledge I already had through practice with a theoretical framework.

 

You also describe yourself as working on projects in crafts and electronics. How does the handmade relate to electronics? What have you discovered?

In about 2011, whilst making interactive puppetry with Gongoozler and teaching, I started working with David McGoran from Rusty Squid.  I participated in one of their Arduino workshops. For me, this was so amazing. I discovered that objects could be interactive on a whole new level: through automation. I started to explore what this meant when it came to storytelling, and how objects that tell stories could come to life in new ways. I explored books, and shadow puppets, and illustrations, and interactive all sorts of things… And I am still exploring!

Expereiments with books and automated animation_ no credit needed.jpg
Experiments with books and automated animation.

It turns out the world of interactive books is quite small, and it wasn’t long until I started collaborating with computer scientist Natalie Freed and Engineer Jie Qi (who are both brilliant practitioners in that field and I feel very privileged to have worked with them.) I was part of Jie’s research project at MIT, and developed a bookbinding class called
“e-lumiated books” with Natalie.

 

What are you currently working on?  What would you like to explore next?

I’m currently developing a mobile platform that allows creators to make stories across digital and physical spaces called “Bear Abouts”.  I started working on this a few years ago as a way to explore the crossover between physical artefacts and digital storytelling. I was interested in the embodied nature of storytelling, and how to bring this to digital space. And although I am exploring the human-commuter interaction side of things, there are still a lot of links with the puppetry (craft, animation, bringing inanimate objects to life, video games, interactivity.)

Bear Abouts_Photocredit-Ben Peter Catchpole
Bear Abouts. Picture: Ben Peter Catchpole.

 

I suppose due to my interest in learning, the project has grown more into a way of connecting people, and learning from each other through the stories that are told with the platform. This has taken me down an education route. I also went to Bett a couple of years ago and was shocked by the number of educational apps that were grounded in Behaviourist learning methods. I was horrified by the direction of mobile apps for learning -many of them were based on reward systems, rather than engaging in creative learning experiences. In Bear Abouts I’m trying to explore a way to bring some of the learning experiences I developed whilst teaching with puppetry to a digital framework.

Currently, I’m working with a Unity developer to develop Bear Abouts further. I’m being supported by Innovate UK, and about to start a 2-month residency, where I am inviting three artists (puppeteers, interactive story makers and illustrators) to develop stories with the platform. I’m also partnering with a school in North Bristol. This all kicks of in early April, so watch this space for more details.

We’ll be looking for people to test out the platform as it develops so please get in touch if you are interested or have any questions – hello[at]beccarose.co.uk

 

Interview by Emma Windsor


To find out more about Becca Rose and her work, visit her website at http://www.beccarose.co.uk, Twitter or Vimeo Channel.