Deborah Chapman or ‘Big Debz’ spoke with Puppet Place’s Martha King to discuss her Dundee based company ‘How It Felt’ and why she uses puppetry to discuss issues surrounding mental health through workshops and online content.
Hi Deborah, could you tell us a little bit about ‘How It Felt’ and what you do?
Hello Puppet Place! My name is Deborah Chapman or Big Debz and together with my fuzzy friend Little Debz, we are ‘How It Felt’.
‘How It Felt’ provides supervised and interactive puppet building, drama and filmmaking workshops with an emphasis on mental health and emotional well being. At the workshops children, adolescents, adults and staff can make puppets of themselves (or any character they want) and learn to operate and puppeteer through them.
This involves drama, games, team building exercises, empathy, communication, expression and understanding their relationships with others and themselves through puppetry activities. Then we look at how to use these tools to break down the barriers surrounding the stigma of mental health and help the individual with their own personal issues or anything they wish. Other options can include creating a short scene/film about an issue that is important to them. We’re also happy to adapt the themes of our workshops to the organisations and groups we work with.
At the end of the workshop the participants can keep their puppets and, if made, copies of films they have worked on. The final product is usually a finished puppet and a finished film, created by the participants. Our hope is that the experience can be educational and fun with clients going away with a new found sense of creative and emotional confidence. This allows them to express themselves in a safe space and to understand themselves and others better with added fun! Our services have also grown into doing more one-to-one and in depth sessions with clients, sensory storytelling, commissions, films, collaborations, events and educational talks with ‘Little Debz’.
How did you discover puppetry and what was it about this art form that made you want to use it in this way?
I think puppets have always been around and influenced me but I didn’t understand the complexity and beauty of them until was I older. Growing up in the late 80s and 90s, I was very fortunate to be exposed to British children’s shows and films, which had a huge variety of types of puppets. Examples were things like Button Moon, The Clangers, Bagpuss, The Herbs, Tots TV, Watch with Mother, etc. I also grew up watching a lot of animation and puppet films, and also how puppetry was being used with groundbreaking effects in the film industry. Of course Jim Henson, Tim Burton, Jurassic Park, Wallace and Gromit etc. I remember getting an Aardman stop motion animation kit for Christmas and learning how to make models with wires in them for the first time. I would watch the shows and films on repeat, and would always watch the behind the scenes of the whole process.
My love for the art form has never died and anytime there are puppets on television, the big screen, theatre, or performers in the street, I can’t help but be engaged and fascinated. During university I was lucky to go see a production of ‘War Horse’ and the experienced moved me in a way that made me realise that maybe I could be a puppet maker and puppeteer.
While pursuing a degree in the arts, me and my friend at the time ended up creating puppets that look like ourselves, which then lead to the creation of ‘How It Felt’. This led to our short dubbed puppet films that were based on real conversations we had about our own mental health struggles. Then eventually our first funded puppet project working with young people and their families ‘How do you see ADHD?’ film.
During the process of ‘How It felt’ we have found that people don’t judge puppets as much as we judge each other. Puppets can get away with expressing and saying quite powerful subjects, even if the subjects are serious. Mental health doesn’t discriminate but people do. Our puppets don’t judge anyone and people want to engage with them and hear them out. We have found the art form is powerful in being used as a tool to say what is important to them and we want to make it accessible. It has been giving people voices and has allowed them to feel like they are being seen. Everyone deserves that.
What have you been doing over lockdown to keep bringing us content from ‘How It Felt’ in this unusual time?
It was difficult adapting our workshops to move online to begin with. We usually do group workshops in person as I feel it’s really important in the creative process to be present and make connections with someone during the experience. But I think I’m quite fortunate to be part of a generation where being self-employed means doing a lot of work online, especially through social media and film.
Over lockdown we have been providing crafting and puppet making workshops remotely over platforms such as Zoom. We understand that it has been harder for people to go outside and go to shops, so we have adapted our puppet building to materials you would find around the home – such as old boxes, packaging, and spare office and art materials you may have laying around. It still has the elements of group connection and also some of the sensory tools you would have using your hands, with the same guidance and support. This has involved collaborating with local organisations and charities with themes to the workshops.
My puppet ‘Little Debz’ has been interacting with everyone online. She’s quite well known in our community. She’s been answering the Q&As people have been sending in and also doing small interactions. She has also been writing postcards and sending them out to people who may be feeling lonely during this time or might know someone who would appreciate it.
We have also been creating free online puppet making tutorials ‘Fuzzy Finger Crafts’ for viewers to have a try and enjoy at their own pace at home. Some of our videos have also been addressing mental health education and support with our own puppets ‘Fuzzy Thoughts and Feelings’ as we love integrating creativity and mental health together with this art form.
We also have a ‘Fuzzy Friends Adventures Group’ Facebook community page, which is a safe space for people who like puppetry or have been to our workshops and who want to connect and share. We’ve been posting behind the scenes content, activities, giveaways, news and updates before anyone else gets to see it. ‘Little Debz’ has been doing streams and interactions with everyone and sharing her adventures. You can check this out here.
Finally, we’ve had time to make a website, which we’re quite excited but also nervous about launching. It’s been really positive to have the extra time to grow as a creative but also as a human during this time. You can have a look at the new site by going to howitfelt.org
What do you think might be next for ‘How It Felt’? Have you got any plans for the future?
We will be turning six years old this November and we have made over 300 puppets with our workshops and collaborators. As for the future, we now know we can work remotely with our workshops and support content online. We’re hoping to expand our mental health education videos and also interview more people in our communities and make puppet films with them. We also love collaborating and were hoping to connect and work with more puppeteers and puppet builders working in different fields such as theatre.
We’re in the planning stages of setting up a creative hub for our local community and would love to invite puppeteers and performers to be involved. We’re always learning and training within the art form and my mental health training has been growing as well as learning how we can combine the two together. We would also love to create a puppet club for others who want to try out the art form and make films/productions. These are our long term goals, but continuing to let the art form be accessible and give people the tools to be seen and listened to is our main focus.
We’re open to collaborations and continuing to do our workshops remotely along with talks if anyone would like to get in touch. We are also accepting donations on our website to keep ‘How It Felt’ going.
Interview by Martha King