BFP + is the Bristol Festival of Puppetry’s Professional Programme, which aims to provide artists and professionals working in puppetry and animation the opportunity to hone skills, learn new ones, meet up with fellow practitioners and make new connections. The Programme has always bought a diverse range of workshops, masterclasses and networking events to the Festival, and this year is no exception. We sat down with the Programme Curator, Emma Williams, to find out what was in store for BFP+ 2017.
Is there a theme to this Festival’s BFP+ Programme?
The notion of sharing knowledge underpins BFP+. the artist development strand of the puppet festival. My ambition is to curate events where all questions are celebrated with umpteen opportunities to pose them and a range of extraordinary, experienced and diverse professionals to answer them. Being given permission to ask questions is the key, and I hope within BFP+ we have created such an environment through a range of different events.
What masterclasses, workshops and other events for professionals are planned?
Because we are within the festival we are privileged enough to be able to offer masterclasses from companies who are performing work within the program. As a puppetry director, I am particularly intrigued by Stephen Mottram’s masterclass ‘The Logic of Movement’, which explores questions about the way audience read movement within puppetry. To my mind, exploring these questions is fundamental to understanding how to make certain decisions about the work you are making.
In previous years, the Festival Breakfast sessions have been an informal catch up. Keeping that in mind (and the need for free coffee and croissants) we are simply adding a question to each breakfast and inviting a special guest to present some answers. These questions will range from “What organisations are out there to support puppeteers and puppet companies and what can they do for you ?” and “How can we make puppetry inclusive and accessible ?”
The first breakfast is on Saturday 02 September.We have invited Sarah Wright, founder of the The Curious School of Puppetry and Kneehigh Theatre’s puppet maker/lead puppeteer to this breakfast, to answer questions about training and how to tackled the next steps to building a career. I’m looking forward to that one.
I’ve also worked with our BFP Film Programme Curator, Emma Windsor, to bring an advanced workshop for stop motion artists to the Programme. This workshop will be run by Jim Parkyn, senior modelmaker at Aardman and will demonstrate professional approaches to puppet head and hand production – often the most complex areas of puppet design. It is ideal for those with some prior experience who want to get the best from the most expressive parts of a stop motion puppet.
We are also holding a brand-new event this year titled ‘The New Faces of Puppetry Animation’, which for anyone over the age of forty will remind you of a 70’s TV talent contest with a very similar title. This sweet and awkward 1970’s TV show bares no relation to our BFP+ event, except perhaps in its celebration of talent! Instead, we have gathered four experts in the field of puppetry and animation to talk about their experiences. We will be questioning preconceived ideas around what the new face of puppetry and animation is and each member of the panel will talk about their work, goals ambitions and projects. We are a puppetry festival so expect surprises alongside the chat.
What are you particularly looking forward to in this year’s programme?
I love this festival. Two years ago I watched everything in the programme. It was the maddest week, filled with the strangest of things – sometimes joyous, sometimes sad, sometimes hysterical. Therefore, my unrealistic tip would be just go see everything. However, if you’re interested in new work, and want to see more than one thing on a budget, check out Prototype. For the first-time we have teamed up with Tobacco Factory Theatres to run a Prototype dedicated to puppetry.
If you have never seen Prototype before, it is an event were new work is performed for the first time to an audience. It is usually the beginning of a process and has led to some of the best bits of theatre I have ever seen in the South West. It has never been dedicated solely to puppetry, so for me this is extremely exciting and also important for the development of new work.
SUPPORT OUR CROWDFUNDER! Puppet Place are looking for your support. The crowdfunder has some fabulous rewards – including festival passes for families, a one-to-one stop motion workshop and a puppet tailor-made in your image!
Founded in 1999 in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, Canada, Les Sages Fous create theatrical worlds where the the mask, the puppet, the object and the human coexist. We caught with them to find out more about their work, their vision and their latest show ‘Tricyckle’.
Can you tell us about Les Sages Fous and your most recent work, ‘Tricyckle’?
Les Sages Fous is a small company that has been creating theatre together in a very intimate way for over 15 years. Through our years of close collaboration, we have developed a unique way of working with objects and puppetry. We proceed by intuition, trial and error, improvisation, and poetic correspondence. We try to discover the story that the objects and puppets we create want to tell.
Our company is inspired, among others, by men who roam the city of Trois-Rivières on their old tricycles, looking for all kinds of materials they carry on their makeshift trailers. We are also inspired by people who make folk art; those who are not professional artists, with all the baggage and allegiance to the institutions involved. With Tricycle we hope to break down barriers between high culture and popular art.
We produce a non-verbal image-based theatre using objects, mask and puppets. Our shows are created for unconventional spaces and theatres. We have presented our work in barns, warehouses, castles, back alleys, and streets, as well as theatres. Our work is accessible to all, transcending the obstacles of language, age, culture, and economic class.
The music in ”Tricyckle’ is particularly unique. Can you tell us a little about how it is created?
Our musician Christian Laflamme has been collaborating closely with us since 2002. For ‘Tricyckle’ Christian has been inventing improbable musical instruments with found objects and laid the foundation of a musical landscape. He has created the beginnings of an unusual soundscape; a mysterious music that is both urban and fairground, in perfect harmony with the protagonist of our story.
How do you come up with your ideas for your puppetry performances? What is your creative process?
Our creative process is a deliberate walk in the darkness of the unknown. By trial and error, collage of images, poetic correspondence, we write the shows whose sense often eludes us until the last minute. For it is only in contact with the public that our desires are revealed. It is as if the play is a double-sided mirror in which each sees the dreams that inhabit themselves.
We feel like archaeologists, or miners, searching their own dreams to find the
artefacts hidden within. Our shows are living organisms in constant evolution. Our working method is therefore an ongoing creation process. We create, re-evaluate, refine, and rework multiple versions of our shows, between the theatre venues and the unusual spaces. As our company’s working method is not based on a text or on a storyboard, but through experimentation and intuition, the dramaturgy is discovered directly with the objects themselves. The objects and the scenic universe become the springboard for the writing of the show.
Puppets are a link between humanity and mystery. The dual nature of puppetry, the ‘animated / inanimate’, parallels our experience of life and death. The paradoxical and mysterious nature of the puppet has led us to create visual theatre that seeks to express the invisible. In search of this mystery, we offer a world of images and sensations, where impressions and memories blend to create stories.
We propose an exciting, mysterious voyage: sailing through troubled waters, at the crossroads between the worlds.
Welsh theatre company, Hijinx, make stunning theatre performed by actors with and without learning disabilities. In their latest show ‘Meet Fred’ (produced in association with Blind Summit) a two-foot tall cloth puppet fights prejudice every day. We chatted with them about what makes their theatre unique and what audiences should expect from performance with learning disabled actors.
Can you tell us a little about yourselves. What makes Hijinx different from other theatre companies?
Hijinx is a professional theatre company based at Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff who tour small scale theatre throughout the UK and Europe. What makes us different is that our casts always include actors who have learning disabilities. The ability of these effortlessly talented performers is at the heart of every show we produce, creating work that is utterly absorbing, surprising and provocative.
We call it inclusive theatre because it makes much of the skills and raw talent of people who often get overlooked in today’s world and gives them a platform to make and perform stunning theatre alongside actors who don’t have disabilities. Training actors with learning disabilities to perform at a professional level is also at the heart of our mission. We have established the only professional performance training in Wales for actors with learning disabilities: there are two Hijinx Academies in Cardiff, one in West Wales, one in North Wales and one in Mid Wales.
Can you tell us a little about ‘Meet Fred?’
Well, Fred is just a regular guy who wants to get on in life. He wants a good job and to settle down with a nice girl. The only problem is that Fred is a two-foot tall cloth puppet and day to day life has many dependency issues when everything you do relies on three other guys being with you at all times! His life begins to spiral out of his control when he is threatened with losing his PLA (Puppetry Living Allowance).
‘Meet Fred’ is a visually inventive and entertaining snapshot into the life of a potty-mouthed puppet with a feisty personality who fights prejudice every day. It is an original exploration of what it means to be different, an outsider trying to make his mark in a world in which he needs a lot of help. With wit and dark humour we try to expose the ridiculous situations some of the most vulnerable in our society encounter when their support is taken from them, exploding the myth that “we are all in this together”.
What should audiences expect from your work?
Expect something edgy, surprising, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes hilarious, sometimes beautiful or ugly, sexy or plain offensive, but always with a cast that includes artists with learning disability.
SUPPORT OUR CROWDFUNDER! Puppet Place are looking for your support. The crowdfunder has some fabulous rewards – including festival passes for individuals & families, a one-on-one stop motion workshop and a puppet tailor-made in your image!
Tessa Bide is a Bristol-based theatre maker with a theatre company under her name. The company specialises in making innovative, high-quality theatrical experiences for young audiences that inspire and excite but never patronise. We caught up with her to find out more about her latest show, ‘A Strange New Space’ on at Tobacco Factory Theatres, 11am Sunday 03 September, as part of this year’s Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2017.
What is ‘A Strange New Space’ about and how did you come up with the idea?
The main character, Amira, is completely obsessed with space and dreams of becoming an Astronaut. One night, the bangs, whooshes and fizzes of her imagination explode right out of her dreams, becoming a deafening reality. She must leave her hometown to go on an adventure, to find a safe space and Amira quickly packs her bag for the intergalactic trip she’s been waiting for.
The original idea for ‘A Strange New Space’ came whilst in a dreamy fog at 5am one morning in bed when I should’ve been asleep. I had been thinking a lot about the refugee crisis and how I could use my skills to respond to it or help in any way and, having my routes in children’s theatre, I’d also wanted to have fun with a space-themed show for a while. I had the idea of using a space journey as a metaphor for a child refugee’s journey and it developed from there. It’s a one woman show without words that melds physical theatre with puppetry and original music.
What can audiences expect from the performance?
At the end of every show I stay on stage and invite the audience to come and chat and I always find that a useful tool for gauging the success of the performance and what that audience got from it. I’ve had a lot of the feedback from the adults was that they would watch it as an adult show. Feedback from performances to children (aged 4 – 11) demonstrated they loved it too, so it’s fairly universal.
Other comments we received were “It’s clearly a show that comes with more than just to entertain. It makes me think of children in all different situations. Innocence and vulnerability.” and “I was most interested in the changing of locations and as to why she was traveling to all these places. I thought her change of mood from place to place was great and added to the intrigue as to what she was looking for. ”
Over the tour we have several ‘relaxed performances’ which will see the show stripped back and performed in a way that is specifically accessible for children and young people with autism, learning disabilities and sensory and communication disorders AND their families. To make sure you can enjoy our story to the fullest, we have created a few materials which might help you to understand and access the show before you arrive at the theatre.
What do you hope for ‘A Strange New Space’ at the Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2017?
This year, I’m hoping that ‘A Strange New Space’ will bring together new audiences – both young and old – through their love of puppetry. The show serves as a catalyst for conversation around the ongoing refugee crisis, whilst at the same time providing an “an excellent introduction to theatre for younger children” (Manchester’s Finest), so there’s something for everyone. I’m excited to be on the same line-up as some truly astounding talents from both the UK and abroad, I think the Bristol Festival of Puppetry team have excelled themselves this year!
SUPPORT OUR CROWDFUNDER! Puppet Place are looking for your support. The crowdfunder has some fabulous rewards – including festival passes for individuals & families, a signed illustration by Aardman’s Peter Lord, a one-on-one stop motion workshop and a puppet tailor-made in your image!
Barry JC Purves is an OSCAR and BAFTA nominated animator and director, who also directs and designs for theatre and teaches the art of animation. In this, the third and final in a series of insights, he considers the the art of artifice and stop motion animation as a puppetry form. [Read Part One | Read Part Two]
Every time we see a puppet, we are aware of the technique, well the technique becomes part of the performance. We know the limits of the materials, the puppet, but something much richer is happening. Currently, Broadway is enjoying the colourful spectacle of Bette Midler playing Dolly Levi, but I doubt that there is ever one second where the audience forget they are watching Ms Midler, and just enjoy ‘Dolly Levi’.
Midler is the whole point. Puppets are free of this overt baggage (oh dear, I didn’t intend to call Ms Midler an overt baggage), but they are still invariably a reflection of their manipulator. I hold no truck with actors having to be cast to resemble other members of their onstage families, or being criticised for not being the right age of the character, as long as they can deliver the performance – we so often get bogged with everything being so literal, when there is nothing literal about theatre or even film. Orchestras, scenery, costume, delivery, lights, editing all throw any sense of the literal out of the window in the non-existent fourth wall. Oh how I would like to cast the identical twins, the Dromios and the Antipholus’, and this has to have been done, as wildly different physical, and racial performers. If the characters tell me they are identical, then I believe them. If a puppet of bamboo convinces me that he thinks he is a dragon, then I’ll go along with it. Puppets rise above all the dull literal, and have to celebrate their artifice, and enjoy the metaphor that they are. I’m not sure that being literal has any place in any of our work.
My own area of puppetry is stop motion, and to the public the manipulators have disappeared and the characters are happily performing by themselves. This is of course far from the truth, it’s just that the animators are hidden, not through wearing black, or out of the light, or under a set, or at the end of cable out of sight, but we are there, just in between the frames. We are still touching the puppets, often leaving our fingerprints in the clay, or unavoidably ruffling the clothes. But we are there, and the characters, despite what lexicon of movement they have been given by the animation director, still reflect the animators’ own body language.
There is as much of a connection as between a ventriloquist and his character. The hand is still involved, and for all the hi-tech developments of frame references, and playback, and onion skin (a device that shows the previous frame as an opaque layer), the hand and plain concentration are still the best tools. Stop motion has developed enormously and many puppets often now have replacement faces and often different body shapes, offering an enormous range of stretch and squash that mere mechanics might not provide. As usual with new technology, there is resistance and, personally, I’m a bit hesitant about anything that takes some of the performance away from the animator’s hand, just as I’m cautious when the performance of puppets on film is created in the edit suite, or when the previously mentioned scenic delights are provided by digital means – ah how ironic, that digital also means to do with the finger, as well as the 0’s and 1’s.
The beauty of puppets is that they have limits, and that they have physics that we conquer. We get a huge amount out of little. They are there. I like the rawness of a puppet, and the integrity of a complete puppet. Having stunt puppets for different scenes and with different capabilities, to me, takes away some of the basic essence of a puppet, which is the direct contact between the puppet and the puppeteer. This cannot be lost or diluted. The audience can feel this communication.
As long as puppets continue to celebrate artifice; continue to be worked obviously by hand, and continue to be their manipulators’ voice, and this is especially effective when the manipulator, through reasons of gender, race, politics, culture, disability and such, is unable to speak up for themselves, well, puppets have a lively future. Hopefully, I’ll still be involved in this utterly beguiling world, telling the world what I think, but through the more eloquently articulated actions of my puppets.
Barry JC Purves is an OSCAR and BAFTA nominated animator and director, who also directs and designs for theatre and teaches the art of animation. In this, the second of a series of insights, he considers the appeal of puppetry on stage and screen, and the special relationship between puppeteer and puppet. [Read part one here.]
In the theatre puppets are now being allowed to be puppets, and are revelling in their very artifice – and they are everywhere. This is not just due to the respect given to the ‘War Horse’ characters but also because digital technology is becoming so extreme that we are not sure what we are watching, and many of us are tending to enjoy more obviously handmade arts.
It’s telling that the Royal Exchange’s production of ‘Little Shop of Horrors’, from two years ago, finally gave Audrey II the ability to race round the theatre’s stage by putting the puppeteers outside the plant, and having their performance very much part of the show. Before the puppeteers were hidden inside Audrey, giving her a very stolid presence.
We know special effects are an effect but a naïve thought crosses out brain, muttering ‘ah, computers’, and whilst computers can do anything, that lazy thinking denies the craft and skill of the computer artists. Some of the wonder has gone now there are no limits. But that is part of the point, computers can do anything and thus not everything is surprising or interesting. Increasingly digital projections are used as scenic elements on stage, and whilst our collective jaws are on the floor and we are dazzled, part of us, part of me certainly, feels disappointed that these effects were not achieved through good old scenic design skills. This is the same disappointment that we feel when seeing our favourite model’s before and after Photoshop’ images, not to mention the feeling of being cheated. The camera never lies – like heck it doesn’t!
This is not being resistant to technology, but it is about enjoying and being part of the trick, and a trick must have a limit to work. You have to show the top hat is empty before you can produce the rabbit. To some extent, you have to show the mechanics and limits of a puppet. Many a child had their life changed by a magical transformation scene at their first pantomime. A digital scene transformation is impressive but it is cold. On stage we are presented with an empty box but within those limits we see luscious visions transforming before our eyes. We know the limits and yet we are astonished. Take those limits away, and we are all a bit ‘meh!’ Watching the overdose of digital scenic effects at this years’ Eurovision was like having a head full of exploding candy and equally as unsatisfying. If only there was an element of physical stagecraft. The hand, the human…
With a puppet, we are always aware of it being a puppet, and yet aware something else is happening. We are moved, shocked, outraged or whatever. It matters not that we see the cast of ‘Avenue Q’ holding their puppets or that we see Nina Conti’s hand clearly manipulating her Monkey puppet, in fact it would be a lesser act if the Monkey was presented as a complete, separate character. The puppet is the device, and the whole point actually, that allows her to be many things that perhaps she may not be off stage, and seeing a physical connection emphasises the essential point that you can’t really have one without the other, as they are both sides of the same coin. There are dozens of photos of animators, puppeteers, and sculptors staring lovingly at their creations – we could almost be looking at Hamlet and Yorick again. Perhaps they are all looking at themselves. Alter egos, conscience, therapy, cathartic devices – we are bound to our puppets, and they are unforgiving reflections of ourselves. They are our true voices.
And we are back with Shakespeare and his fools. Their role in the world of the play, through their folly, is to be able to say the truth, totally unhindered. They have a license to be true. Lear’s fool is almost an invisible friend, as he has so little direct involvement with the other characters.
Richard Haynes’ illustration from my book, of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Jack Point.
He tells Lear the absolute truth, and only when Lear accepts this, does the Fool fade from the play, his work done. Lear’s fool is Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket, and Harvey, or even our own teddy or pet. We confide in them and make sense of our days. I love that fools, too, usually have a folly stick, a puppet, so they can comment further, and who can blame their provocative speeches on an innocent puppet?
My favourite example of this has to be the film of Mary Poppins. The poor Banks family are very damaged, and the more earthly nannies incapable of healing, but upon the children’s request, there arrives the enigmatic Mary from nowhere. Over the course of the film, she heals the family, and then, when the wind changes, she is ready for the next family. The Banks are too wrapped up to say goodbye, and this hurts Mary, even though she is practically perfect and this is as it should be. It takes her parrot umbrella, a puppet no less, to voice her true feeling. He is quickly silenced for being too honest.
Illustration of Mary Poppins by Richard Haynes
for my book ‘Stop Motion – Passion Process Performance.’
Everywhere, we storytellers have to find this external device to constantly reveal our characters inner voices. The film is called ‘Mary Poppins’, not ‘The Banks’, and what little we know of her comes from the umbrella or the equally odd chameleon like Bert. The umbrella serves much the same purpose as Yorick’s skull. Though the skull is a seemingly inanimate object replete with resonances, Hamlets often act out a scenario with it – a performance, and that is what suddenly makes this a puppet. Without the element of performance, the puppet is just a doll or a prop.
It seems the more basic the puppet, the more we can read into it, and the more potent it becomes. Simple Kermit, with the hand barely hidden, is still the most rich and complex of muppets. A glorious live action /animation short, ‘Little Face’, has Adam Buxton come face to face with his childhood invisible friend, who is little more than a floating yellow balloon with spindly legs. Through this balloon, which no one else acknowledges, we learn how all Buxton’s aspirations have come to naught.
Barry JC Purves is an OSCAR and BAFTA nominated Animator and Director, who is passionate about the art of film-making. As well as his film work, he directs and designs for theatre and writes about, teaches and promotes the art of animation. In this, his first in a series of reflections, he considers how puppetry in its broadest sense serves as a means to express inner-most worlds and connect with audiences in visceral, tangible ways.
So, here I am, and I want to talk about myself.
I want to share my opinions, my loves, and my experiences with the world, or with anyone who will listen or read. I want to shout, before I go, that I was here. I want to question the world as I have seen it. I want to pass on what has excited me, or what I have learnt, and I want to warn others. I want to show, that however small I may be, that I have mattered.
This has been the familiar cry since we all sheltered in fire lit caves contemplating the day just gone, and wanting to celebrate our hunt or a birth or a death. A cave wall was a blank canvas, and became suitably adorned with stickmen figures, showing various sequential events, almost as a storyboard. There was even a suggestion of movement with the various buffalo sporting eight smudged legs in various positions. Maybe in the flickering firelight, these drawings gave an illusion of life.
But most interestingly, next to the drawings were several handprints, in dried blood or mud, screaming ‘I was here and this was our story’. The hand; the humanity so much in evidence. We’ll keep coming back to that. These paintings, showing the progression of the events, have already broken the fourth wall, editing and shaping events, cutting out the dull bits, to make an interesting, and personal story. Every story is just the best bits of an event, told with much construction, and with just the bits that are significant or contribute to the tale. No story is simply a record. Artifice is rampant, and was even back then.
Flash forward a good few centuries to 1434, with Johannes/Jan van Eyck and his world-changing surprisingly intimate and domestic portrait of ‘The Arnolfini Betrothal’. This is a picture crammed with potential symbolism that has had the art world arguing for centuries. Claiming to be the first oil painting, it could be also seen as the first business card. Yes, there is a documentation of the wedding, but there is also the undoubtedly amazing display of skills – he can paint oranges, he can paint wood, he can paint fur, he can paint perspective, glass, brass, and so on.
It is an outrageous display of talent, and Van Eyck even has the understandable audacity to place himself in the mirror at the back and very prominently add his signature ‘Johannes Van Eyck fuit hic’. If there had been Facebook back then he would have had his own page and many likes. Yes, this is recording a real event, but it is doing so in a wonderfully artificial and theatrical display. There is a real, even if unnatural, sense of presentation. Something is so gloriously fake but it is also telling the truth, and in probably a more interesting way; the celebration of artifice that will come to define art.
Jumping back a bit, the ancient Greeks, for example, were happy to take away the individual personalities of the Chorus performers by putting them in masks, and this way, not only could they be heard in the huge amphitheatres thanks to the acoustic properties of those mouths, but their artificial and usually neutral faces allowed them to become whatever Aristophanes or Euripides wanted – anything from clouds, wasps to weeping women, or even a public conscience. The artifice allowed a more directly honed and honest presentation. The structure of the plays, alternating consciously between scenes with two actors and then with the chorus, and all the while using deliciously heightened language and singing, cannot ever be said to be realistic but there were certainly realistic issues being discussed. Even the very nature of theatre, with Aristophanes, were discussed – the Meta the better.
And glancing forward once again by the great medieval Mystery plays with the moral dilemmas facing Everyman personified, and ‘The Castle of Perseverance’ with its human representations of abstract ideas of virtues and vices, we race to Shakespeare. For all his psychological observation that still holds oh so very true today, he was one of the most consciously artificial writers. His plays, simply, are not realistic in the slightest, no play is or can be, but we can recognise the joys and torments of the characters. His Chorus striding boldly onto the stage in invariably overcast daylight to ask for some hush and a use of imagination leads to a shared experience. A game, a partnership, a play. Play.
Hamlet is probably one of the most theatrical plays ever written, but that does not stop it becoming one of the most astute. It’s possible to think that the barrage of tricks Shakespeare uses to reveal the characters’ thoughts, might get in the way of the narrative and the characters, but no. With the right approach and integrity, none of the audience would question that a plainly artificial character such as a ghost can kick start and carry the weight of the great tragedy. Along the four hour heavy traffic of that stage, Shakespeare throws in many theatrical moments of fakery that allow the characters to reveal their thoughts or further the plot. There is madness, song, platitudes, soliloquies, fools spouting the truth, as well as the magnificent play within a play of The Mousetrap – a wonderful device to echo the situation in the play and to sum up the journeys of all the characters so far in a condensed and highly enjoyable scene, all the while setting up the exposure of Claudius.
Best of all, is Yorick’s skull. This simple, resonant prop becomes a device that allows Hamlet to be profound in a way normal conversation would prohibit. This is some external and knowingly artificial, or theatrical, trick to allow the audience to understand the internal workings of the characters. These devices, the external expression of internal thoughts, are at the very core of all drama and storytelling in whatever medium. We just have to find that device that allows us to interestingly spill forth our ideas.
The mask can be physical or otherwise, essentially a liberating device, such as a red nose, a wig, a piece of costume, white face on a clown, or Charlie Chaplin’s tramp persona, or Bart Simpson’s yellow skin, a gloriously witty epigram, a piece of music that allows us to dance, a clever rhyme, or a funny walk, or a song, or a slash of unexpected colour or a change of perspective, or a striking composition or an angle of the camera. In our own lives, we often talk through a third person to address a partner, or through Facebook, or we talk to our cat or teddy; a change of perspective that makes sense of our days. This device, this change of perspective could even be a simple cup of tea offered as an invitation to open up – it’s seldom about the actual tea.
This device can also be a musical number – remember Laurie in ‘Oklahoma!’ worrying about which suitor to take to the dance that evening? She doesn’t know who to choose so she dances a dream ballet in which the different scenarios are played out. A moment of great artifice making sense and clarity of a dilemma. With these safe, distancing devices we touch on myths and fables, and even religion – heightened stories to guide us and to warn us and to instruct us and to entertain us. Time and time again, artificial devices speak the truth, a mask that reveals. It’s safer, and more imaginative to use metaphors than mere didactic narrative.
This ‘mask’ can also be the theatre space or the camera itself, or a technique, such as animation or, yes, a puppet. It is something that distances the real us, but allows us to speak unhindered. We need an audience, or witnesses to our lives that won’t judge, and speaking through a ‘mask’ is more comfortable, and dramatically interesting. Puppets, whether animated on screen through stop motion, or manipulated live in front of us, are most joyfully fake, and work best when we see the technique, and yet something else rises above the technique and communicates to us.
Gone, essentially, are the days when puppets were used, as a last resort, pretending to be live action. King Kong, for example, was animated only after other methods did not deliver, and I suspect a stop motion puppet, today, devoid of the stylistically beautiful and distancing black and white photography, placed in a live action background would fail to be credible, though there are still, happily, some studios producing amazingly convincing animatronic creatures. Today computer graphics can happily and seamlessly put convincing fantasy characters amongst live actors, though secretly we still prefer those animatronic characters, as we know they have been built and that there is a human hand involved somewhere, and that this produces some random element to their performance. This is of course irrational as there are still human hands involved with computers.
Maybe it is the element of spontaneity and slight erraticism we respond to, and more importantly, the fact that they exist and could be touched – we will never lose the need to touch things. Puppets, animatronic creations, stop motion figures all are clearly tangible, dead inanimate objects, but they are given an appearance of life. Again, it about confounding the norm or the rational. We know a puppet is wood or clay or fabric, but through the performance, we are moved and engaged and willingly believe. It takes some contribution from ourselves. Enjoying the performance is one thing, but enjoying the performance in spite of or because of the technique is far more satisfying.