Katie Underhay is a performer, designer and theatremaker. Since graduating from Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama she has performed in children’s theatre all over the country, created bespoke puppets for theatre and film and taught puppetry to children and adults alike. She is Co-Artistic Director of Mumblecrust Theatre and a Puppet Place Associate Artist. We caught up with her to find out what she’s been up to and what’s next on the horizon.
(Right photo credit: Kirsten McTernan)
It’s been a while since we spoke last. What have you been up to? Is ‘The Tale of the Cockatrice’ continuing to tour?
Well, 2018 is another crazy year for Mumblecrust Theatre. After Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe 2017 we contacted lots of theatres and arts centres to book our first national tour and this year we’ve got a busy schedule! The Tale of the Cockatrice has been touring since Christmas and we have tour dates booked into October and even the start of 2019. We’re going to the Lake District, London, Devon, Kent, Greater Manchester and lots of village halls around Somerset.
We’ve just come home from another run at Brighton Fringe, part of our 2018 tour, which was a great success. We were even nominated for the Primary Times’ Children’s Choice Award! We didn’t win the award unfortunately, but after winning two at last year’s festival I can only say that 2 out of 3 ain’t bad! It was fantastic to be nominated and we also got a 5 star review from Brighton and Hove News, so we’re immensely proud of the show.
You recently received your first ever grant from the Arts Council (congrats!) Can you tell us about that? What are your plans?
Thank you! Writing the application was a totally new experience for us. We applied for funding to support our tour this year, and also to help us bring the show to eight Village Halls/Community Arts Centres around Somerset. We’re both from Somerset and we really wanted to take the show around our home county and to some rural villages that don’t see a lot of theatre – particularly family theatre. We’ve already visited a few of our Somerset Village Halls, which were amazing venues run by amazing people. We really enjoyed taking our show into communities and being a part of something a bit special.
We brought in a few different consultants and lots of people and organisations offered support with the project, and I don’t think we would have received the grant without their help. It was wonderful to receive the grant on our first application, but writing it was a steep learning curve. It took a little bit of time to get into the head space of how to write an application, but now we’ve done one it feels so much more achievable in the future. It’s a big step for us as a company!
Is there anything new in the pipeline?
We have lots of tour dates for The Tale of the Cockatrice this year, but we also have plans for a brand new show! It has been two years since we first started work on Cockatrice, so we feel it’s the right time to bring out something new. Hopefully this time next year we’ll be touring both shows!
We can’t announce very much yet as it is all very ‘hush hush’, but it’s going to be another family show with lots of puppetry, music and silliness! We’ve learned an awful lot in the last two years with Cockatrice, and we can use that experience to help us create the new show. We’re very excited!
The new show will be announced soon on our website (www.mumblecrust.com) and also across our social media (@MumblecrustUK on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) so keep an eye out! That’s also where you can find out about our upcoming tour dates for The Tale of the Cockatrice and the premiere of the new show!
Emily LeQuesne is one half of Croon Productions, a theatre company who are dedicated to making exciting, unpredictable and whimsical puppet theatre. She is also a scriptwriter, dramaturg and teacher. We sat down with her to find out more about her work, her background and to find out exactly what a dramaturg does..!
How did you get into puppetry? What’s your background?
I trained as a human actor! I was a lecturer in performing arts for a decade until I decided to give my full attention to my own work and ‘Croon Productions’ started to take off a bit. The Croon team got into puppetry when we did a marionette manipulation course in Prague. We had been making shows and walkabout that was prop and costume reliant and training in puppetry seemed a logical step. We were lucky enough to be granted a bursary from Puppet Centre to help with the costs, and toddled off to Prague for a fortnight to learn how to manipulate marionettes. We fell in love with everything about puppetry and haven’t looked back!
I am also a scriptwriter, dramaturg and teacher. I am currently a student at Bath Spa University, researching for a PhD: ‘Script writing for puppetry: towards a literary dramaturgy for Western contemporary puppet theatre’.
How did Croon Productions come about? Who is involved?
I started Croon Productions with my partner Pod Farlow (he is a visual artist and professional prop and set maker for theatre, TV and film.) Croon started as a way to get into festivals! Back in the ’90’s, we had been attending festivals for many years and doing various jobs: on stalls, kids workshops, helping with the build but we wanted to do something that was creative so we created various walkabout acts and late night cabaret acts and Croon was born. We also produced a few cabaret nights in Bristol back in 2004/5 – ‘Cabaret Croon’.
We’ve created shows with and without puppetry. Our puppet shows include: ‘Attack of the 59 foot woman’ ( a puppet version of the classic ’50’s B movie), ‘Noir: A Dick Privet Mystery’ ( An original show based on film noir) and ‘Spaghetti!’ ( A spaghetti Western).
Our current show, MONSTER, is a ‘puppetry script experiment’ in process, and will form part of my own PhD research into writing scripts for puppet theatre. I wrote the script alone and Tomasin Cuthbert Menes from Soap Soup Theatre is directing as the research experiment requires a director working from a puppet script that they have had no part in creating.
MONSTER explores the horror film genre with toy theatre. It’s a Scooby Doo style romp through all your favourite shock flicks! In the show, classic cinematic monsters have escaped their retirement home. Who will save the world from this onslaught of evil? Why does the car never start? Why the girl does ALWAYS fall over when she runs and why isn’t she wearing enough clothes? MONSTER will be at the Barnstaple Fringe theatre festival on Thursday 28 June at 6pm, Saturday 30 June at 9.45pm and Sunday July 1st 5.45pm. Then August bank holiday weekend, we will be at the Puppet Parlour at Shambala Festival.
You also work as a Dramaturg… What exactly is Dramaturgy?
Dramaturgy can be a difficult term to define. There are a number of ways in which the term is used and the meanings can slightly differ if you are in the UK , Europe or USA.
A dramaturg can be either:
A production dramaturg – this is someone who is an extra pair of eyes on the production (who is not the director or a member of the cast). S/he researches elements of the show/narrative/ history that need refining and/or contextualising, suggests potential developments, contextualising and critical collaboration in development and rehearsal and performance.
Or a literary dramaturg – Script editing, criticism, feedback and development of format, narrative, character on the page. This is what my PhD research is focusing on.
By ‘literary dramaturgy’ I mean the exploration, development and facilitation of the process of script writing. There is no formal technique for a literary dramaturgy specifically for puppetry.
Within contemporary Western puppet theatre, the canon is limited in terms of published scripts. Historically, where scripts do exist, they are non-specific about puppetry, aside from a brief note or subtitle: ‘for puppets’ or they are a symbolic play script with no staging directions. Most puppeteers create shows through a method of devising.
How then does one write puppetry performance that is narrative and character driven with no pre-existing input and what would a director or puppeteer need to see on the page when reading this script for the first time? I am hoping to create a ‘tool kit’ to help people that wish to create scripts for puppet theatre as a lone playwright rather than a collaborative devisor.
Yikes! So, it’s a case of picking the definition that resonates with you and being prepared to constantly explain what the Hell it means!
Amongst the many puppetry performances and events Yorkshire has to offer, the Beverley Puppetry Festival is a highlight in the region’s calendar, boasting a vast array of puppet performances from over 30 companies in four venues and on the streets of Beverley. We caught up with the festival’s Co-Artistic Director, Kerrin Tatman, to find out more about this iconic festival and this year’s shows, workshops and outdoor entertainment.
Can you tell us a little about the background to the festival? How did it get started? Who is involved?
Beverley Puppet Festival is the largest festival of British puppetry in the world, when taking in consideration that it all happens in one location over one weekend. It is an important event for industry networking, for theatre bookers to see what is on offer and as a record of what contemporary puppetry is being made in this country. It is also a much-anticipated family-friendly event for rural Beverley and East Yorkshire, which has been recognised through winning a Remarkable East Yorkshire Tourism Award for ‘Best Small Event’ in 2015 and being shortlisted again in 2017.
Beverley Puppet Festival was founded by Anna Ingleby of Indigo Moon Theatre in 2005 when she ran a small event of just 5 companies as a response and fundraiser for charity work in Africa. The first festival was a popular success and Anna decided to hold another event in the following year, this time in conjunction with Beverley Arts Trust.
It is the first year the festival has been Co-Directed between Anna Ingleby and myself, where programming, budget management, fundraising and creative direction tasks are shared between us. The not-for-profit event is reliant on funding, sponsorship and a huge team of volunteers on the festival weekend itself. We are thankful to be funded by Arts Council England, East Riding of Yorkshire Council and Beverley Town Council.
What’s on in July and what are you most excited to see?
The 2018 festival sees over 30 companies performing in Beverley across 4 main indoor venues and the town streets, with festival hubs at Beverley Friary, Flemingate Centre and East Riding Theatre. Although the main focus is still British companies, we will be joined by three companies from the Netherlands – Close-Act’s ‘Saurus’, TAM-TAM objektentheater’s ‘Rusty Nails & Other Heroes’ and t’Magische Theaterje’s ‘Exuvia’, as well as one from Hungary – Ettenoiram Travelling Puppeteer’s ‘The Tiniest Cellist’.
The festival is aimed at adults, children and families, and puppeteers. Our adult programme includes a UK premiere of Blind Summit’s ‘Henry’ – a dark comedy tackling grief issues, Northern companies such as Odd Doll’s ‘Seaside Terror’ and Headstrung’s ‘Freaky Sequin Puppet Cabaret’, as well as Stephen Mottram’s ‘The Parachute’. Our children’s programme has received special attention this year due to the inclusion of ‘Mischief and Mystery in Moominvalley’ by Get Lost & Found (everyone loves Moomins!) but also includes Lempen Puppet Theatre’s ‘Cardboard Carnival’, Strangeface’s ‘Beached’ and ‘Spaced’, Indigo Moon Theatre’s ‘Mermarella’, Drew Colby’s ‘My Shadow and Me’ and Silent Tide’s ‘The Adventures of Curious Ganz’, the latter fronted by Sarah Wright of the Curious School of Puppetry.
Our outdoor programme of 14 companies sees giant dinosaurs, giraffes and mystical gods roam the streets, as well as intimate performances from forest sprites, scientists, stuntmen and fossil collectors. We are also hosting children’s puppet making workshops from the Scottish Puppet and Mask Centre and an adult marionette making class from Sian Kidd. We see the return of the much loved ‘Little Fawn Caravan’ by Sokobauno and welcome for the first time ‘The Errant Stage’, which will host networking events and discussions. There will be a Puppeteers UK Networking Meeting at Beverley Friary Festival Hub on Sunday 15th July at 10am.
I am especially looking forward to ‘Exuvia’ by t’Magische Theaterje, ‘Seaside Terror’ by Odd Doll Theatre, ‘The Adventures of Curious Ganz’ by Silent Tide and ‘The Cloud Travellers’ by Judith Hope, but it is difficult to pick favourites from what is on offer!
This year you are joining forces with Moving Parts Arts to explore the theme of ‘transformations and journeys’. What will this collaboration bring to the festival?
Aside from the main programme, I am also really excited for the second outing of the Moving Parts Scratch Space, after debuting at Skipton Puppet Festival 2017. The Scratch Space will be in the Indigo Moon Theatre Tent at Beverley Friary on the 14th and 15th July and is aimed at giving UK-based visual theatre artists and companies performance opportunities at established events to help them improve work-in-progress work and gain essential feedback. Successful applications are each given £200 towards travel costs, accommodation, food and a festival pass so they can fully experience the festival.
For Beverley Puppet Festival 2018 we have five companies from all over the country presenting new work: ‘Finding Shelter’ by Flawed Mandrake Theatre, ‘Microbodyssey’ by Tatwood Puppets, ‘Little Sparrow’ by Laura Mathews, ‘Janet’ by Helenandjohn and ‘Where Shall I Live?’ by Cottonwool Corner. We are thrilled to include ‘Transmographiles’ by Hopeful Monster Theatre in our main festival programme as this show came through the Scratch Space at Skipton Puppet Festival 2017.
Aside from the Scratch Space, Moving Parts Arts has also partnered with Beverley Puppet Festival through producing assistance. Both Matt Wood and myself are from the Moving Parts Arts team, although I have also been involved in Beverley since 2014. In future festivals we want this partnership to grow much further to create a real linkage between Beverley and Newcastle in terms of producing, opportunities for artists and shared resources.
One of the major partnership tasks we have carried out so far is the make sure that Beverley Puppet Festival and Moving Parts: Newcastle Puppetry Festival occur on alternate years, both for funding and personnel sustainability. This meant moving the next edition of the Newcastle Puppetry Festival to the 6th-14th April 2019 (funding dependent). Our theme of ‘transformations and journeys’ reflects this new, strong festival partnership and acts such as ‘Mermarella’ by Indigo Moon Theatre, ‘Cardboard Carnival’ by Lempen Puppet Theatre, ‘Beowulf’ by Rattlebox Theatre and ‘My Shadow and Me’ by Drew Colby are just some of the lineup that imbue this theme and message.
We are currently running a Crowdfunder to raise £2,000 towards delivering this not-for-profit event and have about £1,400 left to reach our target. Please consider supporting the festival through this method and get some of our limited edition merchandise in return for your donations!
Claire Lamond is a Scottish BAFTA nominated stop motion animator and filmmaker based in a dark cupboard in Edinburgh. She is drawn to stories of small happenings that reflect wider society and has worked with community projects animating their stories. I caught up with Claire at the 2018 Manipulate Festival to find out more about her work and influences.
How did you get involved in animation, and why stop motion?
Some years ago I was ill and had to give up my job as a youth worker. I was introduced to art initially as a therapeutic process but ended up going to college to take it further. I was doing illustration but found that everything I wanted to do took place over time so that, coupled with my love of film and stories, led me to study animation at Edinburgh College of Art.
Stop motion has a particular appeal to me. I love the thrill of creating something that is gone the minute you move onto the next frame, never to be repeated. Although I use computers for capturing my frames and After Effects, I mostly love the tactile interaction that exists between puppet and animator when we’re working together in the wee dark room of my studio. I think stop motion has a lot in common with working with puppets in real time…just much much slower!
After my degree film ‘All That Glisters‘, adapted from a short story by the achingly great author, Ann Donovan, I was offered an animator in residence at National Mining Museum Scotland, where my remit was to make a film inspired by the collection. What a dream that was! I ended up interviewing the ex miners who work there about their first experience of going underground and their response to the closure of the pits under Thatcher’s orders. ‘Seams and Embers‘ resulted. I like that objects as well as puppets can be characters and here the ‘piece tin’ (or sandwich box) plays it’s part because the men talked about how opening their tin and having a piece of home down in the mine was so important to them.
My next larger piece, ‘Sea Front‘, was another museum based collaboration between myself and Fife Cultural Trust to make a film about World War I. Having focused on men in the mining museum, I wanted to create a story from my research that focused on women and children’s experience. I’m a bit of a geek for research and there are 173 facts from the time couched somewhere in ‘See Front’! It was fantastic to work again with my pal, Karine Polwart, to create the score. She’s a bit of a geek herself and created something beautiful based on pipe tunes of the time.
These are my main films but I have also worked with organisations such as Edinburgh Development Group and Disability History Scotland to create work for them and have just finished a music video for Glasgow artist Richard Luke working in shadow puppets which was a really lovely, peaceful process.
You use materials with a lot of texture, and this seems particularly apparent in your short film, ‘Seams & Embers’. What does this aesthetic lend to your narratives?
The making process is a joy for me. I keep old clothes and source specifics bits of fabric from charity shops. Stories in films capture characters at one moment in their lives but I want it to appear as though they have had a history. That they have a ‘lived in’ look. It means everything looks a bit tatty, but so do we all. Sometimes I choose textiles for a specific reason. I tend now to make my puppets’ skin from nylon tights. This started when I was making ‘Seams and Embers’ and found out that nylon was a by-product of coal.
My choice to use textiles is also a nod to women in particular’s rich history of craft. I was sent out of my sewing class at school because I kicked against doing something so ‘girly’…it’s amuses me to think how much I use fabrics and sewing now! The film I’m working on just now pushes this side to my work even further because absolutely everything is made out of fabric and threads.
You have significant experience in community work and continue to work with young people, sometimes from challenging backgrounds, using animation. Can you tell us about this?
There is nothing more magical than watching someone press ‘play’ when they have just done their first second or two of animation – that ‘I’m a wizard!’ moment that even the most cynical or withdrawn person or someone with significant additional needs experiences. Often the people who are struggling the most in other aspects of their life or in the setting they find themselves in are the ones who gain the most from creating things. Using art forms to connect with people is such a powerful way of working. I think humans are natural storytellers, so running workshops is as much drawing this side out of people as it is doing the animation.
So, what’s next..?
At the moment I am working on stage visuals with singer/performer Mairi Campbell on her next show (having created the visuals for her first show, ‘Pulse’ two years ago). It’s lovely to be collaborating with a wide creative team.
By contrast, I have also just finished the making-stage and am about to begin animating my own stop motion film adapted from a story that my oldest daughter wrote about what she has learned from her sister’s unusual way of looking at the world (as well as a beautifully unique slant on things, she has autism). It feels like a very internal, personal and quiet space to be working in.
In terms of the future…well…funding….need I say more….but I hope I will be able to make more stories that are small but tell something of wider society – that’s where my love lies.
Chris Pirie is Artistic Director of award-winning theatre company Green Ginger, and a resident artist at Puppet Place. He has thirty years’ experience as a freelance designer and maker of puppetry solutions for screen and stage and is also a lecturer and researcher in puppetry for performance. We sat down with him for a chat about his latest show in production, ‘Intronauts’, and how his work in disability performance and accessible theatre has developed since he led Interchange at Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2017.
So how are you? What’s new?
It’s going well. We are now in the design and early fabrication stage of creating the next Green Ginger show. This process will go on from now until August when we go out to Norway for a residency in the frozen wastes to finish the creation of the show.
The show is called ‘Intronauts’. In our story, Intronauts are human beings who are charged with body maintenance. They are miniaturised through nanotechnology and sent into the body in little vehicles that can travel around the body to maintain health. Well, within reason; they’re not allowed to go near the brain, or anywhere there is a danger of them being excreted too early, like the bladder or mouth.
It’s quite a common technology in the future. Everyone will have an Intronaut looking after their body. Intronauts go into the body for two years at a time – so it’s quite a long shift. We join our story after a new, non-human based technology has been introduced. There are two versions: a full version that locates the Intronaut in the body and safely extracts them for enlargement. And then there’s the budget version, which just locates and destroys the Intronaut in the body! So there’s a dilemma for the person who is using an Intronaut.
What’s the inspiration for the story come from?
Well, we’ve wanted to do something inside the body for a long time. Ever since we made ‘Rust’ and got obsessed with submarines and travel in strange vehicles and in strange places. So why not take a submarine into the body? Also, we’ve drawn inspiration from classic sci-fi films from the 60s, such as ‘Fantastic Voyage’ (1966), and later ‘Innerspace’ (1987). We’ve used those two movies in particular as our starting point.
We had initially three days of R&D here in Bristol where we went for a walk around Oldbury power station and we investigated the world of hazmat (hazardous waste handling) to see what that might mean in terms of protective clothing, protocols and the management of dodgy stuff! (SMILES). So, these two worlds of nanotechnology and hazmat have collided into what we hope will be a spectacular addition to the Green Ginger canon.
And there’s great opportunity for puppetry in this, of course. We’re in a strange world inside the body and puppetry will come into its own spectacularly because we are dealing with a world where the normal rules of gravity, time and space can be messed with. The gift of puppetry is that we can deliver this cinematic vision; we can create everything from wide-shots to intimate close-ups . We can mess with scale, motion, gravity – we can explore how things move in viscous liquids to how a submarine might travel through a vein or any other part of the body. It can be quite surreal and we can present an absurdist view of what the inside of the body is. Puppetry lends itself well to that.
We’re also exploring the use of new video projection technologies for this new show, to enable us to embed open captions. It’s very interesting! This is coming directly from the work that we all did for ‘Interchange’ at Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2017 and feeding into our practices at Green Ginger. So we’re adopting the learning that came out of ‘Interchange’ and applying that in a meaningful and embedded way.
I’ve wanted to bring some of this new found learning into Green Ginger’s activities, in particular live performance, for some time, as I realise that 9 million people in the UK, that’s around one in seven, have some form of hearing deficiency. Only half of them might be diagnosed as deaf. The other half are people who have lost hearing through old age or a number of other reasons.
Not being diagnosed, they can choose to avoid situations like cinemas and live performances where they feel they might not enjoy that activity. So we want to use open captioning and embed that into the fabric of the show, so it’s not like surtitles (supertitles) where you’re having to shift your eyes up above the stage to see a screen and adjust your focal length throughout a performance. Nor is it like closed captions, where you read from a handheld device or device in the back of the seat in front of you, because these methods can be quite tiring. So we wanted to embed these into the imagery of the show and find new ways of doing this.
It’s clear that you have a passion for this kind of work. We’ve already spoken about Interchange, which you head up at Bristol Festival of Puppetry, plus the work that you’re doing right now in the new show.
Puppet Place, in association with UNIMA Research Commission and Bath Spa University, are about to hold the next Broken Puppet Symposium on 14 – 15 April at the University. Can you tell us a bit more about that? What’s your involvement?
The first symposium was in Ireland last year and this second one is going to be here in the UK in Bath. I’m going to be making a short presentation, talking about ‘Interchange’ at BFP17, what we achieved and its legacy. As I have already mentioned, some of this is being employed in my own work, but there are a couple of other interesting strands that have come out of this work. There were two main lab based activities in ‘Interchange’. One was iPuppetry, which now has the potential to be developed further with Dave Young – a wheelchair user who describes himself as a differently-abled artist. Dave is an amazing poet who uses Eyegaze technology to communicate, so we’re doing further experimentation with that to allow Dave to explore his idea of bringing broken access equipment to life. This is in collaboration with Laura Kriefman (Hellion Trace) and Barry Farrimond (Open Up Music) who has created the Clarion technology that plugs into Eyegaze. We will be fundraising to take this work further.
The other ‘Interchange’ lab explored new ways of approaching table top puppetry. We worked with inclusive theatre company Hijinx Theatre who have an academy in Cardiff that facilitates disabled and non-disabled actors working together to produce professional performance. There was a real appetite to revisit and continue with that work. There is no timescale for that at the moment, and we’ll need to attract further funding to make that possible, but we’re excited to take that further. So I will be talking a little about both of those projects and the legacy that has come out of ‘Interchange’ at the Symposium on 14 – 15 April.
And at 4pm on Saturday 14 April, there will be a puppet building lab, facilitated by Nikki Charlesworth, myself and Emma Fisher. So there’s going to be a lot going on!
You’ve a significant anniversary coming up, is that correct?
Yes! ‘Intronauts’ will be the 21st show of our theatre company! It’s Green Ginger’s fortieth year this year, so it feels timely to be making a new show that’s going to challenge us as theatre-makers and storytellers. And we’ve just found out that two earlier works have been digitised as part of a project to document the highly acclaimed ‘Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater’.
Throughout the 90’s, the Jim Henson Foundation presented this festival in New York City and scoured the world for acts. We were fortunate enough to do two festivals, and took ‘Frank Einstein’ in 1996 and ‘Slaphead’ in 1998. The videos of the performances have now been digitised and are now available in the New York Public Library. So that’s very exciting! We found out that news on World Puppetry Day, which was pertinent. A nice anniversary present for Green Ginger, but more importantly it’s a wealth of material of shows from around the world that is now available in posterity.
Green Ginger makes innovative theatre for streets and stage. Since its formation in 1978, the Company has had a commitment to puppetry in the widest sense and its members will use any tools and effects they can put their grubby little hands on to realise its surreal and absurd imagery. To find out more about their work, visit their website, Twitter and Facebook page.
In this, the last in a two part feature about puppetry down under, notable puppeteers discuss what defines Australian puppetry and sets the scene apart from other cultures. This article is edited by Kay Yasugi, Pupperoos (New South Wales) and General Secretary of UNIMA Australia. The first part can be read here.
What is ‘Australian’ Puppetry? We are the world’s oldest and youngest nation. Australia is a cultural melting pot, and so is our puppetry. It seems only fitting that this article be a collection of thoughts from various puppeteers around the country – a rich and complex ‘puppet soup’, if you will. So, below are further thoughts from notable puppeteers and other practitioners working in the puppetry sectors in Australia today:
Over the years we’ve seen our own quirky Aussie takes on the various styles of puppetry such as marionettes, shadow puppets and even Muppet-style puppets. A lot of this is evident in unique children’s television shows such as Mr. Squiggle, The New Adventures of Blinky Bill, Lift Off and The Ferals.
Now that television puppetry isn’t as common as it was between the 1960s and the early 1990s, puppetry in Australia today is mostly performed live at parties, schools, childcare centres, festivals and theatres.
I would consider much of Australia’s modern puppetry work to be experimental and thought provoking, with many productions tackling serious issues. These Australian puppets are often abstract and made using recycled objects. Many would consider such puppetry as “high art”, alongside ballet.
In answer to the question ‘what makes Australian puppetry?’ I would argue that it is the willingness to take risks with creating hybrid forms of puppet theatre. This hybridity gives a nod to, but is not bound by, tradition. Australian puppetry has explored and continues to investigate new technologies in both the process and the product of the work.
The isolation of both New Zealand and Australia means that, because often a lot of puppeteers (and people who want to be involved in Puppetry in Australia and New Zealand) only saw things from television and couldn’t have a hands-on understanding of it, they had to work it out their own way… that’s why I think Australia and New Zealand seem to be innovative, because they’ve found a different way of doing things.
A particular challenge facing Australian puppeteers is whose stories do they tell. At the moment, Indigenous culture is reasserting itself, reclaiming their own stories. So it’s no longer appropriate to do European versions. With the Question, ‘What is Australian Puppetry?’ you also have to ask ‘How do you express it?’, ‘Who can tell those stories?’ I think that’s a really significant issue.
Another key challenge is the digital age. People are experiencing the world in a different way through screens. Though touching screens, looking at screens, interacting with screens, and I think that poses a particular challenge to puppeteers. People are changing so they don’t necessarily think about buying a ticket to see a show. I think it’s harder and harder for puppeteers to go to schools now.
But I have to have faith that people can be charmed and beguiled by a puppet.
At the end of the day, I’m not sure if it is possible to define what ‘Australian Puppetry’ actually is. It doesn’t have a distinctive style or aesthetic, and yet there does seem to be an Australian ‘attitude’ or ‘approach’ towards puppetry. As Sue Wallace from Sydney Puppet Theatre put it, Australian puppeteers are ‘Bower Birds’. With the absence of traditions and ‘rules’, we are free to take and adapt whatever we like. What a myriad of choices we have with our multicultural palette!
Our isolation from the rest of the world has forced us to reinvent puppetry for ourselves, and we are known to be experimenters. Although there is a lack of formal training available, we are an inventive bunch and we seek knowledge and skills where we can. There is growing interest in puppetry in education, as well as the continued presence of puppetry in theatre, film and various festivals. It would be interesting to see how this affects the development of puppetry in the future, amidst challenges of funding, training, technology, and the stories we tell as a nation and as individuals.
UNIMA Australia is the official puppetry organisation of Australia. We welcome members from all over the world, and have regular newsletters with updates on puppetry happening around the country and abroad. For more information about membership, please go to http://mp.gg/a1u-t
In their 2004 publication, The Space Between: The Art of Puppetry and Visual Theatre in Australia, Peter J. Wilson and Geoffrey Milne asked: “Where, then, do we think puppetry and visual theatre might go in the next twenty years?” (Wilson and Milne, 2004, 117). While it is not quite yet twenty years since this question was posed, the interviews conducted for ThingMaking (www.thingmaking.net) turn to the practice of Australian puppeteers to provide some answers. In a context of a lack of puppetry training institutes in Australia, and drastic government arts funding cuts, the interviews are presented as audio podcasts and are publicly available as an avenue to communicate this research to other professional puppet makers and performers.
I had some reservations before taking my seat at The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for ‘Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining’. Reworkings of masterpieces, however well considered and critically received, are always going to be provocative – and as the score was subsequently rearranged by The Globe’s Musical Director, Bill Barclay, and is Emma Rice’s final original piece of programming as Artistic Director at The Globe, this performance was never going to come neutrally packaged.
How would perhaps the most infamous work of the legendary Baroque composer, now reworked by his contemporaries, translate into modern puppet theatre? Would it be too highbrow, too clever for its own good? And would anything of its origins be able to reach through the considerable passage of time to us sat in the candlelight of the present moment? Would we be able to connect? Would we be moved?
Ahead of that hushed moment before the first act, the interior of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse began to fuse past and present – a chocolate box space that glittered and glowed, inviting us to settle in its cosy nook somewhere outside of time. Above the stage, housed in a shallow gallery, an intimate band of musicians drew ornate melodies from their strings. And then came the performers – a small troupe of five puppeteers, dressed in the uniform of the puppet theatre: timeless, causal, slightly-worn, all black.
The stage was set.
As is the received wisdom in puppeteering – it all began with the breath. Puppeteers forge their connection with the puppet by breathing with their charge, imbuing life with each respiration. And this tethering was returned to throughout, woven into the fabric of the narrative as ground for the puppeteers to maintain the interconnectedness with both their puppets and each other that was so vital to the performance.
For it was clear from the outset that this was something quite special. There is a certain quality of precision and care that marks any artistic mastery out, whatever the form. And ‘Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining’ has it in spades. Performed on table tops in a bunraku style, every detail of the movement was considered and conveyed with endless fluidity.
Vivaldi’s original composition is a powerful piece of music, and nothing of this emotional resonance is lost in Richter’s respectful recomposition. It remains deeply affecting, perhaps more so, as Richter’s considerable experience in writing musical scores for film has surely honed his ability to touch modern audiences. And despite the limitations of the version performed (only six musicians), it is still highly evocative.
It could be argued that much of the emotive landscape has already been carved out by the score, but at no point did the puppeteers rest on their laurels in this regard. Language free, emotion expressed via a keen observation of body language was also thrown onto the puppeteers faces, for these performers were never intended to be hidden. They were integral to the story, effortlessly morphing into narrative features such as supporting characters and even landscapes. Scene transitions flowed with similar ease, as tables were gently swept into new positions and puppets held with the care one might an infant, always kept ‘alive’ albeit sometimes for a moment in a suspended animation.
The design was courageously simple. The puppets had a wooden appearance (a hand painted finish) and neutral expression, with supporting props and pieces fashioned from twigs and rags, which transformed in the puppeteers’ hands into butterflies, flowers, a cat and even traumatic flashbacks from the past. Such stripping down begs an imaginative engagement from the audience; it evokes rather than dictates, demanding far more active, less passive interaction. And this was possibly the most controversial aspect of the performance in some respects. As this invitation to participate, to respond to the visual cues and take your own journey with the music, may have missed its mark with some.
There is a great deal to appreciate in Gyre & Gimble’s ‘Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining’ – the masterful puppetry, the minimalist design, the incredible music and the opportunity for the audience to layer their own imagination onto the work, as these more traditional media forms, such as literature, have done for centuries. Yet the performance is also cinematic in its vision and especially its score – epic in fact, despite the sparseness of its ingredients.
Beautifully crafted, expertly delivered. This performance requires your attention.