Under the Sea with Harriett Bradbury

Interview with the Animation Director

Still from Under the Sea. Photo by Harriett Bradbury.

Under the Sea‘, Sugarmoon’s latest single; an easy breezy love song that brings us some much needed serenity. Warm beach vibes and whimsical dreams of frolicking in the sea or maybe diving to an under water world. The song brings a hopeful reminder of the fun times ahead when there are no more lockdown restrictions. Harriett Bradbury, Animation Director, has captured the song beautifully in her new music video. A band of sea critters performs the song, ‘Under the Sea’, under the sea! The video is an injection of charm with each character showing a distinct personality. My favourite is the crab with his rosy cheeks and tiny bowtie. I can imagine the creatures playing at a prom in a teen movie, they’re all smart and ready for their big show.

Still from Under the Sea. Photo by Harriett Bradbury

This isn’t Harriett’s first film full of characters you just want to squeeze and put in your pocket. Harriett Bradbury’s work often takes cute and funny creatures and makes them feel like real characters with quirks and insecurities. Her award winning film, ‘Love Bugs’ is a great example of this where Dusty the moth goes on a series of bad dates. One fly orders a plate of poo at a fancy restaurant, another slaps Dusty in the face for looking at her glowing behind (firefly). Harriett’s films are thoughtfully put together from the idea to the design to the performance. Every detail creates a world in which humour, warmth and story are at the centre.

Tell us about yourself and the work you do.

I am a stop motion filmmaker based in Bristol and currently working as a junior compositor at A Productions Ltd. It’s definitely tricky balancing personal projects alongside a full time job, but I try to develop them whenever I can. I enjoy every step of the filmmaking process, from writing to post production, and get so much gratification seeing a project grow from a tiny spark of an idea to a fully formed film. Although animation feels incredibly tedious when you’re in the midst of it, seeing something come to life at your hands is magical and worth the slog.

Although I would consider myself a stop motion filmmaker and a bit of a generalist, puppet design and fabrication was my first love. Anyone who has seen my work will know I have a real soft spot for anything anthropomorphised. Aesthetically, I enjoy working with low tech materials and don’t think it’s necessary to spend a lot of money to make something effective. Plus, there is something very charming about things that look like the material it’s made out of – as if you’re reinvigorating the life of an inanimate object.

Still from Under the Sea. Photo by Harriett Bradbury.

What led you to puppet animation?

I’ve always been more inclined toward puppet animation. Working in 3D space makes way more sense to me and I love the tangibility of stop motion. I’ve always had an active interest in theatre, puppetry, and filmmaking, so it felt like a very natural route for me to take.

Under the sea! Can you tell us about your latest project?

Yes! I worked with local Bristol band, Sugarmoon to create a music video for their latest track ‘Under the Sea’. The song is so fun and was an absolute pleasure to work with. It took five months to complete in total, including all pre-production work. Luckily, I had a pretty solid idea of what the video was going to look like and so design and fabrication didn’t take as long as it usually might.

Originally, I had planned to make wire armature puppets, but due to time and budget parameters I decided to use paper instead. Previous to this project, I had never really worked with paper or used a multi-plane camera before, so it was definitely a learning curve and has certainly helped me grow as a stop motion artist. Working with paper allowed me to work more illustratively and create something completely different to my previous work. I’ve never been a traditional pen and paper animator, so it was wonderful to design a bunch of 2D characters and still be able to animate them physically with stop motion.

I can’t wait to share it with everyone! The track is so joyful, it’s impossible not to smile when listening to it. The video definitely reflects that exuberant spirit, and I feel grateful that I got to work with such great material. The video was released on the 2nd April and you can also hear the song on Spotify.

Behind the scenes of Under the Sea. Photo by Harriett Bradbury.

Do you have any big creative influences?

I have a very eclectic taste in art and film and so find myself influenced by so many different sources. Even so, I find the bulk of my ideas are based in comedy; especially deadpan or absurdist humour. There is so much to be said about the power of making people laugh, and it’s something I will always strive for with my work. I’ve loved the poems of Spike Milligan since I was a kid, so he immediately springs to mind as someone who has been very influential to me.

Any future animation plans?

Still from Under the Sea. Photo by Harriett Bradbury.

I have a couple of collaborative projects in my peripheral vision, but I can’t really talk about them yet! Other than that, I have lots of ideas bouncing around for future short films and I’d love to use paper animation again, but nothing set in stone. I’ve also been thinking of ways I can set up a shooting space at home but nothing has come to fruition yet. Basically, there is so much I want to do! If I can continue creating my own work around my 9-5, I will be a very happy woman.

What are you looking forward to as restrictions ease?

I really miss going for a pint after work on a Friday. I have everything crossed that we can have a more sociable summer and reunite with the friends and family we haven’t been able to see for the last year. There have been too many missed birthday celebrations and two of my closest friends had to postpone their wedding. That will be a right knees up when it comes around!

Keep up with Harriett and Sugarmoon on Instagram. Listen to the track on Spotify

Interview by Amy Baker

Short, Sweet, & Sickening: An Interview with The House of Funny Noises

Founded by Izzy Bristow, Helena Houghton, and Cat Rock, The House of Funny Noises is a Bristol based film collective that aims to make short, sweet, and sickening puppet films and media. Working with friends and other local artists, in less than a year, they have produced and released six films. We caught up with them to find out how their year has gone, the challenges they faced, and what the future holds.

The House of Funny Noises. Filming the trailer ident for the Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge 2020.

How did The House of Funny Noises form, what are you all about, and what are the goals behind your collective?

Helena Houghton (HH): Initially, it started during the first lockdown, while we were all out of work with not a lot to do, we took part in the LA Guild of Puppetry’s 48 hour Film Project. We decided to play on hard mode and make everything! We were up at 2:00 AM till 2:00 AM two days later making BELLY and after that we just thought, ‘great, let’s keep doing this!’. Since then we have made five more films and we are really enjoying ourselves.

As a collective, we are all about making films that are short, sweet, and sickening. Our main objective is to experiment, we love to push our imaginations to make fascinating and sometimes disgusting visuals, as well as tell concise thought provoking stories. We really enjoy taking a story and turning it on its head. For example, when filming SPROUT for the Raindance 60 second film competition we were given the theme ‘love in lockdown’, so we chose to make a dramatic romance and betrayal starring spider plants. We like to subvert expectations and find ways to make something fresh.

Over the last year, you’ve created a variety of puppet films; what have been the challenges you’ve faced?

HH: Working to deadlines has been difficult, a lot of what we have done has had a very quick turnaround time, so getting to grips with making puppet films fast, organising that, has been interesting.

We’ve all had to learn how to film and edit properly. I have some experience from university, but that was a while ago, and for Cat and Izzy it was their first time doing film like this and we are all still constantly learning and pushing ourselves. Mostly, I think learning how we work together has been the biggest challenge, but it’s also been great. We are definitely growing with each project and I think doing it all in the middle of a pandemic is quite an achievement. We make an excellent team.

The House of Funny Noises. Filming the trailer ident for the Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge 2020.

What have you learnt from the experience, often with very quick turnarounds, of making puppet films?

HH: As a collective, I think we have learnt that communication is key. We all work in different ways and that is difficult, but also has a lot of merit. Everytime we work together we learn from each other. We have started doing a ‘lessons learnt’ meeting at the end of each project so when we move on to the next thing we document what works and what doesn’t.

We have picked up a host of skills through doing this, all of us are puppet makers originally, but we do everything, all the lighting, camera work, and post production ourselves so that has been a fun learning curve. Importantly, you need just as much rehearsal time as filming, it’s no good spending lots of time making a fancy puppet and set without getting to know them before you shoot!

I have learnt a lot about the way I work with others, as a very visual worker, I need to sketch and storyboard things out before we get into anything, to feel like I have a good idea of what we are making and how we want it to feel. Also, I have learnt a lot about live action puppets through Cat and Izzy’s guidance, getting better at designing mechanisms and learning more about performance.

Izzy Bristow (IB): Editing, I have learnt so much about what it is to have an idea, build it up into something, and then have the reality of time and budget slap us in the face. Oddly enough, what is left when all the extra bits are shed away is a much more concise and elegant version of the original idea.

Cat Rock (CR): Opportunity comes to those who are prepared! This is one of my favorite quotes and it really sums up what I have learned from working in the House of Funny Noises. You need to take the time to build your skill set and working practice so that you have a solid base on which to stand. With each project we have learnt a little bit more and developed as a group, on the next project we work better together and more efficiently, building on what we experienced before.

Over the last year (it’s nearly our anniversary!), we have grown so much and now we are in a position to take on opportunities and challenges, bringing our point of view into the puppetry world. We have prepared ourselves with the skills and determination to grab the opportunities to come. 

What have been your favourite moments, and films themselves, from amongst the pieces you’ve produced? What do you hope audiences take away from them?

IB: I think SNOT (Going Out) is my favorite. Cat did an excellent job of figuring out the limitations of the LA Guild of Puppetry’s Halloween 48 hour Challenge and then creating a film that looks like it didn’t have anything holding it back at all. The story fits perfectly in the time allotted and within the small set she made all on her own (due to scheduling problems it was a film Cat took on without us but with Matt Gibbs behind the camera).

CR: One of my personal favorite moments was from our first film BELLY. I performed an upside down mouth monster and then we recorded foley for the scene. It was funny, grose, weird, and utterly fun to film. The cherry on top of the cake is that when the judges from the LA Guild of Puppetry’s 48 hour Film Project were talking about the film, which won honourable mention, one judge said, “The chin puppet was very effective. Too effective! Incredibly gross. Congratulations, but I never want to see anything like that again…” This made my day!

HH: My favourite film is probably SLINGJAW WRASSE. It’s quite hard to be both funny and informative, and Izzy wrote a fantastic script, plus the beautiful yellow puppet made by Nick Wilsher and finished by Izzy is wonderfully eye-catching.

HH: Any time we make something a bit messy too; we had so much fun making the fish egg scene in SLINGJAW WRASSE. We had a big tank of water, lots of gunge that Cat had made, and bright pink boba beads. We played around with getting just the right amount of gross for the shot and again on SNOT (Going Out) the creature was so gooey.

I think we hope our audience will just enjoy them, each film is individual. We want to make people feel the expression we put into them. SNOT is kind of gross and scary, WORM is a bit cute and fun, SLINGJAW WRASSE is that combo of informative silly and nerdy, etc, etc.

What’s next for the House of Funny Noises? What more can we look forward to in 2021?

HH: We are thrilled to say that we will be making a short film for the Beverley Puppet Festival’s ‘Sanctuary’ project, which we are looking forward to telling you more about in the future! Currently, we’re working with the festival team to gather ideas and inspiration from the people of Beverley.

In April, we’re taking part in the next 48 hour Puppet Film Project from the LA Guild of Puppetry. Later in the summer, we’ll also be helping Puppet Place run the second ever Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge, for which we have just organised one of the judges, so stay tuned for that announcement.

We have also been having a great time collecting a folder of all the story ideas we would like to do. Some are epic, spooky fantasy, such as ‘BELTANE’ (WT), written by Matt Gibbs, that we are seeking funding for, while others are surreal comedies like our as yet unnamed boob film, which will focus on the comedy and double standards of breasts. We hope to be filming that one late spring, early this summer. We have a lot to keep us busy and we are excited to rise to the challenge!

Discover more details about the Beverley Puppet Festival’s ‘Sanctuary’ project and The House of Funny Noises involvement, and – if you’re a resident of Beverley – learn about how you can submit your stories and ideas.

The House of Funny Noises was founded by Izzy Bristow, Helena Houghton, and Cat Rock.

Visit https://www.houseoffunnynoises.com/

Follow the House of Funny Noises Instagram

Subscribe to the House of Funny Noises YouTube

Interview with Helena Houghton, plus additional comments by Izzy Bristow and Cat Rock

Interviewed by Matt Gibbs

The House of Funny Noises. Filming Slingjaw Wrasse (2020).

Walk to the heart of Amal! Interview with Rachel Leonard

Part 1 – The Journey Begins

Josh Elwell talked to Puppeteer Rachel Leonard ahead of this extraordinary and epic journey across Europe at such a pivotal time.

I caught up with Rachel Leonard on board her 125 year old narrow boat (which you can find listed in the National Historic Ships Register) on the edge of Bath. We spoke just as she was about to go into a week of R&D for a new project, with the team behind Little Angel’s The Journey Home.

Rachel Leonard.

Rachel has been performing with puppets for nearly 30 years, having learnt her trade at Little Angel and The Puppet Theatre Barge. She works with many exciting companies, from Handspring and Little Angel to the National Theatre, the RSC, and Kneehigh. However, like so many other performers she has felt the effects of the last year with all its huge challenges.

We began by talking about ‘resilience’ and ways that freelance puppeteers have managed to negotiate these crazy times. One of Rachel’s survival techniques is ‘living small’. She lives on her boat and keeps her outgoings to a minimum. She believes this lifestyle affords her a huge amount of independence. Living this way enables her to be a little more selective than most, and to be able to engage with projects that have real meaning for her. It is one such project that drew me to want to talk to Rachel in the first place.

Amal – ‘The Walk’ 2020.

Some of you may have caught sight on social media of an extraordinary giant puppet girl called, Amal. Amal is the focal point for a project called The Walk, the epic journey of a 9 year old refugee girl travelling 8,000km across Europe to find her mother. 

Amal – ‘The Walk’ 2020.

Little Amal will start her journey at the Syria/Turkey boarder in July this year and make her way through Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and France, before reaching the United Kingdom in November. Amal has a hugely important purpose – to shine light on the struggles of the many refugee children she represents.

Route of ‘The Walk’ in 2021.

Along the way cities, towns, and villages will welcome Little Amal with art – from major street parades and city-wide performances of music, dance, and theatre, to intimate community events. Little Amal will connect with young people from refugee and non-refugee communities through creative learning projects, developed specifically for each location. 

Amal – ‘The Walk’ 2020.

The Walk is being produced by Good Chance Theatre, famous for their work in The Jungle in Calais. Good Chance have joined forces with Handspring Puppet Company to design and build Amal, and Rachel is one of the puppeteers who will be animating Amal in this hugely exciting and important project.

Rachel was fizzing with excitement about Amal and said that she feels it is perhaps  one of the most important projects that she has ever been a part of. Involved in the development of the The Walk from early on in Amal’s creation, Rachel will be one of the international team of puppeteers operating her from inside and out.

The team will rotate; taking turns working her arms and supporting her back (with rods, from the ground) and working from within the puppet, at Amal’s ‘heart’. The heart position is the most complex; requiring the wearing of stilts to create her legs, and a backpack harness to take the weight of the puppet. The operator in this position is controlling her head and facial expression from a ‘harp-like’ construction of pulleys in her tummy. Mechanisms have been kept low-fi to be as robust and repairable as possible along the route.

There is however just one electronic feature; her eyeballs, which are powered by a small battery pack and operated by a mini-thumb control. As it is not possible to see her face from within the puppet, attitudes and facial expressions must be learnt by muscle memory and through prompts given by other members of the team who can feedback instructions. Due to the tricky nature of this role and the heat that builds up with the exertion of it, the puppeteers will only do short stints inside the puppet. Rachel hopes that, with practice, they will get the changeovers, “Slick, like a pit stop!”

Amal – ‘The Walk’ 2020.

Rachel says, “She is magnificent as she walks through the landscape. You cannot help but feel for her. Despite her being 3.5 metres tall, children call to her, look after and care for her. She is both charming, mesmerising, and moving.”

Amal will walk into many different events on her 3 month journey. Each event will form important stages of her emotional development. Each meeting, gathering, sharing, celebration or carnival will serve as an important part of her overall journey and story. In her wake she will leave a legacy of sponsorship and scholarships for educational opportunities. Each event and stopping point in Amal’s journey will provide a catalyst for change and an opportunity to understand the plight of children just like her.

Amal – ‘The Walk’ 2020.

The project has been set back due to Covid and of course everyone is desperately hoping that this won’t happen again. However, Rachel remains hugely positive. She has agreed to talk to us again during The Walk, and then again once she has reached Manchester in November. In the meantime, Rachel’s bags are packed and the 8,000km road between Turkey and the UK awaits her and Amal’s footsteps.

‘May the road rise up to meet you and may the wind
be always at your back!’ – Traditional Irish Blessing

Good Chance needs your support to help make The Walk happen. The Walk‘s Step Up appeal is raising funds to support Little Amal‘s journey, the artistic and education programmes of The Walk, and the crucial work being done to raise awareness of the refugee crisis and advocate for young refugees to have access to an education.

Every young refugee deserves a Good Chance of fulfilling their potential.

Follow and learn more about Amal and The Walk.

And support via https://www.walkwithamal.org/support-us/

Interviewed by Josh Elwell

Gentle Air Giants: Interview with Emma Powell

Air Giants is an exciting collaboration between Emma Powell, Richard Sewell, and Robert Nixdorf. Together they create strikingly beautiful, soft robotic creatures that come to life at the intersection of puppetry, robotics, technology, and software design. Matt Gibbs caught up with Emma Powell, one of the co-founders and the creative director of Air Giants, about their emotionally expressive creations.

LUMA – Air Giants, 2020. Photo: Paul Blakemore.

How did you and the team first conceive of the idea behind Air Giants?

My colleague Richard Sewell is a prolific tester of ideas, and he has tested some ideas using soft robotic principles at a very large scale. I saw some of his early experiments and fell in love with it as a medium! Together with Robert Nixdorf, we started hatching a plan to take the principles much further and apply some of the human-robotic interaction principles we’d learned from other projects, as well as refining and improving the beautiful motion the technology offers.

We were lucky to get prototype funding from the South West Creative Technology Network which allowed us to tackle a lot of the technical challenges involved and find people who would be interested in exhibiting and commissioning the work.

The idea of creating creatures came quite quickly because even our first prototypes had a powerful sense of life about them. We love the idea of working with more abstract forms too, and some of the projects we are developing at the moment are about transforming whole spaces into interactive environments.

LUMA – Air Giants, 2020. Footage: Paul Blakemore and the Air Giants team.

How do you go about bringing such a sense of life and movement to these robotic creatures? What challenges do you face?

It’s certainly a challenge! Puppetry is a useful tool in exploring the possibilities. We often use table-top scale puppetered versions of designs to map out motions and interactions before thinking about how to realise these at full size. My own background in puppetry is very useful here. There’s something about the nuances of the way a real object moves that I haven’t found possible to express properly through storyboarding.

Then we have to take the vocabulary of movements we’re aiming for and figure out how we can translate that into the pneumatically controlled fabric. We now know a lot about the geometries and pressures needed to make it all happen, but it can still take a few modelling attempts at a smaller scale of about one metre before we finalise a design.

Once the design is in place, the actual fabrication requires a lot of space for laying out and cutting huge pieces of fabric. There is also lots of valve assembly, bespoke control coding for each new piece, and a huge amount of sewing to do.

What is challenging is that this is new ground – there’s no handbook for what we’re doing! Soft robotics is being developed in many university labs, but there’s nothing of this scale which we can reference. Everything from the specific geometries of the internal compartments to the air control valves has been designed by us from scratch. We’ve been learning fast, and we’re excited to see that the possibilities here are incredibly broad.

TRIFFID – Air Giants, 2020. Footage: Air Giants team.

How important is the movement and lighting to creating emotion? And what do you hope audiences will take away from the experience?

The movement really is key for us. The scale and spectacle of the work is striking, but it’s amazing how people respond to the movement at an instinctual level. Much of the motion is bio-inspired and the wide range of wiggling, flexing, and other contortions we can create are not usually associated with robotics.

Audiences are constantly trying to read meaning and behaviour into the movement the robots make, so designing the motion and responses is a large chunk of the work for us. I think there are very strong parallels to the art of puppeteering here. 

We want people to have joyful experiences of the work and to have a sense of having met something intelligent, otherworldly, and engaging. It should be a moment of magic and a way to step outside of normal life – something we could all use at the moment.

LUMA – Air Giants, 2020. Photo: Paul Blakemore.

What are your hopes for Air Giants in 2021? What more can we look forward to?

We’ve got a few exciting projects we’re hoping to get the green light for in 2021. I can’t say too much, but hopefully we’ll be bringing work to lots of people in all sorts of places, from town centres to botanical gardens.

We’re interested in co-design, site specific work, and collaborations with other creative industries. We’re very approachable and love to make connections happen, so please feel free to get in touch!

We’re looking forward to experiencing more of these gentle giants in the months to come and exploring the new spaces they might inhabit.

Air Giants is the brainchild of Emma Powell, Richard Sewell, and Robert Nixdorf; who create huge, emotionally expressive soft robotic creatures and spaces.

Emma Powell is an artist and director from Bristol, UK, who creates exciting, inspiring, and accessible work in theatre, film, and events.

Visit https://www.airgiants.co.uk/

Visit https://www.emmapowell.com/

Follow the Air Giants Instagram

Follow the Air Giants Twitter

Subscribe to the Air Giants YouTube

Interview with Emma Powell

Interviewed by Matt Gibbs

TRIFFID – Air Giants, 2020. Photo: Air Giants team.

Ventriloquism and Puppetry in India: The Story of Ardhavatrao

Satyajit Ramdas Padhye is a third generation ventriloquist, puppeteer, and puppet maker from India. He is the son of Ramdas Padhye, India’s leading ventriloquist and grandson of Prof. Yeshwant Keshav Padhye, who created Ardhavatrao, India’s most loved puppet character. Emma Windsor caught up with him to find out more about his family history, his passion for puppetry and his hopes for the the art form in India.

Satyajit Ramdas Padhye

Can you tell us about the history of Ardhavatrao and your family?

My grandfather Prof. Yeshwant Keshav Padhye was a renowned magician. He once saw a solider from First World War doing ventriloquism and hence thought of trying his hand at ventriloquism, and thus created a character called “Ardhavatrao” that he conceived in the middle of 1916 and 1917. This character is now more than 100 years old and is actively being performed by my father Ramdas Padhye who popularised this art of ventriloquism and puppetry in India since 1967. My father learnt this art from his father Yeshwant Padhye and has performed more than 9,900 shows across different media including stage, TV shows, feature films, and ad-films.

So, I am a third generation ventriloquist, puppeteer, and puppet maker and carrying on the legacy of my grandfather.

Why did you decide to continue with your Grandfather’s legacy? What is most important to you about puppetry as an art form?

Well, I was very naturally drawn towards the art since my father Ramdas Padhye has been into this art for the last five decades, popularising this art in India, and is a celebrity. My father never forced me into it as art cannot be forced. It should come naturally to you. So, although I am a Chartered Accountant by education, I never pursued it as a profession, but ventriloquism and puppetry became by profession.

The most important thing about puppetry as an art form is that it has a universal appeal and can evoke a lot of emotions. I guess puppets speak more than an actor and I guess it is less offending when puppets speak the truth.

You were recently involved in the production of the film ‘Ludo’ with filmmaker Anurag Basu. Can you tell us more about that and your role in the production?

Mr Anurag Basu, who is famous director in India, was planning his next film Ludo where one of the lead actors Aditya Roy Kapur was playing a role of a ventriloquist and voice-over artiste. Anurag Basu called me and asked me to train Aditya for the role of a ventriloquist. He also knew that my dad Ramdas Padhye creates look-alike puppets of people and hence hired us to create a puppet which looked exactly like Aditya. We used 3D scanning and 3D printing technique for the first time in India to create a look-alike puppet of the actor. It was a challenging process as it was never done before. We could achieve this because of our excellent team.

What are your hopes for the future of puppetry in India?

I think the future of puppetry looks bright for our country India, as there is lot of interest in the art of ventriloquism as well as puppetry. The younger generations are aware about this art because of the internet and we have the youngest population. In fact we get lot of inquires about learning the art of ventriloquism and puppetry. I guess there will be many puppeteers and ventriloquists from India in the coming years.

To find out more about Ramdas Padhye and his work, visit vpuppets.com. To find out more about Satyajit Padhye, his work and his workshops, visit his website at satyajitpadhye.com or connect via Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Interviewed by Emma Windsor

Saving Eyesight With Puppets! Interview with Katie Greenland

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Katie Greenland.

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


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

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

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

So what is ‘Stronger – SAFE’? 

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


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

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

Katie Greenland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find out more about the Stronger – SAFE project.

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

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Ethiopian Ministry of Health

The Fred Hollows Foundation,

Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute,

Monash University,

The field Team,

Katie Greenland,

Ms Claire Collin (LSHTM),

Demitu Legese,

Meseret Benti,

Oumer Shafi (Fred Hollows Foundation, Ethiopia), 

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

Interviewed by Cat Rock

Another Quarantine? Interview with Astrid Goldsmith from Mock Duck Studios

Interviewed by Amy Baker

Astrid at work on ‘Red Rover’ 2020. Mock Duck Studios.

Mock Duck is a delicious canned meat substitute originating from China. Astrid Goldsmith is the founder of Mock Duck Studios, an award-winning stop-motion studio located in her garage in Folkstone, England. The studio has brought many delights into the world; Morris dancing badgers, sci-fi squirrels, even aliens! Whilst her settings and creatures are otherworldly and a little eccentric, the themes running through her content are often rooted in real-world issues like Conservation and Brexit. Astrid and her team craft enchanting worlds with stories that are thrilling, emotive and meaningful. How does she do it? Let’s find out!

Tell us about your garage!

It’s an old coachhouse, which is the ground floor of our house, we live above it. It has very draughty double doors and an original flagstone floor, which unhelpfully slopes downwards towards a drain in the middle; so you have to be careful not to drop anything that might roll. That drain is probably full of lost puppet eyeballs. I’ve divided the space in two with a big blackout curtain – the front half with the window is my workshop and the dark back half is where I animate. This all makes it sound very grand and organised, in reality it’s a tiny, chaotic space full of tools, tripods, lights, backdrops, set walls, furniture, polystyrene, and of course lots and lots of puppets gathering dust, all staring at me accusingly. 

Still from the film ‘Quarantine’ 2018. Mock Duck Studios.

The subjects of your films are always wonderfully wacky; Morris Dancing Badgers, Sci-Fi Squirrels. Where does your inspiration come from?

The initial ideas for my films always come from the news. I’ll read an article or hear an item about something that strikes me as curious or unjust, and start thinking about it from different angles. I started writing Squirrel Island after reading a series of articles about conservation policies to protect Britain’s endangered native red squirrel population – which included sterilising and shooting thousands of grey squirrels in the borderland territories. When I thought about the experience of an unsuspecting grey squirrel in that situation, it immediately suggested themes typically found in sci-fi action thrillers.

With Quarantine, I saw a report about proposed plans for post-Brexit pet travel and animal imports, predicting that the South-East’s existing kennels and quarantine centres would be overrun, and new facilities would have to be built to accommodate the numbers. I began to imagine what kind of animals would be kept in these new facilities, and what the impact would be on the surrounding habitat. I live in Folkestone, where the Channel Tunnel terminal is, so I didn’t have to look too far to see where these sites might be. Once you start thinking about Brexit, and tradition, and British animals, it’s only a hop skip and jump to writing a film about Morris Dancing badgers!

Still from the film ‘Quarantine’ 2018. Mock Duck Studios.

Your film ‘Quarantine’ came out in 2018 but has re-emerged this year with more success; what’s that been like?

Well, I’m delighted that my film has found new audiences, although, I would rather it hadn’t taken a global pandemic for that to happen! Over the last year, I have received so many emails and messages from people who had just discovered it, and I recently learned that it was the third most-watched free film on BFI Player in 2020, which is incredible.

As any animator or any creator of a long-term project knows, you spend months or years of your life thinking and designing, and working on something, but once it’s released into the world, it belongs to the audience. Everyone will bring their own interpretation and sometimes even global events will change how audiences will receive your work. I certainly didn’t know in 2018 that everyone would have their own experience of being ‘quarantined’ in 2020, but I’m glad that the badgers have been keeping people entertained in lockdown!

Still from Edwin Burdis’ ‘Beautiful Domes’ 2020. Mock Duck Studios.

You’ve recently worked on projects for bands; Blossoms and Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard! How has it been animating for them?

Those projects were collaborations with creative director Edwin Burdis, who works in a unique way with bands and is tons of fun to collaborate with. He writes the initial idea, hands it over to me to animate, then the bands write or improvise the dialogue around the action, or the two are put together in the edit. The whole process feels quite free and organic, which is the opposite of making most commercial work or my own films, which are always carefully storyboarded and planned down to the last detail, with animatics already in place so you know how it’s going to work in the edit. I think in a way these projects have revealed a new side to my practice, and shown me what happens when you relinquish some control!

The puppet heads and bodies are designed and made by Edwin’s sister Joliande, and then I make their armatures, so their aesthetic and range of movement is very different to the puppets I design and make for my own films. So not only is the physical aspect of animating the shots a different experience, but also the mental approach is entirely new, as I’m kind of guessing what the band will say when they record the dialogue for that shot, and guessing what will happen in the edit. It’s always such a nice surprise to see the finished video, and see all the great responses from the bands’ fans.

Set from Blossoms’ music video, ‘Christmas Eve (Soul Purpose)’ 2020. Mock Duck Studios.

A lot of of your short films have no dialogue, but these projects have loads! Do you have a preference?

I love watching and making dialogue-free short films, as I think they allow both the filmmaker and the audience to use their imagination, explore, and free-associate in a way that dialogue-heavy films don’t leave space for. I studied at Norwich Puppet Theatre for three years alongside my degree, and I love mid-century Polish and Czech puppet stop-motion films, most of which are dialogue-free, and often feature fixed-face puppets. It just shows you that you can express so much with so little. Animation has such an incredible scope for physical comedy, gravity-defying action, or crazy visuals that take you into unknown realms, and often in short films dialogue can feel superfluous or too didactic. In these music video projects, it’s different because the humour comes from a bunch of animals in a pub in Stoke, discussing how to find Santa Claus; or in the case of Beautiful Domes, creating a pastiche of 1970s children’s television. At the moment, I’m developing my first feature film, which will contain dialogue, so I’m exploring ways of combining that dialogue-free puppet magic with fun and characterful speech.

Still from the film ‘Red Rover’ 2020. Mock Duck Studios.

Can you spill the beans about your shiny new film, Red Rover?

I started working on Red Rover right after I finished Quarantine, with the support of BFI Network. It’s a colonial sci-fi movie set on Mars, about what happens to the native rock-creatures when a drilling rover lands on the planet. It’s puppet stop-motion, with short sequences of 2D animation and a bit of pixilation for the human element, which I always love to throw in. I completed it in June 2020, so it took about 18 months to make. I actually finished shooting it last March, but post-production took a few months longer than planned as it all had to happen remotely during the first lockdown.

The distribution side of things has been quite different too, as many film festivals were cancelled or postponed in 2020. I was quite sad after I had finished it, as it seemed for a while that there would be nowhere to show it! Fortunately, Sitges Film Festival did take place between lockdowns in October, where Red Rover had its international premiere, and won the Best Animated Short Film award. Since then, it has played at LIAF and LSFF, and is now on the Oscars long list. There will be some more festival announcements, as well as some upcoming online screenings, so hopefully everyone can see it soon!

I really can’t wait for Red Rover to be available online! For people who haven’t seen any Mock Duck films, have a watch! It’s the perfect time to escape and allow yourself to be whisked away by lovely woodland puppets with big, round eyes taking us on cathartic adventures. Astrid’s films are a visual feast with a vintage warmth and tales that entrance. There are lots of stop-motion films out there, but I can’t think of many studios that make work that’s as distinctive, high quality, and charming as Mock Duck Studios.

Enjoy a different kind of lockdown, by watching Quarantine!

You can also watch Squirrel Island.

Visit http://www.mockduck.co.uk/

Follow Mock Duck Studio’s Instagram

Interviewed by Amy Baker

On The Road With That Creative Thingy Wotsit CIC

That Creative Thing Wotsit is a Community Interest Company whose vision is to improve the quality of life, health, and well-being of people living with additional care and support needs through engagement with the creative arts, whilst creating meaningful employment opportunities for new and emerging artists. Emma Windsor spoke with Stephen Barrie Watters about his involvement, his hopes post-Brexit, and the new mobile puppet theatres that they have recently built.

Can you tell us about yourself, your background and the work you’re currently involved with?

I am Director & Company Secretary of a creative arts organisation called That Creative Thingy Wotsit CIC. We work to improve the health, well-being, and happiness of people living with dementia or other care need through engagement with the creative arts. During the past five years we have visited residential care and nursing homes across North Somerset using music, movement, and a range of creative arts to make connections with people at all stages on their dementia journey, and those who love and care for them.

We partner with creative artists, theatre makers, and holistic therapists to deliver health beneficial creative care through engagement with the arts to a community who face some the highest barriers to accessing those arts. We want to change that. People living with dementia get enormous health benefits from engagement with the arts, probably more so than any other cohort of our community, and we believe they deserve to have the very best access to arts we as a creative community can give them.

Our flip-book contains some details and images from the past projects we have worked on, including our intergenerational activities and theatre work.

The thing I enjoy most about my work are the theatre shows we put on, as I am a stage manager by trade and have worked at most theatres in this area, including The Wardrobe Theatre & BIT in Bristol, as well as on many festivals and street theatre including Puppet Place carnivals. I spend a great deal of my time raising awareness of dementia and helping to make North Somerset the most dementia friendly community it can be.

Most people don’t know that North Somerset is the most dementia friendly place in the UK. That is something we can all be very proud of, and probably something more people should know. There are many things we can all do to help us stay number one in the UK, and one of the best is to become a dementia friend. It only takes a few minutes online and will greatly help improve life for people living with dementia.

You can sign up at: www.dementiafriends.org.uk/register-digital-friend.

You’ve been busy building two mobile puppet theatres! Can you tell us how you came up with the idea, what facilities these have and how you intend to use them once lockdown is over?

Thanks to a small grant from the National Lottery Community Fund, we have been able to upgrade and modify our theatres. We have owned our theatres since we started our CIC in 2014 and have used them once or twice a year to put on shows on the beach, in parks, and other public spaces. However, in our work in residential care homes, we specialise in what is known as person-centered care. That means getting up close and personal, holding hands and making eye contact, so theatre projects such as the Brave Bold Drama dementia sensitive production of Wonderland we helped deliver in 2018 worked well as an indoor event.

Putting on a show in the garden of a residential home is a much more difficult and challenging thing to do, but it is something we can do safely, being socially distant, and in all likelihood much sooner than we can return to indoor performances. Our theatre has much the same capabilities other theatre and performance spaces can offer an artist. Programmable lighting, high quality sound system and head mics, scenery changes, special effects, props, and a wardrobe and puppets department. However an artist needs the theatre to be dressed, or the genre of puppetry planned, we can make our theatre accommodate it.

There are 116 residential care and nursing homes in North Somerset, most of which have a safe enclosed garden space for their residents. Some 15,000 people live, work or visit relatives in these homes each week. Our intension is to take our theatre into the gardens of these homes to put on high quality puppet and theatre shows, and we are looking for artists and theatre makers and invite them to consider our theatre as a venue when planning future performances and tours.

We can pretty much guarantee a full house made up of an intergenerational audience, most of whom will be priority target beneficiaries for funders and sponsors both locally and nationally.

Artists receive a fair and reasonable income for their performances and can use our mobile puppet theatre to help fundraise for their projects or organisations. We will support you in any way we can, in whatever way is needed to make each project a success.

If artists are interested in partnering with us they should join our Facebook group as an individual or an organisation, and they can start a conversation by email at: thatcreativethingywotsit@outlook.com

What benefits does puppetry bring to people with dementia and the elderly in care?

Dementia is a particularly cruel disease. It takes away so much from everyone who’s lives are affected by it, robbing them of their health, happiness, and joy. But we can hold the hands of people on that journey, and of those who care for them, let them know they are not alone by connecting with them through music and the creative arts. One of the most effective and immediate ways to make those connections is using puppets.

Most people know dementia often leads to memory loss, particularly short term memory loss. However, over time even long term memories can be similarly affected with people not able to recall names, faces or key events from their lives. In our experience there are some things which are seldom forgotten whatever stage of their journey a person is at. The first and least forgotten thing is the music and songs they have loved through the years, and truly amazing things can be achieved through the power of music and dance.

Puppets are another way to make that immediate and happy connection with people. The joy and happiness that comes from seeing a puppet, especially a large, brightly coloured puppet, and one that talks remains unaffected by the disease. The same wide eyed look of wonder and amazement with smiles as wide as a canal barge seen in the faces of children and parents at puppet shows is still there on the faces of those living or working in residential homes when the puppets come out. People don’t seem to forget their love of puppets. Puppets are fun, tactile, and one of the best ways to reach people who are nearing their end of their journey and who are finding it most difficult to communicate and engage.

Things seem uncertain in Arts & Culture at the moment with both lockdown and now Brexit. What plans do you have for the future and what do you feel will be needed to best support the work that you do?

We all want to live in a better community when this crisis is over. More socially connected, more creative, and more supportive of those who need our help. A society which recognises the contribution creativity and creative artists have made in getting us through these difficult times, and will continue to do so long into the future. Whatever that better community looks like to each of us as an individual, when we close our eyes and try to imagine the possibilities of tomorrow, that community has a name. It is called a Dementia-Friendly Community because everything we do to make our communities better for people living with dementia and those who love and care for them, the better a community it will be for everyone.

Please take a moment to support the work we do by liking & following our campaign page, and share it with your family and friends, and please be a dementia friend. Thank you.

Interviewed by Emma Windsor

Puppets at the Pop-Up Palladium! An Interview with Emily Morus-Jones

Josh Elwell talks to Emily Morus-Jones, the creator and curator of Puppets at the Pop-Up Palladium – an extraordinary online live puppetry variety/magazine show with illustrious guests and performances, produced from Emily’s home in Wales.

 Where did you first conceive the idea of ‘Puppets at the Pop-Up Palladiumand what were the steps that you took in order to start the ball rolling?

The idea came about through watching the success of an old friend of mine who is a successful Welsh Comedian, move her gigs online during the first wave of lockdown.  The online gigs that she organised were helping performers twofold by both providing them with some paid work and the opportunity to have a gig to prepare and perform at, i.e. do what they do at a time when there was no work, which helps with your mental health as a performer in addition to the financial benefits.  It was also making audiences aware of the comedians’ plight where, because of the pandemic, they were staring down the barrel of a year of no work but still had to negotiate the cost of living.  I thought, if it can work for comedy, then why not puppetry?

To get the ball rolling and make this idea happen I needed an amount of capital to invest in the creating the necessary infrastructure, which having been fresh from finishing the course at the Curious School Of Puppetry in Falmouth, I simply did not have.  In the time of a pandemic where performers, puppeteers and freelancers working in the entertainment industry had seen their livelihoods stripped away by the lockdown restrictions, I did not want to be another person asking them to work for free (a particularly weird phenomenon in my opinion.) So I relegated the idea to that of a pipe dream and went about supporting my family in Wales. 

It was then that the Welsh Arts Council announced that they were offering Stability Fund for individuals impacted by the pandemic. I met he criteria because I had rinsed all my savings in studying, finishing just in time to lockdown and was supporting my Mum who has an auto-immune disease. This meant I could not seek work without being a risk to her, so I applied and much to my shock and surprise, was granted the funds that I was asking for.

In this bizarre time where theatres are closed and live performance is having to adapt and adjust to completely new ways of working, you have attempted to do something entirely new. An online live puppet variety show may not have happened before! What have been the main challenges? Also what do you feel are the main things that you have learned or gained from the project?

There have been so many challenges on this project!  First of all I am incredibly lucky to have received support from the girls behind Cardiff Animation Festival – Lauren Orme and Ellys Donovan in particular – without whom I just wouldn’t have been able to do it because the complexities of orchestrating this kind of event over Zoom would have been a nightmare to learn alongside everything else I was doing.

The main challenge I have encountered has been the volume of work, which I had never done before. It felt like with every hoop I managed to jump through to get the show going, another layer of work to do was added.  It started with writing a funding proposal (which I had never done before), getting the funding (which I had never done before ), emailing all the acts to say you’ve got the funding, then finding freelancers to help you make press materials and the necessary digital infrastructure (which I had never done before.) 

Once I’d done all that, I had to find a publicist and go about publicising everything (which I hadn’t done before) until we were ready to launch where you get a momentary sigh of relief. But then you have the mammoth task of generating enough ticket sales to keep the event going, paying everyone and chasing up publicity and acts for the next shows (which was also completely new.) This was all before I had even began to consider my own performance!  There’s a reason roles like Producer, Director, Performer, Set Builder, Writer, and Production Manager are separate and I’ve certainly found a new respect for the people working in them!

All that aside, I think the biggest challenge has been finding our audience.  This project, like a lot of my work, has been experimental.  The key difference I have found between puppetry and comedy is that there already exists a great deal of infrastructure out there for comedy. So you have well established localised and national comedy circuits, TV comedy panel shows etc and a strong following, which is something we don’t have anything like for puppetry.  

Puppeteers are often hidden, and like animators, you seldom know who is behind a piece of work with perhaps the exception of the Muppeteers and a few key Directors/Performers. So there is no huge following that you can easily tap into like there is in comedy. There is no established circuit of watching puppet-specific entertainment for an adult audience. It is usually tied in as part of a theatre show for example, or thought of as being something that is specifically for kids with a few notable exceptions.

Finding our audience was made even harder by the second part of the goal of this project, which was to try to platform puppetry from across the entire spectrum of what is an incredibly broad art form. Often people associate puppetry with Henson’s style muppetry, Punch & Judy, or Warhorse, which is great but there is a lot more out there that often gets forgotten.  As everyone had lost their incomes, I thought it was only right that I try to build a platform for everyone so that audiences could learn about them.

Add to this the newness of working online where we had to figure out an entirely new format to see if we could make it work for puppetry. This also begged the question, would audiences be up for paying to watch entertainment over Zoom and how do we make Zoom work for all the different types of puppetry out there?  It’s not just a matter of worrying about what a stand-up comedian is going to say but rather thinking about and trying to pre-empt as best you can, all the bonkers technicalities that each type of puppetry brings with it.  For instance, an online performance of shadow puppetry requires a completely different set of technical requirements to a muppet style performance. How do we work with performers to show them off in the best light? 

Finally, creating a puppet character in Ddraig has been enormously challenging for me.  First of all having the confidence to do it in the first place felt like a pretty huge barrier!  After getting the go ahead from the Welsh Arts Council I did go into a state of shock for a while and was questioning if I was capable of pulling this off.  I have been puppeteering for 4 years and usually puppeteers spend a number of years working as an assistant. I was thrown in the deep end from the get-go, which has some advantages but means I still have a lot to learn.  I’m sure you can appreciate that platforming myself alongside puppeteers like Laura Bacon who’s been doing Patsy May for a decade, or Andy Heath doing Nelson the Fox and puppeteering for over 20 years professionally, or Ronnie Le Drew who’s been doing Zippy since before I was born was a teensy weensy bit daunting!  

These characters take a very long time to really form and while I think Ddraig has progressed a lot, she still has a fair way to go.  It has also been very challenging doing this type of puppetry live. So in addition to having a new puppet, trying to work out a new character, doing a new role in hosting, there was the added challenge of doing it all live.  I have come into puppetry through TV puppetry, so ordinarily I would be doing a couple of lines/actions for a single take lasting a few minutes, then cut, repeat if necessary. Then whoever is editing would pick the best one. For this there is no second take or chance to get it right. You are puppeteering for over an hour with a few breaks – it’s a very different beast.

In terms of what I have learned – well there’s just so much.  I think I can say I am a more confident puppeteer with a much better understanding of what goes into making any kind of show, and the costs and time involved in putting them together.  I have learnt loads about publicity, marketing, pitch writing, material writing, hosting, time and money management/budgeting. Actually I think the biggest thing this project has given me is the confidence in my own instincts. It has taught me to be more assertive.  It has also been really fascinating learning from other puppeteers and see how different people approach making new work.

You have had some highly illustrious guests from Handspring to Zippy! How did you go about curating the project and how easy was it to get people on board?

In my view, one of the key tenets of working in puppetry is to be an ambassador for it as much as you can. There are so many pre-conceptions about it being just for kids.  So when I set out to write the funding proposal, I knew that I wanted the event to be a positive part of the industry in promoting puppetry to new audiences.  I am very fortunate that, as someone who is relatively new to the industry, I am pretty well connected. So I sought the advice from many of my colleagues who have a wealth of experience as puppeteers before I even wrote the funding proposal to find out whether or not they thought it was a good idea. Curious and Talk To The Hand Puppets were an amazing source of encouragement in particular.  Many of them even wrote me a letter of support, which was very heartening.  

The key idea of this event was to use the more well-known puppets, puppeteers and puppet companies as a draw to help the lesser known, up-and-coming puppeteers platform themselves to new audiences.  There was no point in using the funding grant to pay only the performers who were already well-established and likely to be struggling less. But we did need their help to publicise each show and give audiences taking a punt on the event the security that there would be something that was a known quantity there for them.

Getting people on board wasn’t very difficult because everyone was feeling the affects of the pandemic. They weren’t busy and could see that many performers were struggling. They were up for helping in any way they could, which actually has been one of the most heart-warming and exciting  aspects of running the event for me. Having some really high quality acts get on board because they want to help others that they don’t even know through these dark times.

There’s a huge amount going on in one show! Perhaps you could also say a bit about how it all works technically? Also, how does it feel to be performing a live show from your own home?

Well we have been learning with each show we do. The truth is that we never really know how it’s going to turn out until we do it, partly because of the tight turnovers on each show which leave barely any rehearsal time, and partly because that is the nature of both live performance and technology!

Ellys is really the queen of the technical running of the show and I genuinely have no idea how she does it. Perhaps one day when I eventually get to meet her in person I’ll find out!  

Certainly from my side I try my best to work with each performer to see how we can best work with their act online. Everyone has to be having fun first and foremost, so it’s been a balancing act between needing to be decisive and guide them based on my experience of what worked in previous shows against what they want to do.  I then try and put each piece into an order that flows best. It’s like trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together where each of the pieces comes from a different puzzle and then trying to make an interesting picture out of it.

Performing at home has been advantageous for everyone in that you don’t have to go anywhere to do it. There is an ease in the fact that all you have to do is log in, rather than take a set and suitcase with you.  It has also been extremely challenging as I didn’t really envision having to move back in with my parents in my 30s. Whilst they are supportive and have allowed me to commandeer their spare room and turn it into a theatre, I don’t think they really understand it. So I feel very isolated in doing this a lot of the time.  Finally, when I finish a show I’m on a bit of an adrenaline high from the day of rehearsals and all the work leading up to it, but then I switch my computer off and I’m suddenly just sat in the spare room on my own again. It is just a very odd feeling that I still haven’t got used to.

Restrictions seem to be set to continue. How do you think that live performance may be able to move forward from here? Do you have any plans to continue or evolve in anyway?

It has been really interesting to watch how different people have adapted their work to the new reality and I think the truth is that the people who are really serious about their art will always continue to do that.  I think everyone is looking forward to next year with a hopeful return to some sort of normality but that said, I really hope people continue to experiment with their work.  

Someone said to me recently that as artists we are always working against limitations and part of the reason that we work with puppets is that they are very limiting in many ways in comparison to working with an actor for example.  If you reduce down the way you think about lockdown restrictions to just a new and challenging limitation to be played with, then it becomes far less depressing.  Certainly from my experience of the Pop-Up Palladium some of the positives we have encountered have been that it has provided live entertainment to people who would not be able to go to a theatre because of social anxiety or because someone in their family is autistic.  Similarly the YouTube recording of each performance has meant that people have been able to revisit stuff and watch from across the world ( we have a very loyal following from across the globe.) So I think there is a future for online entertainment and I’m intrigued to see where it goes from here.

In terms of the Palladium, we are constantly evolving and figuring out what works.  We plan to take a break for the time being because I for one need my life back for a bit!  That said, we are looking to do a Christmas show sometime in December.   I will continue collaborating with Ellys and Cardiff Animation Festival so who knows what next year may bring.

Interview with Josh Elwell

Keep up-to-date with events at the Pop-Up Palladium by visiting the website: https://www.popuppalladium.com/lineup, and connecting to the Facebook page.

Puppets Online: Interview with Ian Woods, Norwich Puppet Theatre

Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts – The Scorpion.

Since 1979, Norwich Puppet Theatre has been a precious and rare habitat for puppets and their puppeteers. A place where all sorts can come together and experience the tangible excitement of a puppet show. The pandemic has of course meant that coming together isn’t such a safe thing to do and like many other venues across the world, Norwich Puppet Theatre has had to adapt quickly. Online Puppet Theatre is their shiny new YouTube channel that launched six months ago. With theatre being such a physical and sensory experience, it’s amazing that they’ve managed to convert their entity into online content and keep the magic alive! A series of making tutorials for building puppets/ DIY mini puppet theatres has been uploaded. Sock puppets, rod puppets, paper puppets, shadow puppets… Before you know it, you’ll wake up surrounded! It’s a nice thought that while many theatres have temporarily shut their doors, Norwich Puppet Theatre has caused hundreds of tiny home theatres to spring up. 

The theatre has a 165 capacity main auditorium so there are limits to how many can see a show in the flesh, however the number of views a YouTube video can get is limitless! You can pause it rewind and watch the same bit over and over! Going online means that the theatre is reaching new audiences, including families who can’t afford theatre trips and people across the world. People are now able to access the wonderful world of puppetry whilst being safe and comfy at home.

Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts and Revolting Rhymes is the latest collection of performances. Each one is performed by a different puppeteer in a unique style, devised and performed at home during lockdown. With such a unique form of entertainment it’s probably a relief to parents to see something fresh for their kids after hours of playing on Roblox or Minecraft. The idiosyncratic Roald Dahl, with his silliness and absurdity, is a perfect match with the crafty genius that puppeteers have to offer. Clever poems, wild visuals and kooky characters, an ideal way to escape and shake off those corona blues.

Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes – Cinderella.

A personal favourite of mine is Cinderella, performed by Clementine the Living Fashion Doll. Clementine is a humanette puppet, a combination of small fashion doll puppets with large human, drag queen heads all composited together perfectly. The tiny ball costumes, sparkly sets and sound effects are all fabulous. Who knew a barbie doll drag queen with an oversized head was missing from my life!

There’s something special about every film in the series, they’re all so varied and distinctive using so many contrasting art styles. The DIY nature of them will be sure to inspire people to try out making their own productions. It just shows what can be achieved even without piles of money and equipment. The premieres are popping up weekly on their channel until October Half Term 2020, and all the shows will be available for free to watch and rewatch again and again until 4th December 2020. Get them while their hot! You do not want to miss out. Ian Woods, the manager of the theatre, kindly filled me in on what they’ve been up to and how they’ve been affected since the pandemic began.  – Amy Baker

What was Norwich Puppet Theatre like before COVID?

A building based company creating and touring puppet shows to venues across the UK and to schools in the eastern region. A vibrant creative learning outreach with craft based puppet making workshops delivered to the public at the theatre and into educational settings across (primarily) Norfolk and Suffolk.  A venue to present our own work and also that of visiting puppet companies, and when not used for our prime charitable mission (i.e. puppetry) we accepted hires for local am-dram theatre and dance groups. We also had 8 wedding/civil partnership ceremonies booked for 2020.  As well as being the ‘place to ask’ about puppets, we have a regular trickle of visitors interested in the building in its former role of the church of St James’ for family history searches etc.

How have you adapted to the situation?

On the evening of 16 March when the PM said that people shouldn’t go to bars and theatres, we ‘closed’ all our work – a week before the official lockdown started. Our tour of Beastly Belle ended. Planned schools workshops stopped.  We had a week to arrange for staff to move PCs etc. to their homes and to start working from there.  For the remainder of the month all seven of us carried on ‘normal’ working hours.  From April 1st, four of the seven were furloughed. We then received the £10K hospitality grant. We applied for ACE Response Funding primarily to secure the building costs through to September 2020 but also to enable development of online delivery. Our Foyles capital grant was converted to core costs with very rapid approval by Foyles Foundation. We secured £5K from the Martin Laing foundation to cover core costs and support online product making. A volunteer started making face masks for £5 donation to the Puppet Theatre and has raised over £2500 with gift aid. That financial stability and desire to link with our audiences meant from Day 1 of lockdown we wanted to have a digital online presence and so we created our Online Puppet Theatre YouTube channel. This was a vehicle for online puppet making sessions.  

These pre-recorded sessions were designed to use simple everyday materials – paper, glue, tape, card etc. that could be found at home – to make simple but effective puppets. Our pre-COVID workshops when delivered at the theatre or out and about, always had a huge range of decorating/making materials that we couldn’t expect anyone to have at home! The making workshops were added to with some “behind the scenes” videos of Pied Piper (recorded before the total lockdown) and information on how to manipulate puppets. They were ‘old’ and not specifically ‘made for’ online delivery. 

Zara Goodfellow (creative learning coordinator) wrote to the Roald Dahl Story Company with the idea of making puppet adaptations of his poems. We were pleasantly surprised to receive a reply, and even more so that it was positive. When they had released the rights from Netflix to us, an agreement was reached for royalty-free access to the poems provided the films were free to access and that the exact words were used of the poems. The RDSC had final clearance before the films were released. This free licence period comes to an end on 4th December when all films will be taken down.

The result – 15 unique videos each made by a freelance artist that we would, could or have worked with. This enabled us to trickle-down some of our ACE Response Funding to freelance artists whose income had been eradicated by the COVID lockdown. As part-time furlough came into play we have been able to visit the building more regularly, keep it secure and have been able to host two companies for rehearsals.  Also most recently a partner artist of the theatre was able to present her one woman play to a private audience (max capacity is now 35 but her shows played to 24 and 19 people respectively) with live zoom feed as well. 

With CRF funding we are now able to plan for a season of Christmas performances with social distancing in place. CRF money is subsidising a loss making opening, allowing us to design more intricate online workshops for schools delivery and plan/consult on how we can create and deliver work in 2021 and beyond.

Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts – The Crocodile.

What’s been your favourite video from the, ‘Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts and Revolting Rhymes’ series?

Each video is unique, and has its own special moments, so it would be invidious to select one over the others.  How can you select from the plasticine stop-frame animation of The Lion or The Anteater, the live puppetry of Jack & the Beanstalk or The Toad and the Snail, shadow work of The Cow or multi-role play of Cinderella? Whatever your medicine, each poem is a treat for a cup of coffee moment or even to entertain a child (or two!) 

Have you found that you’re reaching new audiences now, having an online presence?

As we have set all our videos to being child-friendly. We do not get direct comments on the YouTube channel so it is hard to say where we are being watched.  But social media comments do indicate an international footprint. For example, we had a flurry of Malaysian comments on our Sock Puppet making video!  We have been releasing the Roald Dahl videos on a weekly basis but now all 15 are available we can push the boat out to spread the word about them.  Each poem has subtitles available, increasing accessibility and also their use in educational settings.

How can people support Norwich Puppet Theatre?

Socially/spiritually by going to our Online Puppet Theatre YouTube page and enjoying and sharing the videos and link: https://bit.ly/NPT_online_puppet_theatre 

Financially by donating via Total Giving:  https://www.totalgiving.co.uk/donate/norwich-puppet-theatre-trust-limited – this can be a one off or regular payment.

Norwich Puppet Theatre will be 40 on 1st December 2020.  We won’t be able to have the hoped for big gala celebration but the date will be marked to be sure! If anyone has memories of the theatre we’d be happy to hear about them and if they want to make a 40 second ‘memory’ and send that through, we will be working to make a compilation!

Interview by Amy Baker