The official News Blog for Puppet Place, your hub for all things animated on stage and film in the UK. Find latest opinion, interviews and reviews from the worlds of puppetry and animation. We are dedicated to sharing our passion for puppetry and animation with the wider public and supporting artists and professionals working with these art forms. This blog is edited by Emma Windsor and..
Resident Artist Theatre Company Green Ginger, known for their inspired mix of art and lunacy, are in the midst of another artistic adventure with the UK tour of their brand new show, ‘Intronauts’. We caught up with Green Ginger’s Artistic Director, Chris Pirie, and the show’s Director, Emma Williams, to find out more about the creation of this fabulous futurist puppetry performance.
Photo credit: Emma Windsor
‘Intronauts’ propels audiences into a madcap, microscopic journey through the human body. Where did the original idea come from and how did the story evolve through the theatre making process?
CP: Three strands: submarines, nano-surgery and hazardous waste, converged during the early part of the creation process of Intronauts. Ever since Green Ginger made Rust in 2005, an obsession with submarines has never really been shaken off. These are, essentially,- extraordinary craft travelling in extraordinary places and provide perfect contexts for the company’s approach to fantastical story-telling. Another kernel of inspiration goes back even further, to a childhood comic strip called The Numskulls, featuring tiny white-coated technicians inside the head of a man, and each in control of his sensory functions.
Photo credit: M Dawson
Thirdly, a fascination with hazardous waste and its production, management and disposal informed the initial research and development week. A team of eight, comprising performers, writers, composers and designers met to throw ideas around, create new provocations and improvise material suggested by the theme. A loose narrative structure was then taken up to Norway by a small team of four, who spent a week working with our co-production dramaturg to develop it into a story that would inform the design and fabrication team. Some key decisions were made at that time; to restrict it to tell the tale of two central characters and to work with Hologauze, an innovative gauze material developed in Bristol that we would project animated sequences onto.
Once the design team had fabricated skeletal scenic structures and prototype puppetry solutions, the whole lot was shipped out to Norway where the full production team – performers, director, lighting designer, composer, VFX animator, makers and producer – spent seven weeks in a devising rehearsal process to finish the show. The story continued to develop throughout and even now as we tour, we are able to tweak things in relation to audience feedback.
INTRONAUTS by Green Ginger - YouTube
The show uses performance, puppetry and projected animations to create it’s visual universe. What were the challenges and rewards of bringing these mediums together on stage?
EW: When we started working on this project our biggest question was: how? How is this going to actually work? How are these very different ways of communicating going to fit together? They not only say different things to an audience, they are made in different ways. Live performance is very fluid, you can shift and change elements right up to the last minute. Filmmaking is completely different and once its finished it is fixed.
We also didn’t know what the world would look and feel like when we placed a screen with animated projections between the audience and the live action. Would this affect the puppetry language we normally use and Green Ginger’s distinctive story-telling style?
Photo credit: Paul Blakemore
We spent a long time trying things out in the space, discovering a rhythm, a tone and a visual aesthetic where we hoped these mediums worked together. It was a painstakingly slow process with lots of experimenting and collaborating. Discovering the solutions was incredible rewarding. We were trying something new, something none of us had ever made before, and that is a fantastic way to create theatre, even if it is exhausting at times.
The show is highly cinematic. How did you work with composer Simon Preston to reflect this cinematic vision in the soundscape of the performance?
EW: Initially we had meetings with Simon to discuss the concepts of the show. We talked about the two central characters, their personalities, internal struggles and the musical themes that might exist in the very different worlds they inhabit.
We talked about the technology we were using and the cinematic effect this would have on the show. We discussed the great sci-fi films of the 70’s as well as Fantastic Voyage and Inner Space. Two films that had thematic similarities to the show and distinct and bold soundscapes. Finally, we discussed the sound world of the body and what this might be.
Photo credit: Emma Windsor
Simon then created a library of extraordinary sounds and musical compositions. At first these were just short thumbnails, 15 second examples which we discussed and catalogued. Then a number of tracks were selected and developed into longer, more complex compositions. Finally, Simon came out to Norway while we devised and rehearsed the show. He would come in and out of the room trying out musical scores and sounds he had been experimenting with. He had to deal with some odd requests, for example what’s the sound of a hiccup heard inside the body? Or, if you went into someone’s brain, what would you hear?
Simon played a crucial role in the overall creation of the show and the complexity and richness of the sound design is the result of his skill and craft and hard work.
Photo credit: Paul Blakemore
Intronauts is co-produced with Nordland Visual Theatre and has played to audiences in both Norway and the UK. Is the show received differently by audiences in other countries or are its themes fairly universal?
CP: While Intronauts – alongside other Green Ginger shows – embrace quite universal themes, audiences can differ greatly from country to country and that’s partly what makes international touring so fascinating. We have performed for many years in Scandinavian countries and are quite used to very quiet auditoriums during shows; in itself unnerving as it feels like we may have ‘lost’ the audience, but they are simply concentrating, listening and thinking; by the end they will break out into loud applause that invariably merges into a sustained collective rhythm. It’s disconcerting to experience for the first time, but we’ve become accustomed to it over the years.
Further south, cultural festivals in Mediterranean countries have a tendency towards performances starting later in the evenings and that (particularly when combined with light alcoholic lubrication) can make for some feisty audiences! Green Ginger has been creating internationally-focused productions for four decades and will continue to make work that transcends borders and speaks to different cultures without translation or modification.
Interview with Emma Windsor
Intronauts is currently touring the UK until the end of March 2019. For information on tour dates and venues, visit Green Ginger’s website. For all the latest news from the company, check out Green Ginger on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Laura Bacon is a puppeteer/performer based in London, who was thrown into the spotlight following her appearance on the hit talent show, ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. Josh Elwell caught up with her to find out how her sudden stardom affected her career and her life, and to find out what she’s been working on since.
Laura you achieved great success and charmed audiences on Britain’s Got Talent in 2014 and managed to get through to the semi final. Most people who take part in that competition are seen as themselves. What was it like as an (at that time) anonymous puppeteer to be taking part in such a high profile television show?
BGT was great fun. I was always very nervous about appearing as myself. I think I would feel very awkward talking as me, and it wouldn’t be terribly interesting! When we discussed the possibility of having Patsy May BE the contestant entirely, it just clicked for me. THAT was my act, being the character. So all the VTs I felt were my performance as well. It can be quite difficult to explain to people that I puppeteer for TV – I’m not a ventriloquist. We are always hidden and completely become the character. A lot of the crew were new to it, and didn’t realise the complexity involved with something that looks so seemingly simple. For example, the my positions and the importance of having a monitor! Seeing a monitor is essential for TV puppeteering. It would be like performing a play on a stage wearing a blind fold, or being a camera man without opening your eyes.
Laura Bacon - Puppeteering Demo reel - YouTube
I really enjoyed being anonymous. Because heaven forbid, if I had been an utter fail, no one would’ve known! And I wouldn’t be recognised. One of the tabloids labelled me ‘the Banksy of the puppet world’, which I rather liked. I sometimes wonder if I should have revealed myself at the end, but I like to keep Patsy as a real person. My only little regret was that production pretty much took over all my ideas for the semi-final and made her into a Miss Piggy-like diva. That wasn’t really my idea. I wanted her to be more of a wannabe, struggling artist. Like the epitome of an average contestant. It made no sense to me to film her at lavish locations, leading a celeb lifestyle as she hadn’t ‘made it’ yet.
I requested that there was to be a joke at the end of VT where Patsy assumes all the luxuries are being paid for by ITV, then upon realising they aren’t, she scarpers with a screech of car tyres. This was filmed, but when they screened it live, I realised they hadn’t bothered including it.
As well as being a puppeteer you clearly have a real sense of comedy and a wonderful singing voice. How did you acquire your skills and talents? What was it that brought about the fusion of all of these things in Patsy May and why puppetry?
I’m not sure how I acquired it! Watching Sesame Street as a kid is one of my first television memories and I absolutely loved it. I’ve always seen everything from a comedic point of view and I find it quite hard to take anything seriously. I don’t really do written jokes and punchlines though, I guess my stuff is more observational with improvised reactions. I’ve never really thought of myself as a singer, more as a puppeteer who can sing! I used to be involved in AmDram years ago and was in a few musicals. But even then I was mostly cast as the comic relief character.
I started making puppets when I was in school. Then for four summers working at a US summer camp in upstate New York. When I actually performed them in shows, I had way more fun being hidden and bringing a character creation to life, than being myself.
I actually always wanted to be an animator or puppeteer. Both are quite similar, in the sense you are creating characters, moving for them, and deciding how they emote and behave. A lot of puppeteers start off as animators or have a big interest in animation. I still illustrate as well as puppeteer.
Since BGT you’ve been working on various other interesting projects. How has it been working on those after the glamour of a live Saturday Night show?
I had just been in a small North London production of Avenue Q right before BGT, so that was super fun. I’ve done various jobs since the show, including panto, live cabaret acts, jobs for companies including ITV, Lucasfilm, Henson and even some in the Netherlands and Germany. I also got to train at Sesame Workshop in New York and learn alongside veteran puppeteers, giving me the opportunity to really hone in and develop my puppeteering skills further.
It’s great to work with other established puppeteers on some incredible projects, but I think I prefer to develop my own material.
What particularly impressed me was that you recently staged your own 90-minute live theatre show called ‘An Evening with Patsy May’. How did it differ from other things that you have done? What did you discover by putting the show together? Who are your main sources of inspiration both as a puppeteer and as a comedian?
Yes, it was quite liberating to do exactly what I wanted with Patsy for that show, without rules or censors. She works best with adult comedy and it felt just right. It was quite a challenge from the very beginning, because the main issue is how to cope with holding your arm up for over an hour. Most TV and film puppeteers can manage around 5-10 minutes at a time. Again, it’s worth stressing that this is very different to ventriloquism, as your whole arm is raised above your head.
I had the idea of dividing the show up with short little 1-2 minutes videos of Patsy so that it would introduce the next scene smoothly and allow me to have a quick arm break. It also let me show how I enjoy making films with her on locations around the world. I had to recruit some other cast members because Patsy works so much better when reacting with another person. I had a couple of singers (some via a ‘Skype’ video link) a magician, a pianist and a special celebrity guest to interview. I tried to make each skit as varied as possible, so the audience wouldn’t get bored. It was quite a new challenge arranging everything myself, including editing all the videos and ‘Skype’ calls, creating the poster, marketing and advertising the show, sorting the tech cues, finding the right music, and writing the content. Most of the dialogue was improvised as I find it easier to keep it natural.
I think every puppeteer is inspired by Jim Henson. There was a lovely tribute to him at the end of the show. For me in particular, Frank Oz is probably my favourite puppeteer. I love the way he can portray emotion with such small movements, but also be brilliantly funny without trying too hard. Sometimes when people try too hard with comedy it feels very forced, and it loses its charm. But comedy wise I am also hugely influenced by classic episodes of The Simpsons. In fact, Patsy’s true character is close to Krusty the Clown – demanding, cynical, living to excess and slightly rough around the edges. But with the addition of having female allure and charm. Though most people tend to assume she’s a Miss Piggy-like diva, which often frustrates me!
The character of Patsy May is a real wannabe star and prima donna who clearly loves the celebrity world. As we all know this world can be fickle and cut throat. You yourself experienced the darker side of the business when a German TV show ripped of your act word for word and then invited you onto the show for further humiliation. Tell us a little bit about that experience and how it left you feeling as a performer.
Hahaaa yes, Germany.. Now ‘Die Puppenstars’ was a BGT style show where puppeteers from around the world were invited to showcase their work and subsequently judged. I was alerted in early 2016 about a German TV show that had completely ripped off my entire act from BGT. A blue girl puppet, (similar to Patsy) singing ‘All That Jazz’ with dancers, steps that swivelled, a costume change, and even spoke the exact same ad libs that I had said live on the night. Obviously I was confused and upset. It turns out that apparently, within the German TV laws, it was legal to copy, and it would have cost me thousands to even attempt to sue so I decided to contact the TV company myself. They were apologetic, offered me a small pay off and invited me to be on the show. I agreed. I had great fun filming Patsy in Berlin for the show VTs and I had to learn quite a bit of German for some lines. They wanted me to do the same thing that I did on my first BGT audition with Ant and Dec but with the guys on their panel. I was reluctant to do the same thing but they changed the song and I eventually agreed. They also insisted on me pre-recording the song, which I don’t really like doing. After Berlin I went back a month later to the studio in Cologne.
I met the ‘fake’ Patsy who was very nice to me (she was just doing her job, being cast as this character) and we filmed a few backstage things. When it came to performing my actual act, after the song, the judges told me that they did not like my act and buzzed me out of the show, because they believed I had copied THEM and their ‘Miss Izzy’ character! Keeping in character (though rather enraged) I swiftly made an exit. After all I had been through, from discovering them copying me in the first place, back and forth with lawyers and producers, I felt humiliated and deflated. The crew and everyone I worked with were lovely, and up until the last moment I had enjoyed it, but the show in general seemed quite badly produced. When I saw the final footage, it was weird to see that they had dubbed over Patsy’s English speaking segments with a gruff, German man’s voice. It was weird, but an experience and bit of a learning curve!
As well as the star struck side of Patsy, she is also feisty and intelligent with a longing for love. As actors, performers or even puppeteers we often draw on our own personal experience. How much of Patsy is you? Are you from upstate New York with British roots and longing for love?
Well, I’m not from upstate New York, but I made the first Patsy puppet in Long Lake NY, so that was a little tribute to her origin. I only claimed that she was born in the UK so people wouldn’t assume I was American and demand that the contestants can only be British. But then it turned out that, despite being interviewed in person, The Daily Mail did an article featuring Patsy as a ‘foreign’ contestant who shouldn’t be allowed to partake in the show! I’m 100% British but I have friends and family in the US and Canada. Sometimes I say that Patsy is me after a few beers – she can get away with saying a lot more than I can though! I also have a character called Mavis Mayes, who is an elderly lady fox puppet with a strong Suffolk accent. I have used her for a few online videos and features occasionally on BBC Radio Suffolk. A complete opposite character to Patsy, she is based on many people from around my hometown, including my late grandmother. So she is definitely a part of me somehow.
Can you see yourself getting into more live talent TV show scrapes? Has Patsy been burnt by the darker side of celebrity or does she still have a desire for fame and fortune? What lies ahead for both you as a puppeteer and for Patsy May?
Maybe! It depends on what kind of context. But iI think I would want full control of what I want to do. I need to always go with my gut instinct nowadays! Not sure about Patsy, you’d have to do a separate interview for her! But she’s definitely got what it takes now to feature in an adult comedy show on TV. I don’t think that five years ago I was confident enough and I remember being a little thrown when I appeared on ‘This Morning’ as it was all new to me, but now after all the work and live comedy I have done, I’d be so ready for it! I’d definitely like to do some more live shows, and I’m tempted to take it to the US. I’ve recently tried to join Spotlight for more potential work. But they currently won’t accept people who are primarily puppeteers, despite puppetry being listed as a skill that any actor can put down. Which is very frustrating bug that’s a whoooole other kettle of fish!
Based in the Midlands, Leviathan Workshop are a company of exceptional prop makers and puppet specialists who have worked on commissions for television, live events and theatre. We chatted with Managing Director, Jake Linzey, to find out how the company got started and some of the fabulous fabrication they’ve produced.
Leviathan Workshop produces puppets and props for a range of organisations worldwide. How did you get started? What sparked your personal interest in fabrication?
Puppets have always been an obsession of mine and my parents still have a photo of me taped to the fridge (aged 7 or 8) with a puppet I’d proudly made from newspaper. As a teenager, I always preferred to be in theatre rather than in class, and so I trained as a dancer before progressing to technical theatre as a part of Oxford Youth Theatre at Pegasus Theatre.
I always preferred “learning by doing” rather than academic study, and my days working as a circus performer taught me invaluable skills like load calculation and applied physics. At that age, I always thought I wanted to work in the film industry, but soon came to learn that I far preferred the immediacy of live events and touring shows.
I studied Theatre Design and Production at Trinity College Carmarthen, where I now return as a guest lecturer to teach the fundamentals of puppetry and puppeteering. Whilst a student there, my passion for puppets really came to life and I knew this was what I wanted to do for a living. After three years of studying, I was very ready to get into the “real world” and began working for Blunderbus Theatre Company (sadly now closed). This was fantastic for my professional development, as the environment encouraged creative thought and no idea or suggestion was ever wrong. I could experiment (occasionally making the odd mistake) to find new solutions to problems and work autonomously in a place always filled with laughter, despite the usual long industry hours and creative challenges. Bill Davies made it a place that was a joy to work, and I stayed with them until I was in charge of puppet mechanics and scenic construction.
After that, I settled in London doing some fantastic projects as a freelancer, working on events and shows like X-Factor, and alongside I ran a small puppet and theatre company. Life had its ups and downs but the list of clients I was working for grew and I was often subcontracted to do large puppet builds. After a few years, I took a full-time job at an opera company but after a few months I realised I was psychologically becoming ready to be my own boss full-time. With my severance pay, I brought a load more tools and set up Leviathan Workshop in a single garage. That was back in October 2013. My dream for the company was always to focus on creating high-end, bespoke, large-scale props and puppets as we do now, although for the first few years we also built scenery and sets to help expand our client list and establish our professional identity.
After a year or so of trading, I moved the company to Tamworth for a much larger workshop. Here, I met my business partner Carrie- Anne Badhams, who after working with us for a year became a director of the company in May 2016. She brought with her a wealth of sales and management knowledge and, despite not being originally from this industry, is a very talented scenic painter. Our differing backgrounds and working styles are a real strength and we work exceptionally well together. We have a balanced, creative, realistic outlook of our work and the future of the company. In the last few years we’ve gone from strength to strength, developing a fantastic team and amazing clients, and our journey is proof that if you’re willing to work incredibly hard for your passion, you can achieve anything.
You often produce large scale puppets for stage and other events. What has been the most memorable puppet build so far?
The one that always stands out for me is the Brit Awards in 2017, it created a fantastic working relationship with one of the worlds biggest pop stars. I was away from the workshop late one Sunday afternoon at my parent’s house in Oxford. Carrie-Anne was in the office when a peer from Brilliant Stages called out of the blue. They had a huge problem with two large puppets and we were asked if we could help to fix the puppets, which of course, we were more than happy to do. The problem was that we only had a little over twelve hours to make it happen, the puppets were in London, and we had no idea what technical issues we were up against. It was one of those “drop everything” moments.
After a swift phone conversation between myself and Carrie-Anne (our conversational shorthand is beyond efficient), we kicked into action. I packed up my tools and set off to 3 Mills Studio in London to pay a diagnostic visit to the puppets. Meanwhile, Carrie-Anne began organising an emergency overnight crew. An enormous volume of people were contacted; our regular staff, people they recommended, new applicants to work for us, anyone who might have the technical skills to help. At this point, we still had no idea what we were up against, so it really was a case of “all hands on deck”. People came from as close as Birmingham to as far away as Cardiff – all with backgrounds in puppetry but with hugely varied skill sets. I arrived at the studio and assessed the puppets. They were over four metres tall, designed to be worn on the back of the puppeteers, and they weighed probably close to 100kg each. Problem identified. Whilst chatting with the Production Manager, Jay Schmidt, I casually enquired who the music artist was. Jay looked at me like I was bonkers and replied “Katy Perry”, to which I rather stupidly responded “Oh! I know who she is!”… as though that was some unexpected feat.
Whilst me and the huge skeleton puppets were on our way from London to Tamworth, our crew were travelling to the workshop, and Carrie-Anne was frantically clearing enough room for us to work (we had another job ongoing) and ensuring we’re fully stocked with caffeine, sugary drinks and snacks for the night ahead. Within a few minutes of one another, everyone and the puppets arrived, and we worked out the “plan of attack”. Our goal was to strip as much weight as physically possible from the puppets and completely rebuild them in less than twelve hours. And less than twelve hours later, the workshop was strewn with removed aluminium, polystyrene and PU coating…and we’d done it! The puppets now weighed less than 30kg, and were comfortable to wear and moved beautifully. There was certainly a case of the giggles as they were loaded back into the van, and very much a sense of “did that just really happen?”
Large-scale puppets used in Katy Perry’s performance at the Brit Awards
But, it didn’t end there. I went to the O2 to help with rehearsals as a puppetry consultant, grabbing a couple of hours sleep on the way. After sending the overnight crew home, Carrie-Anne and a fresh member of staff tackled the ongoing job in the workshop which had a deadline of the very next day. Supervising the rehearsals, working with the puppeteers, and the performance at the O2 went smoothly, and it was great to work with such an incredible team. The performance was four minutes long, and I knew the workshop team would be glued to the screen at home, cheering it on. It was a massive team effort, and a testimony of what can be achieved if you have the knowledge, technical ability, and an infallible work ethic.
To this day we still have a fantastic relationship with Katy Perry’s entire production team and have worked with them on several more projects. I couldn’t be prouder of the work we did as a team that night. And what happened to the puppets? They live on and have been touring around the world on Katy Perry’s The Witness tour.
Large-scale puppets used in Katy Perry’s performance at the Brit Awards
What’s next for Leviathan Workshop?
Whilst I can’t talk about specifics, there are a lot of things on the in the pipeline. What I can tell you, at the time of writing, is that we are currently in communications about this year’s Brit Awards, work on cruise ships, holiday parks, shopping centres, large-scale live events, and exhibitions. Some of those will happen, some of them won’t, but it’s always nice to be asked to the party. In terms of going forward as a company we are always looking for ways to create better puppets that perform better and can be operated better.
Elephant built for P&O’s ‘Mr Tinkerton’s Clockwork Circus’
We don’t believe in doing things the same way every time, as we strive for constant improvement with everything we do. Last year projects included a full-size elephant for P&O, giants, animatronic cow costumes, Cadbury commercials, and “dead” bodies for The Lieutenant of Inishmore West End show. I love how varied our work is. We’ve just completed work for Butlins which spanned multiple and varied items: everything from Punch and Judy puppets to 4-metre-long dragon puppets. The dragons are a real source of pride for me and the team. They’re based on a bespoke puppet rig we have been improving and perfecting for a few years. The boom system is great and allows incredibly dynamic and responsive puppetry. Since we knew we had weight limits and didn’t want to lose any detail in the sculpture of the dragon heads, we created our own method of crafting them from carbon fibre. The heads are unbelievably light, being 9ft front to back and only weighing 5kg – I can lift the skin with one arm!
I feel incredibly lucky to do what I do, I have a fantastic business partner who keeps impressing me, and a team who really love what we do, be it sculpting, or foam fabrication, or mechanics. Every job comes with new, unique challenges and opportunities to redefine how puppets are created and operated the world over. We’ll keep investing our time in new techniques and materials, so who knows how big the puppets will get or where they’ll be seen! There are always exciting things on the horizon and its great to get to share our love of puppetry with you and your readers.
Alba E Garcia-Rivas is a film director from Puerto Rico with a passion for puppetry in all forms. We caught up with her to find out where her fascination with puppet animation started and how her love for Puerto Rico has influenced her work.
You are an animation director, animator and artist who works primarily in stop motion. How did you get started and what appeals to you about stop motion animation? Is it popular inPuerto Rico?
It all started in my childhood, when my father worked in a TV station and he taught me his love for film. I got to learn with him the tricks of the trade so to speak. For example: green screen, camera angles, special effects. I started as an oil painter at age 8, then did exhibitions and sold my artwork pieces at age 16. This got me into college and I studied Fine Arts, including acting. When I was at the University of Puerto Rico, I saw that computer animation was the thing to study, and the university didn’t have any computer courses at the time, so off I went to New York and graduated with a second Fine Arts Degree in Film, Video, and Animation. Here I won the Outstanding Dusty Film Festival Award at School of Visual Arts, NY. And no, stop-motion is not popular in Puerto Rico. I learned about it when I went to SVA, NY.
Your latest stop motion film in production is ‘Dangerously Ever After’. Can you tell us about the film?
As I was completing work on my short stop-motion film, Time Space Reflections, my 7-year-old daughter showed me a copy of a book she loved so much, she’d memorised it word for word. As a girl who loves science, magic, and danger, she found a kindred spirit in Princess Amanita. “Mommy, can you animate this book?” she asked.
The book spoke to me as well. The beautiful botanical illustrations, the wild costumes, the danger and whimsy and, most of all, the message of acceptance, openness and joy. Princess Amanita looked like one of my own creations. I knew we had to make this movie — to inspire girls like my daughter to be the stars of their own dangerous and beautiful adventures.
Not all princesses are made of sugar and spice–some are made of funnier, fiercer stuff.
Princess Amanita laughs in the face of danger. Brakeless bicycles, pet scorpions, spiky plants–that’s her thing. So when quiet Prince Florian gives her roses, Amanita is unimpressed . . . until she sees their glorious thorns! Now she must have rose seeds of her own. But when huge, honking noses grow instead, what is a princess with a taste for danger to do? Well, she goes on a QUEST! This is an award winning picture book and the author Dashka Slater and I partnered to make it happen.
Stop-motion has a unique energy. It’s warmer and more intimate than computer-generated animation, imbued with the magic of solid, three-dimensional objects and the mystery of a doll’s house. Stop-motion allows artists to create miniature worlds and bring them to life with the freshness and playfulness of children but the artistry and technical wizardry of adults. It takes up to two days to make 24 seconds of animation. But the result is like no other form of animation.
Dangerously Ever After Trailer - YouTube
You have also recently directed a live action puppetry film ‘Dak’toká Taíno’ (‘I am Taíno’). Can you tell us about that?
I was animating my fourth film when Heather Henson (Jim Henson’s daughter and founder of Ibex Puppetry) asked me if I would be interested in making a short puppet film about my Taíno culture. Soon after that conversation, on September 17th 2017, Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico and her winds were between category 4 and 5, which is extremely dangerous. It was a shock to us all. Hurricane María destroyed homes, plantations and it is estimated that 4,645 people died. I was devastated for my Puerto Rico, the land were I grew up, and the land I love. We saw how the Trump administration abandoned their own American, Puerto Rican citizens. During the making of the film I reconnected with my Taíno heritage, as my grandmothers were Taíno. Now, I have a daughter and I have a responsibility to teach her my culture, our ancestral Taino language and our traditions.
Stop motion takes years in the making, while in less than 9 months we finished the I am Taíno live puppetry film with 4 days of shooting. The live puppetry was shot at the Carriage house, Jim Henson’s house; it was such an honour to be there and feel the creative energy of the space.
I am Taíno, Dak’toká Taíno was so successful that it won 3 awards and now we are trying to qualify for the Oscars 2020. I just partnered again with Heather Henson to do a new film! This one is a dark fantasy about the detention camps in Texas. We are using silicon monster animatronic design and a mix between puppets and actors. Can’t talk that much about it but it is definitely an activism piece. I guess I found my voice by telling meaningful stories and helping mankind.
Mumblecrust Theatre create smart, innovative theatre for families and young people, and recently delighted audiences with their award-winning show ‘The Tale of the Cockatrice’. We sat down with Artistic Co-Director Katie Underhay to find out more about their brand new show in development, The Time Machine.
Mumblecrust Theatre enjoyed well-deserved success with your last performance, ‘The Tale of the Cockatrice’. Your next show, currently in development, is a re-imagining of the HG Wells classic, ‘The Time Machine’. What interested you about this story?
We really wanted to try something different with this new show. We loved using the old legend of the cockatrice last time, and thought we’d try adapting a piece of English literature this time around. We discussed a lot of different books and something about The Time Machine intrigued me, even though I hadn’t read it yet! Anthony, the other half of Mumblecrust, knew the story from the old 1960s movie, so we both read it and thought it would be fantastic on stage! I love the fact that HG Wells wrote a sci-fi novel in the 1890s that still isn’t outdated, even to this day. The time traveller leaps 800,000 years into the future, a time still as distant then as now! Likewise, Marty McFly in Back to the Future travels forward to the year 2015, which dates the film more than than Wells’ book.
Katie Underhay and Artistic Co-Director Anthony Burbridge in ‘The Tale of the Cockatrice’ Photo: Kirsten McTernan
How do you plan to use puppetry in the performance?
The Time Machine has two fantastic species of evolved humans, the Eloi and the Morlocks. Using puppetry for these is the perfect way to show the difference between them and human beings. The Eloi are cute little pygmy creatures that we hope the audience will fall in love with, whilst the Morlocks are creepy, subterranean creatures, lurking in the darkness.
Puppetry is an ideal way to portray fantastic, non-human characters on stage, as effective today as it ever was. Even with the advent of modern effects, movies increasingly seem to fall back on puppetry. Puppets are real, textured and present in a way that few other mediums are.
Anthony and Katie in an R&D session for The Time Machine
The Time Machine is supported via the ‘Shoplifting’ initiative, which is a collaborative scheme set up by Theatre Orchard and Living Spit intended to bolster regional theatre. Can you tell us more about that and the benefits it will bring?
Being chosen for ‘Shoplifting’ has been amazing for the show and Mumblecrust! We had a great meeting with Living Spit a few weeks ago and it really helped us with the start of the process. We also have their support with marketing, organising an R&D workshop with local kids, and we’ll be rehearsing at Theatre Shop before our ‘Shoplifting’ Premiere.
They were also able to provide some match funding for our Arts Council Grant application, along with Take Art’s BARN initiative, which really helped! It feels great to have the support of Theatre Orchard and Living Spit to create this show. We were pretty much on our own when we made our first show, The Tale of the Cockatrice, so this is far less lonely – haha!
When will audiences be able to see The Time Machine?
Our ‘Shoplifting’ premiere will be at Theatre Shop, Clevedon, on Friday 19th & Saturday 20th April at 2pm and 5pm (Good Friday and Easter Saturday). It’s so nice to be able to perform on my home turf and to support the local theatre scene. We’re having audience Q&As after each show, taking on board feedback to hone this production ready for our tour, starting in the Autumn.
We’re only charging £5 a ticket because we want as much feedback as we can get. We’re really looking forward to performing at Theatre Shop again, it’s a lovely venue, really supportive and a great atmosphere!
An interview by puppeteer Josh Elwell with Puppet Coordinator, Andy Spooner looking inside the new Gerry Anderson’s ‘Firestorm‘.
Andy, you are the Puppet Coordinator on the new production of ‘Gerry Anderson’s Firestorm’, an amazing new pilot minisode has just been released and it has got fans fizzing with anticipation! This short film has all the style and action of one of Gerry’s original shows like Thunderbirds, Stingray or Space 1999, but with a modern twist. Please start by telling us how you approached the puppetry differently in Firestorm and how it compares to Gerry’s previous shows.
Well, when it came to our approach, as you know as a puppeteer yourself, the puppets dictate a lot. You have all kinds of ideas in your head, and then you pick up one of the puppets for the first time and you think “ah, it’s going to be like that is it!” They were beautifully built by Mackinnon & Saunders, but were very heavy. We also had some issues with the rigging. So ultimately, much of what we were doing on the pilot was on-the-spot problem solving. Luckily, the team I had around me were excellent, and once we were up and running things went relatively smoothly. These new puppets are very removed from the classic Thunderbirds puppets.
The most obvious change is that they aren’t marionettes. They are essentially hi tech bunraku puppets with an animatronic element. The bodies (arms, legs, torso, head) are all operated via rods, with various access points depending on what’s needed. The face, however, is operated via an RC unit using cutting edge animatronics. It’s the best possible mixture of old and new techniques. The faces are capable of an impressive range of emotions. There are a couple of shots in the minisode that really show this off I think. I really wanted the puppets to feel REAL. Now, this doesn’t always mean trying to ape realistic movements. It means that they feel real in the context of this clearly defined universe they inhabit. One of the things I learned from the pilot is that I think we can push the characters a little more, make the movements bigger, the expressions a little larger. When you do this the performances really pop. We were trying to play things small and realistic. We can dare to be bigger.
From a puppeteers perspective what are the particular challenges that you are faced with on this project and what makes it unlike other shows you have worked on?
The time! We had very little time to rehearse. Literally a day or two. This was simply because I was brought into the process so late. Admittedly, the situation was very different on Firestorm, so the whole timeline was very compressed. Once I was brought on board, I frantically made a lot of phone calls and got my team together. I then went to the set and met Jamie for the first time face-to-face.
Then a few days later we were shooting! It was an abject lesson on thinking on your feet. In that kind of situation, I firmly believe that the best thing to do is just get on with it. Get into the set and work things out. Sometimes that can be more effective than being in a rehearsal space for days in a little bubble. I’m sure you’ve worked on things where you have the rehearsal period, and then you go to shoot it and discover that you can’t do what you rehearsed because of the layout of the set. Square one! In the case of Firestorm we just had to leap into it and make it work. I wish that the TV and film industry would factor in more time, ANY time, for rehearsal. But It’s getting less and less.
Key to all Gerry Anderson’s shows are the models and the in-camera special effects. In the minisode there are some hair-raising moments and terrifying explosions! How was it working as a puppeteer amongst this aspect of the production?
Well, all the pyrotechnics (for the minisode) were shot separately, and then composited into the shots later. The shots where puppets were present anyway. But they were all real elements, real explosions! It’s obviously huge fun being around that kind of stuff. When I was a kid, because of watching shows like Stingray and Thunderbirds, and movies like Star Wars and Battle Beyond The Stars, I was all about the models. I wanted to be a model maker initially. I would spend excessive amounts of time building spaceships out of leftovers from Airfix kits. It’s called “Kit Bashing”, the process of building a new model out of old kits. So being around this stuff now is making my inner 12 year old very happy. We all love a good explosion right! We (all the puppeteers) were in our green room when we heard that they were going to blow up the island. Cue a massive stampede to get down to the set and grab a plum position to see it go up!
You have also been working with a highly skilled team of builders, special effects folk, voice artists and puppeteers. Tell us a bit about the team you are working with. What is unique about the way these guys work?
We all have our areas of expertise. What was great about this team is that there was no ego. None. It was one of the most relaxed and happy sets I have ever worked on. We were all there because of our love of the project, and our love of Gerry Anderson shows. We all got on with our jobs to the best of our ability. When I came on board, there were others who had been working on the project for a long time. Some for weeks, some for years. But they were all welcoming and supportive. A real privilege to work with. I didn’t meet any of the voice actors until the launch at MCM Comicon in London, but it was fantastic to see their reaction to what we had done. And to introduce them to their puppet alter egos!
You have been working closely with Gerry’s son Jamie who has been working tirelessly to keep his father’s legacy going. How does Jamie’s vision match or differ from his father’s, and what was it like working with Jamie taking this new exciting step?
Jamie is (and he’ll hate me for saying this!) simply wonderful to work with. He’s got a very clear idea of where Firestorm sits in the legacy of his father’s work. He wants it to have, at its core, all the elements we loved in those classic shows. High concept science fiction adventure plots, combined with thrilling action sequences and a dose of humour. But most importantly, he wants the characters to shine through. You can have all the “Whizz Bang!” you want – if you don’t care for the characters, it won’t work. However, he also wants Firestorm to be striking out into new territory. It’s time to show the world what these kinds of puppets can do now that we have the support of computer technology. It’s the first step in a new era of Anderson shows.
The production was started by Jamie Anderson with a Kickstarter campaign. How successful was the campaign? How far did it get the production and what are the next steps?
The Kickstarter campaign was mainly used to fund the research and development of the puppets. They were, hands down, the element that needed to work 100%. The rest of the production was a massive act of pulling in favours. Once we shot the live action for the minisode, it took more than 2 years to get the rest of the post production completed. But now it’s out there! As for the next steps? Well, pre-production has started on a full series! This is thrilling news, we all worked so hard to make this happen – and nobody worked harder than Jamie.
We plan to start shooting in Spring of 2019.
Gerry Anderson’s Firestorm | Exclusive FULL Minisode - YouTube
“A vain and arrogant youth dares to enter Baba Yaga’s living house of bones…”
Bone Mother is the latest stop motion animated film from See Creature Animation, produced by the National Film Board of Canada. We chatted with the film’s directors, Sylvie Trouvé and Dale Hayward, about the story and production process.
‘Bone Mother’ is based on the Russian folk tale of Baba Yaga. What drew you to this subject? And why did you choose stop motion as the medium to create it’s imagery?
There are so many stories of Baba Yaga, but Dale first heard Maura McHugh’s story on the horror podcast Pseudopod. We’ve always liked anti-heroes and Baba is usually portrayed as a dark character, or even an evil witch, but she’s definitely not your typical witch. Baba is the original Witch in folklore and it’s western tales that have changed her into a cliché (ie. the mortar and pestle is now a broomstick). So we wanted to bring her from the stereotype and back to the archetype. There are lessons to be learned from characters like this. She’s like that old grandma who terrifies you, but who you totally respect at the same time. And then there’s Vlad, who has the audacity to just walk up to her Bone house and make demands. So, It was fun to have a story with two villains, it gave us lots to play with.
Stop-motion is our preferred style of animation, it’s incredibly tangible. There are natural textures inherent to the materials that can really help with the atmosphere we’re trying to create. Plus, Maura’s story was so textural that stop-motion felt like a natural fit.
The film has a rich and distinctive aesthetic. Did you draw influence from other sources?
The film’s aesthetic evolved quite a bit during the pre-production. It first started out much flatter, similar to Bas-relief, like a moving illustration, so influences were artists like Ivan Bilibin, Mike Mignola and Klimt. But it quickly became either too limiting or over complicated to do what we wanted, so we went to a more traditional puppet and set feel. During this pre-production stage, we did some extensive R&D on the 3d printing. It was all very new to all of us, so it was jumping into a new sandbox. One of the great aspects of 3d printing is the printers themselves are not that expensive, but the quality can be limiting, so we let that limitation become intention. Once we saw that by printing baba’s face lying down, the printer would “naturally” create wrinkles for us. For Vlad we stood him straight up, so his layers were tighter together, creating a smoother skin. So what is usually something that other productions spend a lot of time trying to hide or remove, we embraced it and it became a cornerstone to the film’s aesthetic.
Where did your interest and passion for animation, in particular stop motion, begin?
Sylvie has a degree in photography and Dale studied traditional hand-drawn animation, but we both got our start in the industry doing stop-motion at a studio in Toronto called Cuppa Coffee, working on TV series and commercials for a number of years. We both had no experience with stop-motion before this and it’s interesting to note that no one really goes to school for stop-motion, they all have skills outside of animation that somehow are very useful in stop-motion and they kinda fall into the industry. It’s one of the main aspects we love about the community is that everyone has very different skill sets and it shows through their work.
Your production company, ‘See Creature’ produces a range of works from commercials to independent film. Do you have plans to produce any other works with a dark theme? (The company name does seem mysterious and magical!)
He-he, yea we like the play on words, it’s a name that evokes a lot of imagery. We’ve never been a studio to lock into a defined style or aesthetic, although stop-motion is our preference, we have worked in 2d, after effects and 3d. We feel the need to be adaptable to current shifts in the industry and in our interests as we get older and our household expands. Our focus is leaning more and more towards creator driven works these days that range from dark tales like Bone Mother but could also lead to adult comedy and live action sci-fi as well.
We’re very excited for the future.
Interview by Emma Windsor
Co-directed by Dale Hayward and Sylvie Trouvé, Bone Mother was produced by Jelena Popović and executive produced by Michael Fukushima for the NFB Animation Studio.
Sue is the Artistic Director of Theatre-Rites and the fourth generation of theatre practitioners in her family. She is a theatre director, puppetry specialist and teacher, and has worked with the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Young Vic, Sadler’s Wells, South Bank Centre and Complicite. We caught up with her to find out how it all began and her latest show, ‘Beasty Baby’.
You are Artistic Director at Theatre-Rites. How did you become involved in theatre, and in particular puppetry?
I come from a long lineage of performers. My great grandfather was a music hall entertainer, my grandfather, a concertina player, and my grandmother was a musician in a group called The Musical Elliots. My mother was also a member of this group for a short while, before she met my father, a puppeteer.
The Elliots Issue Title Is Sea Shell Have Music (1936) - YouTube
Sue’s grandparents in action in The Elliots (1936)
My particular interest and connection with puppetry began at birth. My father was a professional puppeteer, who performed a traditional marionette cabaret around holiday camps, hotels and working-men’s clubs, so my initial training came from that family apprenticeship. After graduating from university, I worked as an actress, before discovering that my creative passion was as a director and maker.
This exciting time, whilst nurturing my puppet and mask making skills, connected me with a variety of peer practitioners including Steve Tiplady of Indefinite Articles; John Wright, mask expert and co-founder of Told By An Idiot; Rufus Norris, now Artistic Director of The National Theatre; Jenny Sealy, Artistic Director of Graeae; Phelim McDermott of Improbable and various visual artists involved with the work of Puppetworks (a large-scale outdoor performance company in the style of Welfare State).
Paradise (2010). Photo credit: Volker Beushausen
In 1989 I received an Arts Council Bursary for the extension of my puppetry skills and I furthered my training with David Glass and the Czech Puppet Company Drak. I also spent 3 months studying the arts of Southern India. In 1997 I received a distinction for my MA in Contemporary Theatre Practice at Essex University in which I combined a study of psychoanalytical thought with my views on the power of the puppet. I received an Honorary Doctorate of the Arts from Essex in 2018. Throughout this period I became a specialist puppetry director and worked with David Farr, Complicite, the RSC, The National Theatre and Tara Arts amongst many others. It was through working as a puppetry specialist with Pop-Up Theatre that I first met Penny Bernand, with whom I set up Theatre-Rites.
Baby in Mojo 2011/12. Photo credit: Patrick Baldwin
What does puppetry enable you to explore?
I love the way the puppet art form brings together many approaches ranging from direct performance to construction, visual art and movement. It also has a strong heritage across cultures. It can be both truly accessible and highly conceptual, with a power beyond language. I had music, making and performing in my blood so puppetry was an ideal art form for me to continue my artistic discovery.
My work is driven from a psychological understanding of our existence. I see the puppet, or an imbued object, as an opportunity for self-recognition. It offers the chance for the audience to look at an imitation of their own human predicament, whether literally, figuratively or abstractly, enabling them towards self-realization. Placing puppets/objects alongside actors on stage is very powerful. This juxtaposition of the fake with the real helps us see our reality more clearly. I thoroughly enjoy this when it seems to reach both adults and children, both trying to share the process together.
It is the triadic nature of the art form that particularly interests me. The relationship between the manipulator and their object and the object’s relationship to the audience. I am interested in how much we can find out about the psychology of the actor’s character on stage by how he or she handles or projects their emotions through their props/important objects. It is as though they are representations of the actor’s inner psyche, taking on their alter ego and repressed desires.
I like to work with abstracted puppet forms, often enjoying how a group of objects can be brought together to momentarily form a figurative shape, only to re-create itself and re-form its sense of self. I believe that these abstracted, less illustrative forms are more open to the varying projected beliefs of the audience and connect to our celebration of our own abilities of survival and re-invention in the bigger picture of evolution, and natural, political and emotional change.
Puppet and object play is very funny; it is full of nonsense and parody. I adore watching a spirit of play being triggered in people by the very act of them being able to hide behind something. The puppet for me now is ANYTHING that I can manipulate. A figurative puppet, an object, a projected image, a space, or an actor. Therefore, the specifics of puppet theatre become less important and yet, for me, lie at the heart of everything I create.
Sue holds the hand of a puppet during a workshop. Photo credit: Stephen Lim
‘Beasty Baby’ will be at Tobacco Factory Theatres over this festive season. How did the idea for the performance first come about?
Beasty Baby (2015). Photo credit: Robert Workman
When Penny Bernand and I founded Theatre-Rites 1996 I was about to start my own family. One of our first shows was created whilst I was pregnant with my first daughter and toured the UK and the world during her first 3 years. Tara, now 21, came to an occasional rehearsal but most of the time I was very clear that when I was with her, she had my full attention and when I was at work, she was being looked after. I never assumed that these two things could be combined. However, the content of the work was highly influenced by the time I spent with Tara. My research into child development impacted on my work and my mothering. I felt whole as an artist, partner and mother.
Recently I have been reading many blogs and articles about the experience of being a Mother of young children and being an artist. No longer is the subject out of bounds or hidden behind closed doors. The story is out. Bringing up a young child, whilst juggling a career and your relationships, is both rewarding and highly challenging and there is no professional training for it, other than referring to your own parenting or listening to the advice and pressures of peers meeting in the playgrounds or playgroups.
So, 21 years later, my two daughters, Tara and Nuala, now 21 and 18 are bold, brave, brilliant and sometimes still beastly. Making this show was a wonderful opportunity for me to ponder on the joys and challenges of bringing them into the world and to inspire others to embark upon the adventure of parenting. It was a process which gave me the opportunity to reflect on my personal journey. It led to the creation of Beasty Baby, originally a co- production between Theatre-Rites and Polka Theatre for Christmas 2015. This year we are delighted to be bringing it to The Tobacco Factory in Bristol, supported by our Associate Director, Elgiva Field.
What is Beasty Baby about?
In 1997, when I was creating Theatre-Rites’ The Lost and Moated Land (my first production for under-fives) I was in an idealised place, just imagining what it would be like to have a baby. The show was magical, abstract and mythical. Beasty Baby is different. It starts with realism and my real experience; the very real objects used and the rituals created when raising a young child, the sleepless nights, the overwhelming sense of responsibility and the way your life is turned upside down. I wanted to draw upon my memory of this mind-blowing aspect. However I was still looking for the Magical Realism; the transformative qualities that these real objects have, and how I could still create a mythical landscape to play in, in order to reveal the joys and revelations of caring for the early years of a human being.
This leads to the main focus of the piece: the need to recognise, as parents and children, the importance of regular rituals. However we should also be careful about trying to compartmentalise all our needs like a tick-boxing exercise. We often learn most during playtime, but I have noticed how even “playtime” has become an activity to be purchased and facilitated so that the parent or teacher can tick the box and say “job done”.
I wished to explore how we cannot truly parent and teach our children the basis of intimate love unless we learn to love what is best in ourselves and our children – and of course what is worst in ourselves. The terrible two year old who has yet to manage their desires, or the parent who is at the end of their tether due to lack of sleep or the constancy that childcare insists upon. It is not about being perfect children or perfect parents. It is about being fully rounded individuals.
Even very young children have a whole range of emotions and a whole range of ways of learning to manage and communicate them. Some have very difficult feelings. No parent or child should feel the pressure to be perfect and everyone must feel that they can find help within their community to share the emotional journey. Once we channel these trickier emotions, the more we create unique and dynamic young people. Beasty Baby takes you on a whirlwind of emotion, all beautifully underscored by our talented Composer Jessica Dannheisser.
Beasty Baby 2018 2019 Trailer - YouTube
Our central protagonist is Beasty Baby, a puppet cleverly made by Naomi Oppenheim. We also have 3 performers, Teele, Scott and Elliott, who each have excellence and dynamism in their artistic field. In this show we are not concerned with the perfect 2 x 2 family or who gave birth, we are interested in how we can all contribute to raising our children, regardless of who you are or what defines your sense of family.
Beasty Baby is looked after in a small wooden hut amidst a Nordic mythical landscape, designed by Verity Quinn, providing our snowy Christmas setting. The pathway of growing up is often a wilderness. The celebration of play as opposed to early testing for under-fives is at the heart of the story; the sense of a whole community raising their children together and allowing our children to have free play. Beasty Baby will appeal to 3 to 6 year olds and those that care for them. It will also appeal to Artists interested in combining actors and puppetry on stage, or people thinking about having babies.
I love that for 50 minutes both adult and child can reflect, laugh and emotionally recognise what is relevant to them at that particular moment in time – it’s important that they can do that together. And, at the end, they will feel really warm and know there is a wonderful beauty and beast in all of us.
Theatre-Rites is collaborating again with 20 Stories High, and this time we’re making a hip hop puppetry show for 3 to 6 year olds, and everyone who looks after them. Big Up! features the incredible talents of beatboxer Hobbit, singer/performer Dorcas Seb and puppeteers Clarke Joseph Edwards and Iestyn Evans. Touring in Spring 2019, opening at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool on February 8th.
Based at 18 Hanover Place, Albion Dockside Estate, Puppet Place provides a home to thriving community of resident and associate artists, and more puppets than have been counted. Puppet Place is the UK’s hub for all things animated, and also produces the biennial Bristol Festival of Puppetry. We sat down with the team at Hanover Place; Rachel McNally, Luke Gregg and Hannah Jarman, to find out more about Puppet Place, how it all got started and their roles in the organisation.
I’m Rachel and I am the Chief Executive Officer of Puppet Place.
RM: Puppet Place was started in 1984 by two puppeteers, Jim Still and Di Steeds. I think it started originally as the ‘Puppet Van’, before becoming the ‘Puppet Place’ – an educational charity that worked with schools, providing workshops. It also had a resource centre, library and provided support for puppeteers in the region.
As happens with a lot of arts organisations, it lost its funding in the mid-nineties and became a dormant organisation. Around that time, I was working at Hope Centre; an arts organisation based in Hotwells, Bristol. I can remember the last person who ran Puppet Place, a lady called Kate Pollard who ran it from the back of a cupboard at the centre! That was how I met a lot of the people that I now work with at Puppet Place, and saw my first bit of puppetry, a Green Ginger show called ‘Slaphead’ with Chris Pirie and Dik Downey (from Pickled Image). I now work with them all, so it’s all their fault really.
By the late nineties, I was running a puppetry theatre company called ‘Full Beam’; Chris Pirie was running ‘Green Ginger’; Dik Downey and Vicky Andrews were running ‘Pickled Image’ and ‘Stuff & Nonsense’ under Marc Parrett was also based in Bristol. We were all facing similar issues. Despite lots of people working in puppetry in the local area, no-one really knew about it, and none of us had a secure space to work in. So we thought, what would happen if we all got together and try to solve some of these problems?
Although there were organisations that served the wider community in Bristol, such as Theatre Bristol, we needed a physical fabrication space for puppetry (as anyone who works here will tell you!) So we approached Di Steeds and asked if we could have Puppet Place back. And she said, ‘yes’ but with the condition that it was for the whole community and not just the resident companies involved.
It took us sometime to grow from there. It was a bit of an exciting jumble at the beginning, but then we got the opportunity to move into the building that we’re sitting in. We were starting to think about what a Puppet Place could do, and we thought we could run a festival of puppetry. So Chris and I went to speak to the then director of Tobacco Factory Theatres, Ali Robertson, about our ideas for a festival. Ali promptly said ‘OK, you can run it here next year!’ So he called our bluff a bit. That was in 2009. Next year we will be celebrating the tenth anniversary of the festival.
Since 2009, we have gradually filled this building full of artists, and have expanded our staff team to myself, Hannah and Luke. We have a community of fifteen artistic companies and a lot more puppets! We’re continuing to grow and identify what Puppet Place is and can be. We have been very lucky as we have had a lot of support from organisations like Bristol Old Vic, Bristol Council, Aardman Animations and many more, to whom we are very grateful.
Hi, I’m Luke and I am the Operations and Facilities Officer.
LG: I joined Puppet Place in 2014… It was in-between festivals, I think. Before that, I was interning at Bower Ashton Campus and working with Dave McGoran in the Tech Lab. He told me about Puppet Place advertising for a technician the day before the deadline! So I thought I’d give it a go and made an application. I got the role and I’ve been here ever since. Once I joined Puppet Place, I realised that the role was a much bigger role than just a technician, so I’m responsible for looking after the building and its maintenance, building management and looking after the workshop downstairs. I induct users to the workshop, so that artists can come in and use the space safely and efficiently.
RM: I would also add that Luke has made that workshop much better as he’s got the right tools in, improved the layout and is just great at talking with people.
Puppet Place Workshop
Hello! I’m Hannah and I’m the Administrator here.
HJ: I started about two years ago, as I’d moved from Brighton to Bristol. I’d noticed a job advert on Theatre Bristol and so I put my application together. I had been working in arts administration, but in circus and theatre. I was the general manager of a circus theatre company in Brighton, doing lots of arts facilitation and administration, and working a lot with children and young people. I started working at Puppet Place, but only for a brief spell of three months as I then went on maternity leave. But I was soon back again, which is brilliant.
My role involves general administration of pretty much everything that Puppet Place does! So if you want to book a rehearsal studio or a fabrication bay in the workshop or if you want to become an associate artist then you’ll most likely be talking to me via email or on the phone. I also manage Beth who is our volunteer. It’s a great place to work. Rachel and I are currently working on the public programme as well, trying to develop the workshops that we provide here, so there’s plenty to get our teeth into. My specific interest is in children and families, so I’m looking at that with one of our resident artists, Lizzie Johnson, to develop that further in the future.
Puppet Place Rehearsal Space
What about the role of volunteers at Puppet Place?
HJ: We have a regular office volunteer, and lots of people who help out at other big public events and our newsletter. We also had an operations and facilities intern, George Northcott, who helped us out for a while.
RM: Yes, for events, such as the festival and Bristol Open Doors, we get volunteers in to come and help. Often our lovely community of resident and associate artists will pitch in as well. We do a deep clean at least once a year, and you wouldn’t think that could be a fun activity, but everyone in the building gets involved. It’s still a small organisation, run for and by its community, so everyone pitches in a bit.
HJ: I’d say the volunteers are fundamental to running things like Bristol Open Doors, so we’re really grateful because we really couldn’t do it without them. We’ve had some fantastic people step forward and help us, so we all feel really lucky for that.
Bristol Open Doors at Puppet Place
Obviously Puppet Place is primarily a working space for artists in puppetry and animation, so isn’t a space that is open to the public. However, there are opportunities for the public to see what goes on here and learn more about these art forms. Can you tell us more about that?
RM: Bristol Open Doors is one of those events that people can come in and look around. We had two thousand people visit us last year, but this always has to be a very careful negotiation with our resident artists as they have their work to consider. Also, having people in our workshop has to be carefully managed as there are a lot of potential hazards.
LG: Yes, it takes a while to get the space ready for the general public! But it’s always a great event so we’re happy to do that.
HJ: I find it quite energising when we have a big event like that because you get to see Puppet Place through fresh eyes. Kids get so excited by it, it’s fantastic.
RM: And also our regular, smaller events like our Creative Café, are opportunities for people to find out more about the work produced here and what we do as a community. Creative café is an evening event where we ask our resident artists to talk for about 20 minutes about what they’re doing and what excites them. This is followed by a Q&A. We’ve had some great speakers including Matthew Whittle from the Wardrobe Theatre, Mumblecrust Theatre spoke about their work in November and we’ve got a great one lined up for January with Fiona Matthews from Theatre Orchard, so we’re all really looking forward to that in the new year.
HJ: We also have some really popular courses and workshops. We have a great design and fabrication course for adults and we’re starting to expand our public programme. We tend to run workshops in the Spring and Summer months, so do keep an eye on our website for details.
What would you most like to develop at Puppet Place? What’s next?
LG: Well within my role there’s a lot of development in making the building fit for purpose. For example, the warmth in the building needs improvement as this can be detrimental to people’s working habits, especially in the workshop. So for me personally it’s about making a comfortable space to work in, improving the workshop and ensuring that people can keep in making the fantastic work that they do.
HJ: I think there’s a bit more we can do with regards to making Puppet Place more public facing, that’s something we’ve talked a lot about in board meetings is making sure we have a bigger public offer, that it’s thoughtful and that we’ve planned it well enough so that we’re engaging with lots of different people who might not have found us.
RM: And I think we’d also like to be supporting artists more. For us it is a virtuous circle, what we really want is for everyone to say puppetry is amazing, and really value it as an art form. To do that we need to engage with more people. We want to support artists so they can make the best work that they can and so they also know what other opportunities are out there. I think often puppetry artists and animators are quite isolated and it’s good to have contact with other people and see what’s out there and what’s going on. We’re keen to push that forward as much as possible.
I’m really proud of the team here and the work that we all achieve on limited time and budget. We are a small but capable team who are dedicated to the work we do and the art forms we support. Sometimes we are a little pushed, so we may be delayed in responding, but rest assured that we will be back in touch to answer all your queries and soon as we can. Thank you for your support.
Kate Raworth is a renegade economist focused on exploring the economic mindset needed to address today’s social and ecological challenges and is author of the internationally best-selling book Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist. We chatted with her about the making of Economic Man vs Humanity: a Puppet Rap Battle, a short puppetry film that illustrates the thinking, and the artistic team behind it.
What is Doughnut Economics and why did you choose puppetry to illustrate this message?
Doughnut Economics is a playfully serious approach to rewriting economics so that it is fit for the 21st century and its challenge of meeting the needs of all within the means of the planet. One crucial aspect that needs rewriting is the model of humanity at the heart of mainstream economic theory – a character known as rational economic man. This character has, in many ways, been a puppet of economic theory and policy making, so the temptation to use puppets to tell his story and to write a new one was too great to resist.
Economic Man vs Humanity: a Puppet Rap Battle - YouTube
Economic theory also celebrates the notion of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, so I think the very visible hands of the puppeteers make a playful counterpoint to that ideology. I have always loved puppets and when my children were small we put on puppet shows in our living room for kids and families in the neighbourhood. So the chance of working with a professional puppet maker and puppeteers to rewrite economics was too good an opportunity to miss.
How did you gather the team?
When I first had the idea of working with puppets to communicate the core ideas of Doughnut Economics, I was recommended to look at Emma Powell’s work and as soon as I saw the incredible creations on her website, I knew it would be a great match. Emma then suggested bringing the musician and songwriter Simon Panrucker onto the team and once I saw his wonderfully zany videos online (check out the one in which he raps about constructing a Peace Machine) I was convinced that the puppets should go head-to-head in a rap battle written by him. Simon and Emma came up with the idea of pitching three students in a classroom debate with their professor, and from that point, we knew we were on a roll.
This three-way collaboration was a wonderful creative adventure for me because it was very clear that each of us was bringing a unique and essential set of skills to the project, which would not have worked without all three. I brought the economic theory and critique, Simon did a masterful job of transforming that into a witty rap, and Emma gave it characterful life with her ingenious puppets. Add to this the skill of the puppeteers along with the video and production crew, and we had a brilliant team, which it was a privilege to be a part of. During filming I was impressed by the detail, patience and dedication of the whole team during an intensive week, working with meticulous detail to get each shot and its continuity just right.
We launched the video online at the start of September, just as students were returning to school, and were delighted by its instant positive reception and rapid spread. It moved fast through social media, being watched and shared by students, professors, politicians, campaigners and corporate executives alike. One leading economist played it to conference delegates at the OECD headquarters in Paris. I think that has to be a double first: getting both rap and puppetry into one of the most influential international economic institutions!
On launch, we aimed to make the video as useful as possible for teachers so that they can use it creatively in the classroom. I added detailed theoretical and historical footnotes to the rap lyrics so that students can understand the richness of ideas behind every line. We also made the rap backing track available in the creative commons so that anyone can write and record their own economic critique as a rap battle and we are looking forward to finding out what students create in response.
Every time I give a public talk or university lecture, I now take with me the little cut-out figure of rational economic man – the anti-hero in the video – and he raises a smile and some heated debate. Through this project, I’ve learned the clear value of making economics playfully accessible, taking it out of dry theory and immersing it in art and wit. I’m constantly struck by the wide range of people who are drawn into economic conversations when they start in this far more engaging way. Play and creativity are, I think, very powerful tools for democratising economics.
So watch out – you may not have seen the last economic puppet rap battle yet!