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Note To Self: Quit Suffering!

Or: my first puppetry directing job and what I learned from it… Amy Rose shares some strategies for flourishing in British puppet theatre

About eight years ago I was asked to oversee the last few days of what had been a long and taxing creation/rehearsal period of a devised puppet theatre show. The production had gone into serious over-time – perhaps over-drive might be a better description. It was a five day countdown to a European premier that had been scheduled for months. Tickets had been sold and there was no turning back on an already ambitious undertaking. Please excuse the heightened drama (which all theatre makers will recognise). It feels that important when you are in the midst of it.

The company had been working without pay to create a show that they insisted must top their last show, which had been an international success. They had accumulated only £7,000 to finance a production with an anticipated budget of £24,000 plus. Their guest director had extended his initial time commitment as long as he could without doing financial or familial damage and was needed elsewhere. All favours had been called in and resources were getting thin. Would I direct the last rehearsal days of a panicking company in exchange for food, accommodation, and a few days by the sea? I assessed the proposal and found it to weigh in the ‘pro’ column for reasons both personal and professional, and, although I usually insist on being paid for work, the timing was right and I said yes.

green gingerAfter those few (and long) work days, I came home and fell into a kind of delirium. I was filled with questions. How had an established company arrived at that state? Was it necessary to create work under so much stress and panic? This was an established company with some (but never enough) public funding and an international reputation. Is that as good as it gets? Will it always be this way? Is it possible to make work without killing our creativity, our co-workers, ourselves?

I have lived and worked with these questions for a while now. I have participated in a range of projects and experienced varying degrees of suffering and thriving. I can articulate some of what I have learned as advice that I would have liked to have heard when first starting out. Much of this is applicable to the creation of any theatre, but I have tried to tease out any particulars to puppet theatre where applicable.

What I experienced and observed highlighted for me many of the issues that we face as puppet theatre artists trying to create and present quality, original work in a culture that does not place a high value on puppetry and therefore often leaves us working under less than satisfactory economic and emotional conditions. What is at risk is our creative integrity and self-respect. What are called for are vigilance, compassion and a few strategic behaviours.

The following is a short list of proposed strategies for creative survival, indeed, prosperity for puppetry practitioners in economically lean times and beyond. It is my interest mostly to initiate a discussion and re-evaluation of creative working practices under less than ideal circumstances. Perhaps this list would be best introduced as guidelines for an experiment. I welcome your responses.

Don’t skimp on pre-production

Be honest. Know your parameters. Preferably before setting an opening date, and certainly at the onset of any project, take a painstakingly honest inventory of your production, your dreams, your needs, your budget, your skills, your fears, your personnel and your resources. Take a clear look at the project and all of its component parts; design, making, writing, music composition, technical requirements, more making, rehearsing, and so on. Assess what it takes to sustain each member of the project’s enthusiasm and sanity and address those needs as well. Set realistic goals and time commitments based on this information. Repeat this process at intervals throughout the project.  N.B. If you do not think this way, find someone who does to do the job for you, a project or production manager.

Make contingency plans

Because we rarely know our final budget before beginning a project, it is crucial that we become resourceful about contingency plans. Without compromising your dream production, create multiple and varied strategies to address all of the budget possibilities. Sometimes it is possible to break a project down into two or more distinct phases and seek separate funding for each. Particularly with design or puppet-led devised work, the pre-production, design/making and devising phase must have ample time and be completed before formal rehearsals begin. One working period may be for devising and making towards a written script/text. Another may be solely for rehearsal including a run of previews and some re-working time before touring. The more clarity you can attain through thorough preparation and on-going reality checks, the more possibilities you will have for responding creatively to set-backs. 

Pay yourselves and your collaborators throughout the creation period (and beyond)

Use professional contracts and pay everyone as well as possible. Place this as a high priority on your budget and stick to it. Guidelines for these can be found through Equity or the Independent Theatre Council.  Having a decent income does wonders for energy levels and sense of self-worth. Also it sends out a message to the universe, funding bodies and promoters, that puppetry is worth every penny of the asking price. Devising puppet theatre on a cut or low budget, while making us resourceful, can also cause serious damage to self-worth.  We must try to behave as professionals even when our fees don’t support that notion.

Go to France (or Vermont)

Observe puppeteers at work in a country or in any atmosphere that values them and try as well as you can, to imitate their model and create for yourselves an environment of self-respect. I found this strategy to be the backbone of my survival as a freelancer in the US before moving to Britain. Every time I found myself scrambling for a sleazy commercial booking, saying “No, waiting tables is not my life’s calling”, or denying myself a pricey but well-deserved cappucino after a day of underpaid work, I would slip off to France in my head and regain some sense of integrity. It helped to remember that somewhere out there puppeteers were treated as valued and valid members of their communities. I was not surprised that Peter Schumann, the founder of Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont (USA) was of German descent. Luckily, I had the opportunity to work with them early in my career and experience a positive, valuing attitude first hand in a country known for an immense lack of respect for the arts.

fish wishQuit suffering.

Try NOT suffering for your art. Start simply. Sleep decent hours. Rest when you are tired. Surround yourself with self-respecting professionals who value their sanity. Observe the results. Yes, you will experience resistance within yourself and among colleagues who will find your behaviour a challenge to their own. I have heard and been lured in by nearly every excuse: “It has to be this way. If we were happy, our work would suffer.” And so on. These are the internal and external voices of sabotage. Avoid them. Try to quit suffering anyway.  There is enough suffering in the world. It is our job to contradict it , relieve it or expose it, not create more of it! I have observed my own and other artists’ commitment to high-stress and suffering at times and believe that it operates as an addiction – one that conveniently serves the economic oppression of artists. It is nothing short of a quiet revolution when an oppressed group establishes a solid foundation of self-respect. 

Confront professional jealousy.

You may find that along with the voices that tell you to suffer are the ones which use other people’s success to undermine your self-confidence. While it is important that we acknowledge our feelings, it is just as crucial that we don’t act on them. We must refuse every opportunity to collude with the economic oppression of artists and this model of scarcity. Whatever has been said or felt in the puppet community in relation to the success of Julie Taymor’s Lion King or Improbable’s Shockheaded Peter, and more recently, Avenue Q, they have undeniably brought positive mainstream attention to puppetry.  Notice that someone else’s success can also be a model of possibility rather than hopelessness. It may feel small and personal to indulge in a bit of professional gossip or back-stabbing, but it has highly political effects. It is an effective method, intentional or not, for people in power to create scarcity among an oppressed or marginalised group and therefore create a competitive environment. Soon, the oppressed begin to attack one another and thus affirm the status quo. Don’t give in. Defend your colleagues. Encourage the flourishing creativity of all people. Pursue puppetry as the ideal form for this endeavour.

Be alert to self-sabotage

It may seem that I advocate turning away from ambitious works and creating within safe and familiar territory. Not at all. We must set high standards for ourselves and our dreams. Certainly ambition calls for action but we must give ourselves reasonable expectations within which to succeed. Poor planning and overzealous ego-driven goal-making are great allies of Mediocrity. If you do not give yourself ample time and resources you will always have a good excuse for not achieving your goal. That is not ambition, its bad working practice.

Enjoy the work

Notice if the work is feeling horrid and try to shift it. Identify the difficult bits, face the scary problems and re-invest in the relationships with your collaborators and colleagues. Allow ample time and attention for appreciation and fun. Even the most cynical respond well to positive feedback and a good laugh.

No excuses

Yes, puppetry is not as respected or perhaps as well funded as we may want it to be. But don’t buy it. Or rather, try not to dwell on it or use it as an excuse. There are opportunities to be found and created.  Indeed this very journal and The Puppet Centre are excellent advocates for the form, with links to many other sources of support and opportunity. Puppeteers are resourceful, creative people — look for windows when the doors seem shut.

This is just some of what I have learned since that first fateful call to direct a puppet show. Call it a plea, call it a pep talk. Call it a warning or better yet, a challenge. It is simply this: Let us work consciously to create high-quality devised puppet theatre in atmospheres of abundant creativity and respect. Puppet theatre is dead! Long live puppet theatre!

Amy Rose is a director with over 15 years professional experience and special skill in devised ensemble theatre that has strong choreographic and visual theatre elements, including puppetry and transformational sets. She is co-artistic director of the Bristol-based company Bocadalupa, and has a long-standing association with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, working in collaboration with Theatre Design tutor Christine Marfleet.
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