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Grown-Up Puppetry
Dorothy Max Prior with the first of a two-part look at puppetry for adult audiences


Part One - An International perspective: Soma from Canada and Black Hole from Australia

What does the term Adult Puppetry mean to you? Something X-rated or perhaps just a way to flag up a show that is not specifically aimed at children? For Soma International (from Montreal), the whole question of the way that the company present their work is a vexing one. On their flyer for Cabaret Decadanse, which played to packed houses at the Gilded Balloon throughout the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August, the by-line is 'Puppet Show For Adults' - but this they feel is not quite right. 'There is nothing really hard-core in the show - it is a little risqué that is all' says puppeteer Serge Deslauriers. But the point is, says his partner Enock Turcotte, that the audience expectation of puppetry is that it is for children - so it is necessary to add the rider. In theatre, Soma puppeteer and administrator Anne-Marie points out, you specifically state when a show is aimed at children. In puppetry, it is the opposite - you have to make it clear when it isn't! A more appropriate way of viewing it, thinks Enock, is to see the work as puppetry FROM adults. It comes from adult experience and sensibility - it reflects on adult interests and concerns.
I wondered if this was something peculiar to the UK - how were things in Quebec? Was puppetry accepted as an adult-audience entertainment and artform? My vision of Montreal is of somewhere that has pushed the boundaries of numerous artforms in recent decades - from La La La Human Steps innovative contemporary dance that wowed London audiences in the 80s to Cirque du Soleil's circus revolution that has rocked the world. I rather hoped that the same was true of puppetry - but apparently this is not the case. In Montreal, puppetry is - as here in the UK - seen predominantly as a children's entertainment, although the acclaim that Soma have received in their homeland could mean that in future years they will be seen as having foreshadowed a sea-change in attitude. But for now - despite worldwide acclaim, they have never received a Creation Grant. Puppetry and Variety are two forms that don't receive much support in Quebec, they say - and Soma sits between the two!
All four members of Soma are former or current members of the renowned Montreal puppet company Theatre Sans Fil, who have travelled the world - seen a year or two ago in Manchester, they create work that often uses very large-scale puppets to tell stories such as their interpretation of Lord of the Rings. In 1999, company members Serge, Enoch and Raynald Michaud got the yen to use their combined talents in puppetry, dance and fashion design to create a new sideline - a short piece of so-called Adult Puppetry to enter in a major Street Arts event. They had been playing around with making a puppet that would ooze sensuality - and were using the song Summertime as their starting point. To their surprise, they won the event - and their gorgeous lip-synching lady puppet Larraine become the first of a whole roster of cabaret characters who have formed the essence of the Cabaret Decadanse show, an ever-evolving piece that has built up over the years to feature an ever-growing roster of characters. Soma's work is characterised by its dance-based fluidity - Enock is a trained dancer and both Serge and he do far more than handle the puppets - they duck and dive, weave and wave in a choreography that is a magical mix of fabric and flesh, wood and bone.
The 1999 break-out was a conscious decision to move into work that had less restrictions of content; to create shows that were aimed at an adult - or at least at a general - audience rather than work tailored to an audience of children. Not that they dislike this work - as said, some of Soma continue to work with both. But, as Enock puts it, they felt that they wanted a space to play as adults, to make work for themselves - work that amused and entertained them as adults, work that they didn't have to censor in any way. This initial experimentation, which has led to the full-length Cabaret Decadanse show, is proof that the pleasure principle is still an important factor in contemporary performance. As Serge puts it ' Puppetry is what I want to do. It's my art - and I want no restrictions'.
Serge is a fashion designer turned performer - and his inspiration for moving into puppetry came from seeing Ronnie Burkett on a Canadian TV show.
What is it, I ask, about puppetry that has held his attention for so long? The answer, for Serge, is in the qualities unique to puppetry and object animation - his interest in the plastic arts, in designing and making, is satisfied and his interest in performing is too. The puppet's special role as a figurative object grants him the experience - enjoyed by many fellow puppeteers - of safely exploring what it is to be human. He cites the puppet's ability to reach into the heart and really express what is human, to excite care and concern in the audience. Yet puppets can do things people can't - and that is an added appeal as anything is possible. ' I can act out my dreams' he says.
Soma create naughty-but-nice camp entertainment - a little rude but nothing you wouldn't take your mother to see (especially if she likes drag artistes!).
Australia's Black Hole are a rather different kettle of fish - creating dark, dangerous and often mischievously funny work that challenges audience's responses to sex and violence. As Rod Primrose, Black Hole puppeteer-performer and director of puppetry, puts it: 'anything nice or whimsical gets chucked out'. He is particularly wary of the 'ah, poor puppet' syndrome and the company works hard to subvert any sympathies that the audience might feel towards the puppets: after a particularly harrowing scene in their adult-only show Caravan, one is thrown from table-top to floor with a loud clatter- it is a moment that is horribly funny.
Caravan was presented at this year's Aurora Nova Festival of International Visual Theatre at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It then toured the UK, with a run at Riverside Studios and an appearance at Visions International Festival in Brighton. At Visions, the show was presented at the Nightingale Theatre - a 50-seat venue that was perfect for the production, which was developed originally for an Australian pub audience. A moment here to voice an appreciation for Visions artistic director and programmer Linda Lewis who choose to work with the company and the enterprising new directors of the Nightingale to place the work in the best possible venue. Other programmers might have been tempted to place their festival's big international draw in a large venue - thus accruing more ticket sales - rather than somewhere that showed off perfectly the beautiful and intricate junk-art scenery and props and the company's deft manipulation skills of puppets of all types and sizes. It is the small-scale that is the company's particular forte: tiny bum-sniffing dogs and fluttering moths on wires; roughly-hewn bunraku figures smoking miniature cigarettes; dolls-house interiors and borrowers-style environments built from fag packets, costume jewellery and tin cans.
Black Hole do not shy away from the harrowing and the hard-core. Abuse, murder, deviancy, drug-taking and masturbation are seen as valid subject matters for puppetry. When we met to talk about their work, I learnt from Rod primrose that Black Hole's first project, 13 years ago, was an interpretation of Lord of Darkness Nick Cave's only novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel*. This seemed entirely fitting: both Cave and Black Hole give lie to the popular image of Australian culture as one long jolly sun-soaked knees-up. Here is evidence of Oz melancholia, deep dark despairing depths, perverse humour and night-time lunacy.
So why use puppetry? For Rod, the answer is 'the psychological possibilities'. He's interested in intensity and transformation; in the emotional responses that can be garnered by animating objects and by the fact that puppets can do things that people can't… and, as is evidenced in Caravan, people can do things to puppets they couldn't do to a fellow actor - giving plenty of opportunities for the traditional theatrical experience of catharsis.
Although their styles and subject matter are very different, one thing Black Hole do have in common with Soma is a very clever onstage investigation of the relationship of the human performer/puppeteer to the puppet. In Caravan, we move easily from human to puppet and back again - a real human hula-hoop girl (Bindlestiff Family Cirkus performer Kalki Henenberg) is, at another point in the show, flirtatiously teasing a carnival worker with a box of popcorn as a world-weary puppet with a tiny broom sweeps up her discarded popcorn. Kalki's assistance in the 3-person manipulation of a larger-scale Devil Lady dancer (complete with phallic tail) adds a very different dimension to the image than if this had been an all-male cast operating a burlesque dancing puppet. Her kohl-eyed stare from between the puppet's feet (which she holds down) is both sexily suggestive and highly unnerving, as if she is challenging our voyeurism. Rod describes it as 'a circular communication… there are the puppeteers' stories and there are the puppets' stories' and there are points at which those stories meet, interrupt or intervene with each other.
Another interesting element of Black Hole's work is their use of film. In a style that for UK audiences is a little reminiscent of Faulty Optic's work, we see close-up shots of the puppets that offer another view (both literally and metaphorically). The question of voyeurism rears its ugly head again in a love-scene (shot in 16mm by filmmaker James Kalisch) that induces a sort of porn-film look-away guilt in the viewer - we reassure ourselves: it's OK - they're puppets! In fact, there is a strong visual arts sensibility throughout the whole piece. The beautifully crafted miniature sets; the aforementioned film integrated into the live performance; projections of graphics that seem to reference both 50's fairground imagery and aboriginal Australian aesthetics in the strong contrasting colour-blocks of oranges and greens; moody lighting mauves and reds. And this all held together by a soundscape that merges together a whole world of noise - with recurring sound motifs including low-toned industrial rhythms, a siren that is suggestive of both fairground ghost train and police car and a constant rushing wind or quickening breath that sometimes seems to merge into the sound of the sea.
Rod is keen to flag up the collaborative nature of Black Hole's work. The team includes writer/designer Paul Newcombe, co-writer and director Nancy Black and puppeteers Jacob Williams and Mal Martin - this is Mal's first production with Black Hole but he is well-known for his work with Polyglot Puppet Theatre and as principal performer in Australia's largest puppetry production, The Hobbit.
So how have Black Hole survived over the years? I ask this hoping to learn that in Australia there is a healthy milieu of support for puppetry in general and adult puppetry in particular…but not a bit of it, apparently.
'There's no training in Australia' says Rod ' and almost nil funding'. And Australasia is suffering from a post-Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) obsession with computer graphix at the moment. Black Hole have clawed together a living over these past thirteen years - their wonderful DIY aesthetic is a product not only of artistic intention but also of necessity - the mother of invention. 'Cardboard and hot-glue guns feature strongly in our work' says Rod. The happy accident is another feature of their work - Bunraku puppet Leo has one arm 'because his arm fell off in rehearsal…'
But theirs is a history of constant innovation and experimentation. From acting to puppeteering; from creating 4-metre high puppets that got set on fire in outdoor shows to a decision to 'experiment with the painterly'; from the Blue Mountain One Van festival to cabaret slots in Ozzie pubs to international tours at major theatres - the history of Black Hole has been one of making do and getting by.
And by getting by, getting good…The years put in are reaping their reward. You won't often find this level of artistic vision, making and manipulation skills, actor precision and presence and dramaturgical cohesion all merged successfully in one show.
If there is any doubt that adult puppetry can be up there with the best of visual theatre, then look no further than Caravan. Black Hole will return to the UK in the not-too-distant future - watch this space for further details!
For further details of Black Hole see www.blackholetheatre.com.au
For more on Soma see www.soma-international.com
The next e-dition of Animations will feature UK adult puppetry projects. If you wish to contribute thoughts or suggestions please e-mail Dorothy Max Prior on


 

 

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