Dorothy Max Prior with the first of
a two-part look at puppetry for adult audiences
One - An International perspective: Soma from Canada and Black Hole
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
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'
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
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