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Shorts are Beautiful.

Penny Francis on the beauty of brevity in puppetry performance.

I wonder practitioners don’t produce them more often: I remember the days when every feature film was preceded by a string of shorts: a cartoon, a documentary, the news, a geographic survey…’and as the sun sets over the western desert, Mount Kilimanjaro rises up in all its majesty to remind us….’ etc. I loved these shorts. What’s more all the railway terminuses had a movie house where you could go and pass an hour with the shorts. I was indignant when they were abolished, and could not understand why, when they seemed so popular. Popular with me, perhaps, but evidently not with many other punters.
In the same way, I love a programme of short puppetry pieces: studies, cabaret items, comic and musical turns, virtuoso spots. Think of Albrecht Roser’s show (he is from Stuttgart): without much addition or alteration he has toured the world for nearly half a century with a one-person series of short marionette numbers which regularly has the spectators on their feet, cheering, at the end. There is a stork taking its morning walk – a demonstration of sensitive, realistic observation that is breathtaking. A spotty guitar player wakes up the proceedings (but the best of shows needs checking from time to time: the music has become dated), and a female no-better-than-she-should-be slinks and waggles her protuberances. The star item is by Clown Gustaf, who brings the house down with his inept piano playing. The final turn is always Granny in her rocking chair who quietly knits, addressing the spectators in their own language and referring to the characteristics of certain people in the audience. She did this to me once, in the dignified Wigmore Hall and I was puce with embarrassment.
One of our own most successful performers is Mark Manders, who has invented a formula which has long stood him in good stead, because he does it so consummately well. The utterly gorgeous Maybellene (and some other wonderfully vulgar personalities built as ‘humanettes’, a word which describes the sort of puppet which is operated from behind, has a tiny body and limbs, and the actual face of the puppeteer. Manders’ characters are lavishly made up and dressed, and though he does not much more than mime to recordings, the miming is precise and professional, and the spectators are well entertained.
Many of the Central School of Speech and Drama students – not just those studying puppetry – used to improvise moving, clever and hilarious sketches during the course, and I longed for some of these to be preserved for future professional use. One in particular I remember, played by a French student called Emilie, which she invented while on her BA in Theatre Practice, and it was perfection. A tiny Chinese glove character - directed by Emilie seated at a table behind the puppet which she endowed with an entirely credible, rebellious character - executed various moves which miraculously brought him to life, so that at the end of this perfectly-played item, he had become a rounded personality we did not want to say goodbye to. If she could think of half a dozen such items, she might turn out to be another Roser with 50 years of good earnings!
It’s not easy to think up these short pieces: they have to be sharp, beautifully manipulated, and of course short. It was good to see that there was a cabaret included in the last weekend of the visions festival at Brighton with items new and old (more on this in the next e-dition of Animations).
Liebe Wetzel will be appearing at the Drill Hall this season: her programme is a string of pearls, items rarely too long (a common problem with cabaret or short pieces). Puppets come onstage with a single facial expression, a character set in the wood or the papier-mâché. Sometimes the expression may be modified by the lighting, or even our imagination, sometimes by the use of another head. I love a character with a ‘speaking face’ that stays within its own characteristic and does not strain my credulity for too long.
The best performers tailor their voice and their features to the expression of the figure. The well-known actor Tony Britton was one of a team recording (when people were still recording) a version of Beauty and the Beast – he was of course the Beast. He kept the puppet figure of the Beast hanging before him all the time, and produced a voice which exactly matched its fierce expression – modulating it from bass baritone to light tenor as the character developed into a human being.
But it is difficult to find a maker and a performer who will combine to sustain belief in a character like this for any length of time. Not impossible, but very difficult. Puppets are really well suited to short items, the personality a single statement. One suggestion, for what it’s worth: if a story can only be stretched to fill twenty minutes without becoming tedious, and the venue has stipulated forty minutes of performance, why not invent a second, shorter piece as introduction or postscript? Heaven knows there is a mass of source material.
Brevity is the soul of puppetry, to coin a phrase. Leave ‘em wanting more, never less.



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