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Training Matters:

Why Actors Need Puppetry
By Eleanor Margolies

At the end of her article on the worldwide growth in specialised puppetry training in Animations Online 10, Penny Francis asked, ‘How are the schools to ensure the puppeteer’s equal status in the professional world?’ In response, I would like to suggest that institutions might improve the status of puppetry by teaching it to non-puppeteers.

Paradoxical? Dangerous? Only if puppeteers lack all confidence in their own art. Consider some of the practitioners of the other so-called illegitimate arts, such as jugglers or magicians, and how they sometimes reveal the secret of a particular trick - making it look terribly easy, and at the same time flattering the audience with a sense of inside knowledge - only to draw gasps as a further illusion or preternatural skill is revealed.

The comparison Penny Francis makes between the development of training for actors and for puppeteers is highly relevant. Actors and puppeteers are both susceptible to philistine carping, to hearing the familiar dismissive lines: ‘Anyone can do that’; ‘My five-year old does that’. It is true that both practices are close to child’s play; that is part of their power. Yet both practices can be incredibly subtle, in ways that require experience, training and technical precision. And audiences variously enjoy - at different times and in different contexts - naïve, rough styles as well as sophisticated or trained styles of performance.

Many drama schools already teach some puppetry skills to students who intend to work as actors, directors or designers. Too often, however, it is only a brief taster. Where the teaching of the arts is successfully integrated in training, professionals emerge who do not feel bound by rigid job-descriptions, and some of them go on to create companies where all creative decisions are - theoretically - open for discussion by everyone. Others train and work within more traditional company structures. For them, isn’t puppetry just another optional tool in the toolbox, like tap-dance or fencing? Why should these non-specialists study puppetry at all?

Do It Yourself

As with music, writing or drawing, practical experience of an art, even at the most basic level, produces a deeper appreciation of its more complex forms. Learning to sing or to play an instrument, at school or later, can make the experience of listening to music richer for the rest of your life. The enjoyment of complexity is not diminished by mastering simple skills - quite the reverse. At the Edinburgh festival this year, I overheard a performer talking about a revelation. She had herself been working successfully with a puppet in another show. Puppetry, she said, was just something she found she could do quite well, almost by accident. But seeing the puppets in Black Hole’s Caravan, a show full of sex and brutal violence, with talking dogs and rapid shifts between filmic settings, had revealed something new for her, an important dramaturgical discovery - puppets can do things on stage that humans simply can’t.

Some people are able to analyse works of art in the abstract - to hear the mathematics in the music - but for most people, understanding grows from concrete experience. This concrete experience can take various forms. There is nothing like trying to write a sonnet to make Shakespeare’s sonnets burst into life - not as a dazzling surface but as a series of problems created and resolved, questions set by one line and answered by another. Equally, the process of memorising a poem, of making its sequence of images visible in your own imagination, illuminates it, while reading a poem aloud lets sound patterns and rhythms sing out to readers jaded by skimming and scanning and scrolling.

‘The puppet is the actors’ primer’ (Edward Gordon Craig, 1921)

These are just some of the ways in which a reader can become a poet (and a better reader). One can similarly approach puppets in many ways. For non-puppeteers this might involve seeing and discussing shows that use puppetry, learning about puppetry around the world as part of theatre history (particularly relevant in regions where the puppet is considered to precede the human actor), and considering the model of the puppet when discussing performance theory. Although puppets are rarely discussed in general texts on theatre theory, the puppet theatre was regarded as an important case study by early semioticians such as Bogatyrev, Honzl and Veltrusky; the puppet modelled important questions about live performance. Finally, any study of puppets should include practical exercises in making, manipulation and improvisation. For any theatre-maker, such exercises provide invaluable explorations of movement, costume and text, space, timing and narrative.

As Penny Francis points out, there is currently a problem with the status of puppetry in some theatres and other institutions. Puppeteers are left out of curtain calls and programme credits; puppetry directors are sometimes employed as last-minute coaches for actors, rather than being involved from the beginning of the design and conceptual process, as a scenographer or composer would rightly be.

In my own recent experience of directing puppetry with actors and musicians, I have not encountered any lack of respect for puppets or for the process of animation. Instead, it is overly respectful attitudes born of unfamiliarity - which inhibit hands-on playfulness - that must be dispelled. In a world where fewer and fewer people regularly cook, sew, grow vegetables or otherwise get their hands dirty, manipulating matter has become something unusual. Just as in dramatic or musical improvisation, mess, mistakes and noise have to be licensed before any kind of creative animation can take place.

There is no room here to discuss the ways in which a knowledge of puppets develops acting skills, but the work of Improbable Theatre stands out among recent Lords of Misrule. Improbable have licensed actors to ‘mess around with stuff’ in various ways: in their show Animo, in their constant assertion that unexpected things will happen in performance, and in their teaching. Their improvisatory approach can be fantastically liberating, allowing actors to move into thoughtful and creative playing. Improbable members have sometimes argued that they are not puppeteers, and are not teaching puppetry to actors. However, the use by Phelim McDermott of Michael Chekhov’s explorations of material qualities (like Jacques Lecoq’s work with the elements, or Enrique Pardo’s work with ‘uncontrollable’ materials), takes a performance methodology that is very close to animation - giving life to matter through movement - and makes it relevant to actors. Learning from these exercises in animation, actors can make powerful connections with their own performance practice.

I do not believe that greater exposure to puppetry in their education will make actors want to usurp puppeteers. I am convinced that experience with puppets leads to a deeper understanding of theatre in general, as well as promoting an appreciation of the specific skills a puppeteer can bring to a production - whether in design and construction, or in the precise control which comes only with long practice. It is the respect bred of familiarity which theatre companies thrive on: working with a director who loves dance and physical theatre, a writer who goes to see puppet shows, or a composer who creates ‘found’ music from kitchen equipment, a puppeteer can contribute as an equal, creative partner to a shared exploration of the language of things.



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