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2005 UK puppetry festivals round-up by Penny Francis
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Shows featuring puppetry and object animation at the London International Mime Festival 2006
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TOTAL PUPPETRY

Dorothy Max Prior looks at how puppetry fared at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2005.
Photos: Andrew Dawson – Absence and Presence, Blind Summit – Low Life, Kazuko Hohki – Evidence for the Existence of Borrowers

In a sister feature in this e-dition of Animations, Penny Francis reports on the plethora of puppet-theatre festivals hosted in the UK. But what of the regular arts festival circuit? How well is puppetry represented within the general theatre culture? A good way of telling would be to take a look at the biggest arts festival in the UK - the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

The Fringe 2005 saw an exciting breakthrough for puppetry. Of the hundreds of shows presented, many advertised the inclusion of puppetry and object animation in their productions, and a number of these gained attention in the mainstream press. This included successes both for dedicated puppet-theatre companies and for theatre companies using puppetry as one performance tool in a multi-discipline production, many of whom broke free of the traditional allocation of puppetry to the Children’s section of the 200-page Fringe brochure.
But how best to describe the Edinburgh Festival Fringe? Here’s a moment to relish: it is 10.30 in the morning and we are in the heart of the Underbelly, an ancient grey-stone building with a seemingly endless number of performance spaces tucked away in its labyrinth of stairs, corridors and caves. One such nook, the Jelly Belly bar, is full of folks queuing to see their first show of the day – a sell-out adult puppetry cabaret piece, set in a bar, which takes its inspiration from the writings of boozy late-Beat poet Charles Bukowski. In Low Life we meet a motley crew of puppet characters – including a Kevin Spacey look-alike who needs just one more drink, a gold-lame clad diva who’s seen it all, and a Chinese cleaner with a penchant for literary criticism. The puppets are beautifully crafted and the sketches delivered very much in the post-Burkett style of intimate interaction between animator and puppet. The master-slave relationship between puppets and humans is played to the max – the puppets croon, confess, cajole, but ultimately they are at the mercy of their operators. The audience are delighted with what they see, and the puppeteers from UK company Blind Summit are treated to rounds of rapturous applause.

And here’s another moment: an evening show at another multi-spaced venue, the Gilded Balloon, presented by Montreal company Soma International, who have featured numerous times previously in Animations. Their Cabaret Decadanse is also a puppet show for adults - in essence, it's a series of lip-synched songs and dances superbly enacted by the puppeteers Serge Deslauriers and Enock Turcotte, who animate their cast of puppet characters with a sensual and flowing skill that blurs the boundaries between flesh, bone, fabric and wood. The company's collective experiences - in puppetry of all sorts, dance and fashion design - has led to the creation of a show that utilizes all these skills to maximum effect.

The Fringe is usually seen as the barometer of the UK theatre scene and the fact that both these shows were such a huge success is a wonderful indicator that ‘grown-up puppetry’ - puppetry made by and for adults as Soma like to put it - has finally arrived on the UK stage as a force to be reckoned with.

Both shows were rewarded with sell-out audiences, but also gained the critical approval and status of being shortlisted for a Total Theatre Award. These Awards, first presented in 1997 and now a well-established event at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, honour the best in physical and visual theatre and performance as presented at the Fringe. The Judges Advisory Panel includes many leading lights from the sector, including festival directors such as Joseph Seelig and Helen Lannaghan from the London International Mime Festival, producers such as Chenine Bhathena and Louise Blackwell, venue managers such as Martin Sutherland and critics from both the specialist arts press and national newspapers, including Donald Hutera of The Times and Dance Theatre Journal, and Mary Brennan from Scotland’s national paper, The Herald.

It is useful to look at how puppetry fared in the Total Theatre Awards 2005 after a breakthrough in the 2002 Awards when Shona Reppe’s puppet-theatre show Cinderella was a winner. Giving that particular Award, judging panel member Maggie Kinloch (formerly of Central School of Speech and Drama and a long-time puppetry advocate) spoke of the rise of puppetry as an artform, respected as a crucial and integral part of the visual theatre sector, which Total Theatre represents and supports. A higher profile within the Total Theatre Awards, like other ‘litmus paper’ tests such as inclusion in the London International Mime Festival, is a sign both of the emergence of puppet-theatre into the more general physical and visual performance sector, and the growing integration of puppetry and animation within devised, physical and visual theatre practice.

One characteristic of the 2005 Awards was the very large number of nominated shows proudly advertising puppetry as a vital component of the production. Apart from the above-mentioned two companies - Blind Summit and Soma, which made it through from the hundreds of entries to the shortlist of twelve shows - numerous other puppet-theatre productions and companies using puppetry were considered.

In the early stages of the process, shows are seen and assessed by a team of reviewers and advisors. Nottingham New Theatre’s The Shoe Story (presented at Sweet on the Grassmarket and aimed at a family audience) was one such show, which created their theatre using a mix of puppetry, mime, storytelling and original music. Marigold Hughes had this to say in her assessment: ‘Adorned with sparse simplicity, the opening moments in this intimate studio space are gentle and magical. Lulled into the warmth of the story through the narrator’s song in the softness of twilight blue, and after “the last television has been switched off”, it is the time for the real stories to come out…these stories, all founded in the feet and the shoes which adorn them, are tied together well by their metaphorical shoelaces and are told by skilled performers who present a bunch of dynamic characters in energised performances’. It was not, however, seen to be quite strong enough to make it through to the next round – unlike stable-mates Sorcerer Baklava, appearing at the same venue with A World in your Shell-like, which describes itself as ‘a multi-media puppetry show.’ This production first saw the light of day when presented at the Puppet Centre Trust as a work-in-progress (reviewed in Animations 14 by Cath Connolly), and its ingenious use of scale, amusing portrayal of the elements using everyday objects and integration of original composed soundscape with the animated action led to the show moving on to the second stage of the Awards, the Longlist of around 25 shows – quite an achievement for a new show from a young company.

Another longlisted show was 7K’s Shadows. This did not purport to be a puppetry piece, but in its exploration of the gothic that owes more than a little to the classic film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, we witness human performers who take on the characteristics of puppets, shadows that seemingly take on a life of their own, grotesque animated mask-heads and a life-size music-box set with hatches and moving parts. 7K are one of a number of contemporary companies who, like Akhe (reviewed in this e-dition of Animations), construct a theatre of engineering and robust buffoonery that challenges divisions between physical performance, puppetry, mask, animated set and automata.

Although a puppet-theatre company per se was not among the final list of six Total Theatre Award winners, puppetry and object animation was nevertheless well-represented in this list, with UK puppeteer Mervyn Millar (2003/4 PCT bursary award recipient) as one of co-devisors in the creative team that put together Kazuko Hohki’s winning show Evidence for the Existence of Borrowers, awarded for its creation of a delightful alternative world filled with unusual objects and artefacts, quirky songs and tall tales about small people. A highlight of the show is a concert played on Binstruments – Borrower mini instruments made from spoons, pins, rubber bands and teeny metal tins.

In fact, most of the Award-winners incorporated some form of puppetry or object animation into their production. These included Gecko’s The Race, an exuberant and energetic piece of physical theatre, which used deft little object-animation touches to good effect, an example being a telephone cradled as a baby, the cord snipped to represent a cut umbilical.

Winning show The Devil’s Larder is a promenade piece inspired by Jim Crace’s book of modern fairy tales of the same name. Crace’s magic-realist text is used by Scottish company Grid Iron as a starting point for a series of extraordinary set-pieces, including the story of the search for ever more exotic meat in a secret diner’s club in foreign lands, which is enacted on a miniature set with tiny animated objects. It is directed by Grid Iron’s Ben Harrison, a graduate of the Central School of Speech and Drama MA in Advanced Theatre Practice, which includes puppetry as an integral skill for theatre-makers.

Another winner was Andrew Dawson
. His Absence and Presence is a moving and memorable one-person show with quiet gravitas, an autobiographical piece that investigates the artist’s relationship with his dead father, using mime, text and object animation to beautiful effect. In the closing section, a wire figure that has sat inanimate on a chair at the back of the stage is lifted and raised above Dawson’s head. In a masterful moment of animation, the figure seems to become both skeletal remains and the flying spirit of the father. It’s a beautiful show that will be touring again in 2006, including an appearance at the London International Mime Festival in January.

What was evident from all these artists and companies, the winners the shortlisted and the longlisted of the Total Theatre Awards at Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2005, was that not only is puppet-theatre on the up as a vital part of the physical and visual performance sector, but also that puppeteers can and do play a valuable role in the creation of multi-disciplined devised performance; and that theatre-makers of all sorts who feel empowered to include object animation in their productions are opening themselves to an enriching aspect of visual theatre.


Dorothy Max Prior is editor of Animations Online and also of Total Theatre Magazine, which is hosted by Total Theatre Network. See www.totaltheatre.org.uk Some of the commentary on the Total Theatre Awards first appeared in Total Theatre Magazine Vol 17-4.
An edited version of this feature is simultaneously published in British UNIMA’s Puppet Notebook: see www.unima.org.uk or email puppetnotebook@unima.org.uk for subscription details.
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