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Company Profile:

Beccy Smith profiles the ever-successful Devon company Puppetcraft, whose artistic director John Roberts has become a national institution.


John Roberts, born in South Africa, originally trained as an architect. However, his taste for puppetry was whetted at an early age when, aged 8, his father and brother gave him a collection of homemade glove puppets as a Christmas present. He became fascinated by the possibilities of building sets and rigs for them so that he could perform for family and friends. He embarked on a course of self-teaching through any books he could source in a country where indigenous puppetry was rare, allowing him to increase the scale and variety of his shows, roping in family and neighbours, and moving from glove puppets to marionettes. By age ten he was being paid to perform at parties, and by the time he embarked on his training for architecture at eighteen he was self avowedly ‘obsessed by the possibilities of puppetry.’

The books learnt from in his early years remained abiding influences on John’s work. He cites the wonderful books by Beaumont, bringing pictures of puppetry from many countries to his eye; the little book by Obraztsov and technical books by Fettig alongside inspiring performances by Salzburg Marionettes in South Africa in the late 60's. But it was to be writing by fellow South African John Wright which was to have the greatest influence on his career, leading him eventually to Britain whilst on a year-out of his architecture course, to strike up a friendship with John and Lyndie Wright which grew to his celebrated co-directorship of the Little Angel theatre for more than ten years.

It was during this formative period that John’s own aesthetic was developing. Focused by extensive training at festivals around the world - including a seminal six-month stay in China, alongside his work at the Little Angel - his specialism in wood carving took more solid form, ‘with many mistakes and cut fingers’. This led naturally, though unexpectedly to many in the puppetry community, to a change of direction after 10 years at the Little Angel and to setting up in 1990 of his own company in the warmer creative climes of Devon. Puppetcraft, originally working out of John’s own kitchen, has grown to exhibit many aspects of his unique style and approach to puppetry. First and foremost the commitment to wood-carved figures, for which he has become nationally and internationally renowned. John's choice of this process, generally in hard wearing lime wood, is put down to its being one of the fastest, most flexible, most environmentally-friendly and longest lasting traditional techniques. But he also speaks eloquently of the dialogue he undertakes as maker with each original form, describing (in a recent interview in Devon Today) his carving as ‘a two way stream’ sensitivity which can take his making into unexpected territory - and the range of his figures is a testament to the enormous flexibility offered by the form.

Now one of England’s most acclaimed touring puppet troupes, the focus of Puppetcraft’s work is decided community based, creating inventive performance spaces in a dazzling array of venues and with many members of the ever changing troupe drawn from local artists and musicians. Material is drawn both from traditional folklore and contemporary tales, the emphasis being on the original, often magical re-telling of simple stories meaningful to audiences of children and adults alike.


Recent successful shows, such as Patrick Cooper’s adaptation of Antonia Barber’s ‘The Mousehole Cat’ exhibit aspects characteristics of the company’s aesthetic, such as the integration of live, original music to the performance, linking the work to other art, here literature, though elsewhere projection and sculpture have been used as well as music; play with scale - from tiny puppets to large projected shadow images; and the interplay of puppeteer as an extension of the puppet being operated.

John’s enthusiasm for training anyone with an interest in puppetry has also led to a broad and embracing programme of training and increasing specialism in workshops for all ages, reaching out to the audiences who have enjoyed the shows as well as puppeteers looking to enhance their carving and making skills through studying Roberts’ process. John has been a visiting lecturer in puppetry at Dartington College of Arts for over a decade; Puppetcraft runs workshops at schools and colleges across the Southwest and more recently parts of Wales; and puppeteers travel far and wide to attend his wood carving workshops. This is one more aspect of his communally-focused attitude the work as something to be shared and to bring together the broadest range of those interested in the process.

Future projects from the company include two projects with well-known poet/ playwright Adrian Mitchell (writer of many stage scripts for companies including the Royal Shakespeare Co, the National Theatre, Unicorn Theatre and Welfare State). Adrian is an old-hand collaborator with Puppetcraft, having written the very successful "Sir Fool's Quest" for the company many years back, and John is looking forward to the opportunity to work with him again. One of the shows will be for young audiences, while the second production (based around Greek myths) will be for adults and older children.


Above all Puppetcraft is an example of a company for whom big plans have been realised through local aims. By remaining true to his ideals of performance as a communal act, embracing family audiences with challenging work, creating his ensemble from local artists and embedding his training locally, Puppetcraft has been able to create performance that has crossed the boundaries of the form and between work for children and work for adults, realising Roberts’ stated vision of puppetry as an art-form that is international and getting to the parts other theatre can’t reach. It’s a global aim, delivered through fine artistry, community commitment and a fascination with weaving a good yarn.
Puppetcraft Photos: John Roberts. Additional material by Penny Francis. Some quotes are taken from the Puppetcraft website, which can be found at

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