Penny Francis on valuing puppeteers
Opera North has created its own version of
The Magic Flute
as a puppet show aimed specifically at a young audience of primary
school children. The Little Magic Flute introduces the fantastic
humour and serious, sad satire of the opera, using specially designed
puppets and a piano version of the score condensed to an hour the
better to introduce young people to the opera. The show is the work
of Opera North Education and complements the full production currently
on tour with the main company. The Little Magic Flute was directed
by John Fulljames.
The Opera North
press release goes on to name the people involved in the production.
However one class of credits is omitted: the names of the puppeteer-performers,
the puppet designer and the makers. Amazing, isn't it? The piece is
staged with puppets - therefore the puppeteers must be essential to
the production - but they are not credited. It is, quite frankly,
To the readers of Animations Online at least, let me put the record
straight. The puppets were designed by Lyndie Wright, the heads and
hands carved by John Roberts, the rest made by skilled makers in the
workshop of the Little Angel Theatre. The two puppeteer-performers
were Ronnie Ledrew and Caroline Astell-Burt in the first tour, and
Mark Whitaker and Melvyn Rawlinson in the second and current tour.
These pairs of manipulators, amongst the finest in Britain, operated
the characters of the Queen of the Night (a large rod puppet), the
three Ladies who are her daughters (three marionettes on a single
control), Sarastro, a four-foot tabletop figure, Monostatos, also
tabletop, the Serpent, a shadow, and some jesters which are marottes.
It is clear
that these puppeteers needed to be highly skilled in many puppeteering
techniques, able to speak lines and perform with the puppets onstage
alongside the singers (who are directed to sing as though through
the puppet characters). Here at least we may celebrate and congratulate
them. But when will theatre companies do the same? At the beginning
of the run of Dr. Dolittle in London the puppeteers who were an
essential and ubiquitous element of the production were told they
were not to take a curtain call. Fortunately the puppeteers in question
had the bottle to fight their corner and in the end won, taking
their bow with their puppets, to specially prolonged applause. This
is one kind of snub to the status of puppeteers, although comfort
lies in the fact that these last two productions at least realised
they needed vocational puppeteers to operate the puppets.
The latest example of the disregard of the puppeteer comes in no
less an institution than the National Theatre, where a production
full of puppets has been staged with no specifically trained puppeteer
in the cast. The show is an adaptation of Philip Pullman's brilliant
trilogy, His Dark Materials. Sure, the puppets were made by an expert,
in advance, across the Atlantic in the Michael Curry studios (he
was Julie TaymorŐs collaborator on The Lion King and you can look
him up on the web). Most of the figures are ethereally lovely, well-conceived
and realised. However the director, Nicholas Hytner, and the NationalŐs
cast are getting along without benefit of puppetry expertise on
the stage, and only a couple of specialists backstage to modify
and repair the figures. Some of the puppets in Dark Materials are
operated by performers not required to act, but expert in movement
and able to empathise with the actor their puppet is attached to
and of course able as puppeteers, that is, understanding about transferring
energy into their puppet. Perhaps most saddening, we know of true
puppeteers - producers of shows - who say they prefer not to engage
puppeteers as performers. Anything from actors to mask, mime or
dance performers are preferred.
What does all of this say about the value of the professional puppeteers
in mainstream theatre? What do they have to do to be universally
recognised as performing artists with their specific aesthetics
and skills? The fact that theatre at large now regularly utilises
the art form is undoubtedly a matter for celebration, but not if
its specialist practitioners are thought redundant, with non-specialist
performers apparently able to fulfil the role of puppeteer.
To reinforce the point, this was what Phelim McDermott and Julian
Crouch of Improbable Theatre were quoted as saying (in Puppetry
Into Performance - A User's Guide - November 2001): 'often when
we have worked with trained puppeteers the biggest stumbling block
to creating a great ensemble has been those very skills which trained
puppeteers have: what we are looking for is what we would call metaskills
- these are feeling skills and attitudes which lie beneath any technical
skills a performer may have as a puppeteer, improviser or actor:'
Improbable has of course used puppeteers, but they are of a special
sensibility. What they look for is an ability to collaborate, to
experiment, improvise and take risks, to give and take skills to
and from others, in short to be open and flexible.
Would any reader like to contribute an answer or a comment to this
vexed question? Is one reason, perhaps, a gap in the sparse training
opportunities a puppeteer can receive in this country -the gap being
lessons in acting? It seems that there is a general belief that
the trained actor can be taught to bring a puppet to life: is it
not also true that the trained or experienced puppeteer can be taught
to act? And what of collaborative skills? One producer told me that
he avoids self-styled puppeteers because they find it hard to make
real contact with the others in the company, or to give. The two
courses at the Central School of Speech and Drama do not accept
students unless they appear to be good collaborators at audition.
Collaborative devising is the name of the game, but I am sure many
puppeteers other than the CSSD alumni understand that.
Where do we go from here? Perhaps we should jettison the title of
puppeteer on CVs unless the subject is a manipulator or maker who
does not wish to appear as a performer? For the CVs of those who
do wish to be known as actor-puppeteers, should they write (as appropriate)
something like 'performer: puppetry, acting, mime, mask and physical
skills' thus burying the unacceptable P word?
ItŐs a depressing prospect. It's preferable that somehow producers
begin to understand that the word puppeteer can and often does encapsulate
a range of skills and sensibilities beyond the built-in genius which
brings figures and objects instantly to life. The puppeteer must
become known as the eminently employable performer-plus.
Magic Flute 'Queen of the Night'