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Respect! 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, an insult.

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.

Picture: Little Magic Flute 'Queen of the Night'

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