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Spotlight on: Young People’s Theatre - Blind Summit at BAC

By Beccy Smith, with contributions from Mark Down, Richard Dufty, Laura Glover and Tom McDonnell.

At a time when puppetry is gaining increasing currency as a cross-over art form - collaborating with other forms, notably theatre - the relative absence of provision for young theatre practitioners to explore the possible applications of the form to their work is disappointing.
BAC have recently taken up the baton, offering young people the opportunity to experiment with puppetry in performance outside of a formal educational setting. BAC’s Young People’s Theatre programme is renowned for its model colliding emergent artists in the form of theatre-interested young people with visionary artists from their in-house producing stable: bringing the programming decisions at the venue into first-hand, process-led contact with young people committed to BAC’s brand of theatre making.

This term, BAC selected Blind Summit artist Mark Down (using puppets by company partner Nick Barnes) to lead the term’s project. BAC producer Richard Dufty explained the logic behind the decision: ‘Blind Summit's exciting no-holds barred mix of puppetry and live performance is something that we thought would really inspire the participants in the course, overturning any prejudices that they might have had about the stuffiness of traditional puppetry’.
The process was a term’s work exploring puppetry and theatre practice, devising the show and ultimately producing a showing of work, which focused very much on the techniques acquired by the students in manipulating and characterising the puppets. For Mark, the process was very much centred upon offering the participants the chance to explore the theatrical potential of puppetry, offering ‘confidence, fun, access to new performing skills, a physical exploration of emotions…a discussion about what theatre is and can be’. For Dufty too, an important feature of YPT’s process is the level of creative responsibility offered to the young people: ‘ownership of, and responsibility for, the final show and the creative decisions made to get there, remains in the hands of the participants’

So what did the participants take from the process? Laura Glover, a student who has gone on to work further with Blind Summit, described the approach as ‘liberating’, allowing the group to devise more effectively by removing inhibitions about what could be explored. Focussing on the puppetry eliminated many of the issues surrounding collaboration with other performers at the same time as offering a greater concentration of ideas through the parameters provided by the form. Tom McDonnell, also now working with the company, found the process ‘challenging’ in the level of skills it demanded, stretching performance skills through demanding a focus on physical technique. Both participants became excited by the possibilities opened up by using puppetry, explaining that they were interested in ‘looking at scenes only a puppet could do’ and in the ‘potential interaction and relationship with puppets’.

From the perspective of the puppetry world, this seems to have been an enormously positive process, enthusing potential new practitioners in the art form. Both students interviewed have since gone on to join the Little Devils and hope to extend their skills as well as continuing to work with Blind Summit. As McDonnell put it ‘It feels more satisfying achieving something with a puppet than with just yourself’
For Mark, the main learning from the project focused on a playfulness of approach: ’the most important thing for participants is enjoying it. If the performers enjoy doing the work then they will put everything into it. Some find it harder than others, but they can all achieve high levels of skill.’ This playfulness was arguably facilitated by the theatrical emphasis of the project, working through improvisation, considering a physical exploration of emotion and maintaining a focus on performance skills.

The relationship between professional training and community projects of this sort is an interesting one. At least one participant (Letty Gilbert) has gone on to the BA in Puppetry at Central School of Speech of Drama. At the same time as being fun for all - and an inspiration to pursue professional training - this project is in many ways the model of an apprenticeship as an alternative to the academic choice.

For Mark, the process offered the opportunity to introduce a particular paradigm of working specific to Blind Summit. He states ‘Blind Summit is not interested in using puppets to be angels or devils or magical beasts or to tell fairy tales. We see puppets as a way to explore people's relationships to things - money, cars, drugs. This is never more relevant than in the consumerist world we inhabit today where we are encouraged to see ourselves as things’. For Blind Summit, this is what makes puppetry relevant and exciting and imbuing the participants with an enthusiasm for this approach has meant that several have gone on to work with the company on other projects.

Unsurprisingly, apprenticeship, with its powerful blend of specific artistic guidance backing up technical training here emerges as a highly relevant and effective means of training emergent puppeteers for work in both theatre and puppetry. Further to this, the process also says something about the potential for developing artists by focusing on the point where puppetry meets theatre – offering, according to the testimonial of participants, an accelerated devising process, highly effective collaborative method and opening the potential for a range of new practitioners to experiment with puppetry. As Dufty states, ‘For almost all of them this was their first taste of puppeteering and a lot of them have, through this process, developed a firm commitment to it as an art form.’

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