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aNaRCHy iN THe uK

Dorothy Max Prior looks at home-grown adult puppetry

‘Puppets are not cute, like Muppets. Puppets are effigies and gods and meaningful creatures’
(Peter Schumann, Bread and Puppet Theatre)

It’s not a new thing: anarchic, saucy, politically-sussed, grown-up puppets and animated characters have been on parade for a long time now – from Mr. Punch to Ubu Roi to Team America. Czech puppeteer Karel Capek’s anti-Nazi propaganda plays defied the oppressors and Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet anti-war demo-cum-street performances proved that agit-prop did not have to be dull as dishwater to slam home political messages.
Yet still, outside of a few oases of understanding, there persists the notion that a love for and interest in puppets and puppetry is something that we grow out of when we hit adolescence. But this is all changing, it really is!
And the UK is certainly not lagging behind in this…

At the last the visions festival (October 2004), the most definitely not-for-children Cabaret at the end of the festival brought together a motley selection of artists exploring grown-up puppetry and object animation in all sorts of different ways, playing to a packed house at the Komedia, Brighton.

The evening was compered by Baby Warhol - the naughty, naked and confrontational creation of Voodoo Vaudeville's Chris Creswell. The audience are invited to ask Baby Warhol questions - the answers are often frisky enough to make a rugby player blush. The Cabaret acts included, at one end of the spectrum, the whimsically beautiful and delicately crafted marionettes of Steven Mottram and, at the other end, DNA co-director Adam Bennett's naked digits performing Handy Tips - the day in the life of a hand - Dynamic New Animation is a good example of a contemporary company that moves easily from work aimed at children to work aimed at a general theatre audience to adult cabaret. Dave and Tamsin's Psychic Spectacular was a comic turn that culminated in a truly gruesome resurrection, as Rod Hull's Emu emerged from an operating table massacre - I'll say no more. Wandering through the audience, making friends, was the large-as-life George the Janitor - accompanied by Orlando Bloom. Oh, and there was a man on a date with a white goose… So a truly eclectic selection, proving that grown-up puppetry can embrace many different ways and means.
And this eclecticism can be seen in the full-length puppetry and visual theatre shows emerging in the UK in recent years, as we have witnessed an ever-growing range of home-grown companies with an interest in puppetry and animation that have aimed their work at a predominantly adult audience.

Just thinking back to what I've seen over the past ten years, it would seem that what started as a trickle has turned into a flood of talent. This is a personal recollection - not a definitive list by any means - but the companies seen over that time have demonstrated the broad range of work that has been on show… here's a few examples:

There was Improbable Theatre's impro show Animo, no script, a pile of junk - and anything could happen (and did). 70 Hill Lane, also by Improbable - rooms made of sellotape growing in front of our eyes and that same sticky tape rolling into balls and transforming into an embodied poltergeist. The sellotape obsession stuck (so to speak) with Julian Crouch and Improbable going on to create a sellotape-rich set for the English Shakespeare Company's Midsummer Night Dream and eventually the mother-of-all-sellotape-shows, Sticky.

There was Faulty Optic, creating marvellous and darkly disturbing miniature worlds full of Heath Robinson-like contraptions and peopled by grumpy characters struggling to survive. Green Ginger, with shows like the sick fairy-tale Slaphead and Who Killed Bambi? which dredged the underworld of urban living. And there was Steven Mottram's Animata with its perfectly manipulated object choreography and Indefinite Article's Dust, which brought the story of Odysseus to life with shifting shadows and shapes conjured by artists on-stage working with trays of sand and paint, the images shape-shifted by overhead projectors. Wireframe have used puppetry and animation within a very varied number of multi-discipline devised productions, including the site-specific installation and show Elevation, and At Home - a unique total-environment experience for an audience of one. Mark Manders brought us adult fun with his Humanette creation Maybellene the Living Fashion Doll, performing camp cabaret songs and grown-up interpretations of fairy tales.

In recent months there has been Ding Foundation's Unexploded Bomb which gave us haunting, melancholic object manipulation. Emerging company Nitty Gritty's Inside Out tackled issues of asylum and displacement with a moving mix of live jazz and puppetry. And most recently (seen at the Arcola Theatre, March 2005 and reviewed in this e-dition by Beccy Smith), Unpacked's Fourth Violin From the Left, which was part Nouvelle Vague meets Film Noir pastiche, part Pink Panther, and all-in-all a tantalizing blend of movement-theatre and object animation. Like many of the new generation of visual theatre makers and animators, Unpacked met and formed when they were training at Central School of Speech and Drama's Advanced Theatre Practice MA, one of the few places in the UK where puppetry can be investigated, side-by-side with other performing arts disciplines, as a vital element in collaborative theatre-making.
So - there is plenty out there. But although some companies that use object animation (such as Complicite and Improbable) have broken through to mainstream appreciation, for the most part the mainstream theatre establishment has, until very recently, remained uncharmed - or has integrated puppetry into its productions in a rather haphazard way, without according it the same respect it would another artform (like dance, say) if that were incorporated in such a way into a theatre production. Yes - I am talking about the National Theatre's adaptation of His Dark Materials… although ironically - despite the justifiable outrage at the lack of credits for the puppet-makers in the original production and the rather gung-ho way it was all apparently approached without due care or consideration of the need for an appropriately experienced puppet director - the puppets are one of the most engaging aspects of the production.

But the production that will most likely be seen to be the real tipping-point for puppetry is the Royal Shakespeare Company's Venus and Adonis, directed by the RSC's associate director Gregory Doran in collaboration with Little Angel's artistic director Steve Tiplady. This puppet-theatre presentation of Shakespeare's poem was greeted with critical acclaim in the national press.

To discuss the implications of the success of Venus and Adonis, and other matters on and around the subject of adult puppetry, I met with Steve Tiplady.

So how had this collaboration come about? Tiplady explained that it had been a while in gestation:
'Greg had seen Jonas and the Whale and Pinocchio and liked the aesthetic of my work… there was a certain amount of work done, then for various reasons it went on hold. When I got the job of artistic director of The Little Angel, I invited him to see Jabberwocky. And we decided that the collaboration project wasn't dead; Thelma Holt came on board and - this was important for us - the show was developed here, within the building.'
That devising process, with the on-hand team of highly-skilled designers and makers (Lyndie Wright, Peter O’Rourke, John Roberts et al) meant that the puppet-led scenographic vision was crucial to the development of the work - the puppets were at the heart of the piece.
'It's not a revolutionary puppetry piece but its very existence is a revolution for both the RSC and for puppetry - which has been seen to have been taken seriously and given the best levels of production support'.

Following its very successful premiere at The Little Angel, Venus went on to a season at Stratford-upon-Avon, and it will probably tour in 2005. The investment in the creation of the piece means that there is an intention that it should remain in the RSC repertoire for a long time to come.
The last few months of 2004 saw not one but two adult puppetry shows at Little Angel - the aforementioned Venus and Adonis and a revival of Animo, the renowned Improbable Theatre experiment in improvised animated theatre.
'It's a show that changes every time' says Steve, who not content with his heavy roster of directing commitments was taking part in Animo as one of the team of improvising performer-animators. 'It's back to basics for Improbable with this one - it’s the first show they did and it’s a show that investigates the building blocks of the process…'

So it would seem that there is a strong strand of adult puppetry and animation emerging as part of the Little Angel's regular activity.
And as this is a question that I've been asking puppeteers from outside of the UK, I'm interested to hear if Steve feels that Britain is particularly behind other countries in its awareness of and support for adult puppetry.

'I think there is a bit of a feeling that the grass is always greener elsewhere. I know French puppeteers who think it is great here - they look at companies like Faulty Optic (who are Big in France) and assume that England is full of similar companies, all well supported! The exception is Czechoslovakia - where there really is a major Puppet Theatre in every town and an established culture for adult work'.
But he does think that there is a huge groundswell here in the UK right now - and that we really are at a tipping point:
' Just a bit more support, a bit more funding would do it! It is frustrating - now is just the right moment and I would like to programme a whole season of new adult puppetry - but even if I can get one thing into each season, even if it is just one of mine… anything!'
Steve feels strongly that puppetry needs to be used as a tool in a performance - like any other tool, such as music or choreography:
'Puppetry has looked inward for too long - I want more people to use it!'

He feels that it is important that in productions using puppetry as a major strand of the performance text a professional puppet-director should be on board - but equally feels that actors and all theatre-makers should have puppetry skills included as part of their training, and that performers shouldn't shy away from integrating animation into their work. Furthermore, he feels that in ensemble theatre, encompassing a broad range of artistic practices - including puppetry - into the devising and rehearsing processes means that everyone's skill-base increases.

Meanwhile, Steve is helping to nurture the development of adult puppetry through his Little Devils initiative - an open group of people of all levels of experience who share an interest in adult puppetry, from 18 year-old students to professional practitioners with a lengthy track record:
'it’s a place to meet, to show work in progress, to chat - and a space without an agenda… there's an opportunity to let off steam and to get an honest response'
Part of the intention is to creating a space for potential growth and development - which will inevitably, he feels, lead to a raise in quality of performance.

It really would seem that there is a lot going on out there - some is already visible and some, like a cocooned butterfly, waiting to grow its wings. I don't think, on the evidence of the past year or so, that it would be too rash to say that grown-up puppetry in the UK is going to go from strength to strength over the next few years. Just watch this space!

This feature is one of an ongoing series on adult puppetry – if you have any thoughts on this subject...
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