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Creating the Chatterbox – an outsider’s view of working with puppets

By Toby Hulse, writer/director of Chatterbox, Pickled Image's latest project

I write from the perspective of a puppet virgin, as Dik Downey of Pickled Image would have it. We are in the middle of our rehearsal period, and my direct creative input as director has been put on hold for three days whilst arms are shortened, intractable costumes stitched into place and knees made to bend in the way that we would like them to. If only live actors were so biddable – there is an exciting collaboration possible here between plastic surgery and theatre. Any surgeons reading are welcome to poach this idea.

I was invited to join the Chatterbox project –a new puppet show for anyone over the age of six, following a year long period of research and development with the children and staff of local primary schools – as a playwright and director specialising in theatre for younger audiences and with experience in schools of running workshops and consulting with children. My knowledge of puppetry was negligible, but the nature of our collaboration was inspired by Creative Partnerships Bristol who funded the research and development stage. We were told repeatedly by Matt Little, the Director of Creative Partnerships, as were the children and staff with whom we worked, to enter into the work in the spirit of enquiry and experiment, not to anticipate any outcomes, but to focus on process and the possibilities of creative learning. Most importantly the work should be a genuine partnership – we were not in schools to deliver curriculum targets to a passive audience, but to learn from each other.

Watching young people work with puppets, learning to manipulate them, developing basic skills in lip sync, designing and creating their own puppets, writing and producing short films, gave me an invaluable insight into the possibilities of the art form. I saw children perfect the simplest of gestures and changes of focus to explore narrative and character; I saw the intuitive collaboration of two or three puppeteers manipulating the same puppet; I saw how often the least likely of children – the oddballs, the observers, the self-elected misfits – were the best puppeteers (and now having met a fair number of professionals working in the field, it seems to hold true for adults too); and I began to appreciate how puppets liberated the imagination when creating stories. The possibilities of twisting time, space, location, gravity and scale in a way that is often cumbersome with live actors, but which can be instantaneous with puppets, were particularly exciting to the young people with whom we were working, far more familiar with film, television, animation and video games than with live stage work. I was also intrigued by the focus that a puppet brought to a large group of ten and eleven year olds, and how the work naturally lent itself to exploring the group’s common, but previously undiscussed, preconceptions of the nature of the world around them. In some indefinable sense a puppet is Everyman in a way that a real man cannot be.

Three days of devising with Vicky Andrews and Dik Downey of Pickled Image led to the first draft of the script. We wanted to create a piece that would excite audiences as unfamiliar with puppetry as I was to the unique nature of the medium, as well as engender a lateral, instinctive and imaginative response to the world of books. Our basic premise – that of a young boy pulled unwillingly into some of the greatest and worst writing in the world by a twisted piece of machinery invented by the his eccentric grandfather – was a familiar one from children’s and adult literature, but it gave us a structure within which we could explore all that I had found exciting watching young people work with puppets. Indeed one of the short films created by a class of Y3 pupils (seven and eight year olds) used exactly this structure for them to extend work they had done in class on fictional characters. My unfamiliarity with puppet productions led me to write a script that was in essence a screenplay for a film or animation – the genre I imagined to be most similar – hence a script that suggested a show with a plethora of characters, props and locations, moving with startling rapidity from one set up to another. Sensing that puppetry developed its narrative and meaning through the visual as much as the spoken, I fought against my natural stage writer’s inclination to create long dialogue sections and unify the script through verbal echoes, instead littering the piece with strong visual images that resonated forwards and backwards through the story – the branches of a Christmas tree silhouetted against a curtain in the opening scene reappeared as emaciated fingers against a piece of paper, as a network of cables and wires slung across the sky, as the harpoons and cables deep in Moby Dick’s side. In my excitement of playing in a new way I suppose I imagined anything was possible, and to their credit Pickled Image determined to try and make it all happen.
An intense period of making followed – my first real indication that this was a very different world indeed. My excitement at the possibility of starting rehearsals with everything in place – no more, ‘Oh, we’ll sort it out in the Tech’ – was tempered by the very real fear that hours of labour would be devoted to something (‘because it’s in the script’) only to have it jettisoned at a later stage, or even worse, and I’ve seen enough devised theatre to suggest that this is an all-too-frequent occurrence, something that was so expensive to make that it simply had to be in the finished production whether it was needed or not. I was excited to see a team of artists working in such a non-hierarchical, co-operative way – each as ready (and capable) to complete an exquisite piece of making as heat up a bowl of soup – who were able to draw on the creative resources of the community around them without any professional jealousies, a world away from my experiences in regional rep.

During this making period also came the first suggestions of how the collaboration with Pickled Image would be a two-way learning process. My unfamiliarity with the conventions of puppetry not only meant I saw problems where there weren’t any, but also that I was able to solve problems that they had encountered. Heated discussions ensued that I imagine came close to the heart of what defines the art form, and have been thrashed out by all working in the medium – discussions about changes in scale, about the role of the puppeteers, in particular their visibility and relationship with the audience, about the use of technical effects. These continue well into the rehearsal period, along with discussions about the use of silence and stillness, about the rhythm and tempo of a piece of theatre, about how much is explained and how much suggested.

The first period of rehearsal of a theatre piece with live actors is for me about establishing a style, creating a world with an internal logic in which the story will live and make sense, sketching in the broadest of outlines. In directing The Chatterbox I wanted very much to follow this same model, but rapidly realised that much of the work had been done in the making period. The very construction of a puppet cast and the environments in which they move determines a physical style, a basic tempo for the piece and a visual logic which cannot be ignored. Nonetheless I resisted the puppeteers’ desire to work on the minutiae of movement, something which is obviously very precious to them as performers and important to the success of the whole piece, to establish a sense of the whole story, of the drive of the narrative, of the larger relationships between each separate element. I may be proved wrong, but I hope that there will be time in the middle period of rehearsal to fix the details, after consolidating what for me is the most basic element, particularly for a younger audience - the story. Some very simple questions for me have yet to be resolved – do I speak to the puppet or the puppeteer? What exactly am I looking at onstage during rehearsals? How precisely do puppeteers want their movement to be choreographed? When do we solve a problem - through making, rewriting or performance?

A stagger through for Shirley Pegna, our composer, and Marc Perrett, who has given invaluable assistance throughout the project, raised all kinds of other issues that my inexperience had caused me to miss – puppeteers obscuring the puppets, inconsistencies in operation, odd entrances and exits – but confirmed that we are on the right track. Our critical audience of two laughed, gasped and applauded in approximately the places we expected them to, and with four weeks of rehearsal left I am confident that the sticky moments will come unstuck.

I know that I am already a very different artist from having worked with puppets, and I am intrigued to know if those aficionados who see the show will notice any appreciable differences in it arising from Pickled Image’s collaboration with the puppet virgin.

See for full details of the Chatterbox project and other company work

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