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[above] Puppetry via Sculpture (Post Grad Dip. University of Brighton) Rubber gloves floated to freedom, with the help of helium balloons. Kettles became bumper-cars, and the floor cloth in the cupboard under the sink became my unsung heroines, the ultimate abject things. Photographed as beautiful triptychs, made into books, stuck on the ceiling for a dirt’s-eye view, or hanging by a string in dark cupboards: they were nuns at prayer and suicides.



When visual artist and nascent puppeteer Isobel Smith was interviewed for Green Ginger’s Toast professional development programme, director Chris Pirie said she was perfect as she ‘wasn’t raw dough, wasn’t cooked toast, but was bread all ready for the toasting’. Now that she’s popped out of the Toaster, Isobel shares the tale of her progress


I’m an ex-graphic designer turned sculptor.

As a sculptor I use everyday materials to make (hopefully) powerful work.

As time goes by I became more and more concerned with animating my work, wanting to control exactly how it would move for its purpose, and seeing it in non-fine-art contexts.
= Puppetry!



Mind-blowing experience of first puppet looking back at me, (an attempt to personify the wretchedness of the floor cloth). She was alive and compelling. I would have to learn to move her beautifully.

Colette, A Near Tragedy from Too Much Normal
Performed from the serving hatch of Baobab Cafe, Brighton Festival Fringe, with a seven-piece orchestra (including singer/trombonist/visual artist Gilvan (of Foster & Gilvan), an opera singer and free soup (= a near tragedy from not enough story but great music).


Next? An intense period of saying YES to everything, working out HOW later. Making, practising, and performing. Wearing two pairs of pants at all times (one to fly by the seat of).

Not thinking about the ex-career in graphic design; not thinking about mortgages and bills and children. What if it all goes horribly right?

Here’s what emerged:

Vera Crotchett
A life-sized old lady with me riding on her back, inspired by an image of carnival puppets in Lobbes, Belgium. Sewn from tights and pillows. Stitched myself up too - now I would have to perform with her. Vera Crotchett appeared at: various alternative arts and fringe theatre shenanigans in the Brighton area, including Miss Pammy's Pick and Mix at Marlborough Theatre; Chris Cresswell's Voodoo Vaudeville, Komedia, Brighton; and the Udderbelly, Brighton Festival Fringe.

Pinkle's Puppet Circus


A monthly booking at Bom Bane’s Café (Brighton), under the name Gravy Boat Puppets, throughout 2008-2009, featuring aforementioned Colette. I continued to make small puppets, each with a circus act and an after-story (different each month) of the sleazy goings on behind the Big Top – each show created in collaboration with Foster & Gilvan, and featuring live music and physical/visual performance in interaction with the puppets.


Thoughts of a slice of Sunblest:
Inanimate things contain meaning and resonance. My desire is to explore the use of puppetry to help release those qualities. (I need refinement, skills and practice.)

I realise that I prefer puppetry with no spoken words; the narrative achieved through movement/visual imagery only. The physicality of puppets is essential to their successful communication. Make them work harder! (I need help!) Audiences are easily charmed by puppets; I’m craving critical assessment from peers and industry professionals.

I had got so far on my own but now I needed help. Professional help! HELP!

Goethe: ‘Whatever you think you can do, or believe you can do, begin it, because action has magic, grace and power in it.’

Oh yes.

Then I heard about Green Ginger’s Toast in the Machine (a professional development programme tailored to suit each successful applicant’s needs). The Perfect thing, the perfect time.


Green Ginger's programme of professional development and training for puppeteers is just the ticket. At the interview with Chris Pirie of Green Ginger and Vic Llewellyn of Bristol’s Tobacco Factory, Chris explains that Toast in Machine required bread, not dough, not toasted already. Slightly old stale bread is ok! I'm in.

Just being accepted gave me a massive boast in confidence to carry on, to try other stuff.

Meeting the other Toasties at Green Ginger studios was magical… Enter through a secret door hidden in a brick wall. Inside, a big black-clothed table is set for tea, with cake, a doll-armed candelabra, and bunting made from toast triangles,

One by one we unwrapped our treasures:
Max Humphries's exquisite articulated hand that could pick up a pencil, and a genius pinstriped clock-key-headed man.
A perfect twelfth-scale mummy by Christa Noel Smith, one of a series.
Corina Bona's awesome old lady.
(Other Toasties not present: Nick Mackie, Jonny Dixon)

I had a lot to live up to but I knew I was home.


As I climbed into the toaster, working life as a puppeteer took on new dimensions:

Creative Partnerships

'Puppeteer required to push the boundaries of what's possible with puppets in schools'. Aha, an opportunity! I rode Vera Crotchett to the interview and got the job. Being passionate about remaining creatively brave in my own working practice it is exhilarating (sometimes terrifying) to be encouraging pupils and teaching staff to do the same.

Necessity had been the mother of… I was keen to see how the pros did it.

First: with the remodelling of Vera Crotchett in mind was Dick Downey (Pickled Image) on clay modelling / latex casting puppet heads – five days spent with fellow Toasties at Green Ginger’s studio. Dick was generous with his knowledge and initiated us into the secrets of clothes peg technology (the peg animates the puppet’s mouth). A fabulous time – everyone managed to make some smaller heads too. My second dived off its plinth on the way to the plaster, but I cast it anyway: came out well! Puppets have ideas of their own… I can now make latex puppet heads, fantastic.

Next: thinking about Colette and other my smaller puppets, and how to make them better. They had begun losing noses and fingers (like lepers). Chris Pirie recommended a puppet-carving course in Devon with John Roberts, an offer I take up. It’s an intense concentrated time with a very inspiring man/workshop/fellow students. Very. John Roberts shares a lovely mixture of facts and complete fantasy: 'Ignore that, I just made it up.' Delightful. It’s a time spent working long days and getting back to a campsite at 9.30ish to stumble about in the dark for gin and tonic and cream crackers. John is very generous with his skills, very accommodating, open and enabling. I made a puppet far exceeding my expectations and the knowledge and skills to carry on back at my workshop.

Meanwhile: I enjoy teaching puppet making at Phoenix Arts, Brighton and West Dean College, Chichester.


The Fantastic Mr Fox
Fellow Toastie Cori Bona arranged for all of us to go and see behind the scenes of Fantastic Mr Fox. Inspired by the awesome scale of the project – see a wall of ideas and styles and sketching, the starting point of the movie; exquisite fox puppets in three scales, fur brushed between shots to give windblown effect; row upon row of propmakers' benches; seemingly identical Polariods, three-in-a-row, were actually items made to three different scales, photographed and compared for accuracy. It seemed infinite; there was everything imaginable, from food and crockery, mobile phones, to soiled bandages, knitted jumpers, socks, and hats.
Then we saw some of the sets, the cider cellar lit through hundreds of demi-johns of cider. (Wanted to leap for joy that such a place existed.)

Live Shows
Meanwhile, I tried to get out and about as much as possible to see the cream of the puppetry and theatre-of-animation crop. At the London Mime Festival 2009 I saw: Fish Clay Perspex by Faulty Optic, Faust 2360words by Akhe, and Salto.Lamento by Figurentheater Tubingen. In the post-show Q&A to this last, someone asks: Does music inspire puppetry or puppetry inspire the music - which comes first? A lovely moment when the director leaps to his feet, eyes blazing, insistent, 'It's the puppets, it's the puppets.’ I am lit up, I know what he is talking about, the puppeteer and the musicians may have a plan, but the puppets don’t always agree, they come with their own ideas. Enjoyed a very enthusiastic exchange with the company afterwards in the bar.

Later in the year I see Billy Twinkle by Ronnie Burkett (virtuoso making and performing); NT/Handspring War Horse (Wow! And DVD of making of War Horse, Wow!); and The Colour of Nonsense by Forkbeard Fantasy (fabulous, amazing effects – of course).

And at the Mime Fest 2010 I see Mossoux-Bonté’s Kefar Nahum.  In the Q&A, director Patrick Bonté talks of giving things souls – finding the soul within an object. Love it!


With increased confidence and zest the work continues:
Pinkle's Puppet Circus develops, stepping beyond ‘home’ at Bom Banes to perform at Middle Farm Apple Festival over two days to 3000 people

A La Carte Table Top Puppets

A series of short acts developed with musicians/visual artists Foster & Gilvan. The audience are seated cabaret style; they choose an act from an enigmatic dinner/puppet menu, which is performed at their table (over/in their real dinner in some cases).

The Basement Bordello: a monthly night at the Basement arts centre that features the unlikely combination of puppetry, performance art and partner dancing. My contribution is the Table Tops in the bar (Bar Staad), and various themed specials, including the Autumn Harvest Vegetable Puppetry Extravaganza, culminating in a giant vegetable puppet parade from bar to ballroom.

Penny Arcade: A Badstock production in collaboration with Foster & Gilvan and Katie Etheridge, which was commissioned by Brighton & Hove Council for White Night Brighton  (October 2009). Three Fortune-telling booths containing 'automata' (actually humans and/or puppets), activated when the audience member puts a penny in the slot.
Foster & Gilvan presented Your Fortune through Music and Rhyme; Katie Etheridge Madame Zorga; Gravy Boat Puppets (i.e. me) Messages From Beyond the Grave with newly-made puppet, Violetta.

Foolish Romantics: First presented at Quay Arts, Isle of Wight, this was a ‘multi discipline’ event, mixing spoken word, music and puppetry/visual installation – featuring Gravy Boat Puppets, Foster & Gilvan, Frog Morris, Sam Walker, Paul Armfield, Gwynethe Herbert, Joe Bone and others who took turns to perform in response to a chosen painting in the exhibition. A great way to really look at the paintings. I took Violetta in a violin case and Vera Crotchett.
The Foolish Romantics is an ongoing project, a version last performed at and around a live art market stall we created during The Book and the Rose, an outdoor event commissioned by Brighton & Hove council.

Putting aside my worst fears about  ‘performing’ and ‘attending performance workshops’ I went to Creating Content, a workshop led by Amy Rose of Bocadalupa in Bristol. Forced myself to keep driving towards Bristol despite fear/phobia of anything that might involve grey sweatshirts and rolling round the room. Terror on entering room. (‘I'm not a performer, I just show the puppets what to do…’) then gradually, under the expert guidance of Amy Rose, I forgot all that and began to play.  A fantastic workshop that explored the importance of moodling, growing and dreaming; identifying where the pleasure/heat/balls of an idea is; and valuing the Importance of play.

Marketing, PR and the Arts:
I attended the workshop on marketing/PR organised by the Puppet Centre Trust, and held at Battersea Arts Centre. Great facts and the practical advice was thorough – I’m looking forward to putting into action.


What an amazing whirlwind couple of years.

I've now slowed down / stopped many monthly commitments to take stock of what I've learned. I’m reassessing aims and missions; reconnecting with fine art sensibilities. I’m committed to learning through play; having serious fun; and encouraging a gradual assimilation of what I have learned.

Mission: To combine fine art sculpture installations with puppetry, without being plonky.

No gratuitous puppetry, using them when only puppets alone will do; accessing areas of the subconscious; communicating complex ideas and emotions, and unspeakable, unsayable things.

My ambitions as a puppeteer:

To disappear and let the puppets get on with it.

To stand alone (with puppets!) in a one-woman show

To make work that takes the audience on a magical journey, is transformative in which the puppets cease to be puppets


Studio Visit
My very last Toast session is a studio visit from Amy Rose of Bocadalupa, helping me to focus on ‘what now?’ I’m looking at beginning a guilt free period of  'moodling' (making/doodling) with sculpture and puppets in my workshop, to be followed by assessing, devising and developing to discover how/if the combination of fine art sculpture, mixed scale puppets, abstract and figurative will work.
I’m hoping to pursue further training, perhaps starting with Andrew Morrish's Solo Improvisation workshop…

Thinking about the possibility of developing Vera Crotchett into Twilight School for the Elderly with large OAP puppets doing circus tricks (as a stage show rather than walkabout).

Continuing/building on the puppet making courses at Phoenix Arts, Brighton, and – amongst other commitments – moving into new territory with Come Puppet Dancing, a four-day course to make your ideal puppet dance partner and dance will it in the Chili Fiesta (West Dean, Chichester).


The skills have to be developed, techniques learnt, but at the heart of it all, the reason to carry on is the ideas and inspirations. Here’s what’s rattling around at the moment:
Finding the extraordinary within the ordinary
Animating the inanimate
Investigation the human condition, especially the inner world of dreams, Heightened imagery, shadows, 
The edge of beauty and horror (cf Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus; Scott Walker’s Tilt)  
Emotion: a wealth of dinner table tensions, stiff-upper-lips cracking Suppression, expression
Serious things locked into apparently inconsequential or silly things
Potential: Paul Gallico’s For the Love of Seven Dolls. Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate
Pathos, humour: Les Dawson’s piano playing; Jean Tinguely’s beggar machine; that French guy putting salad garnishes on dog poo
The nature of wit and humour as a vehicle for communication
Time, deterioration, death, cycles
Truth, exaggeration, realness, essences

Being part of the Toast in the Machine pilot has been incredible. So many magical amazing experiences and fantastic inspiring sparkly-eyed puppet people. I'm sad that it's coming to an end but I am changed and improved, ready and keen to continue on my mission.

Thank you Green Ginger, and to all the workshop leaders, collaborators, mentors and fellow journeyers. And thank you to the puppets, without whom none of this would ever have happened, and without whom the world would be a far bleaker, lonelier place.


For more on Toast in the Machine, and other company projects, see Green Ginger’s website

Isobel Smith’s company website is


Image credits:
All images are of Isobel Smith’s work with Gravyboat Puppets, Badstock Productions, and/or as a solo artist. Photos courtesy of the artist



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