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Preparation, education and training
for the 21st century puppeteer

Penny Francis reflects on the possible pathways to professional
puppet-theatre practice

I have often suggested that the Academy of Dramatic Art try to obtain a marionette performance to teach the students that very important part of the art of acting which consists of not acting; that is, allowing the imagination of the spectator to do its lion’s share of the work.
George Bernard Shaw

Where to start?

First, recognise your puppeteer. This should be easy, as they are a special breed:

The primary characteristic of puppeteers is a belief in the hidden life of Things. A crushed piece of paper, a kitchen chair, a box or a book can appear to breathe in their hands. Another hallmark, especially of the designer-maker, is a visual creativity that they wish to express in scenic terms. They see a performance text through a prism of moving pictures; they see camels in clouds, dancers in daffodils, an old man in a black bin liner, wolves in walls. (Penny Francis, Puppetry. 2011)

But not many of those who give careers guidance to the young person declaring that he or she wants to become a puppeteer can yet respond with much knowledge of the genre or the opportunities open to them.

Before writing this article I sampled the opinions of a few highly experienced people as to how they would prepare a student in today’s field of opportunities. 

Cariad Astles is the puppetry tutor for the BA in Puppetry located within the Theatre Practice programmes at the Central School of Speech and Drama, a college of the University of London. As an Honours Degree course it is unique in Britain. I asked her what advice she would give to any serious young person wanting to become a professional puppeteer. She answered that he or she would need to see as many productions with puppets as possible, to seek an internship with a reputable company doing innovative work, to take a foundation course in puppetry (not that one exists yet but more of that later), or in theatre design or even fine art, and finally to enter a three-year course in a specialist school of higher education, such as ESNAM in Charleville (which this year received 136 applications from all over the world) or Central’s BA.

 The result should be a versatile practitioner with the basic skills for making and operating puppets; an ongoing commitment to the improvement of their performance capabilities (mainly vocal and physical) and/or crafting skills; an understanding of the value of analysis and enquiry; an appreciation of puppetry’s contribution to modern theatre-making, and a pride in their own special contribution to it.

For Henryk Jurkowski who is a full Professor of his subject in Poland and who has been preparing students and teachers at all levels up to Doctorate for more years than he cares to name, the only element missing in the aspirational programme above is some attention to the cultural background of the puppetry arts; its history, anthropology and philosophies.

He believes that the cardinal sin in the training of the puppeteer is to separate the performer-puppeteer from the designer-craftsman- puppeteer (in different institutions), and to designate the former ‘actor-puppeteer’. This is the situation in most if not all of the remaining State schools of the former Soviet empire which set them up and staffed them mainly with actors and theatre directors. The result is clear to see: you may watch the student shows and marvel at the absence of the puppetry! In the schools for ‘actor-puppeteers’ the students receive an intensive grounding in acting which has the effect of ‘elevating’ the status of the actor and putting the poor puppet in the corner with a metaphorical dunce’s cap – an object of shame.

Caroline Astell-Burt’s London School of Puppetry, run mainly in Yorkshire, was started in the early 1990s, believing in the “analysis and teaching of puppetry as a unique artform with intrinsic disciplines and techniques”.  The School is privately and independently run, having a modular programme which may be taken part-time or in weekend intensive sessions, or as a two-year programme ending in the award of a Diploma in Professional Puppetry, which aims to deliver a “unique professional outlook”. Puppetry applied in therapy and education are a strength of the programme, which also includes a module on Business Strategies. A great advantage for many LSP students is the possibility of training while continuing to earn their living. The fact that the website has not been updated since 2009 may be seen as a problem by enquiring students, but LSP regularly produces talented alumni working in the field with sufficient skills and a sense of the potential of puppetry.

My own opinions are a summary of those of many others, and of many years of thought and practice around the subject. I have little to add to those of Cariad, except to reinforce the notion of a one-year internationally marketed Foundation Course which will give the would-be puppeteer the most basic understanding of his or her place in the making of theatre; a knowledge of puppetry’s cultural context, its repertory (I prefer ‘dramaturgy’), and its traditional techniques and skills – in design, crafting, physical and vocal development, performance presentation and so on. A crowded programme, but one to equip the student not only with all of the above, but with the education to choose where or whether he or she wants to continue their formation as a professional. The choice in Britain is not wide if they are looking for a dedicated specialist school, but they may choose to go abroad. However in this country there are several theatre and design Higher Education and Further Education schools where puppetry is an option or an occasional inclusion or module, well worth investigating to discover whether they will accommodate the needs of a vocational puppeteer. An example is Nottingham Trent University; another is the University of Brighton.

The Master of Arts in Advanced Theatre Practice at Central is the inter-disciplinary course on which I was the puppetry tutor from the early 1990s, and which has produced an extraordinary number of theatre practitioners - directors, designers, writers, performers - all currently integrating figure and object animation in their professional work. Among them are Mark Down (performer), Beccy Smith (dramaturg), Orla O’Loughlin (director), Hugo Caroça (director), the Shunt collective, the Unpacked company. 

So I would strongly advocate rounding off any specialist education with a post-graduate course in multi-disciplinary, practical theatre-making, where the puppeteer widens his or her professional horizons, learning something of the work of all the other theatre artists, while the other theatre artists are inspired by the puppeteers. Puppetry is a benign infection, a good virus.

With this admittedly idealistic education and training under their belt, the students are fully prepared to cope with anything the wide world of professional theatre can throw at them.

While the proliferation of all the integrated, non-specialist, training available at Further and Higher Education (including post-graduate level) has resulted in the widespread use of animated forms in every kind of modern theatre productions, there are still not enough non-specialist practitioners with the understanding of its skills to make the work technically good. They need the trained puppeteer as consultant and coach, and often as maker and manipulator too.

Have I just added two more prerequisites to the complete formation of the puppeteer? Whoever initiated the concept of Continuing Professional Development knew what they were doing. A puppeteer’s training is never done.

Penny Francis’s forthcoming book Puppetry: A Reader in Theatre Practice, published by Palgrave Macmillan, is scheduled for release November/December 2011. The hardback edition can be reserved now at a pre-publication price of £30 +£4 p&p (£60 after publication); the paperback edition at £16 + £3 p&p (£22.99 after publication). 

>>> Further information on puppetry education and training opportunities in Britain…

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