“Pif-Paf is a theatre company pioneering the use of puppetry, physical theatre
and circus to explore practices of the imagination in urban settings.”
Puppetry the Pif-Paf way
Eleanor Hooper and Pete Gunson, co-directors of Pif-Paf reflect on
their work, making puppet theatre for the great outdoors
Pif-Paf and the great outdoors
Our first experience of a big street theatre festival was quite a few years ago at the Streets Alive festival in sunny Manchester. The city was transformed by thousands of cheek-bursting smiles at the different inventions, parties and dramas to observe or become part of. This was the inspiration for the forming of Pif-Paf in 2005.
Since then Pif-Paf have made an exhilarating and challenging journey towards our current practice, creating large-scale puppets, permanent public art installations, small and medium-scale touring shows, site-specific productions and work for celebrations and parades. At the heart of our work is a passion for working in outdoor public spaces. We value the outdoors from many different perspectives, from the theatrical to the practical, and from the philosophical to the political.
On a personal level we like fresh air and sunshine but we don’t really mind rain (why has no street arts company managed to get sponsorship for waterproofs?). The most important thing for us is to create ideas, images, and reveal the poetry in places of everyday life.
On a broader level we appreciate and are inspired by the historic and contemporary context of our practice. Theatre in public space in its many forms has, historically, had the power to transform and enliven minds and bodies. It has been used as a medium to educate, agitate and reverse ingrained social structures and hierarchies; to give a sense of place, open the imagination, allow celebration and mourning. The streets and parks are our public spaces, central meeting-points where people of all ages, walks of life and corners of the community, pass and interact. This is where our unique audience is and our theatre without doors happens; it’s where we want to open a dialogue and throw off conformity.
An ode to the vanishing ones
Our work has sprung from an interest in natural history. We explore the non-human world and our relationship with it, and the myths, legends and science that has sprung from this. We also look to the natural world to inform and inspire all the making we do. It is important for us to share our awe for the strange beauty of these other worlds and to remind ourselves that once upon a time we humans also crawled out of the sea.
One of our first shows in 2005 was The Extinct Animal Troupe, exploring the less obvious aspects of extinction and how species are disappearing 1,000 times faster than evolution can replace them. In this show, the Troupe had been travelling for hundreds of years, gathering the last specimens of extinct species moments before they decided to create an exhibition of living specimens. Amongst these were the vicious Marcononi's Solenodon, the songstress Oahu O'O of the Koa Tops of the Hawaiian Island, and the strange gastric brooding frog Rheobaticus Silas.
Our aim was to choose lesser-known species whose stories (not least the manner of their extinction) appeared fantastic and unbelievable. We could then create a theatrical zone of a ‘suspension of disbelief' where the magic starts to happen. The stories of these extinctions in themselves are darkly comic, ironic, idiotic and almost taboo – especially when presented as entertainment. They make a mockery of their charming characters, themselves no innocent bystanders. Our objective in doing this was to hold a mirror to the audience with humour and poignancy, rather than wanting to lambaste them: is there something in this narrative of the ridiculous and tragic paths species have blazed towards their own extinction that the human can recognise and relate to? Our comedy can often disguise a powerful, moral intent; hear for example, the opening verse of troupe leader Dr L’Otters favourite song and dance routine:
Oh I’m a white rhino I’m just plying my trade,
Then you came and you killed me with your gun and hand grenade,
You sawed off my ankles and just four ashtrays you made…
Suitably grisly stuff, but lending itself to a nice banjo sing-a-long.
The Extinct Animal Troupe toured extensively, including a version especially adapted for Oxford University Museum of Natural History, a tour that featured us doing some gastronomic research beneath an Iguanodon skeleton!
Doing this work inspired us to focus on the subject of extinction and to look at what is happening in the world now: what is on the brink of extinction that everyone can relate to? What is the backbone and key link in the chain of humankind’s own evolution and continuing survival?
In 2006, just as news of the bee’s decline was starting to hit the press, by chance we were in the midst of commissioning a poem by Louise Oliver from IOU Theatre for a gateway sculpture of a pollinating bee in a park in Salford. We were alarmed by the news and decided we wanted to continue our research into bees and develop it into what would become our most extensive and intense show, Honey. The starting point for the story was an idea called H.U.P – the Human Union of Pollinators, a ridiculous group who embodied the grotesque yet all too real possibility of humans replacing bees. This was developed at the Forkbeard Fantasy Summer School using a mixture of madcap inventions, performance and animation. With Forkbeard being such heroes of ours, we were lucky to later go on to develop a large part of the show under their mentorship, in their workshop in Devon in the south-west. This was perfectly unique as they are also bee-keepers and conservationists as well as being consistently innovative artists.
Now, after four years of development, the story is told through animation, puppetry, song and a good dose of bum-waggling, it is set within our giant hive where ‘bee guides’ Bombus and Borage take groups of ‘bee explorers’ (or audience of 28) on a journey into the world of bees. Explorers witness the birth of a queen bee, birth their own inner bee and experience the sensuous relationship between flowers and bees; but then chaos ensues, the hive is suddenly filled with ghosts and an ancient oracle appears – will Bombus have to deploy plan H.U.P?
Honey has now reached thousands of people of all ages and there has been much giggling, tears and stories shared with us from our explorers. Many people, seeing us years later, have told us how it has changed the way they look at nature, theatre and of course bees. We are also now supported by The Co-operative’s Plan Bee.
The Nuts and Bolts; What Makes a Good Puppet?
We have now built a significant body of work in puppetry and have clarified the ingredients for a successful puppet. We have different starting points: sometimes it’s a commission, sometimes it's an animal or creature whose personality appeals to us, with a distinctive characteristic, rhythm or behaviour that makes us think, 'We’re onto a winner'. We look, then, for some way in which it can interact with the public, not just parade around them. We start with research: skeletons, tendons, videos, anecdotes, lots of sketches and maquettes. There’s a series called Inside Nature’s Giants on YouTube where a team of vets look like mechanics as they lay bare the systems that keep large animals on the move – a perfect resource for us!
With all these rich sources of information we then search for the simplest way of presenting the essence of the puppet, the shortest way to that part of the brain that says, 'Yes I can see a giant dung beetle, and I want to go towards it and meet it'. This stage is inspired by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s 1910s line drawings of animals and the keen sense of economy honed in our early years of puppetry.
Once the essence of the puppet is clear we look at forces. Parts of the structure are broken down into compression, tension and bending. Levers are analysed, and from our palate of materials we make the lightest and most robust design possible. For a while now we’ve loved bamboo and bicycle inner tubes – they’ve got a nice natural feel, and the bamboo can be shaped and planed to requirements and is incredibly light. The rubber is recycled, can be trimmed to the exact requirements and doubles as handy elastic. It is quick to adjust and the best material for the job of binding slippery bamboo in awkward arrangements (and it does get very awkward!). For control mechanisms, our current favourite is high-quality miniature sailing pulleys and very light cord, as with very little friction we can transmit subtle control signals over many metres. For coverings we use everything from muslin to beautiful textiles to poured sheet latex or riveted aluminium. For areas of detail such as eyes and face we may make a special cast and use flexible, durable latex. The best elephant eyes we found for that deep mournful look are mixing bowls painted with black Hammerite!
The result of all this careful detail is the duality between the real and unreal that outdoor puppeteers know well: whilst the operator and mechanics are fully visible, the public consents to play and believe it is all real. Audiences find themselves captivated and transported both by the puppets and by the focus of their operators/manipulators. Watching the operators guide their giant creature, the audience can experience a sense of pathos and reflection not possible with human actors. We've seen it demonstrated many times that the ephemeral, fragile presence of large-scale objects made not from solid steel and brick but from simple, natural materials has a unique power in the contemporary urban environment. It has the power to make people hope for more, reawakening the possibility of play, myth and beauty.
For several years we have been developing a hand-powered counterbalance crane originally designed and used for animating giant puppets. Last year we crossed into investigating the crane as an object in its own right that can transform into different images and suspend and manipulate its operators. We have explored the initial possibilities of this in our shows TRUNK and The Jumblies. This year we explore it further in the Puppets About residency, which is a year-long relationship with the Puppet Centre Trust and mac in Birmingham.
This will give us the opportunity for space, time and new collaborators. In the residency we wish to explore new possibilities of the crane, its interaction with human movement, its choreographed transition between object in its own right, mechanism for puppets of various scales and an object manipulating performers. We will use music as a catalyst for these transformations, shaping the theatre’s language with soundscapes and songs.
Within this research we will introduce further ideas for engineered puppets and animated objects, continuing our exploration of puppetry and meeting the challenges that street theatre offers us.