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Puppetry Snax 2: An Insider's Story

It’s all right on the night for Gravyboat Puppet’s Isobel Smith

That final run-through before packing up the show was definitely a bad idea! Everything that could possibly have gone wrong did. The soundtrack was jumping, I missed several cues and set fire to a prop, nearly burning down the rehearsal room (otherwise known as my garden shed). I consoled myself that perhaps it's best to get all the gremlins out before the show…

The following day: the car's packed, list checked and double checked – puppets, props, string, pegs, gaffa tape, needle, thread, black fabric, more black fabric, etc, etc. Eight o'clock Saturday morning and I'm setting off to take part in Puppetry Snax 2 in sunny South London…

Puppet Centre Trust (PCT), in collaboration with Tara Arts, has invited applications from puppeteers and artists who wish to showcase new work or work in progress at a professional London venue – Tara Studio in Earlsfield. There will be presentations of five works-in-progress and an audience feedback session after the show. I'm delighted to be included in the event, and keen to meet the other four successful applicants.

I will be presenting a 20-minute excerpt from Biting the Dust, a first solo show, in development. Part wake, part performance, Biting the Dust uses puppets, music and found objects (including taxidermy and furs) to extract emotional responses from an audience.

As I drive I think about my two areas of concern:
1 How to attach the washing line that I need in the performance.
2 Lighting: Blackout giving way to a corridor of light that will keep me pretty much in the dark while giving the puppets and objects a jewel-like feel. I wonder how it will be done, my two desk lamps have worked well in rehearsals but may not be strong enough in the studio space.

I pull up outside Tara Arts in good time. Brilliant.
Tara Arts has a vibrant frontage, on a busy shopping street, in the heart of the vibrant South London community it serves. Next to it is a pamper parlour (hair, nails, massage) and as I wait for Tara to open, I fantasize about how I'll spend the time between technical rehearsal at 10.30 to 11.30 and 'cue to cue' run-through at 5.30. Hmmmm.

Suddenly, everybody arrives: Emma Leishman (PCT administrator), Jonathan Kennedy (director, Tara Arts) and the lighting technician Vern. The doors are flung open, we unload, and soon the technical rehearsal is underway.

As for my two momentous concerns:
1 Great, the washing line goes up easily.
2 Vern and Emma understand immediately what I'm after with lighting and the blackout looks great. Vern's yellowy wash that follows is bang-on too, churchy and gloomy. But the corridor effect is not working: it needs some zing to bring out the detail of the smaller puppets and give texture to the fox's fur and sparkle to his eyes.

As I leave I say a quick hello to F.337 (Hanjo and Kanton), who are waiting for their tech slot and catch a flash of a tin-foil puppet. It looks intriguing and I can't wait to see all the other company's shows.

Reluctantly I walk past the pamper parlour and straight back to the car. Instead, I'm heading off to Ikea Croydon in search of lights with a stronger, more focused beam. I hope I'll find them and manage to create the effect I'm looking for.

After nipping to the restaurant for an obligatory Swedish meatball lunch, I eventually find some nifty black adjustable lights that should work perfectly. Chris (husband/crew) appears, having taken the tram to Ampere Way just in time for a quick coffee and briefing. Got lights, got lunch and exit Ikea without tea-lights, napkins, novelty ice-cube moulds and other temptations. Feeling optimistic, we set off together back to the theatre.

A quick chance to nod to and smile at the other companies before we start. The run-through jumps from cue to cue, providing a tantalising glimpse of each company's show.
Vern the lighting technician remains cool and good-humoured despite scratched CDs, iPods with no leads, laptops in French, Apple Macs in Chinese, uploads, downloads and constantly changing cues. All in a day's work!

My appetite thoroughly whetted, I can't wait to see more.
Not long to wait. The audience is seated and Puppetry Snax 2 has begun.

First is Theatre Témoin, who show segments from their full-length show in development, Barbe Bleue. This is a devised piece combining movement, music, new writing and puppetry to reinterpret Perrault’s classic tale of the murderous Bluebeard and his forbidden chamber. Set in an artist's studio, a cheeky and persistent parcel-tape-reject puppet climbs out of the bin and disrupts the artist's work. The seduction scene is beautifully executed and the performer’s mime sequence paints a beautiful imaginary scene of blue seas, sunshine and butterflies. The audience jumps when cupboard doors open to reveal a pair of muppet-esque severed heads.

In the feedback session Theatre Témoin let us know that Barbe Bleue will explore the theme of the artist’s cycle of work; constantly making and destroying, never satisfied, creating a bin-full of rejects to join the fabulously disruptive parcel-tape puppet. 

A discussion ensues about blacking out puppeteers. Should faces be covered or visible? What about hands and feet? There seems to be no 'right' answer, Theatre Témoin will decide what's best as their show develops.

Secondly, Cryptid present excerpts from The Burrow, inspired by Franz Kafka’s story of the same name.
A Hessian-draped stage with monitor screen and disrupted table-lamps very effectively set the scene.
Grunts and snorts from under the table announce the presence of a skeletal puppet-creature, whose image appears via live-feed on the monitor screen. The obsessively introverted trenchcoat-clad puppet (manipulated by three puppeteers) climbs out, places an instruction tape in his cassette recorder, and presses 'play'. He follows the orders given on the tape with rigour and charisma. Cryptid divulge plans to use remote-controlled cameras in the piece to further their low-tech aesthetic and support the idea of surveillance in the obsessive underground world of The Burrow.

A discussion that follows explores the challenge of working with a 'giant ghost' such as Kafka, whilst still making the piece their own. Cryptid are enjoying the challenge!

Next, GramoFollies is performed by Randy Ginsburg and Matt Hutchinson. A variety act show of ‘figments’ who are summoned up from inside a gramophone, GramoFollie references vaudeville and cabaret traditions whilst providing a contemporary twist. A gramophone on top of a curtained table wobbles into action when the needle is placed upon the record, the music starts, a baby/doll head floats out of the gramophone, swiftly joined by its pyjama-wearing body and it slowly explores the gramophone before expertly flying out of the contraption and into the audience. Next, a regal-looking puppet climbs out of the machine and freaks out to Bjork's ‘Oh So Quiet’. A lid flips up on the gramophone and creates a chequerboard shadow screen for some smoky jazz silhouettes.

Afterwards, Randy and Matt tell the audience that this piece is in the first stages of development. It has lots of wonderful moments, and they plan to make a larger gramophone to allow for even more puppetry magic. They discuss ideas of introducing or announcing each act and possibly having a puppet MC.

After the interval, F.337 perform Hanjo and Kantan, a show based on two stories about lost love, human desire and magic. F.337 is an international team of people with very different cultural backgrounds who aim to create innovative theatrical experiences.

They unleash a huge sculpture: a square of garden-canes hangs from the ceiling, it has wool strings tied all around it to create a sparse bead-curtain effect, and a bank-note sized piece of tin-foil is suspended from the bottom of each string. Rolls of tin-foil are unravelled to mark a large square boundary on the floor. A puppeteer sits in the centre with the tin-foil puppet. When a projector is switched on, the effect is amazing, lights and colours twinkle on the metallic surfaces and the audience breaks into spontaneous applause. A story is projected onto the back wall of the theatre and two further actors navigate the square metal pathway, their feet making sounds on the foil. The tin-foil puppet is animated and a spoken narrative is shared by the puppet and the actors as Hanjo and Kantan proceeds.

In the after-show feedback session, Yukiko explains that Hanjo and Kantan is one of three intended shows that will each explore a different material, in this case tin-foil is used to create the sound, the puppet, and to mark the boundary. The idea of a soundtrack is suggested to emphasise the natural sounds of the foil.

At last it's my turn! I’m performing the first half of my solo show Biting the Dust. Crossing forms of sculpture, puppetry and object theatre, Biting the Dust uses puppets and found objects whose worlds collide and intermingle to produce strange and (hopefully) haunting images.

The table is set with a shrouded life-sized ‘corpse’ laid out on it. A washing-line is set directly above. Blackout, then the ‘Ave Maria’ music starts, and a candle-lit teacup ceremoniously levitates very slowly up and over the corpse, forming the sign of the cross – only to be blown out as the music ends. The lights fade up slowly, a flick of a switch and the newly-bought lamps light up a pair of workman's overalls and a Victorian nightie hanging on the washing line. They dance and embrace to the Latin American sounds of Paulo Conté. The next track is John Adam's 'Christian Zeal and Activity': the fox appears and negotiates his way through the clothes on the line and I know that his eyes are alive in the wonderful gloom that Vern has created…

I hit all my cues, the music runs smoothly. I've not burnt anything, and behind my veil my eyes are now sparkling too.

Once the car is packed up and goodbyes said, I consider how useful and encouraging the evening has been for me. Armed with positive and constructive feedback, I head back home. Thank you fellow performers and Puppetry Snax 2. I can't wait to see the fully-polished performances!

Barbe Bleue was presented by Theatre Témoin:

The Burrow was presented by Cryptid:
Hanjo and Kantan was presented by F.337, who are taking Noh No Noh to the Edinburgh Fringe 2011, see

GramoFollies was presented by Randy Ginsburg and Matt Hutchinson

Biting the Dust was presented by Isobel Smith


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