Good Things Come in Small Packages
Beccy Smith reflects on the current trends of puppetry in children’s theatre, as seen at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Surveying the Children’s Theatre section of the Edinburgh Fringe 2010 brochure, I can’t fail to notice that the pages are littered with the small orange tab that this year, for the first time, subdivides genre and in this case identifies ‘Puppetry’. On the Theatre and Dance/Physical Theatre section pages its presence is far scarcer. Should we be surprised? Puppetry has always played a leading role in theatre for young audiences. When Polka Theatre, the first permanent theatre building for children’s arts in the UK, received its initiating grant from the Arts Council in 1979 it was first and foremost as a puppetry company under the direction of Richard Gill. Now that the children’s theatre sector is receiving greater attention and investment in its own right what is the appeal that this simplest of forms still retains? And where can we expect puppetry in art for young people to be headed next?
A small sample of performances from this year’s Edinburgh Fringe clarifies some of puppetry’s key strengths and trends. In Aberglas by Helen Cloete, a newcomer to this year’s Fringe, an elaborate story enacted on an almost bare stage three-quarters in the round is completely transformed by the aesthetic quality of its puppetry. Cloete’s play evokes something of the quality of children’s make-believe – there’s the right mix of extravagant imagination and stickling detail in the rules of its magical world. Two bickering sisters offer an emotional heart within this quest story, but the dramatic shorthand of the writing can often feel rushed. There’s an epic quality to the premise – two sisters venture into another world to find their grandfather’s hidden copies of the greatest story ever written – that the acting and staging can’t quite live up to. That is, until we meet the puppets. An enormous blue giant who has to bend his head under the lights, a sparkling three-foot fish that can fly, and two beautifully constructed squirrels who can convincingly climb and sit, suddenly wrench the ambition of the show’s fantasy into reality. These are dream-like creatures, beautifully designed and constructed by Cloete herself, who, even when interacting with a knight speaking in strange cod-chivalrous tones in a plastic suit of armour, lifted the tone of the production and fascinated the young audience.
In Rabbits, Ladders and Stars in Jars the puppet-performed central character, a decidedly cuddly, toy-like floppy rabbit again had a powerful effect on a young audience. Essentially an amateur show, with performances ranging from committed if undisciplined to downright vacant (one performer in the small ensemble was persistently, dopily late with every cue), the show began with a prolonged silent clowning sequence amongst the performers who stumbled over shoes and one another. This was a very gentle show for the very young, but the occupants of the theatre’s several buggies were entirely nonplussed. However, the arrival of the large rabbit, with an unexpectedly mature voice, transformed the atmosphere. His adventures in trying to make friends with a star made use of some nice touches of stagecraft that point to better things for this company – digging up real carrots from the allotment was exciting, splashing large splodges of colour on the stage floor whilst painting was visually witty, and one or two of the performers showed some sensitivity in the puppet's tabletop animation that made for some visually arresting moments (although a terrible glove-handed spider was designed in such a way that it was impossible to animate any of her legs).
Both shows are examples of very young companies instinctively recognising the appeal puppetry holds in interactions with underage audiences. Both shows were bookended with a chance to meet the puppets breathless seconds after the storytelling ended. Interestingly, the performers here dropped out of role but the puppets were met in character, handing out hugs and carrots. The powerful illusion of their aliveness exceeded the frame of the performance: the power they exerted as living things in themselves (for the under 7s at least) was such that it continued independently of their fictional life within the shows.
Are puppets, then, of dynamic interest to young audiences regardless of the context of their plays? Undoubtedly the mechanism of projecting life into puppets holds a recognisable fascination for us all because of its familiarity as a technique we ourselves have used when engaging in play. Of all the meta-theatrical conventions applied in material theatre that deconstruct the make-believe of the stage world in order to share it, this is perhaps the most accessible and immediate for younger audiences who still play this way themselves.
Indeed this dynamic formed the central metaphor in the French production by Naxos Theatre & Les Tréteaux de la Pleine Lune, Hamlet, the End of a Childhood. Here, a firmly adolescent Hamlet sulks in his room, surrounded by the paraphernalia of youth – dressing-up clothes, remote-controlled cars and actions figures – which are used with varying degrees of success to act out the play’s story. Remote-controlled tanks whizzing across the stage to strains of 'The Ride of the Valkyries' for the arrival of the Norwegian army, plastic figurines from the Lord of the Rings franchise as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Ophelia played by a scarlet fan (which could also usefully double as a half-mask for the solo performer) were particularly pleasing. Although heavily edited to fit in its one-hour timeslot, this remained a dense piece of Shakespearian theatre, in French, and the puppetry, constrained by its conceit as a young man’s vengeful dollywaggling, couldn’t ever fully command the stage picture to support this proposition. My mind wandered – for me this was a show whose idea, even well-executed, outstripped its practical reality.
I spoke to Ellen Bianchini, Artistic Director of the Spark Children’s Festival, a two-week summer festival of the performing and visual arts for children in Leicester and Leicestershire, who agrees with pupetry’s appeal, discussing the significant part the form, when used with integrity, can play in her programme. On the particular power and fascination puppetry can evoke she refers to a recent schools’ production by M6 where the performance of two wordless, life-sized child puppets held its small audience, and their teachers, completely rapt. Kate Cross, artistic director of The Egg in Bath cites Rob Burnett’s Storybox Theatre – ‘not a word nor an image too many or too few, and pitched perfectly to his audience’ – and Dutch puppet auteur Neville Tranter as defining influences in her understanding of puppetry’s power. For Cross, it’s the transparency of theatre’s mechanics in puppetry that makes it so appealing to young people: ‘a gentle reminder… [that] this is theatre, this is people telling a story, this is not real, and the puppet is being used to remove some of the potential “horror” of the story’. Bianchini is clear, too, about the power of the more abstract world of images and movement that puppetry can readily access, name-checking the spectacular object-led choreography of Aracaladanza as one vivid example of the imaginative material qualities of puppetry, which can be at their most affective unfolding without words.
The successes of companies such as Theatre-Rites and Oily Cart attest to the powerful effect on young audiences of the unexpected visual and transformative aesthetics of puppetry and the immediacy of animation techniques. Oily Cart’s highly specialised theatre works in great intimacy with smaller audiences of the very young and young people with complex disabilities. Here the graphic, sensory playground of Claire de Loon’s designs forms a natural context for puppet characters whose animation contributes to the intimate imaginative engagements the company’s work often uses to great effect. Widely acclaimed young people’s company Theatre-Rites, has, since their first production of Houseworks in 1996, thrilled young audiences by closely re-engaging with material and spaces affected by object animation and puppetry. Like de Loon’s, Sophia Clist’s extraordinary installations also offer a fertile playground for visual imagery that extends naturally into the animation of bright fabrics and plastic, and, increasingly, into dance.
Back on the Fringe, these material qualities were much in evidence in graduate company EmptyBox Theatre’s Norman Shadowboxer. A space piled high with brown cardboard boxes offered an unexpectedly arresting staging for the story of a large rod puppet, made of boxes, who wanted nothing more than to work in a box factory. The show needs further development in terms of story and content: the connection between Norman’s love for boxes and his obvious daydreaming boredom in the box factory seemed like a disconnect and at 35 minutes the show felt lightweight, finishing before it had entirely got going. Norman himself though, and the aesthetic in general, were very clever and pleasing. The appearance of tiny shadow screens to support the storytelling with witty images gave the piece greater texture whilst the continuous revelation of more box-rendered everyday objects (box teacup, box telephone) was very funny. This concern with materiality extended not only to objects but also to language. Written entirely in rhyming couplets – varied enough in rhythm and in the lively delivery of Lisa Castle to steer clear of the twee – this literary consistency also wove the whole production together with wit and style throughout. For what other sport should a cardboard box man be fantasising about than... boxing?
In Chalk Giants, as in so much of Indefinite Articles’ work, material suggests both form and content. Originating in an interest in the possibilities of chalk, the show was developed via a long walk along the ancient ‘chalk line’ from the company’s native Hunstanton to Dorset. Following this route, which passes Stonehenge and the Cerne Abbas Giant, the show quickly becomes a piece about England’s folk giant history, combining the stories of Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack the Giant Slayer to bring the character full circle from hero to victim, or even villain. As you would expect, Steve Tiplady and Sally Brown’s storytelling is studded with moments of material brilliance: a paper-drawn beanstalk pulled behind a 3D cut-out house's interior window transforms though live action video feed into a chalky beanstalk rocketing skywards. Deceptively simple hand-drawn masks (worn in profile) make for fantastic humanoid shadows, although function less effectively when used for direct interaction between the giants Mr and Mrs Cormoran on stage. The work throws together richly poetic riffs on the show's theme and landscape by John Agard (specially commissioned); an evocative score performed gently, live by Jonathan Lambert; video projections, shadow puppetry, and a soulful Jack marionette figure; and chalk drawing, stones and filmed footage of the walk.
In many ways this feels like a masterclass in the execution of puppetry forms, and there are some beautifully crafted moments, theatrically. But there’s something out of pace with the show as a whole: the tone veers quite widely from cosy storytelling to violence and existential angst; the visual and graphic sophistication is not matched by the storytelling, which leaves some important questions unresolved; and the eclectic form of the piece made it rather opaque for the young audience for whom it was intended. Chalk Giants is full of the wit and the transformative energy of contemporary puppetry but its hold on its audience felt remote.
What many of the companies discussed in this article share is a desire to experiment with form. Work for young audiences, unconditioned to the conventions that usually mediate our engagements with theatre, offers a unique space in which to experiment with its own methods of engagement, sensory languages and modes of communication. Perhaps puppetry, with its hardwired connection to the ways children relate to the world, offers a unique focal point from which to anchor this experiment. Puppetry plays a key part in the programming for young people at many venues across the UK both because of this emotional power and its ability to readily access innovative aesthetic and material worlds. At a time of decreasing funding, development and opportunities for young people remains high-up local and national cultural agendas. Yet the form also presents challenges: as Kate Cross points out the recent diversification of approach to the form – ‘a more three-dimensional approach to the genre’ – can’t be effectively employed without a solid grounding in quality all-round training where manipulation is supplemented by acting and singing skills – still at a premium in the sector. When this can be achieved, as a handful of companies at this year’s Fringe recognised, the employment of puppetry with integrity and imagination can support challenging theatricalities with real audience appeal.