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Magic Moments

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Dorothy Max Prior experiences the balance between physics and illusion at a workshop in puppetry and movement led by Stephen Mottram, hosted by the Puppet Centre Trust, and held in Penrith as part of Lakes Alive

‘It’s a trick – an illusion – magic,’ says Stephen Mottram of puppetry in the introduction to his workshop, ‘the logic of movement’. This is a theme he returns to time and again throughout the day: what we are aiming for as puppeteers and theatre-makers is to create the illusion of movement, to understand what is really involved, but then know how to convey that to the audience: ‘give the audience information, really clearly, without “damage”’. Later he says: ‘It’s all about weight. You can’t deny the physics.’ So here’s the dichotomy: the fantasy, the pretence, the illusion – the tricks of physical/visual theatre in general and puppetry in particular, versus the actual scientific principles of movement, weight, balance. We need to carry both things constantly. We have only a day, but it turns out to be a day crammed with magic moments – with a fair bit of hardcore physics to boot!

In an early exercise, Stephen demonstrates the difference between denoting something and really convincing the spectator that they are seeing something. He shows us that a puppeteer can, with moderate skill and practice, using what he terms ‘intuitive puppetry’, make a puppet walk across a stage. Audiences are kind, says Stephen, and willing to believe, so they think ‘how clever, the puppet’s walking’. But they don’t see a human being walking; there is no life there: they see a puppet – a ‘symbol of a human being’ as he puts it. How to make the difference? We work in pairs, observing walks and treating each other as mannequins. What have we observed? All sorts, of course, about legs and feet and hips and shoulders and arms – but the one observation that Stephen is after, the key to the ‘magic’, is the awareness of the uniquely human and distinctive zigzag of the upper body, which brings with it an appearance of a side-to-side movement of the head. We experiment with primitive puppets made from tying knots in cloths to create a head and four limbs and, working in trios, we ‘walk’ our puppets around the room. Later, to prove how crucial this ‘zigzag’ is in our experience of seeing – that is, understanding that we are seeing – a human being walking, a large mirror is placed in front of us, blackout curtains are drawn, and we are issued with a set of five torches. Facing the mirror, one person with two torches creates a steady clip-clop of two walking feet; another person moves the ‘arms’ up and down; and Stephen does the head, showing exactly when to move the torch in relation to the ‘feet’ and ‘arms’. Voila, in the mirror we see a person walking! He shows us how to turn this into a giant, then a dwarf; how to show the ‘figure’ moving towards the viewer and away. Magic, no less!

‘Consider a chicken,’ says Stephen, who is interested in the animation of all sorts of creatures, not just human ones. It’s kind-of two-legged, like a human, but very different in weight and balance. It looks like a birdcage, a squat circular shape. It has a lot of weight on top, and big feet. ‘You’ll never see a chicken fall over sideways,’ says Steven, and no doubt he’s right. And pigeons ‘have all the issues of chickens and all the issues of humans’. The swan ‘rotates its body as it walks’. Get these things right, we are told, and the audience picks it up easily.

It is obvious that Stephen has spent a lot more time than the average person thinking about what it is ‘to walk’. In a lovely moment of self-revelation, he shares a story of when his oldest child was a baby, and he started to wonder why we don’t teach human beings how to walk. His wife returned from a shopping trip to find him manipulating the baby like a puppet – and he was sternly admonished and banned from ever doing so again!

So there is perhaps something of the behaviourist psychologist to Stephen Mottram – and certainly more than a touch of the physicist: as he relates his stories, demonstrates his points, and gives us exercises to carry out, he is animated by a schoolboyish enthusiasm for his subject – here is someone who was no doubt delighted to get a science kit for Christmas and has never stopped ‘experimenting’. There’s a whole section of the workshop on the basic principles of physics in relation to movement. A ball full of nails (‘always causes me problems at airports’) is hung on a string from a doorframe, and swung. A pendulum. And as we all know (or for those of us who left school a long time ago, were reminded), if the pendulum ‘bob’ is pulled to a relatively small angle from the vertical and let go, it will swing back and forth at a regular frequency. The weight of the ‘bob’ is not a factor in the speed of the swing. The key factor is the length of the string; ‘fundamental to puppeteers!’. There follows a reflection on how we ‘read’ the movement of things hanging on strings, and how filming marionettes is a nightmare because in theatre the audience accepts and compensates for the conflicts of pendulum speeds. The only thing that works on-film is having a string on every moving part and no floaty bits of costume to move at the ‘wrong’ speed. Much of this, frankly, goes above my head – but I think I left that workshop with more understanding of some of the principles of physics than anyone at my secondary school had ever managed to instil in me.

After lunch, we are taken out of the science lab and into the school playground for a terrifying shoot-em-up warm-up game, and then settle into an afternoon of exploration of different puppetry forms and principles.

A playboard is set up, and we are introduced to a form of simple puppet, which Stephen says is a favourite of his for running workshops with children, as they are cheap and easy to make – a ballcock covered in bri-nylon (no longer a popular fabric, but raid your Granny’s linen drawers or the local charity shop), on which bits of Velcro can be attached and removed speedily to create features. The exercise he has planned is one on ‘focus’. He first places just eyes on his puppet – two big round circles – and he turns the puppet to look at each of us in turn. He asks us to raise a hand when we think the puppet is looking at us, and at any given time around a third of us raise a hand. He changes the eyes for ones smaller and closer together, and the percentage is cut down to around a quarter. He then adds a nose – and now just one or two people raise their hands at any given moment. It’s all about the nose, we are told – and Stephen then expounds his theory of the big-nosed glove puppets (Mr Punch and his ilk): if you are setting up your booth outdoors and you need to make a lot of money in your hat, you need a puppet with a big nose, so it is easier for the puppet to ‘look’ at lots of people – people feel connected with the puppet and are more likely to put their money in the pot!

So now it’s our turn – with various degrees of success. ‘Focus lets down most puppeteers,’ he says. Then perhaps to make us feel better: ‘it’s a very difficult thing to do’. But there’s help on hand: ‘Forget it’s a puppet, use it like a torch,’ he says, and, ‘don’t get sucked into empathy with the puppet… be outside the puppet’. He talks of the crucial triangle of puppet, puppeteer, and audience – three elements not two. Now a ball is introduced, ‘bouncing’ on a stick, at first manipulated by two people, but then both by one, and we have the dilemma of ‘emotional ambiguity’ to sort out: which is our subject and which our object? We play with the ball leading the puppet, and the puppet leading the ball, and eventually with two puppets and one ball, which evolves into a lovely ‘magical catch in outer space’ improv to music.

Discussions around this exercise bring up the key issue of focus in many ways. We reflect on how strong a moment it is when the two puppets both look at the ball at the same time; the difference in feel when a puppet acknowledges the audience in a moment of complicity; and notions of tragedy and comedy as depicted through movement/physical action. We are now moving into the territory of theatrical intention. Steven points out that many things we are now discussing are down to personal artistic decision-making rather than ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’. He, for example, doesn’t feel any need to insert comedy into his work, as he doesn’t want to break the mood, preferring to ‘go deeper and deeper into the darkness’. This said with a grin and twinkle of the eyes.

He then shares an interesting anecdote about audience behaviour – saying that usually during performances of his show The Seed Carriers there are moments when the intensity of the onstage action results in the occasional laugh from the audience (often a natural human response to ‘dark’ subject matter), this usually towards the beginning, with the atmosphere getting stiller and stiller as the show progresses. But once, in Oslo, there was loud laughter at the beginning which escalated throughout the show, until the whole audience was guffawing, and just when he feared that he was failing and being ridiculed, a standing ovation at the end. He has not, before or since, had a similar reaction to this work. And it isn’t that Oslo is any different to anywhere else – on the following evening, the audience reaction was the one he considers to be the ‘normal’ one to the show. So it remains a mystery… 

We then explore some mask work, using simple ‘big heads’ depicting elemental emotional states – happy, sad, fearful, angry – and we work on the body language that goes with these: open and loose is happy; closed and loose is sad. Closed and tense is fearful; open and tense is angry – ‘in anger you reveal yourself’.

With the mask, the head is covered and the body is revealed. We then move on to the opposite mode, the ‘humanette’ puppet  (human head with puppet body) – in which the head is revealed and the body concealed. We take what we have learnt from the mask exercises to try to reflect emotional states in the puppet bodies – for example, in ‘happy’, creating slow continuous movements of the puppet limbs away from the body. There is some discussion of ‘states of tension’ which for me resonates with the exercises on that subject devised by French mime and physical theatre supremo Jacques Lecoq. 

Last but by no means least we come to the marionettes. It is an enormous honour to be allowed to ‘play’ with a master puppeteer’s own puppets, and we were delighted and grateful to be given the opportunity to have that experience. The puppets are extraordinary constructions, with designs that have been carefully thought through, then refined and reworked over the years. It is clear as soon as they were taken in hand that these are very unusual marionettes: Stephen’s trademark ‘rocking bar’ allows for all sorts of interesting play on counterbalance, even with just one hand; the heavily weighted feet give a real feeling of gravity; and the distinctive ‘naked and bald’ style of his creations allows for a focus on pure movement, outside of the suggestions of character that costume and hair give. We are given some insight into the complexities of walking, running, crawling, swimming the marionettes, whilst ever aware that in Stephen’s hands the puppets have an extraordinary degree of life that comes from this lifetime spent observing the essential quality of life – movement.


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The Logic of Movement workshop, led by Stephen Mottram, was presented on 2 August 2010 by Puppet Centre Trust in collaboration with Upfront Puppet Theatre and Lakes Alive.

It was held at The Playhouse, Castlegate, Penrith. www.penrithplayers.co.uk

For Stephen Mottram’s profile and details of available shows, see his current entry on the British Council website: www.britishcouncil.org/arts-performanceinprofile-2010-stephen-mottram.htm

For the Upfront Gallery, Puppet Theatre and Restaurant see www.up-front.com

For more on the Lakes Alive festival in Cumbria, see www.lakesalive.org

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Top image strip left to right: Stephen Mottram workshop; Stephen Mottram workshop; image from Stephen Mottram's The Seed Carriers.

Body images and bottom: Images taken from Stephen Mottram's Logic of Movement workshop. Photos Emma Leishman.



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