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Directing Puppetry

Emma Leishman reports from the Puppet Centre’s panel discussion at the Suspense Festival 2011

What do you get when you put a group of directors of puppetry all together in one room? An insightful and engaging discussion on the importance of directing in puppetry using a variety of styles and techniques – that’s what!

The Directing Puppetry panel discussion, which was hosted by the Puppet Centre at Little Angel Theatre as part of the Suspense London Puppetry Festival programme, had a stellar panel of directors – from across the UK, from America, and from Georgia. Dorothy Max Prior, editor of Total Theatre Magazine and Animations Online, chaired the event.

Mark Down, co-artistic director of Blind Summit puppet-theatre company, kicked off the discussion. He started by jumping to his feet and physically demonstrating the ‘crossing the footlights’ moment – marking out the divide between the space of the performer, which is one mode of being, and the space of the audience, in which the director also sits. This poses a dilemma if you are both performer and director – you have to learn how to step in and out of those two spaces. He tackles devising and directing via the ‘if first you don’t succeed – try, try again’ method, in an exploration to ‘discover something that already exists’. The first essential element, says Down, is a good puppet – and having enough people to make it work. There was discussion of the ‘dead arm problem’ (two people manipulating the puppet with one arm still swinging lifeless). Secondly, humour is just as important as a good quality puppet: there is, he says, something intrinsically comic or sentimental about puppetry, and therefore a puppet is able to generate emotion easily. If manipulated well it does not take much imagination to engage in the belief that an object or puppet can think and feel and make you laugh. It is of course all in the timing – the third element.

Down then suggests that gravity and character trump all other considerations. As with directing actors, it is important that any puppet, no matter the size, shape or style, creates a strong character – the puppet is the ultimate auteur of its own work, its character born out of what the puppet can and cannot do. For Down’s productions, the puppeteer-performer is visible, and his or her performance skills crucial to the success of the piece. He has often worked with ‘non-puppeteers’: actors, dancers, opera singers that he has to teach to manipulate. If someone has strong performance skills, he can usually manage to teach them to puppeteer. Some people, he says’ just have it’, almost from the start – and he often knows which performers will take to puppetry and which won’t!

Mark Sussman, co-founder and co-artistic director of the renowned collective (he uses the term ‘theatre family’) Great Small Works was next. Based in New York, and an ‘offspring’ of the legendary Bread and Puppet Theater, Great Small Works focuses on a collaborative working process, and each member of the collective could be the named director of any particular project. They work in many different ways – creating work from a script, devising, or making work within their community in Brooklyn, often work that focuses on a current issue facing the city. The forms used to present the work are many and various, and more often than not include puppetry of various types and scales, from large-scale processional street theatre to miniature toy theatre. Sussman also spoke about the political content of the company’s work, and in particular an ongoing series called Toy Theater of Terror as Usual, an episode of which was presented at Little Angel after the discussion as part of the Great Small Works Triple Bill (see review in this edition).

Kristin Fredricksson was the third speaker. She trained with both Jacques Lecoq and Alain Recoing, and although she has previously worked on many different types of ensemble theatre productions, she is now predominantly a solo performer who ‘self-directs’, presenting work under the name Beady Eye Productions (winner of a Total Theatre Award for its first production, Everything Must Go. She spoke of a handy device to separate out her dual roles as ‘performer’ and ‘director’, creating a ‘director’s table’ offstage, where she goes to reflect on the work done, and contemplate the next part of the process.

The processes for devising and directing are thus intertwined for Fredricksson: only in making something can she discover what that thing will be. Her work includes elements of film, puppetry, object theatre, mime, and live art, and anything could be a starting point – an image, a puppet, a piece of text, a concept.  She says that she thinks of everything as ‘puppetry’, even seeing the skeleton inside her as her first puppet to manipulate. This statement provokes some interesting discussion on the relationship between dance/movement-led theatre and puppetry, and Fredricksson and others on the panel cited Philippe Genty, Robert Lepage and Mummenschanz as influences. The choreography of the puppet cannot be separated from the choreography of the puppeteer, it is agreed – and whether the puppeteer is visible or not, choreography is a crucial element to all theatre that involves puppetry. In what some might see as a contentious statement, she says, ‘all good theatre is puppetry – a delicate play of objects and people on stage’. Fredricksson also spoke of how actors had to find their humility as they are in the service of an object – a point taken up by our next speaker.

Levan Tsuladze, who spoke next, is one of the most respected directors in Georgia. He is known in this country for his work with the legendary Basement Theatre of Tbilisi, and in 2006 was appointed as artistic director of the Marjanishvili State Drama Theatre. With the help of his colleague and interpreter, the producer Roger Mc Cann, he tells us the story of how he discovered the power of puppetry by accident, whilst directing a production featuring a doll that, despite remaining unanimated, kept grabbing the attention from the actors. If an unmoving doll can have this power, what might an animated figure be able to do? So a puppet was employed, and Tsuladze conceded that, ‘a puppet is selfish and will always take the attention of the audience away from a performer’. An actor can never win when pitched against a puppet, he says.

Tsuladze has created a great body of work, some just with actors, and some with actors and puppets. His renowned puppet-theatre production of Faust for the Basement Theatre Tbilisi used the traditional (and little seen in the UK) method of offstage actors voicing the puppet characters, each of which is manipulated onstage by a three-person team. His current (Winter 2011/2012) work, Captain Corelli's Mandolin,uses both actors and puppets onstage, and is created in collaboration with the renowned Georgian puppeteer Nino Namicheishvili.

Tsuladze further suggested that puppets have the ability to play with subjects that really matter in a way that actors often cannot, and that a puppet has something more to offer than an actor. Tongue in cheek, perhaps, he pointed out that puppets are preferable to actors as they do as they are told, don’t don’t behave as divas, not demand bigger parts, and don’t have egos. This sparked a discussion about the ego of the actor, with it being suggested by Mark Down that the best actors of course need ego to ever contemplate taking to a stage, but leave their egos in the wings once they step onstage, being at service to the play alone and not themselves.

The current artistic director of the Little Angel Theatre (and of the Suspense Festival), Peter Glanville, was the last speaker on the panel. Glanville concentrated on the design-led dramaturgy of his work and the work of Little Angel, pointing out that visual images can tell stories just as readily as words. Glanville began by musing on his own childhood and the importance of his toy rabbit: understanding what we endow upon an object in the way of feelings and memories is a notion that he has taken into his work in puppetry direction. He says that he is not a puppet maker, but enjoys working as director alongside makers and puppeteers in a collaborative devising process. He speaks of the design of the puppet itself as having a dramaturgical role, using as an example the Caliban puppet made by Lyndie Wright for the Little Angel Theatre/ Royal Shakespeare Company co-production of The Tempest: he demonstrates how the puppet’s body stretches and deflates, used in the production to express the character’s mood and circumstances from scene to scene.

He speaks of how much or how little to direct a piece in order to leave space for what an audience imagines and projects upon the puppet. Glanville, like other members of the panel, has been greatly influenced by visual theatre makers such as Pina Bausch, Peter Brook, Philippe Genty, and Robert Lepage.  He is interested in the relationship between all the onstage elements: the puppet, the puppeteer, other scenic elements, music, and text (if there is any – and this isn’t essential by any means!). He does not see a separationg between form and content, but believes that these two elements fuse in visual storytelling, which taps into the ‘unsayable, unmentionable or unconscious’ elements of life. He is most interested in the moments that transcend verbal language.

The chair then summarised the key themes from the discussion, and invited questions and comments from the floor.

Some of the points raised from the floor and discussed included:

  • The notion of the director as representative of the audience – and in particular that the director needs to really be there for the audience, and learn how to give the audience space and time to receive and interpret what has been offered
  • Attention to detail! The director of puppetry needs to take immense care in his/her direction as the smallest gesture by a puppet will carry to the back of the auditorium
  • The potential role of the dramaturg or outside eye, especially for the solo performer directing their own work
  • The false divide between ‘professional work’ and ‘community arts’, and how companies such as Bread and Puppet / Great Small Works have broken down those divides
  • Deciding on form and means of expression: Is a puppet necessary here? How best could the puppet be used?
  • The falling out of fashion of the marionette and the continuing use of marionetting in classic TV series (for further on this see Nic Hopkins’ article in this edition)
  • The importance of training and professional development, particularly for the actor-puppeteer / contemporary performer in need of a variety of skills in their bag (with some suggestions from Mark Down of simple ‘body puppetry’ physical exercises that can be done, such as his ‘swimming fish’ hands exercise, and a suggestion from Peter Glanville to use Neutral Mask with actors to discourage them using their faces)
  • The relationship between choreography and puppetry, and the physicality of puppeteering
  • Breath! It’s all about the breath!
  • The pain of puppetry! Puppetry is physical work and takes its toll on the performer’s body – see, for example, the poor puppeteers in War Horse
  • The value of mistakes in the creative process – as both performer and director

Finally, Kristin Friedriksson suggested that being a puppeteer is having ‘a puppet ear’ – which seems a good note on which to end!

Directing Puppetry was presented by the Puppet Centre Trust in association with Little Angel Theatre at Suspense London Puppetry Festival, Wednesday 2 November 2011.

Image credits:
Top left: Great Small Works Toy Theater Terror as Usual
Top right: Little Angel Theatre The Tempest
Below left: Blind Summit The Table
Below right: Kristin Friedriksson Everything Must Go
Bottom left: Marjanishvili State Drama Theatre Captain Corelli’s



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