Puppet on a String
What’s in a Name? Nic Hopkins from the Norwich Puppet Theatre reflects on the ‘Suspense’ in Suspense London Festival of Puppetry 2011
So why ‘Suspense’?
It's an interesting question to me as Chair of Trustees at one in that terribly small club of purpose-converted puppet theatres in the UK, the Norwich Puppet Theatre.
Both the Little Angel and Norwich Puppet Theatres have their origins in bases for companies with a core strength in marionettes, as well as other puppetry. And from time to time, both theatres have companies who make use of the long-string puppetry bridges. Indeed, the Suspense Festival 2011 features both short and long-string marionette shows – Movingstage Marionettes and Sue Beattie.
So when the question from the audience of the fascinating Directing Puppetry lecture and debate (held on Wednesday 2 November at Little Angel as part of Suspense) asked when haven't marionettes made their presence felt on the TV or the cinema screen, I was keen to know who might know the answer. And as with all things the answer… well it all depends!
On the one hand it could be that long-string marionettes appear too flat for current tests in directing or viewing TV shows. On the other hand the ease of digitally manipulating film images means that a number of well-known puppets are actually still operated as marionettes – but our taste for autonomous fantasy creatures means the stings get edited out. You didn't hear it from me – just in case it isn't really true – but it was even suggested that the Meerkats (pace John Roberts) beloved of one advertiser are actually – yes you've guessed it – marionettes! Except where they are CGI generated etc etc.
Which brings me back to – so why "Suspense"? After all, this is a very successful puppetry festival with great and international puppetry performers aimed at an adult audience. But for a general public that might be expecting it all to be marionettes – I’m often teased, ‘I see you’re pulling the strings again’ – the ‘suspense’ in this excellent festival is only in part about this tradition.
I suppose there is the potential of dramatic suspense, but from my visit to this lecture and the excellent Great Small Works toy theatre performance that followed, I think the ‘suspense’ is that with puppets you just don't know what to expect. Except that those performers behind the puppet or the object are incredibly creative and enormously skilled, and disciplined in the way they make ‘things’ move and emote.
Listening to the professional directors describing how they work with puppets, and how that is different to working only with human participants in a show, it seems that at the start of a puppet play project no-one quite knows what to expect. Now there will be a project idea, and a commission to the director, and maybe a story – witness Peter Glanville's work on Shakespeare stories with the RSC, Mark Down's work on puppets in opera, or Levan Tsuladze's work with Chekhov and Louis de Berniere's Captain Corelli's Mandolin. But until the company comes to understand their puppets, no one really knows how this is all going to come together.
But the thing that really came out from all the directors is that unlike human performances – after casting actors the shape of the show could be said to be itself ‘cast’ – the puppet has to be discovered in terms of its own characteristics. Even if it is a from a well-known tale like the Red Riding Hood Peter O'Rourke is devising for us at Norwich. How does it move? How does it transmit emotion? How does it engage directly with the audience in those mysterious ways that bypass human tone of voice, gesture or expression? And I was most persuaded by Kristin Fredrickson's passionate expression of this evolving process of how the puppet guides the puppeteer, the director and indeed the audience to explore what puppets can say, do and convey in unique and surprising ways.
So perhaps that's the delight and the appeal about puppetry as a distinct and grown-up artform. Perhaps it has a legacy that stretches back to the point when our ancient ancestors discovered not only how to make an object into a tool, but fostered in the rest of his group the opportunity to project their fears and joys onto that object as an extension of his or her creativity and each and every one of the group's emotional life.
It was asserted our puppetry performers never know exactly how their puppetry is going to turn out at the start of the project and so their discovery, and their discipline at repeatedly executing their manipulation may be what can take us in the audience by surprise. How they keep you in Suspense.
And what is great about festivals like Suspense is that they can present so many flavours and approaches to puppetry, object theatre, toy theatre and all sorts of related stuff in one frame of time and space. It should remind us that there is a great and specialised tradition here. One that needs cherishing. And it's great that puppetry is making a much-loved and much-admired mark in mainstream theatre alongside acting, music-making and dance. We need our centres of excellence not just seen as specialised puppet making or puppet production: we need our centres of excellence to be seen to grow the art of puppet discovery to keep the development of talent for the next 20-30 years of creatives of this moving and delightful art.
Thank you Suspense Festival team for awakening these thoughts and reactions in me – even if they might be a little dangerous!