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Marathon Man
Adam Bennett reports on the Puppet Sports event at UNIMA 08 in Perth, Western Australia

When I found out that the 2008 UNIMA congress was not only to be held in the place where I grew up, but also hosted by the Puppet Theatre where I go my first job, I felt that I just had to be there! 

The imposing Perth Concert Hall with it’s 60s modernist design and concrete casting that captured the patterns of the grains of wood of the planks that cast it has indelible memories of my earliest cultural experiences as a small boy.

As part of the Carnival Day, I performed my one man show, Chicken Licken, to a couple of full houses, and then stuck around to see the 15-minute taster performances of Puppet Sports, a new form of improvised puppetry by AQM – the Association of Quebequois Marionettists.

Taking its rules from Canada’s national obsession, ice hockey, the Puppet Sports concept was devised during the Quebec Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s by actors Robert Gravel and Yvon Leduc.

With a format based upon the rules of ice hockey, five Canadian puppeteers and a musician invited four volunteer puppeteers per night to join with them to create short pieces of improvised puppet theatre in a variety of games designed to entertain and amuse the audience. A live keyboardist provided accompanying music and the ‘referee’ blew the whistle to either end the improvisation or to add elements to the improvisation. Sometimes she would ask for suggestions from the audience, but the majority of the audience interaction involved laughing, cheering and voting for either the blues or the whites with their little glove puppets that were blue on one side and white on the other.

Most of the improvisations were played out on or around a tabletop, but there was a playboard available. Behind the tabletop were a table full of articulated puppets of various types and sizes and a table full of objects and materials of various descriptions. There was plenty to play with and with a referee prepared to step in when an improvisation wasn’t working, as well as a live keyboardist to provide support, the entertainment never dulled. Except for once on the night I was playing, when at the end of a confused impro the keyboardist argued with the ref over whether the audience should vote on such an awful game. All of this was done in a good-natured semi-sporting way, in the same way that the team leaders would be openly and playfully aggressive-competitive in a very North American way.

The Puppet Sports style and concept I found very interesting and user-friendly for both the audience and the performers. It provided a safe and accessible format for the ‘mysteries’ of puppetry to be revealed to the audience and the sporting style de-mystified the process and made it very accessible to the audience. The puppeteers get a chance to show their playful quick-wittedness and the style doesn’t lend itself to the most beautiful manipulation that people are ever likely to see, but it demonstrated the power and potential of puppetry to bring out the child-like innocence and enjoyment of play that people appreciate and need.

It would be fantastic for a UK version of Puppet Sports to be proposed as part of the UK Cultural Olympiad. If enough puppeteers get back to me on, I will investigate further whether we could get funding to make Puppet Sports happen in the UK.

Image credit: Adam Bennett and Marie-Pierre Simard at Puppet Sports, UNIMA 2008. Photo Stéphane Guy

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