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Beccy Smith reflects on the place of marionetting and other
traditional forms of puppetry within contemporary theatre

In 2006 the Little Angel Theatre was awarded a substantial Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant of more than £180,000 for the work of preserving the heritage of the marionette, and specifically the seminal work of John Wright, through and prior to his establishment of that theatre. The relationship of HLF support to artistic projects has always been somewhat problematic in concept – included in the portfolio of activity for this grant was to be a new production, albeit with existing puppets from the theatre’s archive. Preserving the old for the health of the new can seem antithetical to the project of reinvention central to artistic imagination, but for puppetry this tension seems especially foregrounded. In the course of the nine-month span of LAT’s John Wright Centenary Heritage activities, some of the key puppetry productions visiting London seemed to highlight the potential dichotomy between a form where mastery of a historic craft is a predicate of strong performance, yet whose presence in England increasingly signals an experimental approach to performance-making and theatrical form. What can an exploration of this dichotomy show us about the identity of puppetry in the landscape of British art-making today?

The ambition inspiring the Little Angel’s Heritage project was the preservation of a craft (marionetting) which, like many forms of puppetry in the UK, has suffered historic underinvestment with few professional training opportunities in recent decades, but the richness of whose form was uniquely accessible for this project via the corpus of work retained by the theatre. The inter-relation between craft-based mastery and contemporary practice is innate to much work with puppetry. Advancement in global communication and the interchange of ideas has made the diversity of puppetry’s traditions more readily available as currency for the contemporary practitioner. In recent years the resurgence of bunraku in the work of companies such as Blind Summit and the use of sophisticated shadow techniques in the work of, for example, Steve Tiplady or Luis Boy, highlights the centrality of long established crafts to the creative re-appropriation of puppetry within more mainstream theatre. Yet the specialisation required to master the complex art of the marionette – intimately bound up with its rigorous staging demands as well as complex making requirements – has rendered it particularly vulnerable to a dearth of training and development opportunities in this country and to limited application of the form in the making of new work, which Little Angel Theatre’s project sought to address.

Most formal puppetry courses, including the London School of Puppetry, offer marionetting as one of a spectrum of training options and supportive drama schools such as the Central School of Speech and Drama are limited in the facilities and specifics to train in this craft. In England, only Little Angel Theatre and the Puppet Barge offer the possibility of working, and learning, on a permanent marionette bridge (prior to this project the two annual apprenticeships offered by the Puppet Barge had been the only informal, specifically marionette, training available in London).

Despite its innate theatricality, puppetry has always retained a Janus-like quality to its character, straddling practices of both performance and design/making, and this duality between materiality and ephemera is intertwined with the question of its status between heritage and the avant-garde.

Forming a background to the Heritage oriented approach of the LAT’s project were seasons hosting British premieres of the work of several artists whose use of puppetry seemed to embody an entirely different attitude. The acclaim of artists such as Ronnie Burkett and Philippe Genty has often focused on what is experienced as a radical reinvention of the possibilities of the form. Genty’s innovation has been seen as a visual one – pacing the liminal boundaries between theatre and magic through dreamlike images whose presence never quite holds – hovering always on the edge of transformation, exploding audience imagination through the consistent re-imagination of objects, bodies and staged space. In La Fin de Terres (Land’s End), his first new show for several years (presented at London International Mime Festival 07) the prevailing audience experience of puppetry lay in this sense of their potential for interchange and flux – staged sleight-of-hand which transformed human bodies into animal bodies, figures into objects. Puppets and objects prickled with theatrical energy. The filmic aesthetic of his stagecraft, in both its illusory focus and striking use of large-scale two-dimensional images, helped to invest it with a contemporary air. Where traditional forms were used, such as in a dance sequence between two enormous bunrkau lovers/opponents, they were appropriated into assertively modern contexts, underscored by recognisably current rock music (Jet’s Are You Gonna Be My Girl?) and playing out an aggressively postmodern sexual politics.

Ronnie Burkett, whose recent UK tour was co-commissioned by the Barbican and QueerUpNorth (amongst other international partners), has made his name through a dramaturgical reinvention of the possibilities for marionette theatre. When in 1994 Tinka’s New Dress exploded onto the Canadian, and international, circuit it was with a mixture of surprise and glee that reviewers and audiences (re)discovered that marionettes had the capacity to embody and express adult human themes and emotions. Over the past twelve years his work has vigorously reset the agenda for marionette theatre, exploring, amongst other issues, racism and resistance, AIDs, identity, and mental health through a humane, often melodramatic lens of death, sexuality and coruscating wit. Part of what has made his work so critically surprising is his choice of form, the aesthetics of the marionette – his primary medium – being so innately related to theatrical grace and yes, historicism.

The transformative emphasis of both artists – in visual aesthetic and form – seems representative of a broader approach to contemporary art-making which values consistent revolution and change as its primary engine. Yet to separate a ‘heritage’ approach from an experimental one in puppet theatre is in many respects a false distinction. Burkett’s background is urbane here – undertaking early informal mentorship with several of the most established of North American puppeteers in his teens and finally training as an apprentice under Bill Baird (editor’s note: having seen and been impressed by his Lonely Goatherd scene in The Sound of Music!) with Baird’s puppetry troupe in New York. It was Baird who emphasised to the young artist the importance of thorough training in every aspect of his craft – from fine art and the plastic arts to voice and actor training – an approach which has been seminal to the evolution of his actorly approach to writing and performing his work and his rigorous integration of design, so characterful in the development of Burkett’s overall aesthetic. When Burkett later came to start creating his own work from scratch, at a time when ‘muppetry’ was de rigeur on the American stage and screen, it was exactly this background that allowed him to make the choice to innovate through redefining an established, even archaic, form. In his most recent work, Ten Days on Earth, Burkett returns to the even greater formality of long string marionetting – his reason? to situate his characters in isolation on the stage as part of his exploration of the idea of loneliness. A rigorous approach to traditional form here has afforded a sound dramaturgical decision underpinning the work. Burkett’s unique contribution to puppet theatre may be seen as his vision to look forward by drawing strongly from the tradition of the past, and his sensitivity to the space within what to many seemed an ossified form, which he was able to inhabit and resonate with his own voice.

The scope of the John Wright Centenary Heritage project has been to embrace both thorough training in every basic aspect of the marionettist’s craft – from construction and carving to the integration of voice and movement – alongside the development of individual artist’s vision – through devising, expressive design and performance. Over the past six months, training, which has been open to puppeteers from across the country but which has particularly evolved a programme for an intensive apprenticeship of two artists, has been shaped around workshops exploring fundamental principles as well as masterclasses inhabiting the diverse visions of contemporary practitioners. The project has also made provision for an all-new schools production, Give Us a Hand!, on which the apprentices have worked from R & D to realisation and its eight-venue London tour as well as an adult performance lecture exploring through demonstration The Art of the Marionette.

Always the underpinning ethos has been that a thorough exploration of one vision of an established art – the specific aesthetic and approach of John and Lyndie Wright at the Little Angel Theatre – provides a launch pad for the evolution of the original artist in his/her own right. Both looking back and looking forward are essential to the puppetry artist’s growth.

In one of the most memorable sequences from his corpus, in the short film Pierrot (1980), Genty shows us the marionette’s hunger for freedom – from the strings of servitude that bind him to his master, perhaps too from the strings of tradition that link him to his past. For the marionette form, many of the most sophisticated practices and structures are evolved from their Western heyday in popular terms, on the naturalistic Victorian stage, a tradition whose principles of realistic illusion and materiality now seem far removed from the priorities of modern performance. As the frustration between marionette and puppeteer grows, in one almighty tug the figure rips the strings from his operator’s hands. Both marionette and puppeteer collapse for a moment – logically of course, the performance itself has been killed. The marionettist disappears and we are left to ponder on the face-down folly of an artform trying to rip itself from its own form, its own history. Yet the sequence is not over. Slowly, inexplicably yet with a logic of its own, the figure begins to move, hauling itself to its feet, with a look of joyful complicity to the audience, and slowly limps from view. At this moment the puppet may be seen to exceed its form and its past. Yet with the marionette control as its crutch, and the not un-Victorian priorities of Genty’s craft and dramaturgy at the creative heart of the scene, what we really see is puppetry’s, the marionette’s, uneasy yet co-dependent relationship with craft and past, a fruitful dependency from which arresting new images can form.

Compagnie Philippe Genty’s La Fin de Terres is reviewed by Eleanor Margolies in Animations Online 19.

Further reflection on Genty, in the context of an article called Dancing Puppetry by Janet Lee, can be found in Animated Encounters the new print publication from the Puppet Centre Trust which is the first volume in the new series, Animations in Print. Contact...

to order a copy at the special introductory price of £15.

More on The Little Angel Theatre Heritage project:
Between January and July 2007 workshops have been run by, in order of delivery: Peter O’Rourke, Jonathan Broughton, Chris Leith, Ronnie LeDrew, Stephen Mottram, Stefan Fichert, Sue Buckmaster, Gren Middleton, Joy Hayens and John Roberts. The programme is now closed. The Art of the Marionette is touring to 20 London venues from April – October 2007. See:

Top left Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes 10 Days on Earth
Top right: Philippe Genty Fin des Terres
Centre: Philippe Genty Fin des Terres

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