In Yer Box!
Taylor and Darren East of Unpacked on how puppetry always informs their process of theatre making
Unpacked’s current show, Funeral Games, began life as
a scratch night at the Nightingale Theatre, in Brighton, in
July 2006. (At this time the show was called Idyll –
A Comic Lament). During the eight-minute presentation a puppet
– the mother of the two human characters – climbed
out of a filing cabinet drawer and danced with her youngest
son, before meeting a sticky end. It was an elegant moment.
At the feedback session afterwards one enraged man slated
us for using puppetry. He could see little point in the form
and urged us to do without it. His remarks were followed by
a heated exchange of friendly fire, but the man would not
come round to seeing our side of things. He picked up his
umbrella and hurriedly made for home.
Ten months later we performed the complete show for the very
first time in the same space. A post-show discussion followed,
and to our astonishment, the same man sat in the audience.
As the session drew to a close he hesitantly raised his hand
and spoke softly saying, “I saw the scratch night of
this show some time ago and remember that you used a puppet.
I rather missed it, maybe you should think about putting it
The way that we use puppets has been different for all of
Unpacked’s three main shows so far. Our first piece,
The Fourth Violin from the Left, was built from what was initially
almost a collage of favourite bits from the work we’d
done while students (on the MA in Advanced Theatre Practice
at Central School of Speech and Drama). The puppets included
a large ad-hoc figure of suitcases and umbrellas, a brazen
tabletop figure constructed from domestic metalware, and a
pair of newspaper figures – for the first few months
of working on the show, we remade the latter for every performance,
until we settled on a more permanent design with a solid skeleton.
The perishability of these continued to be important to the
way they functioned in the story of the piece, however. All
the differing puppets were intruders into the world of the
show, or, more figuratively, representations of the human
characters’ paranoia, which they could torment each
other with. Thus the puppets were ever at risk of being fought
over, tortured, broken, burned, or just flung back into a
box. And it wasn’t only puppets that could be so disposed
of: in imitation of them, we started putting people forcefully
away in boxes, too.
For the next show, No Obvious Trauma, we had longer to consider
what it was we wanted the puppets to do. This piece had a
solid, if complicated, storyline that mainly took place in
a restrictive institution. The puppetry and other abstractions
gave us ways to play the emotional turmoil within it. We had
another pair of tabletop figures who this time enacted the
past – unreliably remembered or imagined – of
two of the characters, and shadowplay for the unspeakable
moments of therapy. Less successfully, perhaps, we attempted
to animate all the spatial elements of the set – constructed
from a desk, an antique wheelchair and two screens, all on
wheels. The tabletop puppets not only forced us to find their
natural integration to the piece but also made us work with
the physicality of the actors to match them.
And so to Funeral Games. It wasn’t long after that first
scratch night that we changed our minds and decided not to
use figurative puppets at all in this show. The puppet we’d
argued over on that first night was definitely not appearing,
as by then we’d decided not to use the character of
the mother in the show at all – it is more or less entirely
about male relationships. And while we certainly could have
used a puppet father, the world that we’d created for
the show just didn’t seem to need puppets.
But that didn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of puppet
thinking going on. The main starting points of the creation
of the piece included a pair of filing cabinets, and the idea
of a puppet dragging a dead body across the stage. The latter,
unfortunately, never quite made it into the piece (our rehearsal
process inevitably produces lots and lots of “bits we
like” that we have to store up for “later”)
but it did make us think, again, about actors as puppets.
A lot of the work of the piece involved making “scores”
for the action of the actors, both external physical routes
and internal emotional tracks. It became a process of puppeteering
ourselves, and each other, in coordination with the other
objects we were using. Without puppets we grew as actors.
We found that all the essentials that go to create characters
through puppets also go to create a human character. There
are differences of course: a puppet cannot act without someone
to manoeuvre him, but then neither can an actor, if he is
his own puppeteer.
Puppeteer Rene Baker (renowned for her approach to using puppets
for actor training) came from Barcelona to work with us for
three days of exploration of the qualities of our objects.
This time, two stubborn four-drawer filing cabinets posed
as our main collaborators and to animate and transform them
was a huge challenge. Many hours and one broken toe later
we found some essential characteristics that showed us the
way forwards in terms of tone, story and place. Funeral Games
has other specifically puppetlike elements: the father appears,
not as a figurative puppet, but as a sternly framed photograph
– and as an unsuspecting audience member. The cabinets
themselves become many things, including a bunk bed, a TV,
washbasins, coffins and a horse-drawn hearse (another audience
member gradually realises he or she is playing the horse).
Unpacked works in a realm of many voices. Being a company
of five, our work has many threads – they don’t
always join up, to begin with, yet at the centre remains a
mutual love for puppets, objects, dark comedic tales and the
absurd. The characteristics and qualities of puppets and animated
objects are key to our creativity, to the process of making
sense of the world through play. But getting to performance
takes time: time to play, time to experiment, time to build,
and time to assess. We have always worked with other practitioners
in a variety of ways, but this can cause confusion –
and these days, where giving and receiving feedback seems
like a constant preoccupation in fringe theatre, things can
become very blurred, very quickly.
But those that are silent, or rather those that don’t
necessarily speak, can sometimes be the best of advisors.
Our work with objects, the transformation of objects and the
physicality of the human body comes to a large extent, if
not exclusively, from a tradition of puppetry. The specificity
of puppetry applies to every action, the flicker of a human
eyelash, the explosion of anger in the voice, the movement
of the little toe.
We ended up taking the first advice of that stranger –
although for our own reasons – which ultimately benefited
this piece of work. But next time we will consider his later
advice and “put the puppets back in”. If only
for our sanity.
Unpacked was formed in 2004 and is based in London and Brighton.
Their latest production, Funeral Games has been developed
with support from the Nightingale Theatre, Brighton. Unpacked
tell darkly comedic stories using high-octane physicality,
object animation and a distinctive puppetry aesthetic. Their
work is inspired by frequent collaboration with invited practitioners
of all disciplines from directors to scientists, athletes
to welders. Funeral Games will next appear at the Pleasance
Below as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. For their next production,
Unpacked are considering the use of large-scale marionettes.
For further information, please see: www.unpacked.org