Reviewed by Beccy Smith
The most recent addition to Bicat’s series of books on theatre practice takes a broad brief – it aims to cover the use of puppets, objects, shadows and the expansive ‘visual effects’ in contemporary theatre practice. This is a diverse field of enquiry, which the author attempts to unite under the banner ‘visual theatre’ and to delimit by referring to ongoing contemporary practice in action.
The book is one of an ongoing series on theatre and related arts, published by Crowood, that are specifically aimed at students and other ‘absolute beginners’ – wide-ranging yet compact and relatively cheap publications.
Puppets and Performing Objects: A Practical Guide offers some history and a little formal analysis, but is mostly (as the title implies) a practical handbook, including guidance not only on how a rehearsal process might be run, but also on how to write fundraising applications, and how puppetry may be used within therapy and youth workshops. A large proportion of the book’s focus lies on the current practice of students at St Mary’s College Twickenham, where Bicat teaches (they also provide the bulk of the photos illustrating her ideas).
At the heart of the book is a collection of thoughts that are clearly expressed and straightforwardly practical. Bicat’s uncomplicated prose demystifies many aspects of the devising process and clearly distils principles of collaboration that could definitely accelerate devising practices. She has written a whistlestop tour of many of the trickier issues that are emerging as visual theatre becomes more prevalent (including ownership, the role of the director, issues of budgeting around collaborative processes) and that these are included within the central development of the book’s premise is important. In passing, it touches on the more interesting territory by discussing emerging (in many ways more emergent than visual theatre is!) practices of contemporary sound, light and digital design for theatre and, as ever, her description of some of the practical and theoretical choices surrounding contemporary design work (her own practice) are particularly illuminating.
This begs the question, why didn’t Crowood commission someone for whom puppetry is a specialism to write this book; someone who knows the field better, and might be better able to ground the central focuses within the history and geography that underpins current developments in British visual theatre, and also demonstrates their unique flavour?