In the first two weeks of September I participated in a workshop with Australia’s Snuff Puppets designing and building giant costume puppets that were then used in a performance for the Thames River Festival night carnival. This then is my record of the joy, the laughter, the pain and the tears and maybe something about puppetry as well.
Snuff Puppets have been around since 1992 and have garnered quite a reputation in Australia and beyond for making work that is playful, somewhat anarchic, and often explores unusual performance venues. Whilst they do make pieces for theatres, a lot of their work takes place on the streets, and it’s this interaction with the general public and public spaces that typifies their approach to performance. Stylistically and politically they share a similar ethos to companies like Bread and Puppet Theatre and Welfare State.
They describe themselves as a giant puppet company and indeed their puppets are big and very heavy; you certainly have to be very fit to perform regularly in their style of work. Generally the puppets are of the costume variety and are built specifically around the body of the performer who is always concealed within the puppet. They range in style from fairly simple mask-like costumes to huge harness contraptions that have several moving parts all operated from numerous levers within the puppet.
Snuff Puppets were brought out by the International Workshop Festival for a series of events culminating in a performance for the Thames River Festival Illuminated Night Carnival. They spent the first week on a professional practice exchange sharing their approach to work and then two weeks working on building puppets with the Lillian Baylis school, working with the National Youth Theatre who used the Snuff Puppets’ own puppets – and us. Us being a group of about twenty, half of whom were students at Kent University and the other half artists from fairly divergent disciplines, some makers who specialised in carnival events, some performers, some puppeteers and probably some people who specialise in baking bread. It was really quite a mix.
There was no preconceived idea as to exactly what puppets we would make or how the performance would be constructed. They prefer to work and collaborate directly with whoever is involved in a project and it was left up to us as a group to decide on the themes and types of puppets we would build. We ended up with a collection of several designs attempting to distil some of the essence of what defines London. Picked from these were the puppets we ended up making: a London bus (of the red Double Decker kind), a whale (as was caught in the Thames), three pigeons, three people under one umbrella (representing diversity of London crowds, I worked on this one) and a man who carried London on his back (someone literally weighed down by the history of the city).
The puppets themselves were built from fairly basic materials. A frame constructed from bamboo was built around a backpack harness fitted for whoever would be wearing it in the parade. This was held together by twine, wire and the ever-prodigious gaffer tape and included very simple joints for moving parts. This was then covered with material, features made from foam and then the whole thing was painted. In theory it sounds quite simple but even working in teams it was quite a rush to finish making them within the two weeks, even working seven days a week. Partly because the process of constructing, like most puppet building, was one of problem solving. Snuff Puppets didn’t arrive with a blueprint for how each puppet would be made but rather they chose to build puppets with us that they themselves had never made. This meant that we were working on this piece together with them rather than being instructed in one particular design. We were discovering for ourselves how to make these puppets (although of course we did have expert help on particular techniques they use) and learning that it’s okay to make mistakes and not have a fixed plan even when building something this big.
Once finished the puppets themselves all seem to have an aesthetic that tie them together. They look like they have been handmade, have odd incongruent features and resemble Frankenstein’s monster, looking as if they have been constructed from spare parts. This is probably the result of the kinds of materials used, which are mostly natural materials that don’t form straight lines or perfect circles, unlike aluminium frames for example. In any case this look is something that Snuff Puppets embrace. There’s warmth in the flaws that shows they were handmade and this imperfection is somehow more human than something that is immaculately polished.
The relationship to an audience is something Snuff Puppets place particular importance on and finding a way of interacting with people is key to most of their work. Snuff Puppets don’t normally do parades and in discussions we talked about how to engage the audience not just intellectually but physically as well. Usually they will take their puppets into public spaces and push the boundaries of what is normal behaviour in these environments. Despite the fact the puppets probably weigh the performers own body weight they run in them, throw themselves on cars, chase people and fall over. So just how we could do this in the constraints of a parade was something they wanted to examine. To be able to do this would certainly have been more in keeping with the idea of carnival as proposed by Bakhtin, rather than a spectacle that people see from a distance and remain removed from, which is what a lot of urban ‘carnivals’ seem to have become these days.
The procession itself was a good two-hour walk and despite carrying a huge weight on my back and sweating buckets (it’s certainly not a comfortable way of performing) it was very enjoyable. The closest thing I’ve done for pure physical endurance in public spaces have been stiltwalking shows but what is really nice about these style of puppets is the manoeuvrability of them. By having feet on the ground and quite good visibility it allows a ten-foot puppet to really play with an audience. Being inside the puppet it’s quite impossible to tell exactly the effect you are achieving but we’d managed to get out and try some movements prior to the carnival. The parade itself turned out to be two hours of improvisational play with the minders and Snuff Puppets artists giving us direct feedback on what was working or what we could try. And really this was the only way to find out how to engage with the audience. Whilst some of the route of the parade was sectioned off from the public with barriers there were also places where there was no separation and it was possible to break though into the crowd and walk behind and into the space where the public stood. This could both be fun and slightly scary as well. Sticking to the designated path was safe but playing with the crowd was moving into less sure territory. Especially as the two dominant reactions were either to run away from the puppet or to try to grab or attack it, but either way there was usually a strong reaction. And it’s not everyday you get to have a London Bus drive straight at you, do a bit of a dance and then drive off.