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ao21: feature

Puppetry in Progress

Matthew Isaac Cohen on an inspiring programme of events for puppetry practitioners and other interested parties

A series of four illustrated lectures and a mini puppet film festival took place between April and June 2007 at the Puppet Centre Trust under the auspices of the PCT and Royal Holloway, University of London, with funding from the London Centre for Arts and Cultural Enterprise (LCACE), an initiative of eight London universities to promote the exchange of knowledge and expertise between academia and the capital’s arts and cultural sectors. The series was designed to examine the range of puppetry being practiced in London today and to encourage critical debate about the image of puppetry in the media and in mainstream theatre, and future directions for practice and study. In attendance were puppet experts and enthusiasts, academics and students from London and around the UK.

The series began with a talk on 22 April by the inimitable Canadian puppeteer Ronnie Burkett. Burkett was in London to perform his newest solo puppet production 10 Days on Earth at the Barbican (co-commissioned by barbicanbite07, Canstage, queerupnorth and Wiener Festwochen Profile) and used his ‘free’ Sunday to talk on the theme of Text and Performance. The puppeteer and writer spoke about his experience of growing up in Canada as a ‘puppet brat,’ his early puppetry studies and television work in Canada and the United States and his campy early puppet plays like Awful Manors (1990). The talk’s central focus however was on Burkett’s mature plays starting with Tinka’s New Dress (1994) up through 10 Days on Earth (2006). Burkett described how each play began with particular ideas and technical challenges, was developed through collaboration with a dramaturg and extensive periods of research and development and re-writing, reworked through performances before sympathetic Canadian audiences, toured internationally and finally retired. He offered some glimpses into his next show currently in development about a cruise ship cabaret puppeteer—which will allow him to develop new technical skills and interview elderly puppeteers. Burkett’s boundless enthusiasm for the world of puppetry came through strongly: touring internationally for him is not only an economic necessity, it is also an opportunity for him to dialogue with puppeteers and puppet experts and acquire new skills and knowledge and supplement his growing personal puppet library.  Video extracts of his talk are available via youtube here.

The next event in the series was a showing of the first two volumes of Heather Henson’s puppet film anthology Handmade Puppet Dreams, a national premiere on 23 May. Films ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime and used a huge variety of puppet animation techniques. The anthologies included selections from well-established puppet film artists, such as Janie Geiser’s The Red Book (1994), short experimental films by emerging artists and popular music videos. Audience favourites included Harker (2005), a silent puppet interpretation of Dracula that pays homage to expressionist silent films, and Tim Lagasse’s hilarious Sammy & Sofa (2005), a pilot for a puppet sitcom. My own preference was for Laura Heiz’s The Amazing, Mysterious and True Story of Mary Anning and Her Monsters (2003), about the nineteenth century Dorset-born palaeontologist. This film was concise, poetic and beautifully executed with puppets, toy theatre cut outs and hand-drawn animation. London-based director Simon A. Brown was on hand to discuss his film Project Huxley (2005), about a monkey participating in a typing Shakespeare laboratory project who escapes and goes to drama school. Brown discussed how his experience directing The Basil Brush Show prepared him to make a short film featuring puppets interacting with humans, and his hope that Project Huxley would facilitate his next project, a feature film also starring a puppet.

Acclaimed designer, puppet maker and director Julian Crouch, co-founder of Improbable, presented an overview of his collaborative approach to creating theatre in a slide-show of stunning images, on 30 May. Crouch stated that his upbringing in Scotland, far from the major centres of theatrical production, forced him to initially devise his own methods of making puppets and visual theatre. Work with Welfare State International and Bread and Puppet Theater gave him new techniques and approaches, informing the rough puppetry aesthetic seen in works such as the ‘junk opera’ Shockheaded Peter (2001) and Improbable’s interpretation of the Philip Glass opera Satyagraha (2007). He revealed that he is currently developing a feature film treatment of Punch and Judy for the Jim Henson Company.

Lyn Gardner, theatre critic for The Guardian, presented a paper and spoke informally with an intimate gathering about her experiences of watching and reviewing puppet theatre in a talk titled Reviewing Puppets on 7 June. She revealed that she had an aversion of puppets as a child but that the exciting puppet work of companies such as Theatre Rites, Royal de Luxe, and Faulty Optic has convinced her that puppets have the possibility of liberating audiences from the tyranny of naturalism, allowing room for imagination. She proposed that while the Arts Council requires experts in puppetry to make funding decisions, reviewers should come to theatre with an open attitude not necessarily informed by past work of a similar nature. She spoke of a need to nurture producers who will facilitate puppetry’s entrance into the crowded marketplace of the arts and the need for umbrella organizations such as the Puppet Centre Trust to provide reviewers with information about what puppet performances to see at puppet festivals. It is difficult for reviewers to justify reviewing puppet plays with short runs to their editors, unless a show has a further life on tour. Gardner perceived a ‘PR problem’ with puppetry and urged puppet practitioners to look to live art, which has done much to rehabilitate its popular image in recent years. Video excerpts of Gardner’s talk have been posted to youtube.

The series concluded with a lecture by television puppet and puppet director Nigel Plaskitt on 13 June. Plaskitt is associated with some of the most popular British puppet series such as Pipkins and Spitting Image, and has worked for the Henson Company for many years in television and films including Labyrinth and the Muppet films. He has also directed the puppetry in West End productions including Doctor Doolittle and Avenue Q. Plaskitt discussed at length his process of auditioning and training non-puppeteers to work with Muppet-style puppets, and provided a stream of fascinating backstage anecdotes about his work on commercial films and theatre.

A number of events at this free series were fully booked but produced less than full capacity due to ‘no shows.’ Comments, however, by audience members showed that the events were very useful not only for information and discussion but also for networking and socialising over a glass of wine. The series attracted a dedicated core following, and readily displayed the vitality of puppetry in London today, as well as the diverse challenges facing puppet artists and the field as whole.

Images: Ronnie Burkett; Lyn Gardner. Photos by Matthew Isaac Cohen


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