No puppeteers required?

Brer Rabbit from Movingstage Marionettes, London

I read with interest an article on an upcoming puppet musical co-written by Alan Ayckbourn in the Lake District this Summer. I hadn’t heard of the Laundry Theatre before, which is a bit surprising as I lived in Preston for ten years and toured to many theatres in Cumbria, but there you go England is wonderful for it’s abundance of lively local venues.

It’s described as  “a new children’s show called Where’s Peter Rabbit? that will star puppets, like the hit stage shows War Horse and The Lion King” and it filled my heart with joy to see those shows described in this way as the importance of puppetry is often sidelined in the way these shows are described despite important puppetry specialists being involved – Julie Taymor directed The Lion King and Handspring Puppet Company were integral to the development of War Horse.

Then I read this line “Their  (Lion King) team told us not to use puppeteers. They said instead we should use dancers and singers, because if they can do those things, then they can make the creatures do it too.” and I thought really? Did they really? So a quick search produced this quote from an interview with Julie Taymor “Rather than expressly hiring puppeteers, I look for inventive actors who move well. A strong actor gives an idiosyncratic performance because he infuses the puppet character with his own personality instead of relying on generic puppetry technique.”

I was slightly appalled. Even more so when I read about the puppets being made by theatre technicians (tremendously skilled and trained though props departments are, designing and making puppets is a rare skill) and, even worse “Director and choreographer Sheila Carter has worked with Ayckbourn on many other plays, but has never directed puppets before.”

So a theatre production company seem to think it’s fine to use puppets, but not puppeteers, puppet makers or even a puppetry director? Not only that but to proudly boast it on a press release? I feel that perhaps the artform of puppetry could do with a bit more respect than that.

There is a blog site which gives a bit more information about the process and I read with interest that the technicians doing the making are not keen on using the word puppets, preferring to call them characters. Watching the videos I can see why. Each fully articulated figure is to be operated by one performer. The tradeoff is that no operation of the head is possible. As a puppeteer, I can testify that if the head is dead, it’s not a puppet, it’s just a wierd articulated costume. No expression is possible. The performers will be using their faces like mad to communicate any emotion. Which of course begs the question why bother? Renowned puppetry director Julie Taymor had detailed answers in the Lion King. I wonder whether Sheila Carter does?

Kim Bergsagel of The Puppet Lab/Vision Mechanics in Edinburgh says “Puppeteers can take an inanimate facial expression and make the audience believe it is laughing, crying, angry-that is the point. Puppetry is the partnering of puppeteer/audience and the investment of belief.” – If the performer has to portray the emotion, the puppet isn’t worth looking at on stage.

Mohsen Nouri, a notable British puppeteer  says “Puppeteers as artists and professional practitioners simply do not have the security or status we need to insure that professional puppetry jobs go to professional puppeteers. Until the false impression that puppetry is ‘easy and anyone can do it’ (and can call themselves a puppeteer so freely!) as well as the false economy in the reluctance by some productions to invest in that unique skill and experience are challenged, then this will continue to happen and get worse.”

Which flags up the wider issue – how much is puppetry actively disrespected in theatre, film and video despite the fact that its popularity is booming sufficiently for the Old Laundry Theatre to use puppetry as a selling point despite nobody being involved who knows the very much about it?


No puppeteers required?

15 thoughts on “No puppeteers required?

  1. Hi Adam, thank you so much for this observation. I am nearly half-way through doctoral research all about puppeteer presence, as I believe much more often than you realise puppeteers are sidelined, absented and neutralised. Four writers (Penny Francis, Rene Baker, Tina Bicat and Richard Schechner who was interviewing Julie Tamor have relatively recently insisted that puppeteers should be “neutral” when operating a puppet- imagine a dancer or an actor being neutral! No wonder Julie Tamor doesn’t want puppeteers for the jobs! And what an odd thing to ask of puppeteers. Asking them to be focussed, alert, controlled is fine but being “neutral” is really a throwback to the 19th Century when puppeteers were kept hidden because they wanted the audience to believe that the puppets were not puppets at all, but little wooden actors. In fact they were insulted if audience members asked to see the puppets. Keeping the puppeteer out of sight or having the puppeteer visible but “neutral” are really the same thing. Ronnie Le Drew and I have been training puppeteers for many years at The London School of Puppetry and other places. Teaching puppeteers to handle energy and focus in the puppet is putting the puppeteer at the centre of the activity. ( the puppet can’t do it alone) ….and as LSP can verify their students leave confident and positive and a match for any actor trying to use puppets.

    1. Hello Caroline thanks for your comment. I appreciate the amazing job you and Ronnie have been doing inspiring and training many enthusiastic students. Your thoughts on the puppeteers presence are interesting. Puppeteers often need a separation from the puppets in order for the puppets to have their own life and sometimes if not often the puppets are required to be the object of attention for the stage action to work. Puppeteers should have the skill to fade into the background and give the puppet space to do the work, but not always. A good puppeteer is able to segue cleanly and elegantly from being in and out of the scene. I suspect that in the musical currently being created the performers operating the puppets will not be given that choice but be in a strange half state of neither being a fully music theatre performer nor being an effective puppeteer.

    2. I have been working with puppets for a number of years, and I don’t feel prop departments should be making them, as someone who makes them by hand I know as a craftsman I imbue all my tools and puppets with qualities that can’t be faked. I think they will find out the hard way when the show lacks the spark it would have if they used proper puppeteers.

      1. A skilfully made puppet is akin to a beautiful hade made musical instrument. In the right hands it can melt your soul and sing to your heart

  2. I like the understatement of your opening line Adam. “I read with interest…” I read with a mixture of despair and deja vu. It is indeed possible to train a non-puppeteer to operate a puppet, but the notion that the skills will translate seamlessly is optimism divorced from reality. Did the Potter team ask Handspring as well as the Lion King team whether or not to hire puppeteers? I suspect their answer may have been different, given the time, skill and training required to elicit a moving performance in ‘Warhorse’. The video link suggests that there is a strong element in the Potter production designs of puppet as prosthesis, rather than puppet as character (despite the stated goals).
    I’m all for the puppeteers getting out of the way, being invisible, being neutral, doing whatever is required to allow the puppet to live. I don’t wish to see them (a pox on ‘Avenue Q’ and its underwhelming imitators) .The infuriating trend towards overly enthusiastic contorted faces jammed alongside an under animated, unfocused puppet is well past its use by date.

  3. Zoe says:

    Adam was wondering if you’d offer your reply to the Guardian to print? This is important for a wider audience to read and understand.

    I am truly baffled by the Peter Rabbit press release. Your response is both considered and thorough. As many people as possible should read it.

    Best wishes. Zoe

  4. This is the beginnings of robust debate. I would suggest that the proof may be in the pudding- let’s have a review of this so- called show with puppets and no puppeteers and no puppetry direction. I once went to a cafe and on the menu you could order a de caf soy latte and it was called a Why Bother. So Adam, and others , let’s not be dismayed, let’s wait and see this pudding without its punch!

  5. scott says:

    let them make the all mistakes we all made when we first started being puppeteers. it wont take long to realise that mastering puppetry is a life long commitment. maybe they’ll find some inspiration. regardless….you can put lipstick on a pig but ….. blah bah blah

    1. Understanding and using puppetry requrires a high level of training and skill. Attitudes like the ones in the articles shows a very poor appreciation of the artform.

  6. I’m a jobbing puppeteer and puppet maker and this attitude makes finding work in an already rough market all the harder. I lose puppeteer roles to actors and maker roles to prop makers and artists. On the plus side I have been called in at the last minute few times as a maker to turn an elaborate but pretty lump created by an artist into an actual puppet.

  7. This is an issue that has often been discussed in North American puppetry circles over the past decade, especially on the Puptcrit email list, where a number of leading North American puppetry artists have shared their thoughts on it (at one point, Michael Curry, who famously designed much of “The Lion King” with Julie Taymour, actually joined the list specifically to provide his perspective on the issue when one his employees alerted him to the discussion).

    It seems to me that in the case of this production of “Where’s Peter Rabbit” much of the problem is simply ignorance. I’ve worked as a consultant or Special FX Supervisor on a number of projects where I was brought in at the last minute because someone made the mistake of thinking “puppets are easy” and needed to be rescued at the last minute when they realized they were in over their head. I think most puppetry artists have experienced the frustration associated with educating non-puppeteers about how to incorporate puppetry in to their work. Often a puppeteer is brought in as an “expert” only to have most of their suggestions ignored (the production will also often blame said puppeteer when they encounter the exact problems the puppeteer was trying to help them avoid). In my experience, the more established or experienced the director/company is, the more stubborn and resistant to “puppet-centric” approaches they can be.

    Re: Julie Taymour’s comments, in fairness to her I think it’s important to put them in to their proper context. Throughout much of Julie’s career in New York (where most her casting has been done), you would be challenged to find enough self identifying puppeteers with the level of movement/dance training and physical conditioning she requires to cast one of her shows. Since she likely couldn’t find enough puppeteers she had to build them herself so to speak. Although Julie has always been a strong advocate for the use of puppetry in “mainstream” theatre, she also comes from a strong dance background and I suspect has a slight bias towards dancers (we come from puppetry backgrounds, most of us have a bias towards puppeteers).

    Traditionally there were few North American puppeteers with high level stage puppetry training (in North America especially, “Muppet style” hand and rod puppetry for camera and traditional puppet shows is much more common). This has radically changed over the last decade thanks to shows like “War Horse” and institutions like the O’Neil Conference and the Center For Puppetry Arts. If Julie stills holds the opinion quoted above, I suspect its because she’s somewhat out of touch with the changes that have happened in the past 5-10 years.

    I do find it slightly more baffling that something like this happens in the UK, where you have an embarrassingly large number of well trained stage puppeteers, at least relative to most places. Several years ago I was working on the development of an all puppet feature film in Canada that required sixteen puppeteers trained in both table-top and on-camera puppetry techniques. We had to resort to training ten novice puppeteers, an expensive process that took five months. I’ve often said that if I ever had to do something like that again, I’d be tempted to structure it as a UK co-production and shoot in England, simply because – while I love Canda – there is a deeper pool of trained puppetry talent in Britain.

    Oh and re: Avenue Q, the puppetry in most of the touring and local productions ranges from (at best) stiff and unimaginative to (at worst) dreadful because they primarily cast people who can sing and give them a few weeks of puppetry training. I saw the original Tony winning cast on Broadway and it was one of the most entertaining and brilliant shows I’ve ever watched with none of the problems Philip mentioned. The difference with that cast was that they were all puppeteers with 10-20 years of experience that had been trained by the Muppets.

    As Scott said, mastering puppetry is a life long commitment. As I’m sure we all know, experience really does make all the difference.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s