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?