Article published in "Animations" Year 18 No: 6 August/September 1995. ("Animations is published by The Puppet Centre, BAC, Lavender Hill, London SW11 5TN, U.K. SPEAKOUT. )
I earn my living as a puppeteer. As with any job I find myself continually struggling with problems concerning direction, professional development, time and financial constraints, the juggling of work and family commitments, and sometimes even puppet politics. I can feel frustrated by the compromises I have to make because of all the different pressures. What is marketable may not match what I would ideally like to create. I plough a busy furrow, using the skills I have developed (drama, voice, movement, timing, interaction, educational expertise, creativity, spontaneity). But wherever I take my work, there is always that annoying little shadow - the show that's waiting for me, beautiful, perfect ideas semi-formed, my chosen myth, full of energy and magic - that I simply don't have the time for, nor space, nor money - yet.
Recently, however, I have managed to find the time to see the work of some other puppet companies - a rare treat for a busy puppeteer - but made possible by the efforts of the MAC in Birmingham and the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry to bring a variety of puppetry to the Midlands. This has set me reflecting on what is effective puppet theatre, and who is it for?
The popular public view in our country is that puppets are for children, although 'Spitting Image' and 'The Muppets' have gone some way towards changing this. As a Punch and Judy professor this attitude is often implied; I'm usually placed in the children's area at the local fete, with public announcements such as "And specially for the kid's...." - although I see my performance as a robust piece of folk theatre with political undertones and sexual innuendos. The adults who happen to bring their children along invariably find themselves entertained as well. Of course, children seem better able to suspend belief, or to admit to doing so! And in my experience, a healthy group of children can cheerfully accept theatre which confronts our natural fears and conflicts, delighting in the opportunity to act them out, caricature them, or play with them. On some occasions I watch a traumatised adult desperately trying to 'protect' a somewhat puzzled child, or group of children, from the 'violence'.
My educational work is also primarily with children. Adults who come to my INSET workshops usually do so with a view to what they could do with their young pupils; BUT they always end up getting totally involved at their own level and wishing for more. A recent show which I have devised around issues to do with puberty, as part of the sex education programme in Birmingham schools, has been delighting 11 year - old audiences. But even at this tender age, during the evaluation at the end of the day, children are saying "I learned that puppets are not just for little kids". Well they're not, but try convincing your average grown up that they don't need to take the kids along as an excuse to see the puppet show.
Many years ago I saw a theatre production by the American Bread and Puppet Theatre at Exeter University. I can't remember much about it - a vague memory of huge giant puppets moving gracefully across the set, but one very small piece has remained very clear. Small in both time and dimension, I recall two members of the company stretching a blanket between them, and two others using crudely made glove puppets to enact the seven stages in the life of Solomon Grundy, using the top of the blanket as a playboard. The mime, slapstick, and delivery was perfect for glove puppets; the rhyme and it's story being well known meant that the piece could be led by it's action - it therefore had the ritual feel of Punch and Judy, and the audience - mainly adults - were in stitches.
There have been other occasions when I have seen a puppet style used to good effect - wonderful bunraku rod puppets, playing alongside actors to represent the seven deadly sins in a theatre production of Faustus; Barry Smith's deliberately ponderous wooden carved figures delivering the epic Beowulf as if it were a dream; Terry Lee Wright's 'Gaston', a large as life caricature of a caricaturist, mercilessly playing with the features of his audience. These have all appealed to me as adult theatre. So too, have brief moments in 'Doo Cot' productions - a gorilla riding a bicycle, and pausing expectantly for audience appreciation; a motorbike journey where the moving background scenery was drawn as it passed in pen on an overhead projector. What a shame the entire production never seems to communicate with the audience as these brief moments do.
Recently I saw Storybox Theatre present 'The Fisherman and his Wife'. This was for me, a good example of puppet theatre for all (except the underfives who in any event are not ready for formal performance theatre ). The gentle pace and repetition gave a feeling of being brought into the world of two simple elderly people, and taken along with their daily realities and rituals. Despite their comic foolishness, the beautifully carved and skilfully manipulated characters engendered respect. I found myself believing in them and their intent, as I had trusted in the reality of the strange and different worlds I had entered when visiting elderly relations as a child. The timelessness wrought by going round and round in circles was punctuated by the disruptiveness of thoughtless desire, and the magic of change. The impatience of the old woman to better herself was matched by the amused impatience of the audience to see her and her husband learn their lesson.
And how fortunate that Coventry's Belgrade Theatre have decided to invest in some worthwhile 'Children's Theatre', bringing several international companies down from the Scottish International Children's Festival. I saw 'Feet First', from Israel. (Incidentally, they were renamed 'Feet First' by the SICF, to the puzzlement of the company which calls 'The Old Woman and her Sewing Machine'. Perhaps it was too much of a mouthful for publicity purposes. They were also surprised to being asked to put bras on two half - torso women puppets who usually go topless ........whilst literally being bottomless - "We're not half the women we used to be, darling!"). In Israel the company perform exclusively to adult audiences, but in Coventry their performances were scheduled for the afternoons and when I went to see them I found myself packed into a tiny foyer along with John Blundall and a couple of Coventry half term playscheme groups - primary aged children, very streetwise and lively.
The tiny theatre was packed, and the sight - lines terrible, but within the first few minutes several children had crept out into the aisles to be better included in the tiny, but perfect world created by Jael, the main puppeteer, who used hands, feet, fingers and toes to manipulate her characters with a creative dexterity that had the entire audience, fascinated; so that we remained transfixed, except for moments of laughter, for a full hour. John remarked that the programme was unpolished and too much like a student improvisation. Perhaps he was right. If so I look forward to seeing some student improvisation. Perhaps I have not travelled the world enough to see puppetry of the highest, purest excellence, but here for me was the freshness of experimental puppetry that I had expected to find in the 'Doo Cot' productions which had disappointed me. The pieces did not link together; they were a jumbled collection of happenings - a story, and two snippets of life. But there was no pretence at connection, and no one seemed to mind, they were so delightfully offered. The story of the old woman reminded me of the imaginative games I played as a young child, the plot suddenly taking a nonsensical twist as if two or three different storytellers were playing ball with the same story - unpredictability was the theme, and the old peasant woman's confusion was understood by all. Here, I felt transported into a tiny world, but, like Alice, I soon became small and the world became big. When I found myself a few weeks later back at the Belgrade, but in the main Theatre watching a larger than life performance of Theatre Sans Fil's 'The Crown Of Destiny', I was puzzled that the magic did not excite me so much. Magic it was - an exciting production created on a large scale, with a large budget. (See Animations June/ July). A well told story which had tremendous visual impact, exciting lighting effects, and beautifully crafted giant puppets. The puppet manipulation had been well rehearsed and movements carefully synchronised with the sound-track........ah! There's a clue - I always do find that sound-tracks take something away from the aliveness of a show. Sometimes the movement was too overdone - almost a gesture per syllable, but mostly very skilful and effective. After some reflection I realised why I was not fully transported into this ancient legend, as the young heroine from our time was. Perhaps, if the puppets had been towering over me, as they were over her I would have felt more involved. But this was proscenium theatre. Somehow those distant images seemed so wooden................except for.....the giant - ogre, the little girl herself, the elves, the sea giant and the mystic...oh, yes, and the horse - all characters that could not easily have been portrayed by human actors! This was a production ideal for the mix of actors and puppets. Leer, the ogre, would have been even more grotesque and comical had he been met by real live humans, rather than giant dolls.
Maybe all of us who use puppetry need time to stop and think why we are using this or that particular form and style and to what effect? The puppet has it's place in theatre and television, and can work in some situations more effectively than an actor. Small scale productions and individual artists can 'reach the parts that theatre - based performance can't'! And so the world is our oyster. Looking around me, I feel optimistic and encouraged about the future of puppetry, even in today's arts - unfriendly climate. Let's keep on puppeteering whatever our different strengths and styles may be.
Caz Frost is a member of the Midlands Puppet Forum and operates under the name of Art of the Puppet Alive as a freelance puppeteer and educationalist. She may be contacted on
0121 420 2534.
31 Lightwoods Rd, Bearwood, Warley, West Midlands, B67 5AY, U.K.
Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org