I work with puppets for theatre performance. I have managed to complete some small projects during this time of Covid-limbo. Many theatres, during this time of enforced closure, have been scrambling to generate online content to retain a public presence and a connection with their audiences. Little Angel Theatre, a puppetry venue in London, asked me to create some short videos sharing my top tips on ‘writing for puppetry’. My work is rooted in live performance, although I have on occasion created work for TV and film, screen work has not been my focus; and online video is its own medium; so although this was a low tech project, I had to adapt my thinking to a medium I do not usually work in.
I am in lockdown away from home. I am without my materials, tools or a space to work in. I’ve had to be resourceful to maintain something of my artistic practice by utilising whatever materials and objects I can lay my hands on. I’ve tried to make artistic choices that accept these limitations and where possible, turn limitations into strengths.
Theoretically any material or object can be used to make a puppet. Durability and weight of course are important factors but typically (under normal circumstances) my first consideration is what material encapsulates the theme or concept of the production. When I look at a material or object I think about how to articulate it and how it will move, followed by what is its creative potential to be transformed in some way. Puppetry draws on the resonance or meaning we assign to a material or object, and drama often comes from subverting our expectations of it. These are considerations when designing and making puppets, and also when writing drama for puppets.
It seemed right that videos extolling the need to think in visual terms when writing for puppetry, should themselves lead by example, however basic. I scoured my lockdown environment for anything useful (mainly found objects and simple paper art work). I turned corners of rooms into subtly dressed stage sets for the videoing. Low tech but carefully constructed, it hopefully speaks to a non-professional audience of all ages in a playful and clear way.
I’ve been making some simple puppets for a music video, a favour for a friend. He assumed I had access to my puppets and could just film myself puppeteering them dancing or drumming to the music. Not wanting to let him down, I made some basic puppets and animation using just cardboard and light. With only a few days to design, make and film, I had to find ways of connecting moving puppet joints with only double-sided tape and elastic bands. The puppets are basic flat puppets; a cajon player to look like the music video friend, the puppet can raise his shoulders alternately in time to the music, clap a rhythm and drum on a cajon; and to accompany him a rumba dancing grandma, based on a carved 3D puppet from a former show of mine.
And in addition I’ve been experimenting in light painting, capturing movement of light on long exposure photographs and placing the photographs together as stop frame animation. I have much more to explore with this technique but even so some of these test pieces made their way into the music video. Swirling torches in the dark at night was not without challenges as it provoked the neighbour’s dog to bark furiously throughout.
While small scale, low tech projects like these have given me some sense of purpose during the limbo of lockdown, what I need to do is apply this sense of resourcefulness more fundamentally to my work. Due to covid I am forced to rethink my artistic process, although I am finding it unsettling.
At its heart, theatre is collaborative endeavour, rooted in hands-on, practical collaboration, from pre-production through to performance. Much of how I work is not possible under Covid restrictions.
At the start of the pandemic, with theatres closed and funding suspended, my first task was to salvage and shore up existing projects where possible. While my scheduled projects in Norway, Romania, Netherlands and at home in the UK were cancelled or put on indefinite hold, a co-production with a Canadian music ensemble has remained in place, albeit with a reduced budget and revised timetable. It is scheduled to be performed in Canada in 2021 and the UK 2022, Covid allowing, so preparations need to happen now.
I am not in a position to make the puppet for this, so I have commissioned Jan Zalud to carve the puppet from wood. The puppet will be interacting with musicians playing cellos and violins and it seems right to echo the material and some of the shapes of these instruments in the puppet design. I have missed discussing design ideas face to face, sharing in handling materials and demonstrating movement, but the process of turning some 2D sketches into a 3D wooden puppet is underway.
I am currently grappling with how to carry out some research and development safely in a rehearsal room with two puppeteers and the composer, in order to develop the music in tandem with the puppetry movement. The two puppeteers are in a bubble, otherwise it would not be possible at all. Myself and the composer will be at distance, and probably masked. I won’t be able to handle the puppet during the rehearsals, so I need to find new ways to express and communicate my ideas in the rehearsal room.
If Covid is here to stay, theatre in this country may not be viable in the format we have been used to. Outdoor work and socially distanced audiences are not financially sustainable in this country considering our weather and our low level of financial subsidy (unlike in many parts of Europe, where higher levels of government funding means theatres are not reliant on ticket sales). There is much uncertainty ahead but what I do know is that resourcefulness and an ability to adapt will be required.
Watch Rachel's 5 top tips for writing for puppetry: