10 years ago I was an actor and full time part of a company creating new plays and staging large- scale outdoor Shakespeare. Feeling a need for change I ended up getting on the 1-year directing course at LAMDA, trying to work out where I was heading. It was around this time I started playing in a more focussed way with Puppetry.
I had no training in with puppets, so I leant on my long held obsession with stop frame animation, through which I felt I had found a language for exploring how to tell stories through movement. I’d always been a maker at heart too, so I put this to use in making some basic puppets.
My informal, unstructured route into puppetry, fuelled with only fascination and an willingness to put in the hours, could never have flourished without the generosity I received along the way. The greatest example of this was the experience I had when I began working as Puppet Assistant on Warhorse.
Outside of my role on the show I was still pushing my own ideas: trying to expand my skills and challenging myself to make more ambitious puppets. One afternoon I found myself in the puppet tech room watching the team repair, remake and tinker with bits of horses. I’d been struggling to create a mechanism for a small puppet of my own, so I tentatively asked technician and maker David Cauchi if he could give me any pointers on how to get it working.
His response, and the reaction of so many makers I had contact with in the following three years, was beautifully generous: a quick sketch on a scrap of paper showing how a particular mechanism worked. I’d go back with further improvements on my designs and throw problems and solutions back and forth while David was tweaking the strings on the leg of a horse, or grab him as he took a tea break and walk away with a biro doodle to consider.
Personally it was a fascinating and important time but it illustrates something that resonates with me more than ever now I am a little further along the line. Perhaps it’s also being provoked by the current climate and conversation around opportunity and access and the very real barriers some people are facing. That job with the horse puppets introduced me to some skilled people who were generous enough to share, and, with that, the ensuing three years became both my day job and my own customised training and journey in more advanced puppetry.
I want to share and open the conversation up with anyone out there who has found an interest in puppetry but doesn’t have the resources to buy books, materials, or attend courses. As I make work, as I explore and make up ideas, experiment with puppet mechanisms, try new processes, find successes, shortcuts or answers, I’m acutely aware of the value of sharing it. Social media is totally accessible, so I put it on there.
Anyone who has been overlooked for opportunities because of where they are from, the system or statistics or subtle/blunt prejudice holding them back (I mean: I’m a man, I’m white, and I had already found my feet in theatre by the time I started in puppets). Sharing isn’t just a bonus. Sharing is pretty much the only way to make self improvement and creative learning totally accessible to those who might have the ability, talent, dedication or initial interest, but not the resources to back them up.
However. I’m conscious of a hesitancy in my field with regards to sharing. There’s the old idea propagated by practitioners and often projected by those working with them of the “theatrical guru”. In my case the idea that a puppet director has this unreachable wisdom and you’ll never receive it except in small doses on individual projects. I’ve felt the ego boost of being credited with it, but I’m aware that it doesn’t empower performers or other directors I work with or teach them to develop and trust their own learning, experience, judgement and taste. I’m all too aware that my angle on things really is just an accumulation of things that work for me, things I like. It’s not dead set, it’s not the definitive approach, it’s principles I play with and that change, not rules that are cast in stone.
The other area of hesitancy in sharing relates to design and making. I’ll obsess for weeks on mechanisms, new ideas for a puppet approach, and maybe there’s a concern about people stealing an idea, or clever approach. But we all do it! I copy, steal, bend and adapt things from puppets, animatronic film puppets, automata and toy makers. I stand on the shoulders of people with more experience, I convert what exists into something new, applicable in a different way, mix it with my own taste and interest and finally it feels like my own original piece.
So if somebody wants to copy my technique for making a leg joint, mechanising bird wings in a new way, getting around the difficulty of one puppeteer having to control multiple actions, then I don’t feel I can fairly suggest they shouldn’t. And if they do it successfully then well done, because it’s difficult stuff at times. And then if they express their own creativity on top of that, the result is something of their original voice. And so it goes.
Happily, there’s a wave of thinking at the moment about how our industry can be more supportive of those working in it. There’s increasing awareness of the lack of diversity in representation of race, gender and social-economic background. Often these shifts will require endorsement or processes that institutions need to make big moves to adjust. But it seems to me we can also make a difference by sharing and supporting artists that are perhaps just a few steps away from where we’ve got to.
Perhaps it’s partly about fearing the competition, or not seeing them as worthy of our time unless they are paying or have already established their skills or graduated from somewhere impressive. It’s given me huge joy to see people I’ve tried to support go on to do amazing work, get jobs and commissions that I might have been considered for (dammit! But it’s ok!).
I still receive generosity myself. I won’t embarrass the wonderful puppet designer who gave me my first big break in puppetry and has so often recommended a company get in touch with me. It happens and I’m hugely grateful. So I guess I’m indebted and I hope I can pass that on in whatever way I can.