Rachael Canning on puppet design

Rachael Canning on puppet design

By Jo Caird 16/06/14

Rachael Canning has designed puppets for productions at the RSC and the Royal Opera House, among others. Rachael talks to Jo Caird about creating costumes with a life of their own and why she makes her puppets herself...

You make most of your puppets yourself – how important is it for you to be hands-on? 

You don’t necessarily have to, as a puppet designer. You could design them and get somebody else to make them, but I prefer to get my hands in there because I find so many things out in the process rather than drawing it out on a piece of paper. 


The Girl With the Iron Claws bear puppet by Rachael Canning




Take us through the design and making process for one of your puppets 

I made the bear puppet from The Girl with the Iron Claws [see images] in one evening. I do sketches for other things but that one I didn’t because it was in the moment. I had lots of images of polar bears. It was just intuition – which comes into the other designs as well, but a lot of the time I have to draw them out because it’s for another director for another show. For The Wrong Crowd [the company Rachael runs with director Hannah Mulder], I’m working for myself so I don’t have to draw it up, I can start to let things form in front of me, which I love – there’s some puppets that are like that.

The bear was part-costume, part-puppet. I took a long time over the head to create a majestic and mournful sort of face. The structure of the eye and the downturn of the mouth can just give you a little taste; you can read into that face a lot more. I take a long time over the eyes. I prefer just having a hollow to imply a focus. Sometimes if you’ve got too much of a pupil in there the focus is quite small so the range that you’ve got looking around to your fellow actors, puppets, whatever, it’s too small an area. 

I made a bubblewrap form underneath – sometimes you can use clay, but I did this quickly in bubblewrap – and then you heat up this Variform stuff and lay it on and smooth it round. Then you take the bubblewrap out, its innards, and you’re left with this carcass of a head and you start to layer up fabric and painting in that over the top.

The Girl With the Iron Claws bear puppet by Rachael Canning  

Tell us about your role in the rehearsal process

I don’t come to a rehearsal room with a finished product. It’s all about research and development and messing around with materials. You’re constantly moving things around and seeing how it’s working in the rehearsal room. You have to be flexible. That does happen in set and costume design but it’s particularly necessary when you’re working with puppeteers and things aren’t quite right for them. 

It sounds like there’s almost a directorial element to what you do

When I started just designing and making puppets, I then got them into the rehearsal room and found that nobody knew really what to do with them, and nobody was taking on that role. I think sometimes the puppets are plonked in and the puppeteer is left to their own devices. You need someone with a specific eye watching and seeing how to improve things. As I grew a bit more confident I was able to go, “Actually, can I just get in there?”, rather than just being a puppet maker. I need to see it all the way through. I feel very uncomfortable just passing over a puppet. Because you’ve made it, it feels like part of you, you know exactly how it all works and you have an idea of how it’s going to work on stage. 

The Girl With the Iron Claws bear puppet by Rachael Canning


How did you get started in puppetry design?

I studied theatre design at the Welsh College of Music and Drama. They had a puppetry element to the course: they do a puppetry show that you all have to get involved in, but you’re performing as well as designing and making. So that it ignited something quite interesting. I used puppetry within my work at college and then I forgot about it for a bit: I wanted to concentrate on set and costume stuff. And then it just kept on creeping back in. It just wouldn’t go away. I’d put something in, say a costume that could be manipulated, that had a head or something within the costume that would start to become a lot more sculptural and animated. 

What did you do to develop your craft? 

There wasn’t anybody telling me how to go about it, so I just started to look at the manipulation myself and I realised it was just about being observant of character and form and movement. Since I was a kid, I’ve always made little maquettes and moving things and little faces and characters. I’ve always been able to make stuff. I don’t think I’ve ever had anybody teaching me the ins and outs of how to make a puppet. I’ve bought books and bits and pieces like that, but I’ve kind of found it out myself in a way. I’m still learning all the time. 


The Girl With the Iron Claws bear puppet by Rachael Canning


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