As War Horse and its life-size equine puppet cast continues to wow adult theatergoers as much as the younger audience it’s aimed at, Kirstie Swain talks to some of the people pulling the strings of the UK adult puppet industry, where kids definitely aren’t allowed...
Think puppet theatre is all about Punch, Judy and children’s parties? Well, think again.
North London-based Little Angel Theatre runs Suspense, a puppet festival exclusively for adults, which kicks off in October. Artistic Director Peter Glanville told IdeasTap, “I think the capacity for belief is something that crosses all ages – the ability to imaginatively interact and invest with a character and object on stage. What’s important is how it’s done. If the craftsmanship’s not there then a child or adult will disengage and as soon as that very fine thread is lost, the interaction of belief is lost.”
North of the border, Manipulate Visual Arts Festival has similar goals. It takes place at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh later this month with a programme of “innovative theatre arts for consenting adults”. (A scene from one of the shows, Compagnie Mossoux-Bont’s Kefar Nahum, is pictured below.)
“It’s easy to say to a child that a bit of wood is an aeroplane or a ship. They impose their ideas of what a plane or boat is onto that object,” says Manipulate’s Artistic Director Simon Hart of Puppet Animation Scotland, the collective behind the event. “Adults are more reluctant to do that. Maybe as adults we’re just out of practice, in terms of making that imaginative leap. Once that has taken place it’s like any other performance – it’s about telling a story.”
Adult puppeteer Gavin Glover will soon be seen touring in Flogging The Dead Horse (pictured below) by Faulty Optic, a company known for its “black macabre humour” and surreal adult puppetry.
Gavin told us why he prefers an older audience: “Kids are very pragmatic. They see the puppet, the puppeteer, the whole picture, whereas if it’s an adult, they think, obviously I know there’s a puppeteer there, but I’m going to go along with it. I prefer to play with adult audience – you’re trying to get them to believe it.” Flogging the Dead Horse shows at the London International Mime Festival from 27 to 30 January, and Gavin will also lead a workshop on 29 January, titled Puppet as Performer.
It’s not just on stage where adult puppetry is a hit – it’s on television too, such as BBC3’s multi-species adult puppet sitcom Mongrels. Andy Heath and business partner Iestyn Evans run Talk to the Hand Productions, which built and performed the show’s characters, who are voiced by actors.
As Andy puts it, “With a puppet you’re immediately taken into a fantasy world. You can go anywhere. You don’t have to wait for pixels to render or people to rehearse. It’s a sad admission that when I go to at party I always take along a puppet. People engage with it. I love the immediate escapism of it.
Puppeteering is a serious business. Caroline Astell-Burt is Director of Studies at the London School of Puppetry, which teaches the skill as “a unique art form with intrinsic disciplines and techniques.” She says, “I regard puppetry as a completely different art form. You may as well ask me, what’s the difference between music and puppetry – it’s not a branch of human theatre.”
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Main image is from Green Ginger’s Rust, which showed at the last Suspense festival.