Photo by Idil Sukan

Cat is a puppet..

I joined Theatre Témoin as a collaborator and puppeteer on Barbe Bleue in 2010 after a first period of development and performance. Since its inception the production has evolved and changed, as devised pieces do. Now called The Fantasist, the piece is a dark comedy about a woman – an artist – lost in her mind: a woman experiencing the glorious heights and murky depths of bipolar disorder. We built a piece which is highly visual and playful, featuring physical theatre and puppetry, and which tries to take the audience on a journey into the head of the protagonist, Louise. After a three-week run in February/March 2012 at the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell we took the production to the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

In the last 18 months we have explored not just the human mind but spaces of creation and performance. For me the process has highlighted three places – third, ‘other’ spaces – which are crucial to the performance and the communication of our story to an audience. Even with the company’s previous experience of puppetry, we had to delve deep into that other space that is neither one nor other puppeteer but that is the space of the breathing, living puppet. These puppets, in turn, transformed the backstage space, making it simultaneously more dynamic and delicate than I have ever experienced. Most importantly and finally, I engaged more intensely than ever before with that third space between the performers and the audience: the space where the story is made.

In The Fantasist Julia Corrêa and I puppeteer 3 different kinds of puppet –

Photo by Charlie Johnson

– from objects (here the lamp) –


– to clap-mouth muppet-style puppets –

Photo by Idil Sukan

– to three different kinds and sizes of bunraku-style puppets (pictured is the littlest, Ophelia).

The first two kinds of puppets we manipulate individually but it is with the bunraku-style puppets where this third space of the puppet really becomes apparent. In manipulating these puppets we had to work together, listen to each other and all the time assume different roles: now I’m the lead puppeteer, now the legs, now I have a rod for the head and another for the arm below me, now a hand in a sleeve and a hand in a head above me. Our first challenge was how to find that space of neither she nor me, how we could harmonise and synchronise ourselves so we were like one puppeteer.

It was easier because we get on. We get on very well, as friends and colleagues: we are known as the Twins. Although we’d never met before the project, we soon realised we shared a similar sense of humour and play. More than that, however, the stars had been aligned in our favour: born continents apart – in São Paolo and London –we were born within hours of each other, in the same year. We are the same height, with the same unusually sized hands (Men’s Large) and the same sized feet (8 1/2). We had a head start.

Even so, we had to re-learn how to listen to one another: closely, with our whole bodies, without eye contact. Connected through a puppet but not even touching, we strove for a physical togetherness. That, however, was only the first step. We had to find a way to be in a totally different space in front of us: in the space of the puppet.

I come from a background of character acting, from a love of physicality and on-stage transformation. There is little that you cannot imagine with an audience. Proof of that comes from Kathryn Hunter, who metamorphoses on stage, who leaves behind the limitations of her body and assumes an imaginary body, becoming different genders, sizes and shapes in front of you. Through her incredible physicality and our shared imaginations, I’ve seen her become a Japanese businessman (The Bee), Richard IIIrd, Kafka’s Monkey and a host of characters of all types and ages from Tales of the Genji (The Diver). (The screen equivalent would be Meryl Streep, especially in the extraordinary film Angels in America, based on the play by Tony Kushner). I try to approach performance through that physical embodiment of a character, by donning a different skin, which you can then shrug off, see it crumple on the floor of your imagination while you pick up another skin or just leave it until you come back to the first. Puppets, however, bring an entirely different challenge: that of acting outside of your body altogether, through your fingers and hands. All the time, through this process I asked myself how I could be better, how I could put all my breath, my energy, my movement – how I could channel all my characterisation and acting out of me and into the third space of the puppet?

It starts with a gaze, with where you look: always at the puppet. In the same way that you steer smoothly round a corner on a bicycle when you’re looking where you’re turning, as a puppeteer you look where you want your energy to go: into the eyes of the puppet. Or rather, into the corner of its eye. The puppeteer’s gaze is refracted: you look at the back of its eye and the puppet looks out. (This was particularly entertaining in the initial stages when I was getting used to pouring liquid from a small vial into a glass placed on a table in front of me by the other puppeteer, all the while looking at the puppet’s eye a metre above my target.) It is interesting that in Celtic mythology – and indeed in many other traditions – the otherworld, the faeryworld exists alongside us; it begins just beyond the corners of our eyes… For the puppets we are that otherworld; their source of life lies within the puppeteer crouched behind, just beyond the corners of their eyes.

When trying to channel everything else from my body into the puppet, I realised that, although I was manipulating another body, it was incredibly important to have total control over my own. I developed “Barbe Bleue shoulder” (after the puppet protagonist who in an earlier version was very much the eponymous baddie from Perrault’s fairytale, who seduces women only to wed and then murder them). In the early stages of operating the head of Barbe Bleue – at slightly bent arm’s length above my head – I realised I was tensing, raising my shoulder as if trying to reach the puppet. Pulled off balance, I was tensing my lower back, my legs, my feet and even my forehead was furrowed. I had to learn to try to relax, centre and find strength from my core to avoid pain and fatigue. Puppets can do anything: they can defy gravity, change speed, warp time, grow bigger or smaller – but only if their puppeteers are balanced, controlled and together. I learned how to use breath – as a cue, breathing with the puppets, breathing with Julia Corrêa. We learned how to listen so that we were sharing the same moment. Even when we couldn’t see what was going on on the other side of the puppet, we could feel it.

Of course some things stick. It was particularly hard at the start to remove my facial expressions. It’s incredible to see a puppet with a fixed face suddenly seem to smile or grimace or leer but far less powerful when the puppeteers either side are smiling, grimacing or leering, too. In Edinburgh, fortunately, it ceased to matter: there we were dressed in black from head to toe, including a semi-opaque fabric hood/mask (this because it suited the tight performance space, rather than having black invisible bodies with floating pale heads).

With those lessons constantly in our minds (and the facial expressions hidden at least), to see the puppets come to life, separate from us, was amazing. In the first scene the puppet protagonist dances with the human protagonist. You see the two characters, man and woman, waltz and spin. But look closer and you see there are six feet, six hands, four bodies: three women and a puppet. With the audience, we have created an other space, a story that is seen more clearly than the technical reality.

Photo by Idil Sukan

When Julia Corrêa and I talk about a good performance, we instinctively give the puppets consciousness and autonomy:

“Ophelia was great tonight! I loved it when she managed to kick that masking tape off her foot!”

“Yes! And Maria was really staccato and scary!”

Indeed, our cast has grown from 3 to 13…

The real difficulty comes when we have to take off the puppeteer’s mask and play an embodied actual character – in my case the nurse and carer, Josie; in Julia Corrêa’s case the friend, Sophie. Backstage, mask off, gloves off, costume on, pick up prop, dodge puppets, into position, assume character: enter (and all within about 10 lines). It’s tough. At first it felt like jumping out of a swimming pool. It reminded me of the day at drama school when I’d just spent an hour and a half doing ventriloquism and then went straight to a singing lesson. I was finding it tougher than usual until, half way through my song, my teacher stopped me and said:

“You’d find it easier if you opened your mouth.”

Some things just have to be practised until you become more malleable, and that only improves with time.

But that brings me to the next re-discovered space: Behind the Curtains. The area backstage is dynamic yet delicate. There is a ritual set up, with puppets placed just so, on their mark (so you can find them in the semi-dark). Where the air is thick with hairspray, where listening is sharpened. There are certain places you can step and others you can’t; here you can stand tall, here you must dip beyond the sightlines of the raked audience. We wait in awkward, numbing positions, shift weight, stretch necks, shake shoulders, fit at times like two jigsaw pieces to achieve the puppeting positions we need. We move in a silent dance, from one cramped position to another, slide past, pull strings, move props, not looking at each other, not bumping, we tread as softly as kittens and try not to make the curtains billow. There are occasional moments of flurry when something has wandered off from where it should be. There are moments of scurry during tight changes, when the delay of a glove inside-out can be the difference between coming in seamlessly or ruining the timing of a scene. It is as satisfying to do a good performance Behind the Curtains as Before. One day we’ll turn it all around and call it Puppets Off.

Finally, the most crucial space of all is the third: the space where the story is made. We can invest the puppets with life, we can invest our bodies with characters but we can only go half way: the audience has to believe it. Of course, all kinds of theatre need an audience but there is something unsettling about puppetry (which it also true of performance storytelling and, I’d imagine, with mask and clown) in that you never really know what is going to happen until you put it in front of a fresh, responding audience. It’s a daunting prospect: puppets are not for everyone, they demand a lot, they require active listening and watching. They demand that an audience suspends their disbelief: they, like the puppeteers, have to acknowledge that it’s papier mache, cloth and wood but choose to forget that. They have to see the puppeteers manipulating and then look away to the puppet. They need to imagine and play with us and they need to give the puppet life.

This is nothing new: to ask an audience to engage like that is tricky and has to be addressed in each new space with every new audience. I was expecting it to be trickier at a festival like Edinburgh. Yes, since it is a festival, people are more playful and relaxed, less precious about their experiences. But up at the Fringe audiences run a theatrical, emotional gamut. From battling through crowds, being bombarded by flyers, sometimes pelted by rain, they might be seeing five shows in the course of a day – about Mexican immigrants, gambling, war photographers, bereavement, atomic weapons, failing relationships, to name but a few. To expect them to automatically deeply engage is unfair. With good reviews it’s harder still as people have higher expectations and are less easily entertained and amazed.

But we were ready: in the same way that we’d physically condensed the production to fit the smaller Edinburgh venue, we’d crafted the scenes to give us the best chance of catching the audience right from the start. We went to woo them, charm them towards that shared space gently. Get them at the start and they’ll go with you anywhere.

And personally I experienced that shared space more intensely than ever before. It became a real communication, both sides listened, both sides responded physically and vocally. The audience had an easy, confident vocal soundscape: a gasp at Barbe Bleue’s first entrance; shocked laughter at the appearance of the heads; an ‘ah’ of wonder as the tape unfurled; an ‘ah’ normally reserved for babies and animals at the moment of Ophelia’s tenderness towards Louise. I found it was a playful, challenging and exciting environment to perform in. We found a truly shared space between performers and audience where there was a feeling of freedom and permission for expression, which led to a kind of dialogue and – more than that – to a kind of duologue.

This is a dangerous space, where you can get something you didn’t expect, or where you can not get something you did expect. We had to move along that fine line between performing the piece and allowing the audience to affect us, to shift with and react to them. The piece had to be new each time. Some days it was a much darker show, some days more beautiful, some days more or less funny. It is an easy trap to think that more laughter means more enjoyment. It depended so much on what we all brought to the space: the energies of the performers; our connections to the puppets, to each other; how together the audience felt; how free; what expectations and experiences they had; how they released tension; how easily and loudly they laughed; how readily they cried.  All of that, together, determines what we create in that third space or if we even create anything at all.

Together the puppets breathe and live – or they don’t. Together the story is told – or it is not. Together we enter the mind of the protagonist and see the world as she sees it, we empathise – or we watch from outside and maybe only sympathise. But if we all get it right, we create something unique, together. We create a performance that exists – to quote storyteller Ben Haggarty – once upon a time: not twice upon a time, not three times upon a time, just once upon a time and never again. Only in live performance can beauty and magic come so fleetingly yet leave such a mark on the mind.

Photo by Idil Sukan

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