Kašpárek is a Czech puppet folk-hero and the inspiration for one of my plays. I first learned of Kašpárek from a book I borrowed from Toby Olié when I was working with him on The Secret Garden in 2014. His story as part of the Czech folk tradition is incredible; not only did he allow the views of the disgruntled public to be heard; he helped to keep the Czech language itself alive when it was in danger of being replaced with German.
Puppetry as part of folk traditions is a huge interest of mine and it’s amazing just how many cultures have a puppet tradition. From the Ramayana to Punch and Judy, the religious and cultural significance of puppetry throughout history is a big part of my thought process when designing puppets (or writing Kašpárek) and I often draw on history as inspiration for my work.
He's super neat.
So I just applied to an amazing new puppetry school which starts next year. I thought I'd post it here as it essentially sums up what I love so much about puppets and puppetry!
When I was a small child I had a cardboard puppet theatre and a number of glove puppets with which I used to play; including a yellow rabbit, a strange-looking king and a broken crocodile. Back then, they were just toys. A few years later, I watched a production of Lilly Through the Dark by The River People and I realised exactly what puppetry could be. I fell headlong into puppets and puppetry as an art form and since then I've done as much research as I can into all aspects of it; the history, the cultural significance and the diverse nuances of style all serve to heighten for me the beauty of the storytelling.
I believe that puppetry can be much truer than human acting. When you watch an actor perform – no matter how good they are - you always know that after the show they’re going to go back to their lives. This is not true of a puppet. A puppet exists only and entirely in the world of the story and doesn't just portray a character, it is (they are) that character. That’s what fascinates me so much about puppetry, the way you can tell a story with every aspect of the performance without anything wasted. From the design to the construction to the movement of the puppet, everything is completely within-world and completely honest to its own story.
I love how puppet design lets you play with the interaction between form and function in a very integral way. The story the puppet tells through its aesthetics and the live it lives through its movement and how they’re both affected by the mathematics and engineering of its mechanisms. At university, I studied Mathematics and Philosophy so the geometry and engineering of puppet mechanisms is just as appealing to me as any other aspect of their wider design and construction.
I am fascinated by the concept of the ‘uncanny valley’ and I take a lot of my inspiration from that. Although the term was created to describe androids, I've always thought it extends to puppet theatre very intuitively. To puppeteer something is to take something non-human and make it more human; to turn a pile of dead things (wood, foam etc.) and turn it into something alive. A wooden block can never be human but, through design and manipulation, it can become close. That’s amazing to me. That’s what I keep at my core when I'm working on or with puppets: that magic. It’s something which has been a part of puppetry since it began and it’s something that truly inspires me and drives me to create puppet work. When I watch puppetry, I always take away from the performances a sense of wonder at what a puppet can do. I mentioned The River People’s production of Lilly Through the Dark as the piece that drove me towards puppetry - I've always kept the inspiration that it gave me and it, along with all the other amazing puppetry I've seen, continues to inspire me 5 years later.
I’ve recently finished working on Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of Running Wild as a puppet-maker with Gyre and Gimble. They were an amazing three weeks and I got the opportunity to learn from a number of incredible makers and designers. I’ve also designed a built a few puppets for Popinjay Productions and am currently doing preliminary production design work on their new show (including a really exciting Green Knight puppet from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) as well as production design/costume and mask-making on Bethumped Theatre’s adaptation of Andromache. I currently work as a freelance theatre designer/maker more generally; designing or making costume, set, props, masks as well as puppets. Most of my puppet work, however, comes from personal projects in which I try to experiment with different puppetry ideas:
The Very Old Man and the Moon is a short film/recorded theatre piece about an old man who lives in a cave and tries to walk to the moon. One of the biggest challenges in this is to create an old man puppet with dexterous and delicate enough hands and fingers to interact with a tiny mouse puppet whilst having as few puppeteers as possible. I’d also like to include puppeteer-controlled fibre optics as part of his body to match with the set in a beautiful moment at the end of the piece.
I’m currently in the planning stages for three other shows containing puppetry. I’m working on an experiment with a director to try and create the smallest puppets possible and create, as part of a wider piece, a puppetry performance on top of a matchbox.
I’m designing puppets for a full production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame with an all-puppet cast. I believe post-modernism lends itself very well to puppetry and Endgame is the perfect show for their use.
I’m also working on the script and puppet designs (and some wood-carving) for a self-written play about Kašpárek (the Czech folk hero) and his role in Czech language reclamation as well as the use of puppetry in folk traditions in general.
While I’ve never trained formally in puppetry (apart from a few workshops when I was younger), I’ve been teaching and training myself for a long time in both performing and making. I’m a very theory-first sort of person and there’s a lot of theory behind puppet work. The reason I got into puppet-making specifically though was simply that I wanted to use and perform with puppets and, in order to have them, I had to make them first. Research into puppetry and the personal projects and experiments I do with puppets are how I teach myself but I always cherish the opportunities to learn from others; whether that’s on the job working for other designers or just bothering them on twitter and through emails.
That’s why I’d love to be a part of the Curious Puppetry School. The opportunity to learn so intensively with such an amazing group of tutors would be truly amazing. I love all forms of puppetry and puppet-related work; writing, designing, making and performing. Working and learning with a group of like-minded artists and established professionals would be life-changing for me.
(Update: I got in!)