Puppets are Cool!
The first time I managed to get my photo in a newspaper was when I inveigled two friends into helping me put on a puppet show in the garden (garage if wet). I was ten. The scripts I wrote revolved around the glove puppets I owned - a Sooty, a Minnie Mouse, a Punch and a Hank (the cowboy from the tv programme Whirligig). The main theme was crime and punishment, perhaps because I had a policeman puppet too.
Little did I imagine then that fifty years later nothing much would have changed! I'm still writing plays, many of them employing puppets. But now they are more likely to be seen in a theatre than a garden - except when I'm working at the Open Air, Regent's Park.
This year we're doing Fantastic Mr Fox. And justice, fairness still features heavily. Children have, I believe, an inborn sense of fairness and respond positively to stories like Cinderella, in which the badly treated underdog wins through. They want Mr Fox to triumph over the three bloodthirsty Farmers.
Nowadays, when directing my plays, I'm lucky enough to work with expert puppeteers like Sarah Wright, whose parents John and Lyndie founded that jewel of London theatre, the Little Angel, Islington. And it was here that Action for Children's Arts recently held an Inspiration Day called Puppets and Performance, featuring talks and master classes by a host of puppet luminaries and a splendid performance of the Little Angel's current production Go Noah Go! The event was sold out, with a waiting list.
The delegates included not only children's theatre folk but also many students, a refreshing reflection of the welcome recent resurgence of interest in this craft, encouraged, perhaps, by shows like Cameron Mackintosh's Avenue Q and Disney's The Lion King (The Mackintosh Foundation and Disney kindly sponsored the event with Arts Council England). And, in children's theatre, there is brilliant puppetry to be seen in the work of Sue Buckmaster's Theatre Rites, Tim Webb and Clair de Loon's Oily Cart, Polka Theatre, Steve Tiplady's Indefinite Article, Luis Boy's Norwich Puppet Theatre and, of course, Peter Glanville's Little Angel.
I must admit I never thought that puppeteers of the future were likely to come out of drama schools, but Jessica Bowles and Cariad Astles of Central School of Speech and Drama proved me wrong. They offer puppetry as part of the undergraduate BA course, in the belief that creating and working with puppets can teach actors to open up, be more daring and to re-learn how to play.
They spoke passionately about transformation and imagination and the development of confidence and independence of an artist, and told us that puppets are important for adults as well as children. Royal Holloway College and Nottingham Trent University, we were told, feature puppetry in their courses too. And they are probably not alone.
As I set off for home on the tube, I smiled back at the Avenue Q puppets looking down from the adverts on the escalator. Puppets are cool! Long may respect for this ancient art form continue to grow. In children's theatre we know that puppets can communicate with our audience faster and more effectively than many human characters.
A skilfully operated puppet can cut straight to the heart of a child. For us practitioners, puppets - rod, shadow, glove, string or simply animated objects - are a vital ingredient in our work.
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