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Puppetry in unusual places!
Josh Elwell avoiding midges in Scotland - with William Whiskerson
Puppetry doesn’t just happen in theatres – increasingly puppetry and puppet shows are seen in a variety of spaces and contexts. Though Punch Profs have been performing outdoors for years, many other puppeteers – particularly those involved in TV productions, are finding themselves and their puppet ‘friends’ in more and more unusual pieces.
A few weeks ago, Josh Elwell, who works on the BBC show ‘William Whiskerson’ wrote to PUK newsletter readers, telling them of his experience puppeteering in a cave – and it prompted other people to share their experiences of working in unusual places or under unusual conditions.
One of the challenges faced by puppeteers is performing in small, cramped spaces. Sally Preisig (5’10”!) tells of her time on the BBC TV show ‘Playdays’. Sally writes:
During my years on BBC’s ‘Playdays’ on one of the ‘stops’ (the Roundabout Stop) we were jammed into any of the 4 tiny cramped wooden rides on a purpose built roundabout and then had to perform the puppets whilst being spun round and round! If the crew were feeling particularly “kind” they would leave us locked in the rides when tea was called, or spin us extra fast! To save shoot time, we would film many of the same sequences in a row for all the programmes, so we would be spinning by the end of the day!
My Character Peggy Patch was always seen on her “Patch Stop” - a little patch work tent made from sticks and fabric, into which I would have to jam myself until the children came upon Peggy in her den at the end of their search for a good old adlib chat and some scripted pages too... sometimes the children would be hours searching for the 3 clues, and I would have to keep focused in case they were a fast bunch...but usually I’d lose feeling in most of my extremities or members of the general public would come across the den and poke their heads in to see what was inside, I never knew who was more surprised on these occasions!
My worst shoot day was on the “Why Bird Stop” when I had to jam myself into the foot well of a TINY street cleaning lorry, and it was one of the hottest days we’d had that summer, in Tottenham. I burned my knee on the gear box casing ..and it was SO hot in the cab, but there was no where else for my body to go, so that is how I had to stay. I also had to interview the driver at the same time; we were miked up too and had to keep Peggy animated, but it came across really well.
Of course, its not only heat that can cause discomfort – Puppeteers also get cold and wet for their art, as Sally explains:
When filming in Austria in the snow, we kept having to dig trenches to puppeteer in, so the puppets looked as if they were free standing on the snow with no one around (very cute) but as our body heat melted the snow we would be lying in pools of freezing water!
And once filming in Barra in the outer Hebrides we were filming on Cockleshell Beach where the tide comes in at walking speed....and my goodness did we have to move VERY quickly, as my arm and shoulder had been buried in the sand to make the puppet look as if she was standing alone on the beach! One take and we all had to run for it.
I also performed my puppet in the front basket of a bicycle, and we moved off in quite a wide shot singing a song!.... and the cyclist didn’t break my wrist, she was a real pro!
Sally may have had to run to avoid the tide, but spare a thought for Francis Wright who had to work underwater. Francis explains:
My introduction to‘Spitting Image’ in 1984 (almost my first day) was doing synchronised swimming with a puppet (a member of Mrs. Thatcher’s cabinet - cant remember which one). The song was about The Tory Wets, and was filmed in the swimming pool of the Holiday in, Birmingham. I had to learn how to use an aqualung in less than 15 minutes conveniently taught by assistant designer.
Given the scale of the puppets (they were always huge) you can imagine what they were like the moment they got waterlogged. Which they did almost at once. It was a constant battle of flippers and biceps to keep the buggers afloat, while of course keeping our heads out of shot. I doubt if the movement was exactly subtle or charged with nuance. The song was conveniently played back (for lipsynch purposes) over loudspeakers ... also underwater!
Josh Elwell, a Puppeteer on the BBC Programme ‘William Whiskerson’ has also had to endure various hardships for his art. William is often filmed on location, and has, this season, been filmed in a cave – and, just recently, in outdoors in Scotland – as Josh writes:
I thought that puppeteering in a cave was weird, however, I have just returned from the West Highlands of Scotland where Williams adventures took us in to the ancient woodlands of the Caledonian Forest. We filmed for 2 days under constant attack from clouds of ferocious midges! The crew did all they could to protect themselves against the onslaught of insects but despite the use of ointments, sprays and potions everyone was covered fro head to feet in bites. Check out our protective outfits! (see photo at the top of this article).
Though some of the Puppeteers who have sent details of their work for this piece have worked underwater, Faith Brandon-Blatch of Trembling hands has sailed the high seas as part of her work as a puppet maker and puppeteer on a tall ship. She writes:
I recently spent three months working as a puppet maker/puppeteer on a tall (pirate) ship that sails the world putting on shows in small marinas and fishing villages. This year we were in Sicily and Tunsia! The three 10ft spider marionettes hang in the rigging of the ship - 50ft above the deck! I was obliged to work at height stringing the beasts up! Puppeteers then operate them during the show in cherry picker baskets which are reached by climbing a long rope ladder. Hard to explain...see for yourself in the photos! Click here for the photos.
Other odd or unusual locations? Francis Wright has gotten wet in Derwentwater and stared at the stars! Francis explains:
I have done gill scrambling with a puppet skunk: the sound recordist holding onto a rope tied round my waist as I hung above a mountain stream gushing into Derwentwater at New Year -and yes, it was cold -I was not quite as cold as the kids who were actually in the stream on their bottoms, but …!
I have also star-gazed through the lens of the huge telescope at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich - this time with a rat. Trust me, the telescope is not built for puppeteering, and was rather precarious - to say the least.
So, to those of you who are starting on your journey as puppeteers – take it from these folks – your work may take you to some interesting and unusual places! It would seem that those who work in TV and film puppetry are among the most adventurous puppeteers. Sally Preisig adds:
Me and all the other TV puppeteers you talk to have been buried in purpose built children’s toys, sofas, sets, and chairs, in snow, sand, soil, up to our necks in water, stuck under desks, tables, you name it they will stick a puppeteer there!...as of course when there is a puppet, there is always someone attached to it that is 10 times bigger...people somehow forget that...but that is the magic!
Of course, anyone who has chased a booth blown in the wind, been drenched while performing in the open air, or dealt with other inclement weather or unusual conditions will surely be able to identify with those puppeteers who have kindly shared their experiences!