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Puppetry in an Inclusive World

I have worked with puppets as a puppeteer, lecturer, designer maker for over 20 years -but I forget when exactly it all started. A great deal of my work has been in education with people of different ages who could be described as having some form of learning difficulty or disability, including Autism, and some have a combination of needs.

Terms may change in line with fashions, but the needs remain the same. I think there are many things for puppeteers to know if they are going to work with groups of people who may need different support or approaches to express themselves artistically. There are many things written about the merits of puppetry as an educational medium - which I think most puppeteers will know as they are using the art form all the time. What puppeteers may find helpful to know is what will make your performance or workshop beneficial to the participants and help them gain the most from the experience. As a Brummy boy who did not enter in to education until later in life , I am no PHD in Psychology but have had a lot of experience and knowledge gained from my work.

So where do we start? Maybe with the telephone call asking for a show or workshop - or funding application.

You get a call or funding bid asking if you work with people with special needs or disabilities. This needs a lot of consideration as the benefits of this type of work will be amazing but it will demand a great level of patience and flexibility. You may be presented with a range of different terminology which can be misleading even to professionals who specialise in disability. The term Inclusion is used constantly, but often used to be misunderstood as it does not just relate to people with disabilities but to all people and was described by John Tomlinson as the ďbest match between services and the personĒ.

With our society trying to be more inclusive, there will be a need for the work of the puppeteer to be more inclusive. How you arrange that should be within the capabilities of the person or the company. Many puppet companies are made of one or two people so you cannot offer to support a whole range of needs individually, but if you think creatively (thatís why we like puppetry! ) you may wish to focus the work to certain groups or work in collaboration with other companies to develop what you provide. If you write these points down you have an inclusion policy, this is not written in stone as inclusion is an ethos which should be continually questioned and developed to reflect the needs of people.

Now that you have decided to work with people who have disabilities, what should you do?

Firstly, the more information you find out about the group or audience the more likely that things will run smoothly. I know it can be difficult to allow time to gather information when you are working round the clock performing, taking bookings and keeping up with your office work, but consider e-mailing a few questions to find out about who you will be working with. Donít panic if some of the people you will be working with have conditions you havenít heard of - you can easily research these on the internet. Donít be put off by the term ďchallenging behaviourĒ - this is often interpreted wrongly as it means challenging to oneself not the people around.

It can be very useful to find out about any ďtriggersĒ or things that can cause anxiety, which, if you are aware of beforehand, simple measures can be taken to avoid. Also find out what the usual procedure is if someone becomes anxious or stressed Ė itís often ďtime outĒ to calm down.

Now you have got the information you can plan your work.

If you are performing, consider the needs of the audience - which we do for all our shows - but in these circumstances you will do it a little more. Itís all the same things as you would do normally: seating arrangements, sound levels, lighting.

You may find that the audience does not respond as you would expect. Donít worry if you have a comment that at first you think doesnít make sense. It may just be someone making sense of the show in their own way. Sometimes laughing may seem forced or out of place, but this can be people ďlearningĒ their sense of humour. You may also find that Slapstick comedy gets many laughs as itís a clear visual form which does not require you to understand the subtleties of language.

Age appropriateness is often used to stop things which people enjoy. As we all know puppetry is practiced by all ages all over the world, itís not just for children. I am nearly fifty and will travel miles to see a puppet performance or along with many friends still watch puppets like the Woodentops from my youth. People with learning difficulties or disabilities can have the opportunity to enjoy puppetry like anyone else. What should not be done is patronise your audience by treating adults like children.

Workshops: What to do? What to make? Should there be a final performance?

Letís start with the last question, yes itís a great thing to do all the work making the puppets to form a performance but it should not be a pressure which then becomes stressful for everyone involved. What you can do is talk to the participants and consider different styles of performance. This can involve people who do not wish to perform in writing or technical tasks. Puppetry is a great medium for the less confident performer and you may find as things progress people may change their minds and wish to perform. I have also found that integrating video or image projection can work beautifully with live performance. This allows people who many not wish to perform live to be included in the performance.
So what to do?

First consider your interests and the interests of the group. Itís worth taking time to discuss ideas as many people with learning difficulties or disabilities have had little choice in the past and so suddenly being confronted with a whole range of choices can be difficult at first. It is also worth presenting video, performance and pictures to stimulate conversation and ideas.

People with Autism often have a common liking for all types of transport, science-fiction and fantasy. It is often wrongly presumed that people with Autism have a lack of imagination. The truth is that they have great imagination and will write stories which are very imaginative, but they have difficulty with flexibility of thought and theory of mind so they find it difficult to deal with sudden changes of plan and will like to finish a task once started.

When choosing themes and ideas donít be afraid of using ideas you have used previously as the group will see them as a new thing and you will have confidence in implementing them. Donít be afraid of themes that seem ďcheesyĒ or old by working together with the group as new and exciting work can be created. I have used a whole range of themes including: Local History, The Willow Pattern, Desert Island Discs, Welsh tales, to name but a few.

Now, what to make? Consider the ability of the group and what you can prepare that could be developed by the client group. Many people with learning difficulties have difficulty with fine motor control so sometimes bigger constructions can be more effective.

I have found that simple materials such as paper tape or sponges can be highly effective in the making of puppets as they are easy to cut and shape, also they are cheap and can be wasted as part of the process.
Marionettes? Rod? Glove? All types of puppet have advantages or disadvantages and should be explored. I have found that rod puppets are very effective as people with limited mobility can attach the puppets to wheelchairs. Marionettes can be effective if the strings are limited or Sicilian style with a rod going to the puppetís head. Glove puppets are effective for small focused work and work well for developing verbal communication, and this transfers well to video.

Other types of puppetry can also be considered , lip synch puppets encourage communication, table top puppets can work well with people who donít likes space constrictions around them. Shadow puppets are very good for making simple art work into performance with interesting visual imagery.

Lastly, a few tips to finish off:

Donít worry if things donít go to plan, continually revise your plan.

Focus on your client group and consider their needs.

Donít be afraid to talk and interact with the group.

Use a sense of humour as that will pay dividends.

Donít be afraid to be inclusive in your work. Inclusion is a developing ethos but it will only develop if people are practicing it!

Peter Grail B.A Cert ED
January 2013

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