In their 2004 publication, The Space Between: The Art of Puppetry and Visual Theatrein Australia, Peter J. Wilson and Geoffrey Milne asked: “Where, then, do we think puppetry and visual theatre might go in the next twenty years?” (Wilson and Milne, 2004, 117). While it is not quite yet twenty years since this question was posed, the interviews conducted for ThingMakingturn to the practice of Australian puppeteers to provide some answers. In a context of a lack of puppetry training institutes in Australia, and drastic government arts funding cuts, the interviews are presented asaudio podcasts and are publicly available as an avenue to communicate this research to other professional puppet makers and performers. There is a wealth of collective knowledge in the Australian puppetry community and one of the aims of my research is to elicit material and share the experiences of others to advance new knowledge in this area. I contend that this material can make a new and valuable contribution to public understanding and discussion about the philosophy of making, using and living with things.
I asked puppeteers about the relationship they have with such things as foam, leather, gold, paper, electronic cables and wood, in order to explore why some things are more difficult to work with than others and how technology has changed the way artists work with materials. I asked each interviewee to nominate their favourite material to work with and why. Some puppeteers enjoyed the flexibility that materials such as silicon had to offer, for example, while others worked with found objects, making the most out of materials that had been pre-used and transforming the material into a puppet character. It is also noteworthy how the puppeteers I interviewed all demonstrated complex understandings of their materials and craft, in ways I signalled with the concept of mesh theatre. When asked about the particular qualities that puppeteers bring to mainstream theatre, Ken Evans, for instance, said that puppeteers “see bigger pictures”. Evans’s thinking demonstrates mesh theatre at work as he describes how puppeteers can “understand the whole complexity of other things that are going on around them”. Evans says that “to create one small image, there is all this other stuff going on-unseen” that he calls “engineering” (Evans, April, 2016). The engineering of unseen elements on stage and off stage, suggests that Evans works with the mesh of materiality of space, projection technology and human interaction that work together to make the images in his productions.
This series of audio podcasts is by no means definitive given the breadth of talent and knowledge of puppetry in Australia. Puppeteers were selected for interview based on their expertise in puppetry and their availability. Many puppeteers tour to regional schools, festivals and performing arts venues across the country, making it difficult to catch them. I interviewed Sam Routledge, for example, when he was about to launch a performance in a car wash in Melbourne. Danny Miller had just completed an international touring circuit of How to Train Your Dragon, the arena spectacular, and Jhess Knight was busy making puppets at home ready for the next performance and workshops of her Trash Puppets. All of the interviewees generously gave their knowledge of the puppet making and operating process. More information on each artist is given in the links to their work provided on the website I created to host the interviews (www.thinkmaking.net). Some of these puppeteers have combined hands on approaches while others use remote and computer-operated controls of puppets, such as with the puppet creature King Kong. I interviewed Peter Wilson, puppet director on King Kong the Musical (Global Creatures Technology), and asked him about the differences and similarities in using mixed modes of operation. With Felipe Reynolds I discussed designing and making and working with inflatable components for large-scale animatronic creatures for Creature Technology Co. and Global Creatures13. Reynolds talks about how he uses the latest interactive technology to make his work immersive, tactile and graphic. At the other end of the spectrum, others that I interviewed offered interesting tips in using organic materials such as tea and margarine to make their puppets, as well as using various technologies.
ThingMaking gave these puppeteers an opportunity to articulate the sophistication and depth of experience they bring to their practice. In his interview, Australian arts leader and puppeteer Peter Wilson talked about the relationship he has with the puppet as connecting to “a spiritual other” that, as puppeteer, he says, “it’s not about you, you are the giver of life, you are the energy that transforms the animation of that object” (Wilson, May, 2016). He talked too, about the changes that have taken place in puppet theatre in Australia over the past decade. Wilson comments that when he was working with Handspan Puppet Theatre14“we were doing productions with six and eight people in them and everything is a one or two hander now… so we have diminished the artform in that regard” (Wilson, May, 2016).
The interviews were not heavily edited but rather followed an organic course of the conversation between colleagues. I was privileged to share some of their work beyond the interview, as they brought out their puppets to play, showed me videos of their latest work in development, or gave me a tour of their studio. Multi-talented mask maker and puppet maker/performer Tim Denton, for example, was interviewed in his workshop amongst the puppets, tools and materials of his craft. He later showed me photographs of the beautiful pelican puppets he and Annie Forbes made for Sydney Theatre Company and Perth’s Barking Gecko Theatre 2015 production of Storm Boy, directed by John Sheedy. Scott Wright walked and talked to me among the myriad of creatures, puppets and maquettes that are leaning against the walls and hanging from the roof of Erth’s workshop at Carriageworks, Sydney.