How long have you been designing puppets? I’ve been designing and fabricating puppets for 26 years.
What have you been creating for Peter Pan? A small dedicated and talented team has been busy here at Green Ginger’s base, designing and fabricating a number of puppetry solutions for the show. The Crocodile and Neverbird are the biggest single builds. We’ve also arrived at simple but hopefully effective devices for augmenting the flight sequences.
Sally Cookson’s Peter Pan is a very unusual adaptation bringing together the traditional children’s story and urban playground themes, how has this influenced your designs? Sally’s approach embraces the essential qualities of wild and unbridled play; this has enthused everyone on the creative side of the production to approach problems by engaging their imaginations on a childlike level. We’ve asked ourselves how the Lost Boys might make everything out of the stuff they’ve found in their Neverland waste-tip. It can be great fun for audiences seeing the props and puppets as one thing, then slowly recognizing the everyday junk that they are made from.
How do you begin designing a puppet? The first question is usually ‘why a puppet?’. I’m not an advocate of puppetry for its own sake; it’s an incredibly powerful and useful tool but should not be employed for the sake of the zeitgeist.
Once convinced that puppetry is the way to go, we think about what it needs to do; puppets rarely perform multiple functions efficiently.
And considerations of scale, weight, possible mechanical or electronic components and the number of operators needed are all considered in relation to timescale and budget. Green Ginger is incredibly blessed on this production, as Sally and Michael (Vale) have elected to expose all the mechanics and scenic effects in the show, from flying harnesses to puppetry. I love this approach; nothing is hidden; we see the puppeteers manhandle the puppets without trying to hide themselves. Something quite magical happens which allows the audiences to focus more easily on the puppet and what it is portraying rather than thinking about ‘how’ the image is created.
Once we have a sense from Sally what she wants from a particular puppetry segment we produce sketches and maquettes; small-scale models which demonstrate some possibilities that are shared at presentations to the Production team. Once designs are signed off we can begin fabrication; this may involve an interim stage of producing a full-scale mock-up for rehearsals where we glean really crucial information about its intended use (and abuse!).
How do you mediate the relationship between an actor (or actors) and the puppets you create? Sally tends to put together casts of performers with strong ensemble devising experience, with excellent physical theatre and musical skills. Whilst no guarantee that I’ll be working with much puppetry experience, it does indicate a sensibility to corporeal awareness which helps enormously when breathing life into puppets – which in the case of a Sally Cookson show are as likely to be an old car tyre or a bundle of rags than a conventional jointed-limbed creation. A large part of my job in that mediation is to encourage actors to shift focus away from themselves and into the puppet. Some actors spend their working lives doing the exact opposite so it can be a tricky, so I often get them to lie on their bellies and revert to a pre-school childlike state where play was natural, instinctive and wild. No-one instructs toddlers how to make their teddies, dolls and action figures talk, walk, fight and fly; it is an innate and primal activity. My job is to remind them of what they’ve forgotten.
What is the most unexpected aspect of your job? That after 26 years, whilst I’m still challenged by the work and passionate about the craft, its still not classed as a ‘proper job’!
What’s the strangest, most-challenging puppet you’ve ever created? Most challenging; Pinnochio’s growing nose for a Tobacco Factory production in 2010; I tried everything from miniature servo motors to sprung coils, pneumatics to hydraulics. We eventually settled on a relatively simple conjuring trick where extra nose sections were palmed inside handkerchiefs and added on when a lie resulted in an instant sneezing fit. However, for Peter Pan we’re currently trying to make a crocodile head and jaws big enough to eat Stu McLoughlin! It’s certainly taxing every ounce of our ingenuity and experience here at Green Ginger.
Strangest: Probably from Welsh National Opera’s production of Queen of Spades. For the opening scene of Act Three we had to design and operate a ten-foot tall singing skeleton which had to mysteriously crawl up, under the covers, from the bottom of a massive vertically hung bed in which the lead character would be tossing and turning, unable to sleep. Once the skeleton’s head and rib cage were visible it would settle next to the tenor and after a brief exchange of song, they would turn to embrace each other and kiss as the lights went out.
What puppet would you most like to design and create? Green Ginger’s shows feature animated sets and puppets and I love designing scenographic elements which have a life of their own. So maybe I’d most like to create a large building or structure which unexpectedly comes to life in a total way. (I’m designing the UK’s first Submarine Theatre for Bristol’s Floating Harbour at present…)
Anything else? Green Ginger is based at Puppet Place in the Albion Docks. We are really fortunate to share workshop facilities with four other theatre companies and a host of individual filmmakers, animators and artists. There is tremendous generosity and creative energy throughout the building and I feel genuinely excited going there on a daily basis, not knowing what may be in mid-creation in the main fabrication workshop as I walk in.
Chris Pirie’s puppets will be appearing in Peter Pan from 26 Nov.
Rehearsal images by Mark Douet