Reflections from Greta Jean, Terrapin’s inaugural Creative Trainee supported by the Jennifer Davidson Creative Endowment
Puppet making training of any depth beyond a day or two is extremely rare in Australia. It’s also something I had been seeking for a while, so I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to learn from the brilliant Bryony Anderson as her assistant on a number of projects. So far this year I’ve made hand and body puppets and props for the current school touring show The Paper Escaper, tiny intricate shadow puppets for the new aged care show Forever Young and this coming summer we’ll be building a new giant body puppet. Alongside my own study and tinkerings, this diversity of projects is giving me a great overview of puppet making through the different scales and settings of these works. Each project is unique and requires new problem solving, but with increased exposure to more designs, mechanisms, materials and tricks of the trade, the principles of good puppet making are starting to ring through.
Making puppets is a complex puzzle that is simultaneously mathematical and expressive, kinaesthetic and tactile. It requires balancing many distinct requirements including durability, weight, scale/relationship to a set or other puppets, performer comfort/fit, audience visibility, character design and, most importantly, movement. All whilst working within the timelines and the tight budget that characterise theatre making. I think it’s this complexity that draws me in, it engages my whole brain/body and ensures I’ll always find new challenges in this artform.
In making just one joint of one puppet there are all kinds of questions to answer. An example from the workshop today: How far can the wrist fold back and forward before looking disjointed? What is the wrist going to express? Should it move quickly or slowly? Do I make it lighter for less strain on the performer, or sturdier for more controlled movement? Where shall I place the rod to get good leverage but stay hidden? How shall I mask the joint so it doesn’t scratch the backdrop? Take it apart, change a little bit, put it back together, try it again. Repeat. It’s fiddly and time consuming work and can be finger-cramping-ly arduous, but I love it.
The biggest project I’ve completed this year was crafting the Karta character for The Paper Escaper. Karta is a resourceful octopus-like creature who created herself from the secretly collected scraps of a fussy old pop-up book maker. She was born of a very collaborative process – in initial concept by writer Gita Bezard, she then gained her octopus-like form in the creative development room. The whole team chipped in papercraft ideas for her body, we made mock-ups to play with and then I began crafting the end result, with design guidance from Charlotte Lane and Bryony’s mechanism and material tips. Karta presents a great example of the conflict between different requirements in a puppet because she had to appear to be made of paper, whilst being durable enough to do a lot of action (including getting in a few fights) and get through 130 or more shows. She’s turned out well, but as expected, needs a little TLC here and there. As I’m also the performer of this character, this process was an excellent learning process for direct feedback with the ergonomics and expressivity of the puppets. It is only when the puppet is used over and over, in situ, that you really know what’s working, what’s not and what could. I’m excited to continue developing and reimagining the form through the feedback loop as both maker and performer.
This time working amidst Bryony’s incredibly thoughtful design process, highly finessed construction approaches, rigorous environmental conscience and kindness has been just the challenge I needed to level up my skills.
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