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Puppeteers with puppets in the dark

Puppet masters show their hands

Puppeteers teach the tricks of the trade in a new industry masterclass

Alice Nguyen

Two of Australia’s leading visual theatre making companies joined forces for a week-long puppetting masterclass in Marrickville. As part of the Sydney Opera House’s new Artist & Sector Development initiative, Erth and Dead Puppet Society (DPS) shared their skills and expertise with a select group of twenty artists and creators from across Australia. Diving into theoretical and practical approaches to visual theatre making, participants focused on story development, puppet making and performance.

The Director of Erth, Scott Wright wanted to give participants an “unbridled and unrestricted experience, with space to fail”. Scott brought decades of experience across a variety of projects spanning Australia, Asia and Europe that have featured giant puppetry, stilt-walkers, inflatable environments and aerial creatures. Lamenting that the practice of puppetry in Australia is often limited, Scott is passionate about “broadening the spectrum” of how puppetry can be performed to keep the culture alive.

Lilian Rodrigues-Pang with her Wattle Girl. Image: Prudence Upton

Helen Stephens, Artistic Associate of Dead Puppet Society approached the workshop through the DPS aesthetic, which she described as “one that privileges the imagination of the theatre maker and the audience, one that brings together new technology and old school magic”. Stephens introduced the participants to the cornerstones of DPS’s puppetry practice—having a focus point; considering ‘gravity’; and giving the puppet ‘breath’— and guided the participants through the DPS narrative driven theatre methodology.

Participants quickly embraced these divergent philosophies and applied the different principles presented in the masterclass to their own practice. Beginning with simple materials, they progressed to a storyboarding process, before the week culminated in a performance where participants showcased their puppet characters.

St-John Cowcher with his lost boy. Image: Katy Green Loughrey

Lilian Rodrigues-Pang is an oral storyteller whose work spans community theatre, multicultural institutions and mental health organisations. Interested in the ways that “characters can transform and oscillate between creature and human”, she created a ‘Wattle Girl’ inspired by the natural flora of Australia.

Leigh Boswell, Director of The Young Company Theatre in Cairns, travelled to Sydney to explore how puppet making can inform the way children engage with art and stories. An educator by trade and at heart, Leigh was motivated to take part in the Masterclass to spark a sense of discovery in children and young people. For the performance, she created a time-travelling librarian, who needed to be saved by children before all her books were destroyed forever.

Full-time performer, actor and puppeteer, St-John Cowcher has worked with puppets extensively but had never actually made one, using this opportunity to expand his artistic practice. St-John devised a complete story around his character – a boy who lives in a ladder forest at the bottom of a deep abyss.

Leigh Boswell with her time-travelling librarian. Image: Prudence Upton

At their final day of the masterclass on Saturday, worlds collided with participants collaborating to build stories that melded their characters. When was the last time you read a story about a boy living in an underground ladder forest who made friends with a zombie skeleton? Or a story about a grouchy old cactus lady who lives inside a pot plant?

Bringing the expertise of Erth and Dead Puppet Society together for the first time was a rare opportunity that expanded independent artists’ practice. “Things that seemed impossible before the week began became a joy under the guidance of these industry experts,” said Shane Russon. “A huge thank you to the Opera House for creating such a fantastic opportunity to connect artists with such a valuable experience.”

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