Puppetry Meets Stage Management

Little Angel Theatre Auditorium

This spring our technical manager David Duffy met up with Camille Sidi, a Stage Management and Technical Theatre student from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

The below interview looks at the relationship between Stage Management and Puppetry and how much puppetry shows differ from the normal theatre play when it comes to being a stage manager.

Camille:  I am interested in the difference between working with human actors and working with puppets from a technical point of view.

David: The difference between puppet theatre and conventional theatre is that in puppetry the performer is an object, and the goal is to make that object come alive. In some of our shows such as The Sleeping Beauty, the puppeteers are dressed in black, so that they almost disappear. That’s one key difference: the puppeteer might not be the focus in the same way as the puppet is.

Camille: Do they use rehearsal puppets in rehearsals?

David: Yes, you might borrow a puppet that has inspired the new show. The devising process is much longer, because your puppets need building from scratch. Our show Fabulous Flutterbys opens this month, and the first development session for that was nearly two years ago. They made new rehearsal puppets for that, and have adapted the puppets as the story developed.

Camille: What happens if puppets need mending or changing?

David: People work very fast; it’s astonishing that at the end of a teabreak something could have been unstitched, fixed and sewn back up again! A lot of puppeteers will do it themselves because they know a certain way it moves. It becomes an extension of them in a way.

When first came here, there was a show with everybody dressed in black. I saw all these people busying around everywhere – setting things, moving ropes, adjusting scenery. I thought, “It looks like this job’s going to be really easy because there are four stage managers!” It was only afterwards I realised they were all performers and they all just get on with it. That’s interesting, because there’s a practical element to the performance that is almost stage management.

Whether you’re the director, the puppeteer or the lighting designer, everybody’s goal is to create that spectacle of a puppet coming to life. You really sense that there’s no conflict, there’s no massaging egos. It always goes back to the puppet. I haven’t had any massive clashes, or had to negotiate big arguments. Which is another job for stage managers isn’t it, to have to ride the storm sometimes?

Camille: From a design point of view do you light puppets differently from lighting people?

David: I often light the same way that you would light dance, lots of side lighting that really accentuates movement, with maybe less on the face. With actors you want to feel a connection, so you want to see the face. With puppets you almost want to have a little hidden movement, so you create that magic.  If you wash the face with light all the time eventually you’ll say, “well, it’s just a carved piece of wood.” Side lighting helps with balletic movements, and makes something more beautiful.

Camille: When the show’s running, who calls the lighting and sound cues?

David: We have one technican who does it all! Here, we’re a very small team: you tear tickets, you seat people, you operate sound and lights. There’s no space in the box for two people! You have to do everything, but that’s why we have that week to tech so you can identify the bits that seem impossible and make them possible.

Camille: What about setting the props and puppets at the beginning of a show.

There’s a puppeteer called Anthony Best who was an actor before coming into puppetry. He said that as an actor it’s really important to have the right prop as early as possible. If you need a bottle of champagne in a scene and somebody gives you a milk bottle, it’s no substitute. You need to know the size, the weight of something. Anthony said that operating a puppet is like constantly handling props, and that you need to establish your relationship with it. That’s why puppeteers usually set up themselves. The nature of the performance is so physical and tactile, and they need to go through that process. Which is great, because it means I don’t have to set props!

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