Charlie, Puppet Designer for Princess Mononoke, talks about her puppet journey and the 2014 Research and Development process.
I was trying to remember the other day when it was that I made my first ever puppet.
There was an owl with button eyes and feathers pilfered from my pillow, used in a production of Skellig for my youth theatre. There were some simple marionette puppets, made with old stuffed tights and cross-lashed pencils which featured in a school production of Ashputtel. And then there was the bumper packet of googly eyes that found themselves stuck to mugs, shampoo bottles, shoes and rocks before I was old enough to wield scissors or needle.
I imagine that most puppet makers begin by using objects and materials repurposed from the roles they were originally intended to play. When you first start playing, you use whatever comes to hand. I still love to do this: it feels rebellious to take an object and demonstrate its alternative potential, especially if at first glance it seems like useless junk. One of the reasons I love puppetry so much is that I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that the puppet isn’t alive, just as I might know that a holey section of hoover tubing is utterly useless. But then the puppet breathes, and exists with a startling undeniability, and the hoover tubing becomes a hip joint, perfectly suited to its new purpose and utterly vital. The miracle of being proved wrong never lessens for me.
When Princess Mononoke’s creative process began, we knew from the outset that overturning expectations would have to be at the heart of everything. To the logical mind, there was obviously no way on earth that, despite our enthusiasm, a newly established company with no money could stage a live version of this epic ecological fable. But logic be damned. We did it anyway.
It’s now eight months later, and we are in research and development for Princess Mononoke again. For me at least, the design and make process leading up to the first run of performances was the steepest learning curve up which I have ever had to scramble. Just like when I was small, I used whatever I had to hand: materials gleaned from skips, given by kind construction site workers, and donated by a huge number of wonderful people who answered our call outs for junk. But unlike when I was small, when I could wander around the house looking at everything from curtain ties to my nervous-looking cat with an appraising eye, this time I didn’t have time to sit back and plan experiment, or discover as I would have wanted. I had to go with my gut and my limited knowledge of material properties.
It worked, just about, but there were problems! So, being able to revisit some of their designs during this R&D period is amazing. I read something in Penny Francis’ book Puppetry: A Reader that said most makers are doomed to be unhappy with their work – because you learn and develop your skills all the way through a make, you will end a project a better maker than when you started. Your capabilities will have extended beyond those you had back at the designing stage, meaning you will always feel the project you have just finished has somehow fallen short. I am incredibly proud of Princess Mononoke’s 2013 incarnation and all that I did for it, but now I’ve learned so much, I am desperate to do it again.
I have to mention Max Humphries here, as someone who has played a huge part in building my skills up since Princess Mononoke ended its 2013 run last June. I’ve been doing some assisting work for him and his incredibly talented second in command Cheryl Brown, and their patience and generosity in sharing their skills has shaped the bedrock upon which these new designs have been built. The puppets are stronger, run smoother, and now work with the puppeteers in bringing themselves to life, rather than being dragged reluctantly into animation.
There’s one thing that hasn’t changed though. The new designs all feature, or leave enough room for, the inclusion of found, recycled, or repurposed materials and objects, in keeping with the aesthetic and ethos of the rest of the production. This has obvious financial and ecological advantages, but the main reasons are creative. Just as it did with the owl, the marionettes and the googly eyed objects, the capacity of junk to take on new life constantly inspires me. Maybe it’s because, by using the same sort of approach I had when I was young, I am able to tap into that sense of adventure and boundless possibility inherent to all children – I am able to put aside my adult concerns, just as the audience do when watching puppets onstage, and play.
Charlie Hoare, Puppet Designer, Princess Mononoke
For past news & blogs see our Archive