Meet the cast that's been culled from a teddy-bear graveyard


IRISH PEOPLE HAVE a particular affection for puppets. although the British have Basil Brush and Americans have Big Bird, it’s unlikely those people would try to vote for them in an election, as the Irish have done for Dustin. We drag the puppets of our childhood into adulthood, giving them as much credence now as we did then.

Artists working in theatre need their audiences to put the Tinker Bell theory into practice; to suspend disbelief, particularly if the puppeteers are in full view. “When people come into the room they want to get involved,” says Aaron Heffernan, the puppetmaster on Monster/Clock, a fantasy fable play. “An audience can identify with a piece of wood having life if everyone believes.”

He refers to the “double address”, when a puppeteer can be on stage with the puppet yet become almost invisible. “The soul and the spirit that make it live is a mutual thing between the audience and the puppeteer. If you give it all your attention, breathe with it and look at it, the humanity you have in common with this thing that looks only barely human comes through.”

With its quest narrative, featuring a pupil coming into his own and saving his master, Monster/Clock shares many traits with a typical Disney movie. But during its initial run, which sold out, the audience comprised mostly adults.

“We’re a nostalgic generation,” says Dan Colley, the director of Monster/Clock. “Everything we do probably comes from those early influences where TV just got ironic.”

Avenue Q influenced both Monster/Clock and Anglo: The Musical, the puppet-heavy show that opens in Dublin this month (minus a puppet of Sean Fitzpatrick, this week withdrawn from the show on the direction of the DPP). Nigel Plaskitt, the puppetmaster on Avenue Q, has been training actors who were puppet novices to not pull focus. “The actors are playing the character along with the puppets. So the idea is that they support them and give them expressions and reactions that puppets can’t give because they are inanimate. They use the whole body of the puppet to create expressions so their own faces aren’t overacted.”

Jim Henson’s design has been the inspiration for the Anglo puppets, which is acknowledged in the show’s tagline, “All it takes is a few muppets to screw an entire country.” Heffernan, whose bedroom resembles “a teddy-bear graveyard”, drew more from Picasso and Francis Bacon, ripping the eyes out of readymade bears, as well as the inner lining from a child’s boot, basketballs, umbrellas and anything else he could get his hands on. Their development process, though, is still in its first draft.

“I made the puppets around the model of my body,” he says. “I didn’t realise that was going to be so problematic. I wasn’t using all of the puppets personally. So when I gave them to the cast the hands were often too big or too small for the actor.”

“We haven’t had the opportunity to completely remake or rethink a puppet in light of an actor’s needs,” says Colley. “We have applied for a creation grant from the Arts Council so that, in future, we have a development process that starts without finished puppets, so we can adapt them to the wants of the production.”

THIS IS HOWthe theatre company Branar Téatar do Pháistí develops its shows. “Suse Reibisch is our puppetmaster, and she understands what the puppet needs to do for us, so she will make it to a certain level,” says Marc MacLochlainn, the artistic director of the company. “Then we will workshop it for a week so we can discover what needs to be changed. [Reibisch] will then go away and adapt it while the company develops the character itself.”

She’s also there to help with wear and tear. “We give them a good workout in rehearsal. We become aware of the delicate parts, and we try and make them as strong as possible, because during the actual performance the puppets will be stretched more than usual due to the performers’ adrenaline.”

Carved from limewood, the puppets Branar use cannot talk. “If you have a puppet that is just pulled along by a puppeteer, then it’s the puppeteer’s story. A piece of wood can have an emotional journey if you build the right atmosphere around it. Not having it speak allows for something that doesn’t happen for children in society that often. They are allowed to think for themselves.”

Branar was initially a drama-in-education service working through Irish. While watching a Teater Refleksion show at Baboró International Arts Festival for Children in Galway in 2008, something clicked with MacLochlainn. “Anybody in the children’s sector will tell you that you are aware of an audience when you are watching a show. Looking at what’s working for them, what’s not. They were completely mesmerised by this nonlingual piece with fascinating little puppets. I thought, That’s the way that I really want to tell stories.”

There has been greater use of puppetry over the past decade. In theatre shows such as The Lion King and War Horse it plays the role of special effects in movies. At shows such as the Dublin Fringe Festival production of Waterworn, it exposes audiences to forms of puppetry that are the driving force rather than a function of the show.

“For theatre, it’s only a good thing,” says Chris Starkie, the puppetmaster on Anglo. “It injects a certain amount of otherworldliness to the stories and detaches them from morbid reality, which is essentially their purpose.”

Monster Clock is at the Lir, Dublin, until tomorrow.

Branar will hold an industry showcase at Project Arts Centre in Dublin on November 13th.

Anglo: The Musical runs at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, from November 14th to 25th.

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