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Dark, Sweaty, Engaging: Why Puppetry Is No Longer Just For Kids

11/08/2017 13:22 BST | Updated 11/08/2017 13:22 BST
Kris Connor via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 24: Details as more than 20 puppets and props are donated by the Jim Henson Family including Miss Piggy, Elmo, Ernie, Bert, Cookie Monster, Count Von Count, and Prairie Dawn during a ceremony at National Museum Of American History on September 24, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)

At Flabbergast Theatre, we have always been interested in making shows for adult audiences rather than specifically for children. Whilst there are some great shows out there featuring puppets for children we feel that puppet shows have an undeservedly twee reputation, with most people's experience beginning and ending with a seaside Punch and Judy show. When we started seven years ago our remit was to challenge the idea that puppets are primarily for a younger audience, with our mission statement being that all theatre should be 'engaging and sweaty'.

War Horse's popularity propelled puppetry into the mainstream and enthusiasm for it has exploded recently. There was a huge Lord Voldemort puppet at the Olympic opening games; while King Kong was brought to life in Australia with puppeteers using their body weight to counter balance his huge limbs in a new musical.

Decidedly not for children, Broadway favourite Avenue Q quickly became a smash hit when it opened in London's West End, while dark and provocative sock-puppet satire Hand To God divided and delighted audiences when it transferred to London last year. In The Light Princess at London's National Theatre, puppeteers were hired to support and animate the lead actress as she floated in a similar way to how puppeteers were used in the film Gravity.

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Image: Flabbergast Theatre

Like Gravity, the Star Wars franchise is among the films now moving away from exclusively CGI characters and using suit actors and puppeteers instead. Theatre companies, both in the UK and further afield, are discovering the potential of puppets and they are creeping into the mainstream. Even if the show itself isn't a puppet show as such, often puppetry skills are being used to great effect with object manipulation playing a larger role in more physical shows.

During my career as a puppeteer, I've helped bring to life stallion Topthorn in War Horse at the National and am now part of team who are hands and voice behind Balkan bad-boy puppets Boris & Sergey. Alongside acrobats, contortionists and magicians, I recently finished an international tour with Circus 1903 operating a full size African elephant puppet in the place of a real animal to put a humane, innovative spin on the traditional circus show. It played around the world at amazing theatres, including the Sydney Opera House and Madison Square Gardens.

At Flabbergast, we are fortunate enough to be riding, and hopefully - with our shows focused around Boris & Sergey - be bolstering, a wave of popularity for adult puppetry.

Audiences believe in the puppets due to the attention to detail that puppeteers put into replicating the physics governing our world, but once we have established them we can break those rules to create moments of pure magic.

Animals can come to life, people can float or fly, and incredibly filmic effects can be achieved on a shoestring. We can enter a world of play and naiveté as well as address very dark and disturbing subjects in a profound, unique, delightful and imaginative way.

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Image: Flabbergast Theatre

Almost by the very action of suspending their disbelief for the puppets, audiences are able to immerse themselves more fully in the production and that affords us a wonderful opportunity to play.

Bunraku (humanoid) puppets are like distilled humanity: their struggles are more pertinent, their emotions heightened and our sympathy for them is higher than it would be for a human acting the same role. They can be revolting (as Boris & Sergey often are) and yet we revel in their unpleasant characteristics and recognise their struggle with morality. Boris and Sergey are complex characters and have a whole range of very human flaws, which have developed through our extensive use of improvisation.

I have been lucky enough to work on some great projects with Flabbergast such as our recent collaboration with rapper Plan B on the video to accompany the first single from his new album 'In The Name Of Man'; it's a truly moving piece of work that helps to illustrate the power of puppetry to approach unpleasant topics.

Over the years, we've brought to life six theatre shows with the pair and this year their latest show, Boris & Sergey's One Man Extravaganza, will be playing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The show is hilarious, farcical and also moving; we are interested in inspiring genuine care for the characters, and we delight in the level of emotional investment that the duo seem to inspire in our audiences.

I sincerely hope that if you haven't experienced puppetry in live theatre that you might consider seeking some out - I don't think you will be disappointed.

Boris and Sergey's One Man Extravaganza plays at Assembly George Theatre Square until August 27 (not 15). Tickets available at www.edfringe.com.