Duda Paiva Masterclass

Earlier this month I attended a four day workshop with Brazilian master puppeteer Duda Paiva titled “Driving the Beats”. Hosted by our own Black Hole theatre, we were very priveledged to have Duda in Melbourne to share with us his knowledge, skill and humor.

With a strong background in dance, Duda specializes in a unique form of body puppetry, something I was eager to learn more about. I was lucky enough to see Duda's solo how "Bastard" in London at the SUSPENSE festival last year (see blog post SUSPENSE London Puppetry Festival), and was absolutely blown away by his performance. Strength, grace, timing and comedy all worked together alongside Duda's exceptional puppetry skills. The way he brought life to those puppets; you had well and truly forgotten that there was only one person on stage by the end of the show. Incredibly clever and stunningly executed, I had never seen puppetry quite like this before. You can imagine how excited I was to hear Duda would be coming to Melbourne... I of course signed up for his workshop immediately.

The workshop was such a fantastic experience for me for a number of reasons. Having only recently returned to Melbourne after living in the UK for a year, I have been looking forward to meeting my peers here in Australia and finding my place within our puppetry community. Here I had the opportunity to meet and work with an incredible group of artists. From a variety of backgrounds and with a wealth of experience, from circus, dance and puppetry to vaudeville, physical theatre and installation, I learned so much from this marvelous group and feel very privileged to add each of them to my growing network.

The content of master class itself was fantastic; a lot of aspects were quite new to me which made the work incredibly interesting and also quite challenging. Though I am a highly active person, and I am very interested in learning about and developing more of the highly physical forms of puppetry, my awareness and understanding of my own body is not so good. Head of the London School of Puppetry, Caroline Astell-Burt often says that dancers make the best puppeteers; they train so hard and have such an amazing connection with their body and their breath. When they pick up a puppet, they have so many physical possibilities to explore… something exemplified by Duda Paiva. For me, given that my strength, stamina and agility come from running and playing roller derby, I hold so much tension in my body and find it difficult to loosen up enough to find that physical freedom that works so well with this form of puppetry.

That being said, Duda was a fantastic teacher; even in a large group, he managed to give us all individual feedback on our work while also creating a feeling of camaraderie between us. “Generous” is how I would describe Duda: generous in the knowledge and skills he chose to share, generous in his encouragement and support, and generous with his energy… he was an incredibly engaging teacher. We did quite a bit of work on body awareness which was really great for me. Every day began with a series of breathing exercises, helping to open up the back and chest and allow for maximum airflow. We did some really interesting work in pairs and in groups, looking at touch and response, exercises to help us understand our own patterns of movement which would later be transposed into a puppet.

In one particular exercise one partner would be a “landscape” or a “sculpture” for the other person to manipulate. They could do this in a variety of different ways, placing, tapping, gluing, sweeping; all different kinds of contact that would affect this living sculpture. There was a lot of emphasis of resistance, and later we worked with the sculpture being more proactive and eventually the partners could swap roles silently and seamlessly within the exercise, the sculpture becoming the sculptor and vice versa. Throughout these exercises, and the entire course in fact, it really came down to the principle of "preparation, action and reaction", something that was drilled in to me during my time at the London School of Puppetry. It was fantastic to work with this idea again... with a very different style of puppet.

The puppet’s themselves were amazing. Built by Duda, they are carved from an incredibly soft and flexible foam. Attending this workshop I knew it was performance based, and so was very excited when we also gained some insight into Duda’s making techniques. Almost completely made from one solid block of foam, Duda carves down the foam with scissors, gradually creating the shape and forming these amazing characters. The nature of the foam is so interesting, it has this elasticity to it which gives the puppets fantastic movement. There was a variety of different styles, though all are operated with the same idea in mind. With this form of “body puppetry”, basically, your body becomes the puppets body. This could mean you use only a head, a puppet head on your hand, the rest of your body becoming the puppets. It could mean a head and an arm, operated in a similar way to Ernie on Sesame St, but where your legs become the puppets legs. Then there are the full body puppets, for example you can have an entire puppet, full body, but you control its feet with yours, its arm with yours and its head with your hand. The puppets that excited me the most were those connected at the waist and knees. They work under the same principles as all of the above, the puppets waist or knees connecting with yours and your legs becoming the puppets.

These two styles excited me mainly because I saw potential for an idea I have had for a long time; to create a skating puppet, combining my skills in roller-skating and puppetry. Here I feel I may have found the solution, or at the very least, a direction to try. All of the styles mentioned above were highly effective; it is amazing how much you can do with this kind of work. One of the dancers in our group, Nadine Dimitrievitch, did some absolutely stunning burlesque style work with one of the head and arm puppets, a hula hoop performer and all round circus superstar, Malia Walsh had us all in awe and stitches working with the puppet connected at her waist, David Splatt, a performer with a background in vaudeville and mime created a fantastic slapstick fight between himself and a puppet… the possibilities are endless! I even managed to attempt my skating puppet; immediately there were clear obstacles in the way of success, however it was a great starting point.I think it will be a fantastic roving street act.

Duda himself, throughout the course would give us demonstrations of what could be done, and would constantly blow us away. He reiterated all through the course the importance of breath. If the puppet is not breathing, it is dead. There was also a lot of focus on humor, something Duda is very good at. We talked a lot about timing and the power of the puppet to make the audience laugh unexpectedly. On the final day of the course, myself and an artist from Canberra, Claire Granata worked together to create a duet with two skulls singing "Total Eclipse of the Heart", in which we really tried to focus on the timing and pace of our delivery, as well as the breath of the characters. Something that I had been told in the past by UK puppeteer Ronnie Le Drew, and now again by Duda Paiva: Don’t be afraid to go over the top, puppets can pull off the over-dramatic, and in fact work so well with it.

I feel I learned a lot throughout these four days, and though I didn't feel I really perfected any one skill, I left with a whole range of new ideas to play with and develop. I am excited to experiment with different kinds of foam, searching for something with that brilliant elasticity and seeing how I could work with it. I am excited to have these new ideas and inspiration in my bank to influence my work in future. I am excited to develop my skating puppet and hit the streets! I am really looking forward to continued experimentation and play with these styles. Above all, I am excited to have met all  of these fantastic artists within Australia and of course Duda Paiva himself. A huge thank you must go to Nancy Black and Black Hole Theatre for organizing this fantastic workshop. In fact, they have a whole series of workshops coming up which you must look out for (see links below). So thank you Nancy, thank you Duda, and thank you to everyone who was involved in this fantastic four days. What a blast!! 


For more about Duda Paiva visit: http://www.dudapaiva.com/

For more about Black Hole Theatre and there ongoing workshop series visit: http://blackholetheatre.com.au/

For more about Nadine Dimitriovitch visit: http://bonemarrowtheatre.com/

For more about Malia Walsh visit: http://www.circustricktease.com/about/performers/malia-walsh/

For more about David Splatt visit: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Smallpox-Theatre/