UNIMA Australia's Lorrie Gardner Scholarship

Slightly more formal than my usual banter, below you can read my official report:

Jhess Knight, Lorrie Gardner Scholarship Report 2014

Earlier this year, I was both privileged and delighted to be awarded UNIMA Australia’s Lorrie Gardner Scholarship. Ms Gardner’s generous financial contribution and the support of the UNIMA Oz committee allowed me to complete my studies at The London School of Puppetry (LSP) and also attend the fifth annual “Fest des Marionettes aux Estampes”, a puppetry festival in the south of France. Through these experiences, I learned so much and had the opportunity to work with some absolutely amazing people. Throughout this report, I will look at the projects undertaken during this time, the challenges I faced, and how my training will influence my contribution to our own puppetry community here in Australia.

Myself and LSP head Caroline Astell-Burt. Photo by tedadair.com

Completing the first half of my studies in 2013, I recommenced my training at LSP in May, working towards completing my Diploma of Professional Puppetry.  UNIMA Australia’s financial contribution covered my rent on campus at LSP and also my transport to and from France for the puppetry festival mentioned above, where I would be performing with LSP as well assisting in a series of puppetry workshops for the local community. Departing Australian shores over a year ago now, I have returned ten times the puppeteer I was; with a greater knowledge and deeper understanding of our craft, confident in my abilities as performer and maker, ready to tackle any challenges that lay ahead.

The London School of Puppetry’s Diploma course consists of five key modules: Rod, Marionette, Glove, Shadow and Business. Intended to run as a summer intensive over four months, an unfortunate injury in early 2013 meant that I tackled the course a little bit backwards. Flexibility on the part of the faculty and administration allowed me to attend the course in two halves, successfully completing my shadow module in 2013 and making a significant dint in several others.

Returning to LSP this year, my work began with the development of my marionette performance assessment; a short solo piece, under the guidance of four amazing tutors, LSP head Caroline Astell-Burt, Co-Founder Ronnie Le Drew plus two LSP graduates Kate James-Moore and Chris Wylie. I was the only student undertaking this module at the time, and thus was privileged to receive one on one feedback from these four incredible people throughout the process. I had carved my own marionette in January with Caroline as my tutor; a customized eleven string marionette, in the style of John Wright and The Little Angel Theatre. A one week intensive course, I named my puppet “Astrid” and now began preparing to make her debut.

Astrid rehearsing in Regents Park, London. Photo by tedadair.com

I had completed a lot of training in the manipulation of marionettes in 2013 and so approached this project with specific goals in mind. LSP was my first real exposure to the operation of marionettes and I very quickly fell in love with the discipline. Marionettes are so incredibly expressive, and the operating technique so subtle and engaging. My main goal for my performance assessment was to challenge myself with my operating; I wanted to explore a wide range of movements, looking closely at the subtleties of each, playing with pace, timing and moments of stillness.

Early in the year I was contacted by “Stems”, a three piece art rock band from West Yorkshire in the U.K. They had been following my work on Twitter and asked if I would be interested in collaborating with them on a video clip. They sent me through some tracks to listen to, and I was absolutely blown away. With an orchestral sound, their music is incredibly engaging and very theatrical. I could feel the energy as I listened and I knew it would work incredibly well with marionettes. A perfect opportunity for Astrid to make her debut, I decided to develop a live show to their track "Anahata", serving the dual purpose as my LSP assessment, with the plan to later translate it in to film (scheduled for production here in Melbourne this November).

Working first with Caroline, we explored Astrid’s repertoire of movement using a fantastic exercise based around a grid. Developed by choreographer Wendy Cook specifically for the London School of Puppetry, this exercise, though very simple in its design, was really quite challenging and yielded fantastic results. Working with my own body first, I discovered the potential of the space, exploring pace, levels and transitions between movements. The freedom of exploring these movements in my own body was so useful, and once replaced with Astrid, the work had been done for her. This exercise created a fantastic base from which to build my show.

I was then passed on to Chris and Kate, two LSP graduates turned tutors. Both fantastic directors with a keen eye for detail, we worked together to find the strength of the story and explored the best way to get that across to the audience, discovering the highs and lows and where these moments might time well with the music. Throughout this time, I learned a lot about taking direction as a performer. With two very different directors assisting me simultaneously, it was sometimes difficult to be open to every idea. However, the more responsive I was, the more we would get out of our sessions together and the show began to really come to life.

Astrid. Photo by tedadair.com

My final tutor and collaborator was Ronnie Le Drew, an incredibly experienced and talented puppeteer, I had been fortunate to work with Ronnie several times prior to this module, but this was my first opportunity to work with him one on one. Working within the industry for many years, Ronnie is an incredible performer and a fantastic teacher. A language of its own, Ronnie really understands the nuances of puppetry and helped me to tailor Astrid's performance to be the best it could be. Ronnie worked with me on really perfecting some of the movements and also embracing the dramatic. The insightful and practical feedback I received from Ronnie was so incredibly helpful, allowing me to not only refine my piece, but grow as a performer and theatre maker in myself. My operating technique improved so much under Ronnie's guidance and the show itself went from good to beautiful. The final product was and is something I am incredibly proud of. With the help of my four wonderful tutors and the support of UNIMA Oz, I had well and truly achieved my goals.

 Henri in Paris. Photo by  tedadair.com

Henri in Paris. Photo by tedadair.com

Meanwhile, my rod module was underway; the tail end of my marionette module overlapping with its beginning. Within the same week that I had been working with Ronnie, I also had the opportunity to work with Ken Haines. Two of LSP’s most esteemed tutors, professionals I both admire and emulate, I was very fortunate to have this time to learn and grow under their guidance. Ken is a professional puppeteer and maker based in London and he led our class in the “Design and Creation of Rod Puppets”. My first real foray into rod puppetry, the aim of Ken’s workshop was to equip us with the basic skills and knowledge we would need to build our own unique “table-top” puppets. Learning through play; experimenting with different techniques, mechanisms and materials, this was an entirely practical course. This is my favourite way to learn, and one of the reasons I loved LSP so much. This workshop was a strong example of how the school works; with the expert guiding hand of Ken, we were encouraged to find solutions for ourselves and develop our skills as our puppets came to life. Made from a wide variety of materials, my puppet was a baby orang-utan named “Henri”.

In March I had attended two master classes outside LSP: One with my tutor, Chris Wylie in “Modelling, Mould Making and Casting” where I constructed the face of my baby orang-utan, the other with Mark Pitman at the Norwich Puppet Theatre looking at “Joints and Mechanisms”. During the latter I not only learned a lot about the topic at hand, but also gained confidence in my own ability to problem solve. Inspired by this workshop, I decided early on that I wanted Henri to have opposable hands. This became my most significant challenge in the construction of my rod puppet. Following the lead of some puppet makers on You Tube and with the help of Ken and Mark I managed to figure out the mechanism. Though it took several attempts to get it right, the result was very rewarding, my puppet was able to grip any manner of objects, even something as thin as paper. On completing Ken’s class, my puppet was 80% complete, leaving me to tie off any loose ends during our next course, “Rod Performance”.

Working once again with Caroline and Kate, we embarked on our journey through the realms of rod puppetry. This may sound like a flamboyant introduction, but with the vast array of styles that fall under this broad category, that really is how it felt. Characterized by the rods with which they are manipulated, this form covers a wide variety of puppets. Looking at the performance principles behind this discipline, we played with the very large and the very small, often working in a group of two or three to manipulate one character. It was an incredibly valuable course in which I learned so much, grew so much and came out feeling very inspired. We also had the opportunity to workshop our own characters, discovering their movement, how they are best operated, where their strengths lie and their weaknesses.

With a deeper understanding of the discipline, it was time to begin developing our own shows; our performance assessments for the rod module. To be performed in France at the “Fest des Marionette’s aux Estampes” as a part of a special dinner spectacular, our guidelines for this assessment were based on space, time and theme. We would be moving around eight dinner tables, performing our pieces on the table for the dinner guests. The time limit was three minutes and the theme was “dinner”. Working with Kate, we discovered that Henri's strength lies in his eyes as well as his prop handling abilities. He has a very intense gaze and when the eye line is correct he can affect people quite dramatically. He is very mildly cross eyed giving him a really strong sense of focus, so not only can he look in to the audience's eyes, but he can direct their attention very clearly to whatever he is looking at. A curious baby monkey, his show began to grow around him discovering objects at the dinner table. With the time limit in mind it was important to make clear choices; this was perhaps the most challenging part of this assessment. Allowing the audience time to appreciate and engage with the character, as well as sharing some kind of story within a very short time.

Henri. Photo by Kay Yasugi

Throughout this process I continued to work on Henri’s construction. He was fully functional, allowing me to develop and rehearse, however was still not aesthetically complete. Finding the right fur for my orang-utan proved quite challenging. His face cast from a rough papier-mache pulp, I desperately tried to find a balance, something rustic to suit his aesthetic, while retaining his cuteness. After trialling several options, I landed on a thick orange brown wool, and realized with horror how perfect it would be, as the best way to cover my puppet, was to sew it on strand by strand. Very time consuming, but entirely worth it, it really was the perfect choice.

Still rehearsing both Henri and Astrid’s performances on the side, it was time to move on to my glove module. I had completed the bulk of this module the year before, my performance work lead by Ronnie and Caroline, however I had not managed to complete my assessments. Over my entire course, I found glove the most challenging discipline. I think many underestimate the nuances of this form of puppetry. It has a lot of subtlety and power when done well, and can so easily turn in to “dolly-waggling” if done poorly.

More than six months later, my ideas for my show had changed quite drastically. Here, I had the opportunity to work with another LSP graduate; a guest tutor from France, C’lia Constantinesco. An incredibly talented and energetic performer as well as a skilled maker, C’lia led our class in glove performance and helped in the development of our performance assessments. The theme for this assessment was Shakespeare and I had decided to use the lovers of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as my inspiration. With a five minute time limit, I was aiming for something very slapstick, a silent comedy if possible. My set was an umbrella, and I had set myself the challenge of operating four characters in a style akin to Obraztsov’s puppets, minimal round heads with a naked hand. C’lia suggested cutting down the number of puppets to one, and splitting my face in half to create a cast of three. A woman on one side of my face, a man on the other, and one Obraztsov ball as the love interest of the two.

I accepted this challenge with some hesitance. Training as an actor in Australia prior to beginning my puppetry journey, it had been quite a challenge to control those instincts through my training at LSP. Working with puppets, it is important to put 100% of your energy and focus in to this inanimate object in order for it to come to life for the audience. It is also important to keep your own face and body neutral, not imitating the actions of the character. I found this incredibly difficult in the beginning and it took a lot of one on one work with Caroline to stop the actor in me taking centre stage. I had done a small birthday show with Caroline the year before, a glove show where I was operating the puppet, and also partially present as a character in myself. This had been incredibly hard work. Very worthwhile, but quite challenging. Here was this challenge again, but this time splitting the focus three ways.

Topsy Turvy. Photo by Kay Yasugi

Working with C’lia, Caroline and my fellow students, I was able to rise to the occasion and create something quite unique. It was a very physical show titled “Topsy Turvy”, the umbrella constantly creating new spaces and/ or costumes throughout. It was interesting to note how the show was received in different spaces as well as for different age groups. Given the nature of the two faces, it is important this show is viewed front on (as to view each profile of my face), so a narrow space is much more effective. It also appealed more to adults than to children, which I didn’t expect with something so slapstick. Perhaps this is a comment on the shift in humour through the generations.

Now rehearsing three shows, glove, rod and marionette, you may wonder why none had yet been assessed. At LSP our assessments always take the form of a live performance. No audience, no assessment. Hence, I was gearing all three of my shows towards our showcase event at the beginning of July, where fingers crossed I would complete my Diploma. Here, I must mention the final module that I had also been working on throughout these months; Business. The business module consists of about 50% work experience and the rest is self- study. Though we were certainly offered guidance from our tutors, it is really up to us to make sure we are on top of all of the assessment tasks. I have never considered myself to have a strong business mind, and as such, this module proved to be incredibly challenging. It can be very hard to focus on the dry material associated with insurance and marketing, especially when there is a perfectly lovely marionette to play with, and an orang-utan in need of hair. Nevertheless, I did power through this module, and found it to be very useful in the beginning phases of creating my business. It is so important to have some understanding of the business world if you are to survive, and I am so thankful to LSP for getting me started down that road.

As our showcase event drew ever nearer, we were offered a wonderful distraction from rehearsals. We had been asked to develop an installation series for the French festival, to be displayed in their underground cellars. Living, breathing, puppetry installations that the audience could walk through and experience. Emma Fisher, an LSP graduate and installation expert from Ireland came to work with us at LSP for three days, throughout which we would be building our installations throughout the LSP house and garden. It was around this time we were also joined by Australian LSP graduate, Kay Yasugi who would be accompanying us to France. The way that Emma approached this workshop was incredibly clever, and the results were just astounding. We were each presented with a box that contained some materials and some form of inspiration. From these, and under Emma’s guidance, our installations came to life, and somehow seamlessly flowed in to each other. It was a really fantastic three days in which I learned so much about the art of installation and how it could be relevant to my own pursuits. The free and playful nature with which every student and teacher approached this work was just wonderful, and the work reflected that. We decided to leave our installations up around the house for our showcase event as an extra flourish for our audience to enjoy.

Fellow student Addya Panayiotou, tutor Emma Fisher and myself setting up my installation. Photo by Kay Yasugi

The day before Living Room Theatre, we visited two primary schools in North Yorkshire, sharing with the children our work, and asking for feedback. This was the first time I had attempted something like this and I must say I had been underestimating young children horribly. The experience was very rewarding and really worth doing. Children's opinions are so honest and unbiased, it was quite interesting to hear their views. Given the nature of the show, I was surprised that the children enjoyed "Astrid" so much. Astrid's show is quite sombre and serious, but the children loved it and had some very insightful feedback. Henri was of course very popular, and even elicited some fan art.

An LSP tradition “Living Room Theatre” is an event showcasing student’s performances to the public. We had two audiences over the course of the day, and I performed each of my show’s a number of times. The band Stems had agreed to come and perform their song live with my marionette performance. This experience was incredibly special, and the performance was received incredibly well by both audiences. "Astrid was very moving... I loved the marionette and was almost in tears at the end of the performance."

That is just one quote from our feedback forms. At the end of the night, I was delighted to get the news from Caroline, that I had indeed passed all of my assessments.

Astrid rehearsing with Stems. Photo by tedadair.com

Finally, I will look at the “Fest des Marionettes aux Estampes”, a very difficult experience to condense into a few words. Created by yet another LSP graduate, Deborah Maurice, the festival takes place on her beautiful farm in Le Poet Laval in the south of France. We stayed in one of her lovely houses, on a large property overlooking the mountains. We were there for two weeks, helping to set up the festival, re-building our installations, rehearsing our shows and running workshops for the locals. It was incredibly hard work but quite honestly one of the best times of my life. Literally some of my last days before flying home to Australia, we were completely immersed in festival life, eating with all of the other artists and enjoying the beautiful French sunshine as we prepared for the festival.

In the days leading up to the festival, our LSP team ran a series of workshops for the community. Facilitated by Kay, we explored the world of paper and how a puppet can come to life from the simplest materials. We looked at the material on its own; how does it sound? How does it move? What shapes can it create? I have done some work with paper in the past with Melbourne's Gary Friedman, but it was really exciting to rediscover this medium in an environment of play. We also did some work with multiple puppeteers operating paper men, in a performance style akin to Japanese Bunraku. I really enjoyed being involved in these workshops and feel I learned a lot. It was a nice reminder to look at simple materials and find inspiration through play. We showcased some of our work to audiences on the final day of the festival and encouraged them to create their own paper puppets.

Astrid performing within my installation at the Fest des Marionettes. Photo by Kay Yasugi

Looking at our installations, it was amazing how much they grew from the environment around them. Housed through Deborah's dark cellar spaces and in her beautiful garden, our installations began to really take shape with the influence of the French farm. My own installation, inspired by folk festivals and in particular dream catchers and worry dolls; in England had been confined to the small front courtyard, but here had the opportunity to expand in a larger outdoor space. Everyone's installations were wonderful and the experience as a whole was incredibly well received by our audiences. A living installation, the audience would move through the spaces discovering what each puppeteer had in store for them. We performed the installation four or five times over the course of the festival and the feedback we received was fantastic.

On the first night of the festival we took part in the dinner spectacular, performing our short table-top shows.  It was a beautiful atmosphere in which to perform and a really wonderful idea (one I would love to attempt again in future). My Henri Orang-utan and I made our way around the tables; Henri interacting with the guests and performing his little show, while around us the LSP team circulated to the delight of the audience. The atmosphere on this evening was amazing, there was a real feeling of camaraderie between the performers and also with the audience. We were all sharing something really special together and the buzz around the space was of energy and enjoyment.

The Festival, now in its fifth year, was a huge success. As you entered the festival you would undoubtedly find myself and three Belgium puppeteers, hidden underneath giant puppets welcoming you into the farm. Inside, you would find food and wine, music and performances. Interactive performers, hammocks and bikes. And as you exited in the evening you might see a big white shadow screen with some very silly shadow monkeys, manipulated by our LSP team, saying farewell as you walk out of the farm. It was all together a wonderful weekend. I was almost jealous of the audience for being on the other side.

On our return to England, just four days before my flight home, we had a beautiful graduation dinner for myself and my fellow student Lori Hopkins. Joined by many of our tutors and fellow students, Lori and I were handed our Diplomas by Caroline, Ronnie, and a cheeky beaver puppet adjoining Ronnie’s elbow. I could not be prouder of all I accomplished in the past year and I cannot thank UNIMA Australia enough for their support.

Myself, Ronnie Le Drew (with Beaver), Lori Hopkins and Caroline Astell-Burt on graduation night. Photo by tedadair.com

Leaving England was bitter sweet; as excited as I was to come home, I was leaving what had become my puppetry family behind. Now I am excited to build my family here, meeting you all, sharing our work and our stories. I look forward to continuing my development here in Australia; learning from my peers, through new experiences and my own experimentation and play. I am very proud to be an Australian puppeteer and am looking forward to helping our community and our art form grow.

For a more detailed account of all of the above, photographs of my work and information about what I am up to now, please visit my website www.jhessknight.com and/ or follow me on Twitter and Instagram @jhesspuppets