Puppetry Master Class with Simon T. Rann

Last weekend I took part in a weekend master class with legendary puppeteer Simon T. Rann. Working with the world renowned Compagnie Phillipe Genty for the past decade, Simon offered an incredible insight in to how this company works, their principles and a taste of the rehearsal and development techniques utilized. 

In a church hall in Footscray, a group of eleven Melbourne based puppeteers assembled; a group with whom I bonded over the course of the weekend. I was so grateful for their energy, openness and imagination, without which it would have been a very different experience. 

Based in France, Compagnie Phillipe Genty is a progressive theatre company known for their exploration of visual language; commonly working with forms such as puppetry, object manipulation and physical theatre. The key principles of Phillipe Genty’s work are: Concentration, Conviction, Impulse, Axis, Fixed Point, Dissociation, Distancing and Awareness of Space. With Simon as our guide, we looked at each of these principles and through exploration, were encouraged to discover and develop our own ideas on this new creative plain.

I found this workshop both challenging and stimulating from the outset; even the warm up was a new experience. Warming up both our bodies and minds, we did some really interesting exercises in co-ordination. For example, we would sit on the floor in a circle with our hands on the floor, cross over our arms and then one hand at a time, alternating around the circle, we would drum out a tune (far more difficult than it sounds). Not only was this a great workout for our cognitive responses, but it caused a lot of laughter and opened up the group to feel comfortable with each other, and comfortable to make mistakes.

There was an overarching theme of experimentation throughout the weekend; Simon often offering phrases such as “Now I have never tried this before”, and “Let’s see what happens”. Usually Compagnie Phillipe Genty runs these kinds of workshops for 2-5 weeks, so this condensed version was something relatively new. I found the environment incredibly freeing; there was very little pressure to succeed, leaving us open to learn and play without judgement.

Simon with Jenny Ellis and Victoria Osborne.

Simon with Jenny Ellis and Victoria Osborne.

I found my own response to the work quite interesting. Though unrestricted overall I felt uncomfortable and awkward when manipulating objects. Relatively inexperienced in this form, I had a natural tendency to try and turn the object in to a puppet, rather than letting the object speak for itself. This did not go unnoticed by Simon: “Let the object itself speak. It has a sound. It has a weight. It has a texture. These things speak”.  I have enjoyed watching object manipulation on stage in the past. For example, I saw Simon himself perform with Compagnie Phillipe Genty when I was working at the Little Angel Theatre in London. Their production “Dustpan Odyssey” was a fantastic example of the companies work and object manipulation at its best. Though I would like to experiment more with object manipulation in future, I think letting the object hold its own may take a lot more training.  

The physical work I really enjoyed. Lately I have been trying to increase my bodily awareness, and find freedom from conventional movement. My first port of call was to enroll in a five week Action Theatre course with Dani Cresp which has been really interesting (in week 3 now, stay tuned for updates). This course also focuses a lot on impulse, concentration and conviction and as such I was quite excited when we began looking at some of the more physical exercises practiced by Phillipe Genty. Interestingly, Simon informed us that CPG rarely hire puppeteers. Simon himself is one of the only members who had puppetry experience prior to working with Phillipe, but this was not why he was hired. Phillipe prefers to work with more physical performers, with backgrounds in physical theatre, dance, mime etc. The puppetry comes later.

My favorite exercise, potentially of the entire weekend, was one of choreography. We were grouped in to pairs and each pair was given a piece of paper with a drawing on it. The drawings I believe were done by Phillipe Genty himself; erratic patterns and shapes moving across the page. These were to be our inspiration for a choreographed piece, looking at the journey of the shapes and playing with the movement it suggested to us. I worked with performer Colleen Burke and it was really interesting to note how the image affected us differently. Colleen is a puppeteer with a background in dance and so immediately her ideas began to form around movement and how we would use the space. Mine on the other hand centred more around the emotional journey of two characters. Working with Colleen was fantastic; two strong personalities with plenty of ideas, I was amazed we didn’t clash, but the mutual respect for each other was clear and the outcome was something I felt quite proud of. Far from a dancer myself, and till recently, quite accepting of my awkward physicality, this exercise opened me up to possibilities in myself and allowed me to play. Simon made a comment later that I really liked: “I love watching non-dancers move. The restrictions in their body force them to make choices a dancer never would, and that can be really interesting.”

John McDonald, Richard Mueck and Julia Davis discover cling wrap.

John McDonald, Richard Mueck and Julia Davis discover cling wrap.

We also worked a lot with simple materials; plastic wrap, tin foil, paper etc. We approached these materials in a similar way to our work with the objects, allowing the material to speak for itself. I of course immediately turned my material in to a puppet, which was discouraged. This restriction did yield interesting results however, forcing me to discover what the material can do, how it communicates, how it moves, how it interacts. My material was a big polythene sheet. We began by playing with our materials, individually, with our eyes closed for half an hour. An incredible sensory journey, I discovered so much about the material in this time and felt quite connected with it. We were then given half an hour to continue our exploration with our eyes open.

In a later exercise, we were paired with the person who had been working with the same material and were given the opportunity to create a short piece combining what we had both learned and felt about our material. For this exercise I worked with performer Dan Goronszy and once again it was so extraordinary to see how our interpretations differed. Where I found certain sensations creepy and unsettling, Dan found them sensual. We worked together to realize our piece and let the material speak for itself. I really enjoyed this process; the freedom to play and the creative atmosphere surrounding us was just wonderful. Eleven puppeteers, in all shapes and sizes, working away in a church hall to create… To Create. Again, there was no pressure to succeed, only pressure to try. Through experimentation and play, we learned. For those of you who follow my blog, you will know this is my favorite way to learn, and as such I felt very much at home.

As ever in these kinds of circumstances, it was such a wonderful gift to get to know this group of people. Relatively new to the Melbourne puppetry scene, there were a few familiar faces, but many I had not met before. I felt very lucky to have this opportunity, to not only play together, but to learn together and learn from each other. I found I learned a lot by watching others work, to see how different people approach the same exercise. Given the sort of people puppetry tends to attract, it is safe to say, there was plenty of silliness and a lot of fun. Thank you to everyone who was involved, I had such a fantastic time with you all.

As for Simon, he was a fantastic teacher; clear in his delivery of information, entertaining in his demonstrations, friendly in his demeanor and above all, patient. In one exercise we had the opportunity to create a portrait of someone, interviewing them and creating something visual to tell their story. My subject was Simon and I felt very lucky to have the opportunity to ask him about his life and his work. An incredibly interesting man, I thoroughly enjoyed the weekend workshop with Simon T Rann. Thank you Simon for giving us your time, your energy and your focus; I feel I learned a lot and look forward to implementing some of the ideas in to my own processes.

And of course, thank you to Julia Davis and Richard Hart of UNIMA Australia for organising the whole thing!

From left: Julia Davis, John McDonald, Richard Hart, Richard Mueck, Simon T Rann, Dan Goronszy, Colleen Burke, Victoria Osborne, Angie Macmillan, Jenny Ellis and yours truly!

From left: Julia Davis, John McDonald, Richard Hart, Richard Mueck, Simon T Rann, Dan Goronszy, Colleen Burke, Victoria Osborne, Angie Macmillan, Jenny Ellis and yours truly!



For more about Compagnie Phillipe Genty visit: http://www.philippegenty.com/en/

 For more about UNIMA Australia visit: http://www.unima.org.au/