“How was Perth?” A question that has come up a lot in the past week since returning home from the Wild West. It is tricky when a question like this is posed, because in reality the answer is over thirty minutes long, but it is fairly safe to assume that isn’t what the person hoped for when posing the question.
So my answer tends to be this: “Really, really good”.
If they probe a little more: “I felt challenged, I learned a lot… yeah, really good”.
So here, in this lovely medium where I can express myself freely and fully, (and there is no pressure for you to continue reading!), I will give the long answer to the question “How was Perth”.
To back up just a little, I should explain what I was doing in WA. Earlier in the year I came across an opportunity with one of Australia’s leading puppetry companies, Spare Parts Puppet Theatre (SPPT). They were taking applications to attend a two week puppetry intensive, or bootcamp. Two weeks in Perth (somewhere I had never been), learning techniques and philosophy’s from some of Australia’s best. I jumped at the opportunity. I was a little concerned that I may have had too much training prior to be suitable for the course. With my background at the London School of Puppetry, I wondered if I would gain much by attending the camp with SPPT. I decided to apply anyway and laid out my background and experience very honestly in my application letter. I figured this way, they could decide whether I would be a suitable participant. A short while later, I was invited to attend.
The two weeks I spent in Perth were wonderful for a number of reasons.
1. The sunshine! Oh the sunshine. I couldn’t believe this is what they call winter over there. Gorgeous 20-25 degree days. I skated along the beach every morning to get to puppet camp. Simply joyous.
2. The routine did wonders for my mental and emotional health. Over the past few months in Melbourne, my schedule has been incredibly chaotic, inconsistent, higgledy piggledy, stressful, busy etc. And so to have a solid routine; camp 10am-4pm Monday to Friday, was a really nice change.
3. I stayed with a beautiful friend of mine, visual artist Penny Walker-Keefe. Her energy over the two weeks was lovely. She encouraged me to do more drawing, we talked art, visited galleries and music venues on the weekend and we even made trash puppets together. It was nice.
4. The course itself! Oh and I could start a whole new list about why the course was amazing. But let’s discuss!
Classically, the course began with a group of ten artists sitting in a circle and one by one, telling the group a little about themselves and their background in the arts. Dancers, actors, improvisers, designers, puppeteers and puppet makers; little did I know, this diverse group of people would very quickly become an incredible hive mind of support, encouragement, exploration and play. The bond that formed throughout the two weeks that we worked together was really lovely. There was a wonderful feeling of camaraderie amongst the group, that freedom to try anything and not be afraid to fail or look silly. A running joke was that things were either “essentially successful”, “partially successful” or “essentially unsuccessful”. Though somewhat tongue and cheek, it was actually a wonderful way to say something hadn’t worked without putting anyone down. It was a fantastic environment to work in.
Introducing myself to the group on day one, it became clear I was one of the most experienced puppeteers in the room. For the first two days I will admit I struggled to keep my ego in check. Having a group of artists know my background, I created this projected expectation, putting pressure on myself to do the task better than everyone else. Though I was aware of my own warped mentality, it is hard to simply switch that off. A testament to the teachers and the group, this did not last long. I very quickly felt comfortable to show my weaknesses and embraced my own shortcomings. Because, come on Jhess, you are here to learn! And I really did learn a lot.
Though there was some crossover between SPPT’s techniques and those I learned at the London School of Puppetry (LSP), over all, most of the ideas were either new or different. And really, it is always good to revisit your training. In the past year since graduating from LSP, the majority of my work has been focussed on design and construction, so to be enrolled in a course that was totally focussed on performance was a real treat. Working so intensely at LSP, having techniques and philosophy’s drilled in to you, I did struggle sometimes to accept an alternative method, “that’s not how I learnt it”. It seems ridiculous to me now, but in the first few days, my head did struggle to let some of the new ideas in. I think working in a creative field, and art in general really benefits from learning and understanding many different philosophy’s and techniques. "We all have our own philosophy or framework based on the sum of our experiences." - Philip Mitchell.
Something that came up for me individually, was a renewed confidence to be present within the scene alongside the puppet. Entering the London School of Puppetry as an actor, I really struggled to achieve a mutual exchange of energy between puppeteer and puppet. I was far too big, too expressive, too present… I would always steal focus from the puppet. Therefore throughout my training at LSP, we squashed that actor out of me and really focussed on my technique with the puppets. I was very rarely present at all, always the “invisible” puppeteer giving 95% of my energy to the puppet.
Working with SPPT, the idea of shared presence was re-introduced and whattaya know, I can do it! I think now that I have such a strong understanding of giving the puppet the focus, generally avoiding myself being involved at all, re-introducing myself as a character worked much better. I am no longer an actor with an interest in puppetry. I am a puppeteer with a distant background in acting. It was an interesting revelation…. “Oh yeah, I used to love doing this”. I received praise from students and teachers alike on my even distribution of energy, my expressive, funny face and my comic timing. I was quite chuffed and now feel confident that this is something I could further explore in my work in future.
The teachers. Another notch on the belt of why the course was so wonderful. The teachers. We had three teachers over the two weeks. Michael Barlow, Philip Mitchell and Noriko Nishimoto. All incredibly talented, experienced artists, it was a wonderful opportunity to work with these three amazing people, to learn from them, be critiqued by them and have fun with them. Though the structure of the course was clearly defined (which I loved), each teacher had their own unique style and flair with which they delivered the content. We worked with Michael first and what I really loved about working with Michael was his energy. He has a quiet presence, allowing us time to play and discover but definitely telling us when we were doing things poorly. Even in these moments however, the criticism was always constructive and never aimed at an individual, but more a comment to the group as a whole. Philip’s energy was different, with more of a background in movement and dance, Phillips sessions were a lot more active. The visual that instantly springs to mind is a group of ten artists moving about the space with sticks animated as fish. Just brilliant. We did a lot of stick work with Philip. I won’t go in to detail (that’s another blog entirely!), but I learned a lot from our work with sticks. Working with simple objects, you can really look closely at breath and movement in a way you might not with a beautifully constructed puppet.
Noriko is a fantastic character; originally from Japan, she is incredibly charismatic, speaks in haiku’s and moves with a graceful energy, almost like tai chi. A wealth of knowledge and experience, working with Noriko was great. Taking us for the last section of the course, Noriko revisited a lot of the work we had done with Michael and Philip (in fact she was their teacher years ago). With all three there were a lot of exercised that challenged your co-ordination. I know that seems obvious within a puppetry course but most were done without puppets! I can’t go in to every exercise sadly but it really was excellent training. I highly recommend it to anyone considering developing their skills in puppetry performance.
The two weeks I spent in Perth were simply brilliant; great company, a lot of laughs and a lot of sunshine. Plus, the chance to learn and grow within my art form. I could not have asked for a better holiday. Described by Philip as “Adventurers of puppetry”, working with Spare Parts was such a treat. Their background fascinating and their future exciting, I am eager to do more with them whenever possible! Though they may be on the other side of the country (which for my friends in Europe… it’s a long way!!), I feel incredibly connected with the people and the place. Fremantle stole a little piece of my heart, as did SPPT and the beautiful group of people I worked with. I feel privileged to have been a part of Spare Parts puppetry boot camp. Huge thanks to Spare Parts and everyone involved.