Tag Archives: Puppetry

The Clown in us all


I recently attended a weekend workshop with LISPA, the London International School of Performing Arts (based in London and Berlin). I knew the school focussed on physical theatre, after the work of Jacques Lecoq at his school in Paris, but didn’t realise how relevant the focus would be to be my own interest in masks, clowning, mime, puppetry and the expression of the unknown, the unseen. We don’t always think of the links between clowning and acting and we tend to brush off the term ‘clowning around’ thinking of it as just silliness but you don’t have to look far to see how clowning can work hand-in-hand with acting. Sacha Baron Cohen, Simon MacBurney (Director of Complicite Theatre Company), Emma Thompson, Geoffrey Rush and Kathryn Hunter trained under Philippe Gaulier who was a student and teacher at Lecoq’s school in the 1960’s and 70’s and is known for his ‘Inverted Clown’, where a balance is struck between grotesqueness and charm. Gaulier was interested in the pupil finding a ‘wonderful spirit’, rather than teaching a ‘style’. (Just as Tom Stoppard, according to actor Joseph Fiennes, says ‘imagination will take you to a greater truth than academia.’) He popularised the ‘buffoon’ genre of 1960’s theatre – during festivals, the ‘ugly people’ (buffoons) would entertain the ‘beautiful people’. These beautiful people were often part of the Government or Church. The idea was to make the ‘beautiful people’ think, and realise their lives were meaningless. There is a slight irony here in that the acting world (at least Hollywood) tends to favour more commercially good looking people. But if we think about what really makes a good actor, we’re attracted to the ones who portray truth more than how beautiful they are. Speaking personally as someone who performs, it’s difficult to be truthful and beautiful as those two things mean different things to different people – and truthfulness is unfortunately less valued than looking beautiful in this society.



However in opposition to this, in a recent interview with film director Harry Macqueen on his film Hinterland (opening February 2015), Macqueen talks about the importance of truth and honesty to him saying ‘this ‘truth’ lies in the spaces between words – the unnoticed glances and mutual experiences, as well as the tacit acknowledgement of the things that cannot be said…’ Later I will talk about how mask plays a part in taking this further. Philosophically speaking, truth, beauty and ‘goodness’ are all inherently linked but that’s a subject in itself. The programme at LISPA itself, integrates relevant elements from the Junguian concept for personal growth and additional body-movement-performance based practices.

The type of physical theatre I explored was very much rooted ‘in the body’ and asks the actor to think about resonance with an object, or a person (or just something – for example a colour), and once that resonance has been activated, to then embody that ‘other’ (the object, person, colour). I found this a very useful way in to truthfully portraying something outside myself, whilst using what I have within me. Lecoq and Gaulier theatre is about the actor finding the most successful performance outcome for themselves by rejecting technique, and that acting is ‘play’ which creates a rapport with the audience by speaking to their imagination. You only have to see a few pictures on the Lecoq School’s website to understand this.


‘Neutral Mask’ is a cornerstone of LISPA’s philosophy. Masks are creations of our individual, collective or universal imagination and can have a similar function to myths, which can be seen as expressions of our longing for something much larger in life. At the same time, they are the access to the Invisible, giving us a glimpse of the yet unseen and unlived. Thomas Prattki, Founder and Director of LISPA (and tutor on the course I did) says ‘there are also masks which are capable of opening for us the gate to the grand mysteries of humankind as a whole. Masks can also be seen as amplifications of the different inner drives rooted deeply within our body and psyche …an experience of the collective or transpersonal dimension within us.’

Lecoq called the Neutral Mask ‘the mask behind all other masks’. The Neutral Mask is a unifying ‘reality of body, psyche and world, which has been described in mythology, science, philosophy and depth psychology as the ‘Atman’: the Implicit Order, the Real, the Flesh or the Self.’

Wearing the Neutral Masks that LISPA provided made me feel bigger than I am – by that I mean I felt my own presence. I felt more alive and comfortable in my own skin, maybe because I wasn’t showing my own face – which looking back, in fact is rather unsettling. The course says it is for artists, actors, dancers, educators, healers, therapists and human beings. The mask forms a dialogue with the person wearing it, as well as those watching it being worn. An inner dialogue is formed which tells a story between the conscious and the unconscious. My movement and expression in the mask became more defined – it is what the school calls ‘staging the shadow’ – as myself I don’t live certain elements of myself because of constraints or expectations of society, work, friends, family – the conditions that govern my life. In the mask, my shadow surfaces.

People recognise that they need to integrate the shadow into their personal and collective lives. Movement, theatre and performance are some of the most direct ways to unearth the Unlived – the body, play and imagination are pathways into the anarchic vitality which are there in us as children but get covered as we grow. The paradox is that uncovering them is done via this mask.

Lecoq with Neutral Mask

Lecoq with Neutral Mask

The art of clowning I learnt comes from picking up on the little details about life (how we walk, how we hold our head etc) and then blowing these up into a chaotic act. To celebrate the strange, the untamed and sublime and find your own clown, the buffoon (via the Grotesque mask – moving on from the Neutral) which you become, announces the arrival of the Fantastical and Mystery. Prattki calls this ‘the untamed Other within yourself who deeply enjoys failing, falling and the chaotic and unpredictable nature of life. Contact with your clown shadow will enrich your creative potential and unearth the pleasure of being truly stupid.‘ We find we develop the dialogue between our shadow and conscious mind, between chaos and form. You find who you are via ‘the other’ – though ‘the other’ is more you than you know, since you are simply making visible the Invisible.

Philipp Schaeffer is a professional clown, actor, TaKeTiNa Ryhtym teacher and alumni of Lecoq, and says ‘Rhythm is my tool as a clown and as a teacher in order to create space…there is no need to learn a new instrument, since you are your instrument. You will find out how to play it in the best possible way.’ Many times on the course, we were told to give ourselves permission to ‘be’.

The puppeteer Basil Twist III (an example of his work below) was one of the creators behind Kate Bush’s comeback concert in 2014 and has been at the Barbican in January 2015 with his own show as part of the London International Mime Festival – he says that although puppets are marginalised, he says this has its benefits as when they make an appearance, they surprise people – by virtue of the surprise, they have a powerful message. The unseen/invisible puppeteers are behind the seen/visible puppets – it is ‘reverence for something beautiful…a rare, strange thing…To see something coming to life that is not alive, that you know is not alive, is an existential experience…puppetry has very sacred roots. Fundamentally it’s dealing with the frontier between life and death. There’s nothing more profound.’




Sometimes silence says it all – the puppet has the final word


I was profoundly moved by the puppetry company ‘Little Cauliflower’ and their performance of ‘Street Dreams‘ at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  ‘Street Dreams’ is a about an old man (a puppet) who lives on a rubbish dump, using the material around him to survive.  He is tormented by banana skins (on sticks operated by humans) who randomly fly around him.  There are no words during the performance, just live music played by the same people who operate the puppets.  At one point, the old man decides to leave the rubbish and go in search of green pasture.  He uses his umbrella as a boat (and as a flying machine like Mary Poppins) to move himself on.  However, the grass is not always greener on the other side and he soon misses the buzz of the rubbish dump and his beloved banana skins.

The audience see every thought and emotion of the old man in his face – he is the only human puppet in it but he is everyman.  It is a play about old age, being alone and working out what it all means.  It is totally beautiful and enchanting…by saying nothing, it says everything.

Old Man and the mysterious yellow glove who shares the rubbish dump with him

Puppetry as Reality in War Horse and beyond: why the Arts are important


The idea for this piece of writing came from watching the extraordinary stage production of War Horse at the New London Theatre in 2009 (now a major film), followed by a lecture at Central School of Speech and Drama with the South African Handspring Puppet Company (HPC) – the people behind War Horse when it originally played at the National Theatre.

Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, founders of the HPC, believe puppetry has something particular to offer to a contemporary audience.  Most people acknowledge that the moment Joey the horse walks on stage in War Horse is a moment of awe, enchantment and often making them cry.  Kohler and Jones discussed the philosophy of this – why does an inanimate object make us emotional?  How is it that puppetry is so perceptive?  Because a puppet is a lifeless object longing to live.  It is an inanimate figure trying to live – and actually although we are not dead, we too do this – we are living on and off stage, but we often lose our presence and immediacy.  ‘Absence of being in the moment’ in life could be described as not exactly living.

A puppet’s struggles are essentially the same as ours – we live but we need to be authentic to be truly ourselves.  The puppet is a verb, not a noun.  Topthorn (Joey’s companion in battle for so long) dies – is this a puppet or a dead horse?  That puppet has already lived and we now believe this, and have been living its world with it, so it has transformed itself and our imaginations.  The audience works to make this meaning – the audience is the author.

The most interesting aspect of HPC’s philosophy is ‘Puppet as Deity’.   Although there is a lack of belief in God around these days, there is a religious impulse which resides in puppetry.  Kohler and Jones comment that theatre does in this in general anyway, but puppetry does this in disguise.  The puppeteer is a priest to the horse in the way that the puppet is used to illustrate the situation (as a priest uses bread and wine to tell a continual story).

It strikes me that puppetry is a search for an unknown language of emotions and the mystery of human nature (if you see War Horse you will understand) which faith also presents to us.  It is no accident that Handspring Puppet Company came out of a culture where the need for a shared language was sought, and it was well received in South Africa where human language was not always uniting black and white.

Why is it that it was a boom year for theatre last year?  People don’t acknowledge it, but most of us seek something which we can’t name.  What we can’t name can, by default, feel unreal – so therefore, should we bother to seek it?  Well, yes.  It is my firm belief that there is more truth in the perceived unreality of make-believe than there is in the hard reality of life.  Whether we like it or not we all have imagination and this is not an accident – this is the thing which makes us human.

The artist Chagall says: ‘All our interior world is reality – and that perhaps more so than our apparent world.  To call everything that appears illogical, ‘fantasy’, fairytale, or chimera – would be practically to admit not understanding nature.’  Years later, Salman Rushdie says the same: ‘If you grow up in India, you grow up surrounded by magic being a normal aspect of literature.  You realise that kind of writing is just as capable of getting to serious, truthful human realities as realistic writing is’ (The Metro, 13.10.2010).

Chagall painting

You find that most actors have something to say about the meaning of their job.  Kevin Spacey’s dedication to the Old Vic (rightfully gaining him a CBE) is because he believes culture is ‘the magic of life’ – a generator of economic as well as spiritual wellbeing (The Evening Standard, 4.11.2010).  The artist Paula Rego says that she tries not to ‘do art’ but rather ‘tell a story’.  Like any good acting, the intention behind it is what makes it truthful: one acts the situation, not the emotion.  And like the actors, it seems the audience feed off the stories – why has ‘The King’s Speech’ been such a hit (other than Firth and Rush being terrific)?  Because it is a story of the obstacles which we all have within ourselves which we think will stop us achieving and being the human we want to be.  The arts have this capability of being completely universal in meaning.  ‘It’s important for society to be able to reflect itself through storytelling.’  (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Guardian, 7.11.2010).

Cumberbatch in War Horse the film

What is tangible is not always what is and it is not always the solution to our living well.  There were a series of talks in 2010 at St Paul’s Cathedral on Death, Happiness, Love and Suffering.  In all four, similar themes came out: we are fixed on having, not being.  The USA and the UK spend more on advertising than any other country in the world; we also have the most cases of mental illness.  Revd. Mark Oakley, on one of the occasions, talked about the ‘perversion of Descartes’ which is ‘I’m seen, therefore I am’ (rather than, ‘I think, therefore I am’) – he established something very disturbing: ‘we spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like.’  Who benefits?  Nobody.  We are in a world of instant information – everything is graspable – which means nothing is graspable because once we have something we realise we don’t need it and it doesn’t make us happy.  There was a case in the press recently of the man who had 541 friends on Facebook but not one of them realised he was dead.  As George Eliot said, the texture of wisdom is different to that of information, yet it is the former we lack.

When we see or feel realness, we feel a jolt: we are out of the zone of information and in the zone of deeper wisdom where something we can’t pin down has got to us.  It’s not for nothing that Frieze Magazine in Contemporary Art and Culture brought out a complete issue in November 2010 entirely devoted to Religion and Spirituality (Issue 135).  Its opening article, ‘Believe It or Not’ by Dan Fox brings together a lot of the above:  ‘Art is a faith-based system.  Religious conviction is taken to be a sign of intellectual weakness, and yet meaning in art is itself often a question of belief.  Appeals to the immaterial are buried deep within the everyday language of art too: words such as ‘spiritual’, ‘transcendent’, ‘meditative’, and ‘sublime’ frequently occur in exhibition reviews, press releases and gallery guides.  Why does the search for some kind of spiritual fulfilment in secular art persist?  Is the idea that art has nothing to do with faith or religion just a lie we tell ourselves to hide the fact we crave something to believe in?’ (pg. 15).

But nor do I believe that we create something because we ‘crave’ for it.  I think the ‘something’ is already there – it is the thing we can’t pin down so tend to think it doesn’t exist since it’s not tangible.  The arts are a way of manifesting what doesn’t easily come to the surface naturally.  I mentioned ‘The King’s Speech’ – explicitly it’s about a public man who stammers – but implicitly it’s about an obstacle that makes him feel inadequate.  I can think of many paintings and sculptures that display explicitly a scene, but actually are about a bigger universal theme.  I think of Vaughan Williams’ music and it so vividly describes the English countryside as it was (and still is if we look after it) but it reaches further also to evoke a time of great loss of life and heritage (i.e. two world wars) which will never be tangible again.  The people and that way of life are gone.

Call art, music, dance and drama, signposts, but I think they are more as they contain meaning as well as pointing beyond.  Likewise I think the way we illustrate faith is very similar.  Unfortunately belief about God is more complex (and I actually find talking about faith hard as everyone gets so offended these days) but if you think of the Bible stories, yes they are about something, but always point beyond to a larger theme.  Every good sermon does this.  ‘We still rely on artists, curators and critics to act as interpreters of contingent meaning, aesthetic creeds or art world ‘ethics’, just as rabbis, imams and priests do.  People go to galleries on Sundays instead of churches.  Appeals to the immaterial are buried deep within the everyday language of art too: words such as ‘spiritual’, ‘transcendent’, ‘meditative’, and ‘sublime’ frequently occur in exhibition reviews, press releases and gallery guides’ (Dan Fox, Frieze Magazine, pg. 15).

Courtesy of The Daily Telegraph

In conclusion, I come back to War Horse and puppetry.  Joey and Topthorn are many things: lifeless objects with no emotion until moved by a human, living beings which move humans to tears, not only taking us back to a catastrophic time in human history but reminding us of our vulnerability and our own capacity for evil.  The puppets move, and work with our imaginations to make us feel compassion for all the horses that received horrific injuries and died.  So, quite clearly our imagination in this instance is not to make something magical into a truth – it is the reverse – portraying something truthful in a magical setting (the stage).

We need these arenas that the arts provide therefore – to do precisely this: present something which is truthful, in a truthful way (i.e. story) through the medium of imagination to show us that just because something isn’t immediately graspable, doesn’t mean it is not there.

Peter Brook in ‘There Are No Secrets’:

‘Truth can never be defined, nor grasped, but the theatre is a machine which enables all its participants to taste an aspect of truth within a moment; theatre is a machine for climbing and descending the scales of meaning…Theatre is an external ally of the spiritual way, and it exists to offer glimpses, inevitably of short duration, of an invisible world that interpenetrates the daily world and is normally ignored by our senses.’