By Molly Freeman, Co-Artistic Director of Smoking Apples
We’re often asked why we use puppets in our work, instead of people, and it’s no different with Flux. In fact, I think we’ve been asked about this more with Flux, as we’ve gone the whole hog with the central character, Kate, being a 5ft 8 full body puppet. She’s as big as a person, she moves like a person, she even has permed hair that bounces around as if it’s real but she is, of course, a puppet, so why on earth would we do that? Well, that’s the very question we ask ourselves at the start of making every new show, to puppet or not to puppet.
In reality, working with puppets in shows is more time consuming, more labour-intensive and often more expensive (in the short term) than having an actor play that character but for us, puppetry presents a unique opportunity that human actors do not. They have this incredible ability to amplify and magnify action and emotions, allowing audiences to access the performance in an entirely new way. With a human actor, there is an instant connection with the audience, they see a direct reflection onstage. With a puppet, there is a sense of the uncanny, a slight distancing where the audience says, I know this is a puppet and I can see people moving it around but the movement is familiar and recognisable. This slight distance enables the audience to look at the action in a more objective way, to process and analyse the actions of the puppet characters and those around them (in our work, sometimes puppets and sometimes actors).
Don’t get me wrong, our puppetry is not always an easy ride for the audience. They are actively required to engage with what they’re seeing, working out what each movement, action and gesture means and how that all fits together within the tapestry of the whole production. This is a challenge for us too, to find the balance between enough distance to create the magnifying effect but also not go so far away that the audience are disconnected from the emotional journeys they are presented with.
In Flux, both the magnification of action and the emotional connection with Kate are equally important. Kate being a puppet enables us to explore both of these things and the role of the puppeteer helps to amplify this further. Kate is a bunraku-style puppet and is operated by three people at any given time, one on the head and left arm, one on the right arm and one on the legs and feet. We play with this relationship, however, throughout the show and there are moments where Kate is puppeteered by just one person and others with all three of us. This change allows us to use the role of the puppeteer to highlight Kate’s emotional state and at times during the piece, when she is feeling very powerful, she might have all of her puppeteers with her. An army, if you like. Then at other times, when she is crushed by a blow to her professional progression, again, the three of us are there, to pick her up, both literally and metaphorically, to support her, to give her strength. One audience member described us, the puppeteers in Flux, as being her “guardian angels”, an invisible but ever present force that ensures Kate gets from one moment to the next.
Another key reason for us, in making Kate a puppet in Flux was to look at the objectification of women. Flux is a story about Kate, a female physicist, who is fighting to make her voice heard in her profession. So, it made sense to us, to look at how a puppet can be both a fully rounded character, with an emotional journey but also how she is a puppet, an object. In the show, this manifests in the way that her male colleague treats and handles her, quite literally. Her male colleague is played by an actor so again, with Kate as a puppet, we’re really able to explore the notion of her feeling helpless and powerless, like an object, when she’s in his company.
We’re also able to venture into the unreal, with a puppet, in a way that would be otherwise challenging for a live performer. Within Flux, we see Kate physically fly through the air; jumping, falling and drowning against a backdrop of her own internal desires and dreams, a concept that would be hard to realise, in the same, with an actor. We’re able to shift and slide between worlds, between the real and unreal, between conscious and subconscious, covering the real-time emotional journey and the metaphorical all in the same breath.
Puppetry is a rich and diverse art form that requires time, love and attention to detail from both the performers on-stage and the audience watching it. There is a considered investment in puppetry from both parties and its role is to not simply replace the actor but to explore things in a different way, with a different medium. We do hope, however, if we’re doing our job properly, that the investment is worth it and exploring stories and characters in this way is exciting, exhilarating and most importantly, entertaining.
Flux tours until 22nd June, for dates see: http://smokingapplestheatre.com/