We spoke to multi-disciplinary theatre-maker, puppeteer and producer Jess Mabel Jones about creating and developing puppetry as a key storytelling language for Potential Difference Theatre’s new play Fragments
Can you sum up the show in five words
Okay, so summing up the show in five words. Oh my gosh, that’s so hard because I think there’s so much in it. The world of the show and its characters are curated in really specific ways. It’s so specific and eclectic. Like when, ever, do you spend that much time thinking about papyrus and these specialist papyrus restorers?! It’s huge!
So there’s five words, you’ve got huge, wild, specific, eclectic and ancient!
What was it about the show that made shadow play such a good medium for it?
Because, well, we’re looking at fragments. And we’re looking at Patternicity and pareidolia. So patternicity being the kind of general phenomenon of human beings finding connections between things, whether they are there or not. And this is generally the thing that leads us to tell stories or leads us to gossip, or to create meaning in things. It’s an enormous part of our being.
It’s also something really fun that you can play with when you’re creating works of art, in that you can make suggestions to your audiences by throwing images together and letting them do the work of creating a pattern and making a story to it. I mean, that’s fundamentally what puppetry is, you’re giving meaning to the inanimate. And we rely on the human psychology to do that work for us.
So it’s kind of taking puppetry right back to fundamentals, if you give just a few cues to audiences to respond to: what are the stories that they ended up telling themselves. Pareidolia is the phenomenon of seeing faces and things. So all you need is three dots to perceive a face. And again, it’s something that puppeteers often rely on for a point of focus for their puppet. And, you know, why we, why we create human features in something inanimate, as soon as we begin to animate it. I think it goes back to us kind of being defensive, there’s the kind of fight or flight thing, like, you have to sort of be perceiving everything all the time, just in case that like, collection of dots over there is actually two eyes and a nose and you need to run. We started with those as our kind of stimulus for the images that we then went on to create. So what are the fragments of images, fragments of papyrus, textures of shadows, that we can throw together to begin to? To suggest a story to audiences?
What has been a highlight of yours in the rehearsal room?
Those early play sessions, we’ve been doing them for years now. But the early play sessions are always the most exciting for me. And being given free rein by a director to just be like, Okay, here are the materials. Let’s see what happens.
What drew you to a career in the arts? And have you always been creative?
I think I always knew that I wanted to be involved in the arts somehow pretty much since year six at primary school, where I started off in musicals and then did that for a little bit and then went into acting and then went into the making and puppetry and then the kind of very niche area of inclusive theatre making.
The last couple of years I’ve been more consciously on a journey about figuring out my neuro divergence. And I think it’s inevitable that I’ve ended up working in the area that I work in. Because I noticed everything. I’m a little Magpie walking around the streets going, “Oh! that’s a glittery thing…. Oh, I wonder if I could do this, or if I shot that at night, at that other thing, I bet something really lovely could happen.” And then I’ll make a story where you do those things, like, that’s how my mind works all the time.
I couldn’t imagine going to the same place every single day and sitting in the same chair and having the same conversations in the same building. I know that works for some brains, but it wouldn’t have done for mine. I always want to learn and find out more and ask questions and make connection, figure stuff out and invent things. So a career in the arts was, I think, probably the only place that my body and mind could be contained.
What’s coming up next for you after fragments?
Lots of different things. But probably one that is a bit different and quite exciting. Maybe this is an exclusive! I have a company with my best pal Anna Maria Nabirye, and we have a project called Motherhoody. And we sort of facilitate crunchy, exciting conversations in an inclusive, anti-racist, accessible space. We’re doing a project in Sheffield, that for the time being is called Unlikely Hikers. And yeah, we’re kind of figuring out what it is at the moment. But, watch this space, because there’s a project called Unlikely Hikers coming up soon!
Fragments by Laura Swift and Russell Bender, opens on Tues 18th of April at the Playground Theatre, London, with previews from Fri 14th. For more information and tickets: https://theplaygroundtheatre.london/events/fragments-by-potential-difference-theatre/