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Strings Attached: A Non-Puppeteer’s Guide to Totleigh Barton’s Writing for Puppetry Course

Totleigh Barton’s Eliza Squire gives an account of an unusual Arvon week……

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“If you were a puppet, which type do you think you’d be?”  I’m asked. I’m not sure I even understand the question before I’m confidently informed I’d be a Banraku. What’s a Banraku? I wonder. This mixture of confusion and wonder is one that will characterise our very first Writing for Puppetry week for me (incidentally, a Banraku is a classic Japanese puppet, my likeness to which I am still struggling to identify)!

As an outsider to this wonderful world (my knowledge of puppets being something resembling the love child of Kermit the Frog and Lady Penelope) I wasn’t sure what to expect from the week. Even now, as I try to summarise the nuances of such a unique course, words seem to fall short. There was such energy about the week, such friendship and fun, and however clichéd it might sound, such magic pervading the house, that is not easy to communicate. Instead, I’ve compiled a list of ten abstract observations that I hope will go some way to conveying some of the ingredients that created one of the most unusual and creative courses of the year (please read the countdown numbers in the voiceover voice at the beginning of Thunderbirds):

10) As the cars pulled up on a blustery Monday afternoon (many delayed on the M5), I couldn’t help but try to guess what a puppet-maker or a puppeteer might look like. The vision that came to mind was a very bearded man… basically Jim Henson.

Turns out, like the puppets themselves, puppeteers come in all forms with all sorts of personalities to match. Only one thing binds them together and that’s that they are all genuinely nice people with a profound interest in puppets of all shapes and sizes. Glove, shadow, marionette, an apple corer, a piece of brown paper screwed up to resemble a bird, all of these things are puppets, and each truly deserved its place in the limelight.
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9) Part of the joy of the week was seeing the house full of jolly and (I have to admit) creepy puppets living alongside the participants in the house. Every day while everyone else was attending their workshops I was left making lunch, alone with my visions of them all coming to life.

8) A dedicated puppeteer with a broken foot overcame all adversity and hobbled, limped, hopped and imitated a movement across the floor like Gollum in order to offer the group tea and coffee after Nell and Mervyn’s reading on Tuesday evening.

7) A stage kiss between a man and a screwed up piece of paper resembling a person moved me to tears.

6) During Friday’s workshop, I watched, captivated as one participant brought a solid metal apple corer to life before my eyes, thoughtfully allowing it to waddle across the table and rear his head to look around the room.

5) Bizarre comments such as ‘I’ve just found a puppet hair in my beer’, ‘Glove puppets get to the point’ and ‘What’s the personality of this milk jug?’ were frequent and unquestioned.

4) Mervyn Millar, besides being a generous, fun and thoughtful tutor with a staggering amount of expertise working with puppets (including War Horse) also delighted the group with his skills at turning a banana into a penguin.
63) Nell Leysh1on, an experienced Arvon tutor, continued to prove how multi-talented she is by providing playwriting workshops every day, reading from her novel, talking about her work with radio and leading the group on a moonlit walk to Sheepwash pub (strictly imposing a no-torches-allowed policy).

2) The Friday night performance was one that I would happily have paid to have watched. It ranged from a quirky, heartbreaking piece about the breakdown of a relationship and a dead duck, to a beetroot on a stick portraying a taxi driver. At times I was moved to tears, at others I cried with laughter. It was a wonderful celebration of the week.

1) The week was creative. It was about friendship. It was about collaboration. It was about switching off torches and walking to the pub in the moonlight. But most of all, it was about writing. Whether for plays, short stories, puppets, children, novels, or a banana, it’s writing all the same, and with puppets, there are perhaps even more possibilities.

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Writing for Puppetry: Writing the Impossible
Oct 24th – Oct 29th 2016
Lumb Bank

Explore the possibilities of the stage. Traditional puppets are just the start of a process allowing your imagination to unfold in your theatre writing. This course will focus on writing for the theatre when you may want to include non-human characters, theatrical experiment or anything that doesn’t seem to fit the patterns of the traditional play. We will lead playful, practical sessions exploring the language of puppetry, and playwriting practice. An opportunity to try something different in your stage writing.

Single room price: £750
Shared room price: £700

Tutors: Mervyn Millar, Carl Grose
Guest tutors: Horse and Bamboo

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