Puppetry & Physio

Puppetry is something we are seeing more and more of in the performance world, it’s often interlinked so beautifully with the acting, linked so well like chocolate chips in cookie dough, yum. Having worked with shows such as War Horse, Life of Pi, The Lion Witch and the Wardrobe, Avenue Q and films such as Aladdin and The Little Mermaid where puppetry is used to create an extra dimension or character choice, it's given us a huge appreciation of these performers, their art and the physical challenges they are dealing with on a day to day basis. Where do we come in, and how do we work together? I'll try to answer these questions here.

Figure 1 A closer look at the mechanics and puppeteers in action on War Horse. look at the positions they are required to get into whilst maintaining the weight of the puppet and delivering true to life movement of a horse. Stunning.

I was told when working with a puppetry director on a show that ‘if it feels wrong, it’s right’, there you have it.... Challenge number one. Then add 8 shows per week, challenge number two. When puppeteering, it’s vital that you keep the puppet alive. To do this may mean contorting your body into shapes and angles that it’s not used to, let alone has the capacity to do under load, repetitively. Remember our post on ‘envelope of function’ (linked here), well puppetry really challenges that model in a way that not many performance-types do.

So, what can we do about it, how can we optimise puppeteers’ roles and performance? Firstly, it’s important to learn about the puppets – how heavy are they, where is the load distribution, what’s the puppeteer’s axis of rotation (an example of this can be ‘head, heart and hind’ – seen in figure 1.  As you can see, the demands for all three rotations are quite different and offer different challenges. It’s because of this that all training programmes need to be specific, and that even within the puppeteer roles the job is so individual.

Secondly, it's important to understand each puppeteer. How their role is challenged, and what their history can tell us. That includes previous injury, what their current training schedule is like, and whether they are experienced in puppetry. As the greater the experience, the quicker the mastery of the new puppet and therefore greater efficiency is achieved. Greater efficiency will reduce physical demands and result to a slower build up of fatigue, which is essential for the volume of work they will undertake.

Scarlet Wilderink (@scarletwilderink) Actor and Puppeteer – currently performing in Life of Pi in the West End told us:

Puppetry and other forms of physical theatre requires a lot of attention to detail when it comes to knowledge of your own body. Conditioning and injury prevention are the two things I prioritise when I’m working. Difficulties I face are often imbalances from building strength unevenly and in awkward postures. I need lots of different types of strength and sometimes must train in ways that I wouldn’t normally.  Something I like to encourage in performers is efficiency of movement and proprioception. We often don’t realise how little control we have over our extremities, but by increasing awareness, peripheral vision, and core strength, puppeteers can be much more controlled and contained in their movement. Relaxation is also key. Puppetry often looks effortless because puppeteers practice moving through intense fatigue without showing it in their own body.
Physiotherapy is paramount in supporting all of this, especially for long contracts, but Production Physiotherapy offers so much more than that. Having a company that looks after your performance means all the conditioning and strength work is complimenting the production in creative ways as well. Performance management can help develop awareness across the company which for me, is part of the movement direction of the whole piece.

I promise we didn't force Scarlet for say those kind words. We will look further into working with puppeteers, and the challenges they face next time. For now I hope you enjoyed this little introduction and thank you to Scarlet for her contribution.