Wed 20 Dec 2023

Marc Parrett creates living drawings…

Marc Parrett is the Puppet Director and Puppet Designer of A Little Princess, he shares a bit of his passion for puppets and how he developed Malcolm the cat, with us.

When did you first ever think that puppets were going to be a big part of your life?

Ah that’s a very good question and I don’t really know the answer! It’s weird because when I grew up there were puppets everywhere. They were in TV shows like The Muppets, Sooty and Thunderbirds and I was even aware of all the animatronics they used for Jim Henson’s feature film The Dark Crystal. But I never really saw puppetry as a life goal. I eventually ended up at circus school, and for one of the modules I’d devised this juggling routine where I played a weird side-show entertainer who had a pet slug creature. It was set in some kind of nightmare future world and the slug thing had stumpy legs and I puppeteer’d this creature on stage so it wiggled, and everyone went ooooh and then I chopped him up into little pieces and juggled his body parts!

That was my first bit of puppetry and people were way more impressed with the puppetry than they were with the juggling.

I thought ‘ok I get this; puppetry is a thing! You make something look alive and that affects people’. After that I did a few weekend courses, including John Roberts’ legendary marionette carving course. He’s based down in Devon, an amazing guy! I did one weekend of wood carving, and another weekend of operating string puppets with him and those 4 days taught me masses about puppetry. Marionette operation is all about weight, line and sense of breath.

That was my introduction, but my ongoing journey with puppetry has been very much about finding my own way. I was lucky enough to work with a company called Green Ginger on a show called Rust, it was a big touring show and I partly designed it and built puppets for it. It was literally like touring a feature film. The whole stage was filled with rusty panels. The panels opened and there were little scenes that happened behind. One was like a long shot of a boat in an oily sea and others were close ups of spitting image type characters. I loved the cinematic quality of the show. I suspect my approach to puppetry comes more from filmic side rather than the theatre side but it seems to benefit everyone.

Have you seen anyone do anything that’s made you go wow I didn’t know puppets could do that?

Yeah actually, loads, I’m constantly being amazed by stuff. Luís Boy who was the Artistic Director of Norwich Puppet Theatre, his work blew me away when I first encountered it. He’s a Catalan puppeteer and his puppets are brutal, but brilliant. There were these big heavy blocks of wood that were made into really roughly hewn characters and he just banged them across the stage. They were still beautiful though. I love the immediacy of the ‘theatre of the poor’, you know where you find any object and make it come alive.

You can even give it legs and arms and suddenly you’ve created an entirely new being.

It’s a lot of what I’m doing now, I’ve got my own company called the Object Project and we’re constantly finding inanimate objects and giving them souls and lives of their own. I don’t think there’s ever a moment when we feel we know exactly what Object Theatre is. It’s illusive. An object may tell a story one day about it’s seemingly mundane life, but that same story could simultaneously be about everyone’s life, or a political story or just exploring what it feels like to breathe.

Do you go to markets and antique shops to find bits?

Car boots are my favourite. Charity shops are good too and some tips will let you collect stuff. My workshop’s a nightmare, I’ve got boxes full of metal bits, particularly metal bits, I like metal bits!

Your best or most recent find that will end up being a puppet?

My most recent find was one of those big oblong things they steam fish in, which I found in France when I was over there. I think I’m going to turn it into a version of the War of the Worlds with a big lid opening and something kind of crawling out it! It was a ludicrous item to bring back on the train! But it was giving me ideas. The objects quite often suggest the ideas and the ideas grow into a show. Sometimes the objects are old puppets from previous shows; ‘you guys aren’t doing anything at the moment, so what can you add to this new story?

Is there anything in A Little Princess that has had a previous life?

Yes, the Magpie’s feathers are made from a second-hand book. I originally thought that the feathers could be made of printed newspaper but then I thought, why not a book of A Little Princess? I got one from the 1940s, it was the earliest I could get. I was going to try get authentic Indian papers from the time but that was too difficult. Real stuff like that helps me connect the puppet to the story… but it also just looks lovely!

Do you have a favourite puppet that you’ve kept?

After lockdown I made a show called Pixiematosis. It’s set in a midnight garden and it’s all about these little elf-like creatures that are basically at war each other. Puppets actually die in this show. It can be quite upsetting to perform! There’s these two characters in the show called Blinky and Karen, who were in a previous show of mine called The Elves and the Shoemaker. They were so lovely together in that old show that they’ve sidestepped into the new one.

I live vicariously through my puppets.

When they’re not acting, Karen and Blinky sit on a shelf in my workshop. I rarely put puppets up in my workshop because they are too distracting, but these guys just have earned the right to sit there and be. I think I love them.

How long does it take to make a puppet and how do you start?

IT TAKES FOREVER (laughs!) It starts with a conversation and then there’s sketches and a bit of experimentation. We had an R&D for A Little Princess down in London, and I’d built a test Malcolm (the cat) out of rough bits of foam and cardboard to try out. It worked rather well. After that I started doing drawings to design the internal structure and leg mechanisms; you can see these in the exhibition in the theatre.

I try to keep them as light as possible, it’s much easier to operate something that you don’t have to struggle with. I kind of use polyethylene foam which is the stuff they use for swimming pool floats. I’m not mad keen on plastics but this stuff is incredible. It’s very easy to carve, it’s lightweight and incredibly strong and it works really well with fabric. The other thing I use a lot of is piano wire, you get it from model shops (you don’t have to kill a piano!) and it comes in various gauges but it’s spring wire essentially. So you can have thin rods and limbs that are very strong but don’t bend. I’m not keen on chunky rods. Big chunky rods look like the puppet is a bit too tied to the puppeteer?

 I like it when puppets look like they are a living drawing!

For a production like A Little Princess, I have to prepare the puppets enough but not have the final thing to allow for developments in design and stage action. There are some lovely photos of Malcolm (the cat) that were taken during rehearsals, a very skinny looking animal, but I like to get to that point as soon as possible so the actors can get used to performing with it. Then the real skill is when you start to ‘dress it’ , that you don’t mess up the mechanisms and try to preserve all that movement. Fabric really can restrict a puppet. Malcolm’s looking really good now, he looks great on stage, he’s a mixture of broken down fabric but also very bold shapes and colours. The use of lace is really nice, it looks as though has a bit of a wobbly belly and matted tufts.

I just remembered, Faulty Optic! That’s another company I’d recommend looking up, if any readers are interested in puppetry. Their work is dark and angular… but that’s exactly where I’m at, at the moment.

Do you ever dream about puppets being alive?

Weirdly no. I never dream of puppets. I sleep incredibly well… maybe I just get to live in my dreams?