I was chatting online with an old friend from Oxford, Jackie Keirs. Many years ago, she had directed me in several productions, including some by Brecht, and she reminded me that in one of them she had used puppets for certain characters, mainly because she did not have enough actors. That’s a co-incidence, I thought – I don’t have enough actors either, and that got me thinking.
There is a brief scene early on in The Chalk Circle when two doctors argue over the health of the baby Michael, and it occurred to me that having just one actor with a glove puppet on each hand, bickering with each other, might be an effective idea. First, it would save me an actor. Second, it has a Brechtian feel, appropriate for a play by Brecht; he advocated a non-naturalistic style, in which the audience is reminded of the fact that they are watching theatre, not real life, and puppets do that brilliantly. Third, it makes a satirical point, literally portraying the “on the one hand this, on the other hand that” that is a bit of a medical cliché. And finally – and this beats the rest put together – it is funny.
So much for the rationale; the practicalities took a little more time. As it happens, my papier-mache skills are up to the task of creating a couple of glove puppet heads. One was based on a balloon mounted on the neck of a plastic Perrier bottle; the other was formed from the square lid of an egg carton, with cereal-box card wrapped round to create the front (and with an egg-box section for a nose.) I also had a place to work, for there is an upcycling workshop at the back of the courtyard in Mosaik, with work tables outside. As I had the materials I needed – brown paper from bread bags, card, an egg-box and wallpaper paste – I was able to start on my own (with the assistance of a small girl called Fatima who tore paper for me.)
But then Yola arrived. She is a Greek artist who presides over the upcycle empire there. She was complimentary about the progress I had made, and gave me extra bits and pieces from her store. That was an amazing Aladdin’s cave: stacks and stacks of every imaginable resource, all of it scavenged from somewhere, all carefully stored. There were also examples of her magnificent creations – sculptures, picture frames, jewellery, etc, etc – all made from discarded stuff (which is what upcycling means.) She helped me with the finishing touches that I wasn’t sure about – the hair, eyes, clothes – and eventually we were done.
All of this was about three days’ work, but at the end we had not only made two puppets, but friends as well.