STAGE REVIEW: Moving Parts – Newcastle Puppetry Festival | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Moving Parts Puppetry Festival, comprising six days and night of training workshops, Q&A’s, films and entertainment, brings masters of an exciting art form to the heart of the city, with shows held every night until Saturday at Cobalt Studios in the Ouseburn and at Northern Stage.

Already halfway through, I have been along to all of the evening entertainment so far and there are still three more nights to go!

Monday evening’s show saw Flabbergast Theatre’s Boris and Sergey’s Vaudevillian Adventure, which brought to life Boris and Sergey – a pair of leather Bunraku puppets with a sharp repartee reminiscent of Timon and Pumba, if Timon and Pumba were outcasts from the Russian mafia – in their desperate, high-octane race away from the darkness which pursued them.

If you’re wondering what a Bunraku Puppet is, I was as well – it’s a form of puppetry originating in 17th century Japan that, at its simplest form, means using puppets which require three puppeteers each to manipulate; one for the head and right hand, one for the left hand, and one for the feet. This is one of the great things about being involved so heavily in this festival – I’ve learned a great deal about a new art form, which there’s ample opportunity to do, with Q&A’s and training.

I’ve been lucky enough to attend one of the two-day training masterclasses, by leaders of their craft Blind Summit. The workshop made clear the technically difficulty of Bunraku Puppetry, but also how much joy there is to be found when it works well. As there is a team of three people (or four, including the puppet itself), it is an art which becomes about constantly listening, to each other, to the puppet and to the audience, and not letting your own ego carry away or try to force ideas on others; if you’ve ever played that game where you tell a story in a group of people by saying one word at a time, it’s a bit like that – you can’t force through your own narrative. You just have to move with where the impulse of the story is going.

Something I’m quickly beginning to appreciate about the world of puppetry is the strong, familial relationship that seems to build quickly between puppeteers and their puppets. It is also apparent that puppetry is very much a live event which must be fresh and responsive in front of an audience every time.

This, for me, was at its most apparent during the Education Project Showcase on Tuesday evening at Cobalt Studios. Hoping not only to provide entertainment and art but also to ‘introduce the world of puppetry and object manipulation to a new audience, which includes motivating a new generation of puppeteers to be born’, Moving Parts have set up their Education Project as part of the festival. Over the course of the previous week, drama and design students at Newcastle College have been invited to engage in a week-long puppet making and devising process, building towards a showcase of multi-discipline puppetry work.

Particularly given the fact that the students has worked together for only a week, and put together the piece that we saw in only two hours, their showcase was stunning. A simple cast of puppets made from scrap material and wood enacted a series of scenes which were at first adorable and, by the end, immensely and genuinely touching.

In the following Q&A, it was clear that these students fully intended to continue using puppetry in their work and the growing love for the art form was clear.

It feels like this event, along with the training workshops (read more here) offered through the week, really do propel Moving Parts beyond a festival of events to being a hub of fertile ground to bring more people in to its art form. It feels like a community movement as well as a program of entertainment.

Part of the outreach project has also included work with CRISIS, the national charity for homeless people. Work has been done with members to create an exhibition of colourful and extravagant masks which fill Cobalt Studios this week (it’s worth going down just to see them), and also to create two short stop-start-animation films which were included in a bill of ten short films shown during the festival.

Following the Education Showcase on Tuesday, the evening’s entertainment continued with a double bill of Sex + Puppets by Wondering Hands, and Puppet Cabaret by Headstrung. Sex + Puppets was a superb example of how to use verbatim material effectively. Taking sex and sexual experiences as a subject, the words of interviewees were put into the mouths of manic gangs of sock puppets, sassy feather boas and Fuzz; an Elmo-esque puppet who began the show by having himself a good time with a magazine and an avocado. All of this interspersed with talking head scenes by STI’s (watching Crab the Crab scuttle over the heads of audience members sent a shiver up my back) and moments of genuine poignancy too. One such switch that stuck out was a scene change from Chlamydia describing how he could be treated to a nervous cuddly puppy talking about his first kiss and how it felt.

In the second half of the show, three deeply personal stories were told beautifully by the simplest of objects; squares of material transformed into a woman struggling with her own reflection in a mirror; two coloured discs orbiting each other to represent a story of childhood love, wooden block puppets telling a story of virginity lost in unusual but empowering circumstances. It was heart in mouth, and felt like puppetry and its most simple, pared back and effective.

For Puppet Cabaret the Vaudeville curtains were back. This show did exactly what it said on the tin; a high-quality cabaret, performed by puppets. Hilarious, high energy and fantastically compered by the time-travelling Thaddeus Bent (a comedy act somewhere between Rik Mayall and Garth Marenghi.) The show’s blurb promised escapology, knife throwing, fire breathing and male dancing. Would they deliver on all of that? Yes they did, superbly. Real fire and big hunky male-dancing puppets. Sensational.

Tuesday was, overall, a well-matched evening of shows that seemed to display a good range of what puppetry can do – from small moments of tender poignancy to big, cannon-firing-out-of-this-world circus tricks that are able to utilise the involvement of puppets in place of humans to break boundaries, subvert and dazzle. A fantastic evening. Easily my favourite of the festival so far.

But there is more to come!

Tonight sees the first of the shows at Northern Stage, and I’m looking forward to seeing how a bigger theatre space will change the puppetry I’ve been seeing and enjoying this week.

And while tonight’s show might now be sold out, there are two more on Friday and Saturday;

Friday sees the arrival of Theatre Témoin, a company founded in Toulouse in 2007 by graduates of the London International School of Performing Arts. Trying to make work that is fun and socially engaging, they bring The Marked; the story of Jack, living homeless on the streets of London, who must deal with the re-emergence of ghosts, myths and monsters from his childhood.

And on Saturday, there will be The Seas of Organillo by Stephen Mottram’s Animata. Now, I’ve heard Stephen Mottram’s name a few times this week so far, and it is has only ever been used with a degree of reverence which leaves me certain that this will not be a show to be missed. Again picking up on themes of sex, he creates a mysterious, hypnotic show about Freudian desires and stories. Stephen Mottram works almost entirely without text in his work, which I’m very excited about. As I’ve mentioned, some of the most touching and effective puppet-theatre I have seen this week has been work that has used only movement, which in puppetry seems to be such a rich, information-heavy language in itself. I’m hugely looking forward to seeing this show. Tickets are still available.

A note – if you’re booking tickets for the Northern Stage shows, the best way is to get tickets via Northern Stage’s website here.

If you’re looking for something to take the kids to, Saturday daytime offers more to get involved in as well; between 11 am and 4 pm there is The Little Fawn Caravan, aimed specifically at children, and a Children’s Puppet Making workshop by Scottish Mask & Puppet Centre, both at Ouseburn Farm.

Up at Space Six, there’s also Giving Puppets a Voice – a Puppetry Research Conference from 1-3, with Amelia Johnstone from the Cardiff School of Art and Design giving the keynote speech.

To cap off all this mad wonderfulness and wonderful madness will be a closing party at Cobalt Studios with one of my absolute favourite North-East bands, Holy Moly and the Crackers! If you’ve not checked out their stuff before, I’d recommend it. Punk/rock/folk that’s great to have a dance to. Come down and be merry, and see the festival away with a drink and boogie!

This festival has been a joy to be involved in. I’ve learned a lot from it and look forward to seeing it take Newcastle by storm again next year. In the meantime, get yourself along to a show or a talk. I can’t recommend dipping your toes into the stunning world of puppetry enough.

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