Me and My Puppet - an Interview with our Lead Puppeteer - Monkey Trousers Theatre

Me and My Puppet – an Interview with our Lead Puppeteer

Ever wondered what it's like to be a puppeteer? Then read this EXCLUSIVE interview with our very own puppet mistress, Charlotte Whitten!

Hello Charlotte! First of all…

Can you tell us how you got into puppetry?

Yes, yes I can! I have always been a huge fan of The Muppet Show. It came out the year I was born, and become a permanent fixture throughout my childhood – plus two feature films by Jim Henson (creator of The Muppets), The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, are two of my favourite films ever. I’ve been a big fan of puppets since then really.

And when did you make your first puppet?

So, several years ago, my friend was getting married. She had a big village fete-style party in her garden for the wedding reception, and everyone was pitching in for the entertainment. Another friend and I were given the job of the puppet show – she very quickly said, ‘I’ll write the script!’ and ran off with a pencil, and I was left thinking, ‘I guess I’ll make some puppets…’

Eek! What did you do?

We’d decided we were going to do a little story about the bride and groom, so I made some Muppet-style puppets of them – and those were the first puppets I made! And it kind of went OK – I think the puppets I made overreached expectations, and I surprised myself – I realised that this was something I could do.

Some of the early puppets I made.

What puppets came next?

Then I was the lead puppeteer on the family show James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, for Kelvin Players Theatre Company in North Bristol. I created the glow worm puppet, as well as playing the character on stage, and also created three comedy sailor puppets for a short, funny scene. Soon after that, I decided to start some actual training – I thought, ‘Let’s do this properly’!

The three sailor puppets from James and the Giant Peach
The three sailors from James and the Giant Peach

Exciting! Where did you train?

Initially at the Bath Puppet Workshop, with Marc Parrett. We did glove style puppetry (very much like Mr Gotalot). Then I continued my training with Puppet Place, and Chris Pirie at Green Ginger, and most excitingly, I spent a whole weekend at a workshop with Wendy Froud, who did a lot of design work on The Dark Crystal! I loved it! It was something I was obviously supposed to be doing.

Training at the Bath Puppet Workshop
Training at the Bath Puppet Workshop

What do you like most about puppetry?

That’s a very good question. I think it’s the crossover of so many different art forms – performance, voice work, the artistic creation of the puppet itself – and there is definitely something about the slight separation from you the performer, which allows such great freedom for performing.

What do you mean by that?

I mean, you get to perform roles that you’d never, ever get to do, or never be cast as, simply because your personal physical look is not relevant, which is amazing. Plus you get to do some exceptional voice work, and really play around with character vocalisation.

Why do you think people like watching puppetry?

There is something about watching a puppet – it isn’t real, it isn’t alive,  but there’s a connection with the audience – a magical connection that you don’t quite get with real actors. I don’t know what it is, but it is a tiny magical thing, this connection that puppets have, that you can’t get as an actor – and children certainly understand that, you can see their acceptance of it almost immediately. And you can see the joy in an adult audience too, it’s like they’re watching with a set of eyes from twenty years ago, and that’s really lovely.

Audience members watching the puppets at Mr Gotalot's Pop Up Shop
Audience members watching Mr Gotalot’s Pop Up Shop

Do you have any favourite puppets from TV, films or theatre?

I’m going to go with the goblins from one of my favourite films, Labyrinth – an entire species of characters, and yet all recognisably individual – they’re amazing puppets to watch, and must have been fascinating to build. The inventiveness and imagination of every character in Labyrinth, actually; it’s a very, very rich film to watch.

The Goblin puppets from Jim Henson's The Labyrinth, original designs by Brian Froud.
The Goblins from Jim Henson’s The Labyrinth, original designs by Brian Froud

How do you find the character in a puppet?

Ooh, that is a good question. What comes first, the character or the puppet? When you’re making a puppet – even if you already have a vague idea of who they are – you spend a lot of time trying out eyes; different eye shapes, their position on the head, are they large, are they small, are they angled, do they have eyebrows – you do try out a lot of facial expressions, and character comes from playing with those different facial expressions.  When you’re creating that face, that’s when the character becomes really bedded in. Then after that, when you start playing with the puppet, the voice and the movement come along. The spark of imagination creates the physical puppet, and the physical puppet creates the voice and the movement, and that’s where the character comes from, I think.

Performing the mini puppet Ms Barnet from The Crystal Cheese puppet show.
Performing mini Ms Barnet from The Crystal Cheese

What is the best thing about Mr Gotalot?

He’s so flexible, as a character! His personality is kind of real, in a way. He’s slightly chaotic, in that he can mess things up, but he’s generally a good character – you can do an awful lot with that – he’ll mess up, he’ll solve things, he can be a comedy element, or a kind element. He covers a lot of bases! Also, for our shows, he’s a constant character, but not necessarily the central character. His flexibility allows other characters to shine.

Mr Gotalot the puppet from Monkey Trousers Theatre opens his Pop Up Shop
Mr Gotalot opens his Pop Up Shop

What are the challenges of being a puppeteer?

My instant first answer to that would be: pain! Aches and pains. I remember when I was first trained in performance puppetry, I found myself in all kinds of strange positions – like, your arms have to hold really awkward shapes for long amounts of time – and I was told to just get used to it! Puppetry is pain! There are things you can do, of course – you have to be fit, flexible and strong. It’s a physically demanding performance art.

Working as a puppeteer with the puppet Mr Gotalot.
Behind the scenes filming for Gotalot TV

Blimey! Anything else?

Another big challenge has always been eye line, for me. Actors can, to an extent, direct themselves on stage – they know where to look, how to move. But when you’re a puppet, everything is slightly backwards in your brain – everything is reversed. It is more difficult to keep your eye line correct, to the audience or the other performers, because your brain isn’t behind your eyes – and your eyes are on the end of your hand, as opposed to in front of your brain! But with practice, it’s something you get used to.

Do you have any tips on how to be a brilliant puppeteer like yourself?

Thank you very much! Yes, I do have a few tips. Firstly, practise, practise, practise. Get yourself in front of the mirror – practise your eye line, practise your lip synching. A lot of puppetry can be intuitive, but you’ll get further if you practise! If you don’t have a puppet, you can always use a piece of rolled up newspaper – roll it up like a sausage, curl up the edges, wrap that under your middle finger, then over the top, almost like you’ve got two eyes on your hand, with your thumb underneath your fingers, and pretend that’s a puppet. And as for puppetry basics, keep your eye on Gotalot TV, we might have some instructive videos coming up, very soon!

Wow, thanks Charlotte! I think we’ll all be trying out our puppeteering skills now!

 

Don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel, Gotalot TV, for all your favourite Mr Gotalot videos, and much, much more!

 

If you would like to donate to Monkey Trousers Theatre, to help keep our online children’s theatre channel running and help us prepare for when we are able to perform again, you can do so on our Donate page.

Support children's theatre and puppet shows in Bristol by donating.

Spread the Word
Post By

Fran Lewis

3 thoughts on “Me and My Puppet – an Interview with our Lead Puppeteer”

  1. So proud. So so proud. One of the (other) best things to have come out of my wedding! You’re completely right Charlotte – you absolutely were meant for this. Fab interview. X

    1. Ps. Those first puppets are still very safe and very loved here, by the way! I’ll send you pics next time they come out xx

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *