DNA logo
DNA Header
DNA logo
From ‘Noises Off’ the National Student Drama Festival magazine 01/01/06

No Strings Attached

Jilly Snelll talks to Rachel Riggs, artistic director of Dynamic New Animation

We’re in a northern seaside town, but Punch and Judy are not.
Yesterday we were treated to a workshop with Rachel Riggs, artistic director of Dynamic New Animation, in association with the Puppet Centre, both working toward a more nationally accepted professional training of puppeteers. Dynamic New Animation worth with both children and adults, using fairy tales and devise work through animation of objects.

student with mask and cloth

Rachel sits with her Fairtrade NOFFice tea; I’m onto my third Red Bull and it’s only just gone 1am. Copy deadline is in 12 minutes. Having just seen Kevin Tomlinson’s show we start talking about theatre and storytelling through other mediums. She’s here in her role as Artistic Director of Dynamic New Animation, running puppetry workshops to develop into a cabaret for the end of the week.

“It’s about demystify the process of puppetry and removing any preconceptions.. We don’t do “Sooty & Sweep’.” Rachel has brought with her some simple but effective techniques for animation objects, but curiously no puppets. Everything and anything within her grasp is a puppet, something I am about to learn. She lies to open up the stage and explore what can be achieved with overlooked objects. It appears that nothing is safe.

student with toy and cloth

All objects have a secret life, especially the everyday functional ones. How do you find this secret life and then what exactly do you do with it? She finished her tea, the cup, she explains, is incredibly versatile but rather obvious. When overturned and held between thumb and forefinger it has a simple face complete with handle nose. The puppet we have now created can do many things to enhance our conversations. It has an innocence that can speak of what we do not, if can make comments and pass judgements. You find this exciting the idea of animation characters as a medium to debating or adding other dimension to what you are actually saying. It is so simple and doesn’t require the usual obligatory scene of character establishment, not overburdening the action with unnecessary characters used to make a point. She’s used this many times before, recently half-way into a tense mother-daughter kitchen scene where a cup ad teapot were much more able to work through problems than the characters themselves. It gives such freedom to explore the action.

The innocence of puppets is such a useful concept. A monologue delivered through animation ca be much more effective than that by an actor, and can quickly do a lot more to invite the audience than 20 minutes of character back story. Puppets aren’t threatening. The sense of child-like ‘play’ that they bring to a piece can create a more truthful atmosphere, a truth to a story.

“But how do you show emotion?” I ask. The pretty obvious answer would be with the aesthetics of the creature, but I’m swiftly told to ignore the more traditional ideals of human/animal shapes with animated faces. The teacup is crying at me. It’s actually very moving. You can often show much of this through symbolist and metaphor, through this is once again almost too obvious. In her workshop Rachel taught the process of developing a puppet character. “Look at how you serve the object and explore it’s limitations of movement”. My cup has no legs, but with a cleverly placed jumper it now has a body and becomes curious of its surroundings.

I’ll come back to this point of innocence because I feel it’s key to animation and creation of characters. Rachel helped 25 students “give birth” to their puppets yesterday, teaching them to walk, talk and interact, much as you would a child. This is the same process of development that happened with every play here at the festival as actors took up their new skins, but on a more basic level. To give a puppet depth, you have to teach them first, much in the same way that the experiences and history of characters are enveloped by actors to their present intentions and actions.

student with object and cloth

Adding puppets to theatre gives more angles. We seem to appreciate this already: This makes Rachel happy. “I feel it’s very important that the options are there as part of the technique. There should be a buffet of supplies with which to tell our story. It’s an interesting development when the energy of a character or indeed the actor behind the puppet is transferred to the puppet. We see a lot more of the truth of the situation.” She goes on to echo words of the discussion yesterday, that the process is much more important than the end product. A puppet needn’t be aesthetically amazing with flashing lights, a carved face and expensive clothes to tell a story.

The development of the depths of animated character is the key, and this takes time. She points out that many make the mistake of adding puppets as props to action or as an afterthought at an end-stage, but they need to be part of the rehearsals from the beginning. A pretty sophisticated and complex puppet can be achieved in a very short time, but it’s important to put in the time to achieve this. In two hours this morning her students developed fro themselves way of dealing with the “three F’s – Feeding, Fighting and Fucking” – the basic primal instinct to guide the actions of any character. Next they’ll be piecing together more character work with the cabaret girls. I’m looking forward to Friday. Rachel, the cup and I say goodbye as she departs to sleep and the cup is washed up.

If you’re interested in using puppets or have never used them before Rachel will be holding another workshop this week and the performance will take place on Friday afternoon. So much can be done with inanimate objects I’d never considered before. As a parting shot, have a go at answering her last question to me of the elements of plays you’ve seen that you felt didn’t work, where would you have put the puppets?

All text and images © Dynamic New Animation 2002