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Sam Routledge, I Think I Can Sam Routledge, I Think I Can
photo Lucy Parakhina
Under the artistic direction of Sam Routledge, Terrapin Puppet Theatre has continued its focus on puppetry that embraces new technology. The Tasmanian-based company’s new production Big Baby, devised by Routledge and playwright Van Badham, is predominantly a non-verbal work, brought to life by puppeteer/performers Bryony Geeves, Maeve Mhairi MacGregor, Kane Peterson, animation and video (see the review).

I spoke with Routledge, who has had an extensive career in puppetry, including as a member of performance group My Darling Patricia and in related works such as I Think I Can, the miniature model train interactive installation featured at recent Australian arts festivals (RT120, p15 & 35).

Whose idea was Big Baby?

I worked with Van on Hard Rubbish (2013) at the Malthouse, which was a Men of Steel show and she was the dramaturg on it. I found she had a great sensibility for puppetry and working non-verbally. I went to her with the idea, saying, “Let’s do a show about a big baby,” and we developed everything together from there. Apart from the spoken text, of course, which was entirely Van. [The production features three poetic monologues]

I’ve always made work that tells stories non-verbally. I feel like puppetry does that really well. For this process Van and I talked over email and then we had a week workshop, just the two of us. Once you know what the story’s going to be and therefore what the puppet needs to do, then [you] have the puppet built. Then everything comes from what that puppet can do.

How was the puppet made?

We commissioned Katrina Gaskell, who’s a very experienced Melbourne puppet-maker. We had it made with a moving mouth, but the way the production developed it didn’t end up speaking. You plan for everything and then some things don’t eventuate, but at least you have the option. When we remount the production maybe the puppet will vocalise.

The show has physical performance elements, such as a clowning influence. Is that something you like to incorporate?

I want to work with performers who are comfortable working physically. The puppet will always move in a heightened way so the performers are also moving in a stylised or heightened way; then we’re going to see them as part of the same world. Part of the puppet being made to live comes from the performers imbuing it with life, looking at it in a way that it’s alive, and often clowns and physical performers have the ability to do that.

It seems to be a trend that the puppeteer is becoming more and more visible in contemporary puppetry?

Ideally, it’s great if the puppeteer has a role in the narrative, apart from just bringing the puppets to life. I see no purpose in entirely hiding the puppeteers because they’re definitely there. Actually not hiding the puppeteers can make the audience experience more authentic. They see that there’s no trickery at work—this puppet is being brought to life in front of their eyes and someone is doing it.

The element of trickery is perhaps to be found in the animation and filmic elements of the show. Do you often use video or is Big Baby a departure for you?

Terrapin’s really focused on puppetry and new technologies, so in Big Baby we use a live feed from an HDMI video microscope. And we also use Leap Motion, which is a digital puppetry device. It’s like a motion-sensing device in the way Kinect is for the Xbox, but just using your hands. So the baby that you see in the show on screen is being manipulated live by Bryony. The microscope made a lot of sense because [the story is] about things that are usually very small being big and seeing the beauty in things that are small, and tiny especially. Also, I’m continually interested in the miniature. In the theatre if you can [show the] miniature it opens our understanding of things that we might normally gloss over or forget.

How do you work out what kind of show is suitable to pitch to different audiences?

An audience of children is different from an audience of children and adults [as in the case of Big Baby, which is designed to be seen in theatres rather than schools]. [The poet] Ted Hughes—because he did some work for children and some work for adults—talks about when adults go to the theatre they seek an anaesthetic. They want something that’s entertaining that will not unsettle them…That barrier does not go up when they go to see children’s theatre. They say, “This work is not for me. This work is for children.” Therefore you can speak to adults through theatre for children.

I do always, when I’m making work for children, have the adults in mind, and I have no problem if an adult has to explain something to a child in the theatre. The child and the adult together in the theatre [make for] a really interesting dynamic. I hope it opens up a conversation about what [the story] means and why it happened.

There’s an interesting problem in puppet theatre of whether to have work for children that’s too complex or work for adults that’s too simple.

I’m interested in [Terrapin productions] being sophisticated, original work for children that is ambitious in what it does with form. Puppetry at its heart, I think, is a very humanist art form. It preferences what we are capable of over what machines are capable of, actually. When a child sees a puppet brought to life, hopefully it says that humans are capable of the impossible. The ability for someone to create wonder with just their hands, bringing something to life, is greater than or equal to the ability of someone to do that with technology. And for me it’s not through ignoring technology that I can make that statement, it’s putting technology and puppetry together in the same production.

My practice has always been in puppetry, so I’ve always been a puppeteer. After I graduated from university I worked with Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image and was an assistant stage manager so I could do some very small moments of puppetry. And I went to Korea and worked with a children’s theatre company there for six months, as a puppeteer. I’m very committed to actual puppetry being front and centre in the work that the company creates.

Terrapin Puppet Theatre, Hobart,

RealTime issue #122 Aug-Sept 2014 pg. 40

© Briony Kidd; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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