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Snuff Puppets rule!

Keith Gallasch

The Butcher, Jubilee 2000 protest The Butcher, Jubilee 2000 protest
On a chill Melbourne May morning over coffeee and tea in the Hairy Canary bar, the Snuff Puppets’ Pauline Cady and Andy Freer speak with a shared conviction that takes the edge off the chill and from time to time fires the arts conscience. After a decade of work (and well before that with Canberra’s legendary Splinters) their vision has lost none of its heat, however quietly, if insistently, it is spoken. A mix of artistic sophistication and political bluntness resonates in the work. A Snuff Puppets’ event is a curious combination of the raw and the cooked; there’s a rough-hewn immediacy (so vital to outdoor performance) and careful crafting—even the wildest of their giant, lumbering puppets has to be made for manipulability and a long performing life.

Pauline joined Splinters in 1985, Andy in 1988. After working on the company’s Cathedral of Flesh at the 1992 Adelaide Festival and driving back to Canberra, Pauline and Andy, with another Splinters cohort, artist Simon Terrill, decided to go direct to Melbourne instead. They’d been “doing puppets” since 1988 within the Splinters framework, but now they felt an urge to make it an entirety, to step right away from working with language. Pauline declares, “one look from a puppet can convey the whole of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’.” The Splinters years had been invaluable—the visual arts underpinning of the shows, the constant re-working of audience-performer relations and being part of something that was “so fringe, so underground.” However, inspired by the American Bread & Puppet Theatre and the British Welfare State company, the incipient Snuff Puppets wanted to reach larger audiences. The question was where, the answer was—on the streets, appearing without warning (“hit & runs”), sometimes as part of protests, sometimes as “fixed site shows with, say, the city as backdrop.”

The street shows could “disrupt traffic, scare children and drive parents away”, but they could also generate a classic pantomime relationship between puppets and audience. Pauline recalls in Adelaide people protecting the Cow from the Butcher (The Dancing Cow Show). There is a roughness to the puppets that their creators feel is “an antidote to Disney”, to a sanitised view of the world and the neat animations that purvey it. They love the open streets, but fixed site shows “offer more control over every element of the work.” The goal is to get the audiences they attract on the streets into a performance site that is still outdoors—“our ideal is the outdoors, it’s so beautiful to be out.”

Snuff Puppets have other audiences, ones that become collaborators. These are communities of many different kinds. It’s an area of work Andy and Pauline see “as having huge potential. We have so many offers we could do People’s Puppet Projects back to back.” These have taken them to Arnhemland (with a timetable spread over 2 years including a component this August), Singapore, China and Japan. On these ventures they “push the handmade aesthetic versus the slick” but also find that their own palette gets bigger. This can entail some amusing creative compromises—Japanese participants wanting to do kangaroos and Snuffies (as they are known to fans) attracted to Edo period art, doing “huge carp with other puppets inside and crazy geishas.”

“Fetishisitic” crops up several times as Snuff Puppets describe their relationship with their creations. It’s meant in its sacred rather than psycho-sexual sense. “The puppets are built from scratch with rough methods, but with a lot of attention to skin and look, very woven…A puppet is an object you love, it’s precious…You keep fixing them up. It’s a natural thing to do…There’s an element of such religiosity, of the god in the mask.” Snuff Puppets are fervent proselytisers. “We are spreading our attitude to puppets, their roughness, openness and accessibility….People recognise things in puppets.”

If these puppets have such power, why then the name Snuff Puppets? Originally it was an exhortation, as in “Kill the puppets!”, “Kill the standard concept of puppets”, show the workings, reveal them in daylight.

Performing locally, touring internationally and running community projects all compete with the creation of new work. It seems this gets harder and harder but a new work is “created or kickstarted every 12 months.” Careful scheduling is vital so that the puppet builders have ample time, performers can be given new challenges, and new shows can be run in properly. Balancing income generation and the demands of creativity is a challenge, but Snuff Puppets are undaunted. A trip to Bath (UK) in April for a puppet festival was inspiring, helping lift their profile, and they now have the support of a Belgium-based agent who will not program them into shopping centres. Wherever their work takes them, their commitment is still to intimate performance and to working the streets.

Snuff Puppets’ recent work includes The Water Show (2001), “an allegory of a pristine world, inspired by Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.” It’s a work that combines parade, spectacle and a workshop for 100 people. As beautiful as photographs from the show indicate that it is, almost a decade on the company can still have an almighty effect, attacked in The Sun Herald by Andrew Bolt over their pagan contribution to the Moomba Parade, the newspaper’s front page shrieking “Family Fury at Shock Parade.”

The company is the head tenant of an old army drill hall in West Footscray, part of an arts centre “in one of the poorest communities in Australia. The council and the Big West festival do a great job for the community. We’re staying.” When not at home they’re in Singapore followed by Arnhemland, Japan and China, sometimes working in 2 teams at the same time in different countries.Then it’s back to Melbourne for Wicked, a festival for children at the Gasworks Theatre (Sept 26-Oct 6), and some thinking about a brand new show next year, called Snuff Puppet Club, a night club run by puppets. Sounds like dangerous fun.

As Australia’s only full-time puppet company for adults (and the whole panoply of modern families) and as wickedly funny ideologues for puppetry that is political, communal and downright strange, the Snuff Puppets occupy a very special place in Australian culture.

Snuff Puppets,

RealTime issue #50 Aug-Sept 2002 pg. 38

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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