01 October 2017
Iestyn Evans is a member of Equity’s Puppeteers’ Network and describes why the art form is firmly in fashion and how you can start with a sock
When did you decide to make puppeteering your career?
As a kid I went to a puppet exhibition at a Bradford TV museum, which was all [Jim] Henson’s stuff – such as things from The Muppets and a TV show called Storyteller, which I loved. That’s where I found out about Jim Henson’s creature shop in Camden, the place where these creations were made. Fortunately I managed to get some work experience there and for a long time I wanted to make animatronics. I was also doing youth theatre and as part of that there were two productions where performing and making came together. One was The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe where I built a pantomime lion that you could get into and make talk, walk and roar and then Little Shop of Horrors with the big man-eating plant.
What’s the most rewarding job you’ve ever been on?
The BBC Three puppet sitcom Mongrels, which I worked on during 2009-10. It’s probably the most rewarding because my company Talk to the Hand had so much input in that job. We decided what the puppets were going to look like; built them; performed them on set; co-ordinated the puppetry; liaised really heavily with production on how we were going to do things. It would usually be a six-month build followed by a three-month shoot, so it took the best part of a year for us, it was very immersive. We really got to challenge ourselves on a daily basis, just to get better and refine our craft.
Why do you think there has been increased interest in puppeteering in TV and film?
I think it has developed from the exciting puppetry that has been happening in theatre and the influence of people such as Julie Taymor who directed The Lion King, which opened on Broadway in 1997. Avenue Q happened shortly afterwards and was inspired by Sesame Street. Then War Horse was developed, showcasing a completely new way of puppeteering a horse on stage, and then Walking with Dinosaurs. People started looking at those things and thinking, “What would it be like to put those techniques into film?” I also think there’s a nostalgic aspect. With Star Wars and other franchises coming back, people wanted to make it feel like the originals, which was very hand-made and created (as opposed to the prevalence of computer- generated creatures that you find in the prequels), so that brought back doing practical effects.
You’re a member of Equity’s Puppeteers’ Network, which was established a year ago. Could you tell me about the inspiration behind this Network?
Last year a puppeteer colleague had an experience where she wasn’t able to join Spotlight because of a perceived lack of acting experience. She argued that she had been acting with puppets her whole career, and a lot of people have been getting puppeteering jobs through Spotlight. There was a lot of trouble with them accepting that she actually had acting experience. She spoke to Equity and this raised further issues about the working lives of puppeteers and fed in to the creation of the network. I remember some time ago going to a meeting about puppetry with Equity that became too caught up with a debate about what a puppeteer was and nothing really came of it. This new network is proving to be much more productive. For a long time people have said, “Why isn’t there a puppeteers’ union?” And the answer is, “There is a performers’ union, we just needed to start having a conversation with them so that they understood us better.”
What issues do you think puppeteers face in the workplace?
Puppeteers are regularly asked to fix the puppets they are working with, which is like assuming an actor will be repairing their costume or props. Fixing or maintaining puppets is a skilled job for a specific person, and by accepting that role you’re potentially putting someone out of a job, or you’re not getting paid enough to do that work yourself. Recently I heard of a production where a puppeteer performing on the show was offered 30 quid a week to maintain all the puppets. Plus, film productions pencilling dates in, rather than properly booking us isn’t really functioning and I think we need to try to get back to: “If you need us, you book us, and then if you don’t need us you still pay us.” When I got into the industry, the standard day was around ten hours – that was the first TV kids’ show that I worked on, The Fimbles, and that was quite sustainable. More recently, jobs have become 11, 12 hours. There are also health and safety issues in the workplace. For example, I know performers who have hurt themselves because the camera was too low and they had to contort themselves to get their head and body out of shot, and then they’ve subsequently injured their back.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to pursue puppeteering?
Just start doing it. Buy a puppet, get someone to make you a puppet or do it yourself – use a sock. There are now more places than ever before where you can train and do workshops. Write to people who you find interesting. I went to Australia, and while I was there I saw the theatre company Royal Deluxe, known for their giant marionettes, and also a company called Creature Technology who do the stuff for Walking with Dinosaurs and who built How To Train Your Dragon puppets. I wrote to them and said, “Can I come and visit you?” And everyone I wrote to was like, “Yeah, come in! Have a look!” Watch how other people do it, record yourself puppeteering, see what you think works, see what you think doesn’t work, develop an eye for it.
I think one of the most important things in puppeteering is having an eye for when something looks right, and the only way to develop that is with practice.
Photography by Paul Stuart