Retrospective Exhibition

40 years of Puppet Making by Meg Amsden.

Upstairs Gallery, Craftco, 40A High Street, Southwold, Suffolk. IP18 6AE 2 – 27th November 2018 – Gallery open every day apart from Wednesdays. 10 – 5, Sun 11 – 4. Closed 1 – 2 for lunch. 01502 723211

About 50 puppets from 40 years of work, including Southwold beach heroine and hero Megwynd and Trevor from 1979, 20 years of shows made for the Broads Authority, 3 productions for elders, and 2 for very young children.

Puppets were not my childhood passion. I never saw any puppet shows, apart from Punch and Judy, which terrified me. I made two puppets in handicrafts at high school. We didn’t perform with them, though I loved acting, dancing, and singing.

I took a degree in Social Anthropology, which resulted in my wanting to perform culture in my own community, rather than observe and dissect the cultures of other peoples. I started making puppets when I met artist and puppeteer Guy Richardson at Lowestoft Theatre Centre (now the Seagull) and became his unofficial apprentice. I was already working in dance and theatre in education, but I was drawn to puppetry because I liked making things, performing, writing and designing plays, and didn’t want to specialise in any one area. In 1979 I set up my own company with friends, initially to perform shows on Southwold beach. This became Nutmeg Puppet Co.

Puppets are not craft objects or fine art, though the skills and dicipline of both are required to make them. To make a puppet you have to know what it will have to do as well as who it is – understanding and creating its character – expressing that through the way you make it look and how you perform with it. It’s a subtle art. Puppets need to be quite neutral in expression – something that wasn’t obvious to me to start with (hence Megwynd’s merry grin). The audience will read expressions into a well-manipulated puppet, commenting on how its face has changed during the performance (though it hasn’t at all).

Exhibiting the puppets like this, outside the context of performance, seems very strange to me. Puppets are made or used to tell stories. (Those that are not, are just dolls, however exquisite they may appear.) They are intermediaries, having all the power of the liminal; inanimate objects that are brought to life by the puppeteer. As such they occupy a dangerous zone, saying and doing things we humans cannot, and releasing powerful emotions in puppeteers and audience alike. They are one step away from actors in masks. In early shows we puppeteers were hidden, but over the years we ceased to hide ourselves, finding that the audience was so drawn in by the puppets that we were effectively invisible.

There are several kinds of puppets in the exhibition. As a very general rule, glove puppets are grounded, earthy and best at comedy, rod puppets are more flexible, watery and good at expressing emotions, marionettes (string puppets) are airy and good for birds and spirits, shadows for effects of distance, journeys, dreams, and spooky effects.

Some of the puppets in the exhibition appeared only in one show which toured to many venues. Others, such as Megwynd and Trevor or Pip, have appeared in several different shows about their characters, or become like repertory actors and changed character completely for a different show – Tamiu the Egyptian cat becoming the Theatre Cat. Some of the puppets have put in hundreds of performances and become time-worn and battered. I have only made perfunctory repairs. I haven’t displayed many shadow puppets as their purpose is the shadow they produce, and in themselves they often look rough.

Though the original ideas for shows are my own and I make most of the puppets, I have always worked with teams of people, including makers, puppeteers, directors, set designers, scenery painters, writers, composers, musicians, photographers, film-makers, tour bookers, and young trainees, as well as collaborating with ecologists, museum curators, teachers, therapists and care-workers. I hope I have remembered to credit all contributors to exhibits. Materials used are too numerous and varied to list.

For 20 years I worked with the Broads Authority who commissioned us to make shows about the Broads. They were wonderfully supportive patrons of Nutmeg. Other work was grant aided by Regional Arts, Sustainable Development Funds, local councils, and trust funds – in particular The Ashden, Ernest Cooke and Adnams Trusts, The Foundation for Sport and the Arts, and The Barings Foundation.

We also have a patron saint in the form of Arthur Patterson of Gt Yarmouth (1857 – 1935), Associate of the Linnean Society, aka John Knowlittle, who was a self-taught naturalist, writer, cartoonist, and sometime touring shadow puppeteer. We celebrated him in the show Knowlittle and you can find a puppet of him as a boy in the display case.