Celebrating 40 | Q&A with Pete Gunson
The Puppet Centre is 40 years old this year. To celebrate we're catching up with some of the people who have won Puppet Centre bursaries to find out how their eclectic careers have developed. Throughout 2014 we will publish Q&As with some of the UK's finest puppeteers. Here Pete Gunson talks Titanick, flights of fancy, 'Moby Dick' and Leatherman multi-tools.
Describe the how, when and what of your Puppet Centre bursary
In 2011 I was awarded a Travel and Training Bursary towards a two week visit to Theatre Titanick’s workshops in Leipzig, with a stop off at La Machine’s famous base in Nantes. At Titanick I worked with the crew in their colossal workshops, building elements of a new Furnace Symphony project and getting to know the team and their approach over that time. The other half of the story is being hosted by technical director Robert Schiller, living in an apartment block full of artists, being invited to underground saunas in WagenPlatzes, techno squat clubs, coinciding with a German street artists' gathering and seeing how a big beast like Titanick lives.
What are your favourite memories from the trip?
On the last day at Titanick Robert Schiller took me on a tour of the stores and very animatedly unveiled how all their theatrical engineering works. He was incredibly, unbelievably generous. I think he appreciated the way I had got stuck in and I think he was open because he knows he can invent something new tomorrow and the next day and the next day. At Pif-Paf we keep to this, sharing ideas, empowering people and keeping inventing. There were just a couple of things he swore me to secrecy over though, so I respect that as well.
How about the challenges?
The biggest was the language, working hard to learn the German that people speak and not the one in the books I had been studying. Robert lent me some of his kids’ comics which normally helps, but they were 70s super heroes, so maybe not such a good idea. By the end of the trip I could just about break down the long German words, I swore I’d go back to make use of them. At any rate I can more than get by in a busy workshop, if not a club.
How has winning the bursary shaped and influenced your work and career since then?
It’s hard to overstate – from the technical knowledge to the audacity of the productions I saw through to the attention to detail and the love of interacting with the audience – the trip has infected my work. In 2012 just after the bursary Pif-Paf were commissioned by Sheffield Children’s Festival to make two shows that are still going strong and really draw on what I learned. The Flycycle and Submercycle are two Flight of Fancy Simulators, intricately made and expertly piloted where we create short bespoke journeys. Action Painting is an evolving project, last seen in residency at the Turner Contemporary, where we use pneumatic cannons and Dada-ist energy to create collective canvases, a lot of mess and a mini revolution.
Right now an old East German fire brigade air tank that Titanick gifted me is a whale-spout-lung in a breathtakingly audacious reimagining of 'Moby Dick' in Leeds. Titanick would be very pleased with that! The Bursary helped line up my broad training as an engineer with my life in the arts, something that is still bearing fruit.
What could you never live without as a puppeteer?
My Leatherman multi tool. As a maker and then working on the streets you need things that can help you improvise, so there is that and it’s also all about the people around you, the rest of the team at Pif-Paf, mainly Eleanor!
If you ruled the arts world, what would you change? (just one thing!)
One thing? Okay you’ve pushed me. I’d redistribute an un-named London arts organisation’s millions per year to small, effective, low overhead, fit for purpose, passionate arts organisations all around the country to get the next generation of empowered arts makers and lovers, dissectors and supporters fired up and fighting for what they believe in, its a no brainer.
What’s your guilty pleasure when it comes to culture?
I have no guilt about still enjoying The Wire, it’s amazing, but I can only watch one season per winter, and this will be my last. That and Aardman’s work, it bowls me over every time, faultless comic timing in stop frame animation, I can’t get my head around it.
What keeps you awake at night?
Right now (September 2014) whether or not the system I built to burst a three tonne stage up from the bed of Leeds Dock at the end of scene one of SlungLow’s ‘White Whale’ is going to work every evening. It’s a ridiculous project built upon me assuring the director Alan Lane that it had to be possible, then him telling everyone else I had a degree in maritime engineering! It’s very real and its going to be stunning even if I haven’t got a degree in Maritime Engineering.
Describe your life-in-puppetry in five words
invention, performance, invention, performance, invention
What’s your birthday wish for the Puppet Centre Trust?
Linda Lewis was inspirational at Puppet Centre and a great support to us, so I wish the Trust a fantastic new director with their own new visions to burst onto the scene.
And, finally, here’s your chance to plug whatever you’re working on at the moment
Right after winning the Travel and Training Bursary, Pif-Paf was awarded a Puppets About residency with Puppet Centre and mac, where we really got our teeth into Human Motion Sculptures – essentially dynamic engineered theatrical aerial performance structures. The puppetry link is that they are objects that control humans, rather than the other way around. This is going really well. Our first show using them ‘Something To Hold’ was commissioned by mac New Work Trust and Without Walls Touring Consortium, and has played to thousands. Now ‘Planetary on The Distance Ladder’, a four metre wheel, is going into development for 2015.
I've already alluded to SlungLow’s ‘The White Whale’ for which I am project engineer; there's a great gallery of production shots here. It’s running until 14 September. I have created a system for raising the entire stage from the depths, a series of hidden whale spouts, ranging from cute to apocalyptic, and a few other surprises. The whale spouts are of course influenced by a Handspring workshop on breath that we did at the Puppet Centre.
Pete Gunson won his Puppet Centre bursary in 2011.