Shape shifter – an interview with Jeremy Bidgood
The new chairman of British UNIMA, which aims to represent UK puppetry abroad, Jeremy Bidgood is also one of the sharp comic brains behind the irreverent Pangolin's Teatime and The Great Puppet Horn. He's also busily finishing a practice-led PhD looking at the relationship between contemporary European puppetry and Japanese ningyō jōruri. Here he reflects on his influences, his plans for BrUNIMA, the future of UK puppetry and the Swedish Chef.
What brought you to the world of puppet theatre as opposed to other modes of performance and art?
I didn't really think about puppets until my early twenties. I was at art college studying sculpture in its most plural sense. So, I was making physical objects but also performances, films, installations etc. Throughout this I always had a fascination with the human form as both subject and object, its fragility and also robust comicality.
Theatrical performance started to really excite me because you could get a real and direct relationship with the audience that was often lacking in the visual arts, where spectators would wander in, out and through a gallery space. I started making objects to be used in theatre, like the horse heads in Equus or bits of set or costume. From there the idea of actually combining my making and performance skills was only a small step.
I enthusiastically set out to make a set of puppets for a show I was involved in. They were terrible, not aesthetically but functionally. They were severely limited by my lack of knowledge of puppet making as opposed to fine-art sculpture making. I learnt a lot from that experience.
Since then I have sought to learn from as many companies as I can and have been fortunate enough to spend time with some excellent artists. As I was in Edinburgh, the fringe became a yearly source of inspiration. I was fortunate enough to see Blind Summit's 'Lowlife' in 2005, which was a technical manipulation inspiration and made me keep the faith in the ability of puppets to be expressive and full of character.
From here I was hooked and it seemed to me there was so much potential for performance in the puppet – from the poignancy of its fragile existence to the comedy of its position as irreverent outsider commenting on and interrupting our human world.
Given the ever-more digital performance scene, what do you think is the role of puppetry today?
I think there was a moment when puppetry seemed under threat from digital art, certainly in film at least. In the late nineties and noughties animatronics and puppetry in film really were replaced by the great boom in 3D animation (the replacement of puppet Yoda with bouncy green leprechaun is for ever burned in my mind). Fortunately a lot of people seem to now be realising that it's not a direct swap – they aren't equivalents – they both offer something slightly different.
In theatre, puppetry is going from strength to strength, and sitting happily alongside digital projections and animatronics. Audiences have really learnt to respond positively to the open artificiality of the puppet, partly thanks to large scale productions like 'The Lion King' and 'War Horse' but also the many smaller companies that have been working hard touring and putting on shows in big public forums like Edinburgh Fringe, where many people are able to access something a bit new.
In big commercial theatre we're still seeing the marriage of animatronics and puppetry – 'Walking with Dinosaurs', 'Shrek', 'Betty Blue Eyes' and now in Australia 'Kong'. There really is great demand for the skills of the puppeteer in all areas of performance and I don't think any part of digital art is going to destroy that as long as we keep making good work.
I think there will always still be a place for ‘pure’ puppetry in the sense of work rooted in the semiotic language of the puppet and object manipulation. It’s great that more and more other forms of theatre are starting to tap into this language. It helps to bring an understanding of puppetry to new and diverse audiences. Puppetry is here to stay, but who uses it and what it is will change, and that in my mind is a good and exciting thing.
How are you looking to steer British UNIMA in its 50th year?
British UNIMA’s great strength is its international connections. UNIMA is a worldwide organisation with some excellent ideals. Puppetry is a very globalised community and the potential for exchange and mutual support is there, we just need to engage with it. I really want to see BrUNIMA promoting British puppetry more internationally and helping bring international work to the UK.
We are an advocacy organisation for all the many puppet groups in the UK. We’re not here to make value judgements about a work, we’re here to provide people with information about the art form in the UK and help UK artists represent themselves internationally.
I really want us to continue working in ever closer partnership with the other fantastic puppet organisations in the UK and collectively provide support and a strong voice for the sector. We still need to do a lot to raise the profile of puppetry in the UK – I feel that we’re roughly where dance was twenty years ago. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to get the specific funding, critics and recognition the sector deserves.
And finally, if you had to choose your favourite puppet to watch, which would it be?
Hands down it’s the Swedish Chef. There’s just so much in that puppet, the anarchic lunacy, the bringing together of two puppeteers in this one semi-cohesive entity. He may not be the most subtle or graceful of the puppets I know but he is the best one to watch at pretty much any moment in life.