Celebrating 40 | Q & A with Sue Buckmaster
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. And who better to start us off than Sue Buckmaster?
Sue Buckmaster won a Puppet Centre bursary in 1991 and has since gone on to work as a director, puppetry specialist and teacher. Currently artistic director of Theatre-Rites, she has worked with the National Theatre, RSC, the Young Vic, Sadler's Wells, the South Bank Centre, the Lyric Hammersmith and Complicite, among many others. Over to Sue.
Describe the how, when and what of your Puppet Centre bursary.
I don’t quite remember when I got the Bursary. It was a long time ago. I think I was about 27. I know I applied for it one year and didn’t get it, so I re-applied the following year with a passion and I got it! I was delighted. It was like having my work in the field of puppetry validated.
I used my bursary to support a year of exploration (given that I didn’t have to do so many jobs to earn a living). I was amazed at just how difficult it is to decide what to actually spend your time doing and exploring when there is no one actually making demands of you. This was to profoundly change me and connect me with what I personally really wanted to create/do.
Funnily enough, the first puppets I made were a Nun and an African “belly woman” (pregnant dancer). It was important at that stage to just make and not question why. I also continued to explore puppetry and death with a life size animated skeleton. I spent a lot of time pottering in my studio and studying the work of Julie Taymor.
I also took part in a number of training/workshops including one on physical theatre and game playing by David Glass, and ensemble object play with Drak Puppet Theatre. I did research and development with Rene Baker, Steve Tiplady, Rufus Norris and Phelim McDermott (just prior to the birth of Improbable). I attended the Charleville Puppetry Festival and then spent three months in India at the Summer School for Indian Arts in Kerala.
It was a fantastic year that placed me firmly on the map as a puppetry practitioner and provided me with ideas and thoughts which I would store up, like a hamster stores her food, for numerous future artistic adventures.
What are your favourite memories from that period?
Dancing with Belly Woman strapped onto me at the Glastonbury Festival.
Making a vampire puppet for Rufus and improvising with potatoes.
A four hour non-stop improvisation with objects at the end of an R&D week with Steve and Phelim.
A fire-lit performance of Indian Mask Trance amidst a pop-up outdoor set crafted out of banana leaves in Kerala.
Talking ideas of puppetry and death in a spa with Rene.
Seeing five puppet shows in a day at Charleville.
Pottering in my studio and going swimming at lunchtime.
How about the challenges?
The first three months were the most challenging because I didn’t know what to do/make. I was so used to working really hard in response to whatever jobs I could get. Once I found my way, I have never ever wanted to return to creating work purely in response to demand. I realised that sometimes the world doesn’t even know what you do is worth demanding until you give yourself a chance to create it. Without the bursary I may never have given myself that chance.
How has winning the bursary shaped and influenced your work and career since then?
My puppetry work became more rich with cultural and international influences. My expression through the puppet became more unique and skilled. I had learned to respect the on-going learning process (which never stops) and I eventually did an MA in Contemporary Theatre Practice and a Psychoanalytic Study of the Power of the Puppet. I realised that R&Ds are exactly that, research and development – time to explore – not to produce a show.
I met Penny Bernand and shared the wealth of information I had gleaned and it helped inspire her to establish Theatre-Rites, which I am proud to have been part of since it’s inception and which is now bravely 18 years old. It has been the vessel in which many of my ideas have come to fruition.
What could you never live without as a puppeteer?
Other people/playmates to play with the objects/ideas with me. Since being diagnosed with ME at the age of 30 and spending ten years in and out of a wheel chair, I learned to enjoy and thrive from asking others to bring objects to life and help me bring my visions into being.
If you ruled the arts world, what would you change? (just one thing!)
It’s a dream. I would like every active artist to be paid a basic wage once they have proved their interest and ability. Although it keeps you on your toes, constantly having to prove your worth and make your own opportunities throughout your artistic career is hard going. I imagine some might get lazy and take it for granted, but most that I know would provide the world with a service well beyond the value of the money invested and they’d naturally wish to keep reinventing their forms of expression. It would be a better world for it too.
What’s your guilty pleasure when it comes to culture?
I like making theatre, but I much prefer going to see films.
What keeps you awake at night?
A fear that I have let anyone down. That I have not done my best for my fellow creators, my audience, my loved ones, particularly my children.
Describe your life-in-puppetry in five words.
Family. Control. Back bone. Whispers. Quirky.
What’s your birthday wish for the Puppet Centre?
For it to survive another 40 years and support a whole new bunch of puppetry people.
And, finally, here’s your chance to plug whatever you’re working on at the moment.
I am very excited about a new project which is a collaboration between Theatre-Rites and The Little Angel Theatre. It’s called 'Sue Buckmaster, The Puppet Whisperer'. For many years I have been listening to puppets and objects, whispering to them until they come to life in front of me. This has always happened behind closed doors within training sessions or rehearsals. Now, I am about to embark on doing this in front of an audience so they can literally observe the secrets of my method as I imbue a thing with life and meaning. It will be nerve-wracking but also rather exciting.
Sue Buckmaster won her Puppet Centre bursary in 1991.