“I think you have to stay connected to your child’s eye view of the world to be an artist of any kind,” says Beccy Smith, co-founder of Brighton Puppetry School. “Puppetry is good at plugging anyone who engages with it back into that perspective on the world.”
Over their ten years in Brighton, Beccy and partner Darren East, a third generation puppeteer, have created a community. Together, they run Touched Theatre, a touring production company; Punched, a sell-out puppetry cabaret for adults; and, with Isobel Smith, the Brighton Puppetry School.
“Puppetry is a low art, really, and that’s part of its appeal,” says Beccy. “It’s totally accessible…” As with folklore, the medium has a long history, rooted in oral tradition. “Fairytales and puppetry share that feeling of the uncanny,” she says. “They tap into something deep – I think there’s part of us that responds to that weight, that sense of magic that wraps around both.”
As an art form, it encapsulates many others, and that’s one of the reasons puppetry inspires artists from across disciplines. Brighton Puppetry School plays do this with workshops focusing on performance, making and creation. Students choose from a series of one-day sessions, evening classes or an intensive six-day summer school providing ‘complete immersion’. They then use these practical introductory skills to create all kinds of interesting independent projects.
“Puppetry can be very much about visual design and the process of crafting,” explains Beccy. “You’re making a little robot, really, and there’s a great deal of design involved in making puppets do what you need them to do.”
To this end, Touched Theatre work closely with local artist Annie Brooks, who made Marty, the star of their touring pre-school show Twinkle Twinkle. “We like to make puppets with materials that are connected to the story,” says Beccy, “so Marty has lots of stars in his fur”.
“For us, what really excites, are the performance elements and the storytelling. We approach puppetry inspired by what happens when it turns from an object into something alive… We want our work to feel as though people can have it as their own and get hold of it, literally.”
For this month’s Artists Open Houses, Touched Theatre is resident at the Regency Town House. A large group of exhibitors are bound by their love of the theatrical, including fine artist Amanda Davidson and participants of ArtAid, a collaboration with Brighton’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services funded by Children in Need.
For ArtAid, Touched Theatre works alongside therapists to provide a creative and cathartic experience for young people in care. “The power of puppetry is that you feel you’re working with something removed from yourself,” Beccy explains.
“Puppets can be deeply personal, at the same time as feeling kind of magically separate… This allows you to put things into them that you may not be able to otherwise say or express. Nothing is really off-limits.”
“I hope that people who come to visit the Open House will be able to experience for themselves how magical this form can be.”
Portraits, Puppets and Performance is at Regency Town House on weekends until Dec 9th
aoh.org.uk / brightonpuppetryschool.com