puppet-making with Lempen Puppet Theatre Company

posted Thu 02 February 2023

News Story

Flotsam and Jetsam is a hopeful, adventure story about two very different creatures with original music and delightful puppetry.

We spoke with Liz from Lempen Puppet Theatre Company to give us a flavour of what it was like to create these puppets, where the inspiration for Flotsam and Jetsam came from and the important role that puppetry plays in family theatre.

Would you say that your puppet-making style is particularly traditional, or is it a process unique and personal to you?

I did a sculpture course, a fine art degree, around thirty five years ago, but have no formal training in puppetry. Since then I’ve done some masterclasses, muddled along, and learned how to make puppets. In 2010, I did a carving course to carve a marionette and that was a revelation. I learned how to do a scale drawing and then work from a drawing, tracing it onto wood. I tend to work much more organically, but now having learned more tips and tricks, I do have a little bit of structure. Mostly though, I have an idea, I get some materials out, I start playing with them, I create chaos and that chaos brings me more ideas! Some people make like little maquettes out of clay, and I have done that from time to time, but mostly it’s in my head. I draw things and I start improvising using bits of cardboard, string, tape, bamboo until I’ve got some sort of prototype and go from there.

Flotsam & Jetsam have quite contrasting personalities, with the former being soft and laid back, and the latter being stiff and nervy. How did you work to communicate this to the audience, both through their physical appearance and movements?

We knew they needed to be really different characters so I decided to make them in a really different way. Jetsam had to be jerky and nervy and stiff, so I decided to use hard materials, joints that are constructed to move in one direction rather than another - a bit like a marionette joint. Flotsam was the opposite; so I decided to use soft materials, such as foam and rope, and playing around with that and building a prototype. With Flotsam you put your hand on it directly – there are no sticks and strings to manipulate – and you’re using actually using it like you would a soft toy, and it’s quite squishy so the character is just naturally reflected in the movement.

There are no words in this play, so everything is communicated through movement, pictures, shapes, and music. The music is a really important tool to communicate energy, atmosphere and feeling, and so that’s a strength of the show and that underlines their difference, the musical score that goes with each of them.

As a medium for storytelling, what do you feel are the benefits of utilising puppets in family shows such as Flotsam & Jetsam?

Personally, I really enjoy the possibilities presented by puppetry for doing work that is more imaginative. For example, characters can appear at different scale: you can have huge; you can have tiny; they can fly; leap; fall apart, disintegrate; they can have two legs; no legs; twenty legs or, if you like, they can have a giant spring instead of legs, so you don’t have to stick to reality. Children have huge, lively, vivid imaginations, and imagination is like a muscle; it needs stretching, it needs using.

We sometimes get asked after the show: “Is Flotsam a dog?”, “Is Flotsam a polar bear?”, and we say; “Flotsam is Flotsam, Flotsam’s unique” - it’s the same with Jetsam; “Is he a cricket?”, “Is he a goblin?”, and we say, “He lives in the forest, he’s a forest creature, but Jetsam is just Jetsam – he’s unique”. Choosing characters like this, we don’t have any preconceptions about them. We know about dogs – we relate to them as pets, but we didn’t want that in this show, as baggage. We wanted these characters to be quite pure in themselves. I think, you know, it’s hard to imagine doing that in the same way with human theatre and not puppetry. So, puppetry has a lot going for it I would say. That’s another thing with Flotsam and Jetsam - with it being wordless, the stories really open for the audience to interpret using their imagination, so each member of the audience might have a really different version of the story in their head.

We really enjoy what we do; creating family theatre and using puppetry to access and interpret a story.