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The Comedy of Errors

Marcus Clarke interview

4 November 09 words: James Walker

Marcus Clarke left school with no qualifications. He is now a Bafta nominated puppeteer who prefers foam and fabric over rubber...

Many of you may not have heard of Marcus Clarke but I guarantee that you will have been entertained by him in some shape or form over the years. He’s a puppeteer responsible for hundreds of the childrens’ television programmes that distracted you from your studies. In addition to this he is a BAFTA nominee, has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe and has worked on musicals with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Not bad for a man who left school with no qualifications. Now he is holding workshops on the age old art of puppetry. So if you would like to learn from this seasoned professional or simply hear about his plans for the discipline to be taken more seriously, read on. But I should point out before we go any further, he doesn’t do rubber... 

Tell us about yourself?
I went to West Bridgford Comp, as did my two Brothers. We all left with nothing. I loved the Disney films and wanted to be a Cartoon Film Director but school wouldn’t let me do art. When I left I got an evening job changing lighting gels at the Nottingham Playhouse before enrolling at Mansfield College of Art with the hope of becoming a Set Designer. This wasn’t really for me so I got more jobs doing lighting and sound in theatres and eventually became a West End Theatre Stage Manager working on musicals for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh.
 
And now you work for yourself?
Hands up Puppets was formed in 1986 with my partner Helena Smee and was soon located in a studio in the Lace Market. Its original purpose was to create puppet characters for television. This had been a dream of mine ever since working for legendary Muppets creator Jim Henson. In 1996 we set up Hands Up Productions Limited as a regional media production company. Since then we have created over 60 TV puppet characters and worked as puppeteers on over 60 TV Series as well as writing scripts and developing numerous UK TV series.

What’s it like working with your wife? Is there any jealousy?
Only when it comes to singing! She can sing in tune and I would like to. Of course Helena is also intelligent, has good looks, and is unassuming and thoughtful. OK. I’m a jealous guy!
 
Is there a demand for adult puppet shows?  
I studied so called ‘secret societies’ so that I could break into a specialised adult genre. I’ve now written my third screenplay in the genre so Dan Brown, watch out! I’ve performed at the Edinburgh Fringe with Jim Henson and also on my own, mixing stand up comedy with puppets. It was a baptism of fire and I learnt a lot from doing both.

Other work...
We’ve expanded into education with lectures and workshops to all ages. This year I’ve taught every age group in a Notts Primary School, taking them through the entire creative process from writing a script to performing the puppets and finally creating a finished on camera piece. More challenging work has included teaching young people at Clayfields House Secure Children’s Home. Through the puppets they were able to tell us about life inside which was made into a film. This won two Koestler Awards last month and has also been accepted into several film festivals. I’d like to make more puppet films like this. Perhaps teach an office to puppeteer and then interview them about their Jobs. 

'It's behind you...'

How did you get into Puppeteering?
I was a Stage Manager on the West End Musical Little Shop of Horrors and part of my job was to look after the Puppet Plant and also the Puppeteer. When he left we needed to replace him. I was looking for a move into Film and TV and had actually already worked as a Runner at Elstree during the day. I saw an opportunity to move on. I studied the Puppeteering of the Plant and auditioned. There were many raised eyebrows but I can be pretty thick skinned. I got the part and from that a Puppeteering role in the Little Shop of Horrors Film. I then auditioned for Jim Henson’s TV Puppeteering Workshop, gaining a place. More raised eyebrows. Jim liked my Comedy Puppet performances though. I had always been a Goon fan and mined it relentlessly, adding the crew banter I was steeped in. After that Henson’s gave me roles and I became lifelong friends with Brian Henson. Brian taught me a lot about Puppeteering.

What kind of skills do you need to succeed?
Be honest with yourself and others. Is that a skill? Yes! Staying power too. If you’re serious about a career in showbiz then know it’s a long haul. Nurture the work ethic, put in long days and always push your own creative envelope. Study and learn as much as you can all of the time. Be generous and grateful. Never be nasty. Most importantly, get up. You’ll be knocked down, but get up. Even when you know you’ll be knocked down again, get up. If you can’t, then know it’s time to get another job.

What are people’s reactions when they find out your profession?
It’s certainly different wherever you are. In the UK it’s “a grown man playing with puppets? Excuse me.” (Exit) Whilst in the USA it’s “An artist, how interesting. That sounds like fun. Sesame and the Muppets, hey. I bet you earn? Get to meet all those Stars? So how would I get into that?” Puppetry is a much misunderstood and maligned art form here in the UK. Yet it’s an art form as totally valid as any other. Hopefully times are changing and a renaissance is around the corner. When people think of puppetry, they usually think of a poor quality children’s one. Yet puppetry covers a huge variety of styles and qualities, just like acting. People fear ridicule so the association as a childish discipline can be a problem, especially when moving in business circles where credibility is so important. You can potentially find yourself in a situation where you are simply never going to be respected because of the connotations of your profession and you can’t have a relationship without respect.

What is the strangest puppet you’ve been asked to make?
Hilda the three headed Hydra for TVAM’s Top Banana.

What is the weirdest show you’ve found yourself doing?
Either The Great Bong Puppet TV Series which featured the voices of Spike Milligan, Michael Bentine, Stanley Unwin and Barbara Windsor or Venus on the Hardrive. This was a 20th Century Fox/French show we made in LA that featured a leggy female blonde RTA virtual character called Venus. Helena performed the body animation. I did the facial animation and the voice was performed by an actress from the Simpsons. (Bart I think)

How do you make a puppet?
Foam, fur, fabric or fleece, hand-sewn together. Sculpted and cast eye and nose parts. No rubber. We don’t do rubber.

Why not?
We make our puppets in this way because it enables us to create the most performable puppets possible. Light, flexible and agile. Quite minimalist really. Everything is there for a reason. No dead weight. We are both Puppeteers after all.

Bookaboo teaches MeatLoaf to read

Is there still a need for puppets in the digital age?
By ‘in the digital age’ I assume you’re referring to the decline in the use of practical or physical props as they have been replaced by digital or virtual ones. This is true of ‘Animatronics’ which have mechanical devices to move ears etc, but I was never much interested in them as they never seemed much fun. But there will always be a place for puppets in entertainment. The real problem has been the overall decline in funding for childrens’ television. Puppets are still popular but UK Original Production is now less than 1% of Kids UK TV. Nearly £50 million a year has gone from the Kids TV Production sector.

Can you see the profession ever dying out?
The profession is still alive thanks to successes like Warhorse, Avenue Q and the Lion King. But it’s not perceived as being in the mainstream. The profession needs to reclaim the word ‘puppet’ in the same way that the games industry has with the word ‘games’. This can be achieved by teaching the profession in Higher Education and creating a UK puppetry educational equivalent of that gained at the University of Connecticut. Puppetry is, after all, the oldest form of animation.

I would never have described it as animation...
An animator animates frame by frame while a puppeteer does so in real time, that’s all. We both use the same language to create the ‘Illusion of life’. When I taught myself puppeteering I did so by extensively studying animation techniques. I find it fascinating that during the Depression (last one) Walt Disney and others were experimenting with creating the ‘illusion of life’ frame by frame while swathes of puppeteers were doing the same from under and above a Proscenium arch courtesy of the WPA. An important programme in the development of Puppetry. It was Jim Henson who helped to join the two up though. Instead of looking down or up at his puppets, he looked over at a TV monitor which showed the camera picture and thereby the audience’s perspective of his puppets. This is why TV Puppetry is so important and why it should be taught.

Would teaching it be enough to get it recognised?
Puppetry also needs a home where education, outreach and professional development can take place. Every other art form has a national home. I’d suggest a confederacy of homes working together like the Little Angel, Norwich Puppet Theatre and Funny Wonders, Buxton (which I am on the Board of). I have long advocated for a Puppet Theatre here in Nottingham.

And why isn’t there one?
Puppetry needs to be higher up the Arts funding priority ladder for all this to happen. Defining puppetry as what it really is and accurately quantifying puppetry’s real value would ensure this. We need to educate the prejudices out.

Tell us something about the workshops and what skills people can learn?
I got support from the Arts Council and Rufford to create my TV puppeteering workshops which take you through the basics of creating a believable puppet performance for the screen. Students learn what TV Puppetry entails such as the manipulation techniques, some animation language and how to employ it, how to create movement, the use of frame and frame balancing, where to look, focus. Creating Character. Vocalisation. How to create a simple play script. Time is an issue so I’ve come up with a simple puppet design: my extremely distinctive, Japanese Shark and Dolphin Puppets. I’m now holding Puppeteering and Puppet Making Workshops at Rufford to teach people how to make them. Moving forward I’m going to combine both of these Puppetry Workshops and add Media Creation to create a new one called ‘Ocean Life.’ 
 
Do they need to bring anything?
I supply the cameras, monitors, puppets and all other equipment. The workshop is ideal for teachers, outreach, design, media and performance students. Together we create a Japanese shark puppet from card and Fab foam. It takes about four hours. Students then have a moving mouth hand puppet that can be puppeteered on screen.

Hands up Puppet's website
James Walker's website 

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