Keeping Shakespeare alive through puppets

As part of her dissertation, MA Shakespeare and Creativity student, Charlotte Bannocks, has been working hard to make Shakespeare accessible to family audiences.

In her dissertation, entitled ‘How we can keep Shakespeare's text alive in a post Covid-19 world for family audiences’, Charlie has produced three short interactive films which were made during lockdown, in her one bedroom flat in Birmingham.

Charlie said “I always knew I wanted to work with puppets as part of my dissertation - I'm an actor and singer by trade and have also worked in numerous puppet projects, and have seen first-hand how powerful they can be. I've been reading in to research that looks at the effects that puppets have on the brain and it's amazing! 

“I've also worked extensively in education over the past ten years (as, well, you don't make much money as an actor!) and love teaching much as acting. For me it's always really important, when I'm planning my lessons to think ‘what would work for me at that age? I had a terrible time at school (I left secondary school with four GCSE’s) and I'm dyslexic and have a chronic illness, but theatre, and particularly Shakespeare always offered me hope even on the darkest days. As an educator it is a true honour to witness how transformative drama and Shakespeare can be, particularly for kids who struggle in education.

“However, for many reasons, people find Shakespeare inaccessible; and when the Covid-19 outbreak sent us into lockdown it seemed like Shakespeare and the arts in general became that little bit more out of reach for many."

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As someone that is considered medically vulnerable, Charlie was told to ‘shield’, so she had to think creatively how to proceed and set about exploring the effect of puppets in performance.

“I really wanted to find a way of keeping the magic of Shakespeare alive for younger audiences now that conventional theatre has had to stop. Whilst it's been amazing that Theatre companies have been releasing recordings of shows gone by, in truth, even as a theatre maker, I have not managed to sit through a whole pre-recorded show in one go since lockdown began.

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“The distractions at home are too many, and mental restlessness will not allow me to sit still for three hours - So thinking back to my younger self - I know that these recordings, even the ones aimed at children would not have worked for me. So I guess, this project is combining all of my experience as a puppeteer, an actor, performer, teacher, and as someone who also struggles to sit still, bringing these things together, to create an engaging and alive experience."

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This has resulted in three short, multi-sensory, interactive puppet films based on The Tempest, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

“The films require the viewer to get involved in a number of ways, which I hope will be a lot of fun. Participants will watch the films and then fill in a short survey afterwards, to see if they liked them and if they worked! The good news is I've already had some positive feedback!” 

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Even before the pandemic began, Charlie had been planning on exploring the use of puppets within her dissertation.

“Before the Covid-19 outbreak I was hoping to host some puppet making workshops with participants as part of my research. Then the letter came that said I had to shield so I knew that that would no longer be possible. However, what would also no longer be possible, would be a trip to the shops to buy lots of materials to make lots of new puppets.

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 “Fortunately though I'm married to a puppet maker, and I also make puppets myself so we have a good collection of handmade puppets to hand. The majority of the puppets in the project were made by Kit (Kit’s Creature Lab), my husband. Some of the puppets made for previous projects were made collaboratively, and some I made - so we kind of auditioned the existing puppets, and cast them!"

“A few of the puppets were new for this project, made using things that we had around the house. I made ‘Bottom’ from a pair of socks and a Lucy and Yak sari bag whilst ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Banquo’ are mostly tin foil and cardboard with a bit of acrylic paint on top!

“One of our favourite parts of the project, and also one of the most fun parts to film was some of the shadow puppetry work that we did  (not in the trailers, if you want to see you have to get involved with the project!) and all the props for that section were made out of cardboard from a box of toilet paper!”

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All the puppets were puppeteered by Charlie and Kit and they did majority of voiceover work themselves too – although they had virtual contributions from additional voiceover artists.

Charlie hopes that this project will make Shakespeare more accessible to a younger audience and the feedback from the surveys will help shape the future of the films.

“This project is not just about bringing Shakespeare to a younger audience but more importantly keeping it alive. There are lots of adaptations of Shakespeare for children that  can still be accessed during this time, but as previously discussed, perhaps, the approaches these pieces are more passive, which may not be engaging for a lot of children.

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“As I've already mentioned I've been reading into the neuroscience of puppets and there were also some fascinating studies on Shakespeare and the brain, so it makes sense to put the two together.”

Charlie is looking for young children and families to volunteer and get involved with the project. Volunteers are asked to watch the films, and feedback on what they liked and didn’t like, what you would like to see more of, and whether you think the puppets and interactive elements help bring the texts to life.

If you would like to get involved, please email Charlie for more information.

[Images courtesy of Charlotte Bannocks]