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Puppetry in Healthcare Settings Workshop by Siobhán Clancy features at Hands On! 2 in London

In April 2013, artist Siobhán Clancy attended the Hands On! 2 Puppetry Symposium hosted by the Little Angel Theatre in Islington, London on behalf of Helium. Siobhán collaborated with young people on Helium’s Puppet Portal Project in 2009-2010 and brought these skills to bear in facilitating a workshop on Puppetry in Healthcare settings at the symposium. Here she talks about her experience of the symposium and the workshop she facilitated.

The Little Angel Theatre is a vibrant and progressive company established in 1961 and housed in its own quaint building in the centre of London hosting high quality performances. It also facilitates an education programme and partners with the Centre for Research into Objects and Puppets in Performance at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. This second symposium offered a mix of theoretical and case study-based presentations followed by day-long workshops in four specific fields, one of which I was invited to facilitate on behalf of Helium.

Day 1: Presentations

Right from the first key note speech on Applied Theatre by Professor Tim Prentki, the tone was set for a brilliantly challenging and critically reflective two-day experience.  Prentki  illuminated the work of Brecht, Freire and Boal as creative responses (and challenges to) socialist values purported by Marx in contradiction to the capitalist concept of the purpose of the arts.  He emphasized how the ethical applied-theatre practitioner starts from the position of the participant in order to avoid fantasy solutions akin to magic realism and instead to explore grounded possibilities for emancipatory social change.  Prentki’s assertion that “It is a statement of defeat to call ourselves human beings but a statement of hope calling ourselves human becomings” provoked constructively critical and aspirational discussions after each panel on that first day.

These panels addressed puppetry praxis in a variety of situations including therapeutic contexts, inter-cultural spaces, youth work and educational projects, health and community spheres.  Most of the presenters offered an honest insight into the limitations, the unexpected achievements and the cycle of adaptation so necessary to applied and participatory arts processes to honour the needs and interests of their project participants.  Among the initiatives that stood out to me, two in particular caught my imagination due to the dynamic use of form and technology.

Riku Laakkonen (Finland) described use of Forum Theatre in puppetry with a group of young people in mental health rehabilitation. The choice to perform with the familiar teddy bear resulted in staging and visibility issues for their audiences which were overcome by ingeniously projecting a streamed recording of the performance; technology and film-making being an exciting additional component for this young adult males.

The second initiative was a project in Greece developed by a science professor Vasilis Tselfes with a theatre/early education professor Antigoni Paroussi.  They  collaborated across faculties (no mean feat by any university’s standard) on an innovative assignment in which students used puppetry and performative techniques to describe scientific principles for young audiences.  The results were impressive not least due to the open and self-critical reflective process adopted by both lecturers that enabled them to examine and improve the delivery of their module with each iteration over a three year period.  My favourite outcome from the experiment was one ‘show’ with a puppet wonderfully manipulated by two students, that evolved from a ball of dough. It climbed out of a mixing bowl to form swaying arms and dancing dough legs demonstrating the principle of fermentation.

One panel was particularly challenging in their interpretation of audience participation. They presented three different approaches to the site specific context.  The first presenters Liat Rosenthal and Sue Buckmaster described the newly established Enrichment Programme accompanying the latest production by the company Theatre Rites called Rubbish. The set was a huge rubbish pile in which performers foraged and animated the objects they found.  Certain characters that evolved in the show, such as a sick seabird whose oil-slicked feathers where cleaned by performers, highlighted for the audience the devastating effects of environmental pollution and our responsibility to address it.  However noble as these efforts are, I felt the enrichment programme fell short of tackling the causes of environmental issues.  Instead it inferred a ‘fait accompli’ attitude and further reinforced this message in the post-show workshop that invited the audience to create their own puppets from recycled materials instead of questioning why we as consumers condone the production of so much waste in the first place.  Both presenters defended the creative decisions as a need to find positives in overwhelmingly complex socio-political issues, in support of parallel challenges to systemic failures by others such as environmental activists.

Kati Francis and Sasha Nemeckova outlined their recent tour of an inclusive sensory-immersive puppet production for children in India whilst also running workshops in SEN settings.  They confronted the notion in applied theatre that practitioners ought not to ‘parachute in with a show’ by bringing it to groups without prior consultation or participation in its development.   They offered a strong challenge; however, I would still have to question the intent behind aesthetic and narrative decisions with little or no reference to the artistic or moral culture to which they are being presented for the purposes of education.

The third presentation in the panel was made by Dream Theatre directors Frans Hakkemars and Joanne Oussoren. They partnered with the local council in a disadvantaged are of Rotterdam to provide an experience that would allow participants to forget the “grueling” circumstances of their lives and “develop language skills”.   Again, I had to query these objectives when presented by white westerners working in the privileged positions of arts production to an audience for whom the native tongue of that country that they are being encouraged to develop is not necessarily their first language nor does it honour in any way their culture of origin or how their lives have been negatively affected by the culture in which they now find themselves (ie. enforced poverty, disenfranchisement etc).

These three presentations provoked me to question the instances in which our participatory practice crosses the line into cultural colonialism. By this I mean we risk forgetting that the solutions derived from our experience informed by a value set appropriate to our cultural concerns may not necessarily be appropriate for others. Where does the political rhetoric that we have embraced because it is convenient to our privileged lifestyles gloss over the detached status we occupy and reinforce oppression and a drive to homogenity?  As practitioners, how can we demolish claims to authority in this regard and really recognize and engage with the issues on a grounded level?  Is it possible to do so and still retain funding which we know originates from sources with vested interests in waste management instead of waste irradication and the reinforcement of western ideology instead of genuine intercultural dialogue?  Those three presentations confronted us with representations of ‘the other’, embodied by the environment, the disabled and the disenfranchised.  In these performative formats they were being rescued and distracted – hardly a formula for emancipation.

Yet, while these arguments still rang in my head, I was confronted with the undeniable magic of theatre that does manage to lift the spirit, to inspire the soul and in some small measure, to improve our existence by suspending the problem of reality for a moment of beauty.  This experience was created through an interpretation of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis by The Little Angel Youth Theatre.  Performed with skill and careful craftsmanship, it was a delight to see the stage from which the presentations and problems emerged made to come alive with the sincere joy of creativity.  A post-show discussion with the young people (roughly 11-14 years of age) gave a lovely insight into the process and challenges endured and enjoyed by the participants.

Day 2: Puppetry in Healthcare workshop

The second day afforded me some opportunity to interrogate my own facilitation and co-production ethos with a merry crew of roughly 18 people who joined in a workshop on Puppetry in Healthcare settings; one of four running concurrently throughout the day at the Centre for Speech and Drama.  The participants came variously from backgrounds in performance, mental health and educational settings and brought rich and diverse content to our discussions on best practice in this field.

Taking a ‘learning by doing’ approach we got stuck into a 20-minute puppet making session after some initial introductory activities and discussion on my experience of working with Helium  in Ireland.  Twenty minutes is a relatively short time by most standards of puppetry workshops but it is a luxury compared to what I call ‘hospital time’ where circumstances can change minute to minute based on the health conditions, therapy schedules or availability of participants when they may have visitors. The workshop participants rose to the challenge masterfully and afterwards reflected on the merits of a short time limit as a way to subvert negative self-criticism or perfectionism.  In the event, the range, spontaneity and responsiveness of the participants to the materials provided enabled the production of some wonderful simple puppets that were easy to manipulate, an important factor for working with potentially fatigued patients.  It is also useful to note that the simpler the features of a puppet, the more universal the appeal and openness to interpretation it may have. This is understood by cartoonists, for example, as the most conducive way to facilitate identification with the character by even a diverse audience because they can project themselves more freely onto an non-complex representation.

With the puppets ready, we used some ‘puppet exercises’ to explore movement and encourage appropriate mobility for each participant and played a number of story games to develop characters and brainstorm potential narratives.  Then I described several rehearsal tools used in the Theatre of the Oppressed genre and on forming three groups, the participants developed rehearsal pieces based on their chosen technique.

The result were three incredibly diverse development pieces, each powerful and innovative in their own way and all created in a remarkably short space of time (hospital time!).  The final session of the day was a plenary that enabled us to share our outcomes and discoveries with the other three workshop groups.  Some pertinent questions that emerged for our group were:

How can we form alliances and continue to support radical practices in the face of funding cuts to the arts?

How can we demonstrate the legitimacy of work in this area without raising false expectations or prescribing beneficial outcomes such as seems to be demanded in the administrative forms of institutions and funding bodies?

How can we use our documentation to best communicate the merits of our processes to staff and administrators of health institutions who work in very different ways?

How can work in healthcare contexts address the greater project of social well-being without perpetuating normative interpretations of ‘health’ and a reformist attitude to what is perceived as ill health, especially in disability and mental health contexts?

How can we support those experiencing mental health conditions not to stigmatise themselves?

Personally, I am looking forward to exploring these and more at the next Hands On! Symposium hosted by the Little Angel Theatre and I would encourage all practitioners in this area to join in likewise. For more information about this event go to: or check out The Little Angel Theatre online for updates on forthcoming events.

Siobhán Clancy

This article is an opinion piece and the views represented do not necessarily reflect those of Helium Children’s Arts and Health

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