Features Q&A and Interviews Published 20 April 2015

Max Humphries: No Strings Attached

Max Humphries is a puppeteer and theatre maker who creates puppets inspired by the Bunraku school of Japan and the automata of 18th and 19th century Europe. He's currently puppeteer-in-residence at Farnham Maltings, where theatre designer Max Dorey met him to talk about the anatomy of the puppet, the puppet as actor, and the joys of working with no strings attached.
Max Dorey

Max Humphries: I’m just finishing up on Alice’s Adventures Underground with Les Enfants Terribles, who are a company I’ve worked with before. This show is an awful lot bigger than anything else they’ve attempted before, but I think they’re nailing it.

It’s the anniversary of the publication of the original book, so everyone is doing an Alice; there’s one at the National, and one at the LA philharmonic, and a few more dotted around. But we knew we wanted to do something very far removed from the traditional Alice. It’s kind of counter intuitive, but because there are so many Alices on you get to be much more free with what you do.

Max Dorey: Has your role in the process directly responded to the ‘needs’ of the director and designer, or have you been part of the central concept from the very start?

MH: It’s very rare that I’ll make to someone else’s design because the way my puppets are made is so much about how they work on the inside. It starts with the mechanism so it’s a bit like the skeleton of an animal – you start there and work your way out and find out what its flesh is like. So the designer Sam Wyer came up with the world, and within that world I then designed the characters. A lot of it also comes from the director and how they see the scene working, and then on top of all that there are actual restrictions, like how many people I can have in that scene to actually operate the puppet. The less people you have, the less the puppet can do. I’m constantly one puppeteer short of what I would like!

Often you have to make sacrifices , especially since getting professional puppeteers in shows is really hard. I think that in Britain it doesn’t quite have the respect it deserves as an art form so for example, if you’re doing a ballet you’ll hire ballet dancers, but puppetry is something where you’ll hire actors with puppetry experience. Some of them are good, but they are never great.

But I think a lot of this has come from the fact that in the last five years there’s been this boom in puppetry and everyone’s got very excited about it, which means no one can really differentiate between good puppetry and great puppetry unless you’re in the puppetry world. It’s very easy for people to say “Oh I’m a puppeteer because I used to play with them as a kid” but when you see a really good puppeteer use a puppet and work it, it’s something else, like Avye Leventis or Toby Olie on a puppet it, it’s just – it explodes.

MD: it was interesting you talking about the big rise in puppetry in recent years, because in 2009 when you had things like War Horse, Lion King, and companies like Kneehigh using puppets, it seemed very much like an answer to theatrical problems. I remember an article by the Puppet Centre Trust when they wrote that the old idiom of never working with children or animals was now “Use puppets instead”. Do you think the trend is still rising or has it reached a plateau?

MH: I think it’s still rising, but I think it’s been as harmful as it has been beneficial. I think it’s amazing because people are taking us more seriously, but the downside is now everyone thinks that when it comes to puppetry they know what they are talking about. Now everyone has done a puppetry weekend course, it’s very hard for professional puppeteers to get work, because they want to charge more and theatre makers will go “Oh well this other guy can use a puppet, and he can tap dance, so let’s put him in.”

A lot of people are using it where it’s ‘cool’ rather than useful and that can be harmful too. I’ve seen a lot of shows where people say “This is the most amazing puppet show.” And I think it’s more just that they haven’t seen a lot of puppetry. Actual, proper, amazing puppetry shows? I don’t think there have been many that have blown me away. So I think it’s a myth we are living in a golden age of puppetry, when actually what we’ve tried to do is to catch up with where Europe has been for the last fifty years.

Max Humpries' workshop.

Max Humpries’ workshop.

MD: I remember an early show that got me interested in puppetry was seeing The River People do ‘The Ordinaries’ at Edinburgh. I remember going thinking I wasn’t necessarily going in to see a show ‘about’ puppetry, but a piece of storytelling in its own right, whereas I think there is sometimes a use of puppetry to answer a need in the text rather than being a part of the overall process.

MH: People give lip service to it as being part of the language of British theatre, but the reality is that a lot of people view it as gimmicky. Or they see it as a quick fix but for good puppetry you have to rehearse for yonks – you have to run it and run it and run it.

MD: There are many who can’t help but see puppetry as something on the side of theatre design rather than an entity in its own right.

MH: Yeah, I get people saying “Did you get into puppetry after seeing War Horse?’ I’m like “No you f*cker, I’ve been in this since I was four years old!” Or they say things like “It’s really great puppetry is having a resurgence”, when we’re an older theatrical art form than plays. Puppetry has been around forever – we’re three or four thousand years old so the only forms that can hold a candle up to us on that level are dance and masque – but we don’t have a culture of puppetry being treated as a serious theatrical form. It’s treated like a funny thing – that’s why puppets are often animals. People are very quick to have their dog in a show be a puppet, but no one wants to make the grieving wife a puppet.

MD: I think that’s why I’m drawn to theatre design as a whole and first got into it via puppetry, because I like the idea of creating a world, right down to creating the actual characters too.

MH: It’s what Edward Gordon Craig calls the ‘über-marionette’: the concept that no actor can ever compare to a puppet in terms of inhabiting a character. What puppetry does is it gives character a purity: from the very heart, from the bottom up it is the character, and no actor can touch that. It annoys me when people say: “Wouldn’t it be better to have a ‘real’ person?'” What we are bringing to the stage is a thousand percent realism because it’s not about someone bringing their view of a role on stage, it’s about a purity of character which is animated for the show, but as soon as the show is over, and all hands drop it, it instantly dies. That’s the best thing about puppetry and the hardest thing to get across, that puppets are more alive than anyone else on stage.

I think one of the hardest things I have to do is to explain to companies that puppets aren’t props, they are performers. Sometimes you walk into a room and find that the puppets dumped on a table, or they are fucking about with them, and I have to say first of all: “Look – I’ll pin you up against a wall if you fuck about with them.” And then I’ll explain that you wouldn’t go up to your fellow actors and muck about with them against their will. I think currently the respect puppeteers and puppets should have in a rehearsal room is not there yet.

MD: So not as much of a “golden age?”.

MH: I think we are in the best place puppetry has been in British theatre in the last hundred years, but are we anywhere near the pinnacle of what it could be? Not even close.

I think what gets me is the really low standard of puppetry out there, sometimes shockingly bad. I like found object theatre but people say “I love making puppets, I love going bin diving, do you use found objects?” I think “No!” you don’t get a carpenter saying ‘I made this table out of stuff I dragged from the bin’!” With any other craft you are expected to work with the right materials, but puppetry seems to have this wacky makeshift aesthetic that I want to kill – which is why I take apprentices on, because I think there’s been a real skills gap.

As a puppet maker you constantly take skills from every discipline: you have to be a carpenter, mouldmaker, engineer, painter, tailor, shoemaker… you can never have enough skills. Being a great puppeteer is an impossible task for one lifetime. I think often there’s a lot of love for puppetry and not enough criticism of it.

MD: I reached a point where there was a gap between what I could visualise and what I could actually manufacture.

MH: I felt the same, and I’m constantly imagining things I don’t know how to make. It’s a very frustrating job which is kind of what I love about it. I think you have to choose between being a good puppet maker or a satisfied puppet maker, but you can’t be both.

MD: I sometimes approach a design as if it’s a piece of puppetry even if there’s none involved, thinking that I’m still using a visual medium to tell a story, without telling directly but showing you.

MH: I think I got that from college , where they would encourage you to think of objects as having personality and life and being a big part of the story. There’s often a sense that there is more life in your design when you’ve come from a puppetry background. Puppetry is about taking your personality outside of the body and putting it into an object which sounds difficult. It’s the hardest thing about teaching actors to be puppeteers because they are drawn to being seen on stage, and they need to learn to be invisible. You see a lot of shows these days where there’s a duality and the puppeteers interact with the puppets, but that says to me you don’t trust the puppetry itself.

MD: Is that partly due to a misunderstanding of the scale and breadth of puppetry? For example a string marionette is a world apart from a foam hand puppet, and I don’t think you’d get anyone levelling the accusation of a string puppet being unskilled.

MH: Exactly! I personally don’t do string marionettes because I want a closer connection between the puppeteer and performance.

MD: So you see the strings as another barrier between puppet and puppeteer?

MH: Yes, though you go and see say, Sarah Wright do string puppetry at the Little Angel and it’s transportative, it’s fantastic. For me, I need more of a link between performer and puppet. I think there’s a lot of marionette history that comes from the idea of the operator not being seen, whereas people of my generation and the one coming up are much more used to that bunraku type puppet, where we are not trying to hide the puppeteer.

MD: And most people now when you think of a puppet think of bunraku rather than string puppets. When Simon Godwin did Two Gents of Verona at the RSC last year he had a real dog on stage. I wonder what the interaction is with the audience when they see a real creature compared to the puppet version.

MH: When you bring a dog onstage, you bring chaos onstage. It’s the bucket of water above the door, whereas with a puppet it’s only going to piss on someone’s leg if you want it to.

You can encounter Max Humphries’ fantastical puppets first hand at Alice’s Adventures Underground , an immersive experience currently on at The Vaults. Or see more of Max Humphries’ work on his website here.