Our Technical Manager David decided that after years of watching participants take part in the John Roberts carving course, it was about time he took part. Read below for a wonderful tale of the process, from sketching of feet to a beautifully made marionette.

David and his finished Marionette

The Little Angel regularly runs marionette carving courses, lead by John Roberts, artistic director of PuppetCraft theatre company and a former Little Angel company member. John has the thorough precision and ceaseless energy typical of the old school generation of Little Angel puppeteers. Having worked with him several times I know he has exacting standards, and will work you until you drop. However he also has a mischievous glint in his eye, is generous in his praise, insightful in his guidance and is a fantastic tutor. He goes endearingly silly when he has a puppet in his hands and there’s always a pot of tea being brewed.

Part of my job involves preparing John’s materials and tools, so I’ve seen several courses come and go. Having seen what can be achieved in a week, and wanting to learn as much as I can about puppetry, I’ve taken a week off to make my own marionette.

The team comes together

Monday morning bristles with anticipation. It’s a crack team of fledgling makers this week.

Carol has been in our Education department’s team of makers for years.

Ahmed is a professional maker and performer from Egypt.

Alison is a fabulous model maker, and has just been in Croatia with her own puppet show.

Jean has already made marionettes with the London School of Puppetry.

Nerina is one of our regular volunteers and workshop students, and was on John’s last course. She’s returning this term to compete an extraordinary double-jointed giraffe the size of a daschund.

Hang on, I’m the least experienced and I work here!

The character emerges

For months I’ve been promising that I’ll make the most plain, simple figure so I don’t get bogged down in character details, but in the last week in my other role as a dewy-eyed doting daddy, I’ve been making sketches of my little girl. So I’m going to make a little puppet toddler, whose plump tummy and chubby legs will be my carving challenges.

David’s going to find this next section really, really hard!” John keeps announcing as I carve my tiny limbs. “But then, you’ve all got a hell of a lot to do!”

Carol and I eye each other warily. We have both been trying to get on this course for years, and are juggling childcare. Each of us is already rehearsing begging speeches to our respective partners. I’m not going to do my share of storytimes this week.

Nerves get the better

John instructs me to draw around my foot to make a template. As I reach down to undo my laces I notice that nobody else is. Surely this is a wind-up, it’s a practical joke on the guy who works here. I’m being set up to break the ice. Still, it could be a double bluff, so I sneak off to the photocopying room, strip down to a bare foot and trace it. “Ha! Nobody’s making a fool of me,” I congratulate myself as I walk back to the workshop, clutching my sketch.

In the workshop Alison is drawing around her unsocked foot. “Excellent,” declares John. “Look everybody, that’s exactly how to do it! Well done Alison!”

As the rest of the group unbuckles and unpicks, I sheepishly pin my sketch up above my workstation, and vow to keep my imagination to a minimum and just concentrate on the task in hand.

A rich history

John unravels a collection of dozens of chisels and carving tools. “This is what I would typically use back when I carved my first hundred puppets,” he says in a very matter of fact manner. “Then I devised a new method, based on the secret marionette carving skills I learnt living in China, when I was the first Westerner ever invited to work and study alongside their puppet- makers.” Wow, it’s a pretty impressive back-story. I’ve got some really good hair gel Shane Richie let me keep after we did a show together at the Kings Head. I’d say John wins hands down.

The technique

Puppet carving is an intricate process. We draw models, then expand and adjust over and over, marking out joints, fiddle with limb lengths. Blocks of wood have the basic outlines drawn on with carbon paper, and are then chopped to a rough shape on the band saw. The refining process whittles these chunky shapes down, and a decision has to be made on the desired finish. Sometimes the roughly hewn look suits a character – the finer puppet maker might end up with something looking like fine marble. Jointing is complex, and it’s easy to forget whether you’re working on left or right, shin or thigh, arm or leg. Take care not to feel downhearted when you see your neighbour streaks ahead, and take greater care not to gloat if you finish the day with more limbs complete. It’s easy to feel like a natural master when you’ve finished one little step, but the next one will almost certainly be harder.

Font of all knowledge

John gives me a lesson in sharpening chisels.

Hold the chisel against the sharpening block, at the same angle as the beveled edge. That’s right.”

The chisel wobbles, imperceptibly.

No, you’ve moved.

That’s better.”

I focus all of my mental and physical energy on remaining resolutely statuesque.

You’ve moved again.

That’s it.

That’s wrong.

That’s it again.

You’ve gone the other way now.”

John explains that his stone is a higher quality found only in a remote mine in Arkansas, but it is becoming scarce due to overmining. I wonder if there’s anything John does that he is not a complete expert in. John started out as an architecture student. If he brings this much precision and detail to carving a four-inch block of wood, what would he be like on a shopping centre?

He shows me how to rub the chisel into the sharpening block at a particular speed and strength.

“You should be able to hear a very high pitched zinging noise, and feel it running through your arms. Can you hear that?”

“Yes,” I lie.

The final stretch

By Friday afternoon the end is in sight. Having followed John’s instructions step by step, it suddenly becomes clear that we’re within touching distance of getting our puppets strung. Controls are assembled, and suddenly what were piles of limbs become articulated figures. No longer looking to John for approval, we all instinctively fly through the final stages. We help each other solder and string, partly through solidarity and partly to free the tools up as quickly as possible. For the first time all week nobody’s chatting – we’re nearly there!

Word must be in the air that a course is on; a stream of great makers and puppeteers appear during the week. Chloe Purcell drops by to glance over our efforts, the great Jane Eve pops in to give everything a once over. On Friday afternoon Ronnie Le Drew and Keith Jury emerge as stringing begins. They’ve obviously smelt fresh marionettes in the air, and they’re immediately helping to thread controls and give new puppets their first steps.

Even Nerina’s giraffe is completed. It’s been a fantastic week and we all handle our puppets for the first time with nervous pride. They’re all accomplished: rich in character, and alive with movement.

Somewhere in South Africa the English football team are labouring to a tedious 0-0 draw with Algeria, but in this little room we’re celebrating a victory and raise John aloft on our shoulders!

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