8th September, 2020: Q&A with Sue Buckmaster

8th September, 2020: Q&A with Sue Buckmaster

Sue Buckmaster of Theatre Rites joined us this week for an informal Q&A about her work with Theatre Rites. She started by outlining how she arrived in puppetry, how Theatre Rites started 25 years ago, and gave a potted history of the company’s trajectory from then to now.

Rather than being an exhaustive replication of the Q&A, this blog will look at just three of the many questions taken by Sue from our alumni. Her answers below are paraphrased.

Theatre Rites is often described as a ‘risk-taking company’. What are your conditions for a good experiment? 

Every show should be a risk. You’re working on it for a long time, and there needs to be a sense of development in order for a project to remain interesting for the artist. It needs to have a scope for an emotional or intellectual or cultural journey. Risk is a difficult thing to talk about with your producing hat on, because funders and organisations need to feel that they are doing something interesting, but without a significant financial risk. So my advice would be, take a risk, but couch the risk differently depending on who you’re taking to! Remember that as artists, your understanding of your art form is far beyond the administrators. Write your funding applications as though you were writing it three years ago. That is how slow the administrators are in catching up with a field. It’s perhaps interesting to talk about one of Theatre Rites’ most recent productions, Robot Boy. For us, what was ‘risky’ about that show was that we started with a text; not our usual process! We managed that risk by thinking about it in terms that married our process- the writer was an expert in the room, not the driving force. This left us with the reins we needed to do what we do best, even though starting with text was a risky thing for us to do.

How do you approach working with non-puppeteers on a puppetry project?

If you don’t have really good puppeteers, have a really good puppet. That will save you a lot of grief. My second piece of advice would be, if a performer doesn’t look good doing something, don’t make them do it. Your job as a director is to make everyone look great at doing what they’re doing. Over the years, I’ve met a few performers who are genuinely puppet-phobic. At the casting stage, make sure you introduce a puppet. If somebody lacks technique, it’s possible to build technique in the room and in a particular bit of choreography. But if someone has a genuine fear of puppets, that’s going to read on stage no matter what you do as a director. I also try to help non-puppeteers place value in the puppet. Sometimes, I’ll start by telling them the economic value of the puppet. That seems to help a lot of the time. But I will also invest time in the room developing a performer’s sense of a puppet’s emotional value. I think that that is very important.

What are the pitfalls, or things to be aware of, when approaching working with puppets or objects in a site-specific situation?

In a site-specific situation, everything is a pit fall. There is so much that can go wrong! So essentially, the most important thing is to be an optimist. A lot of puppetry is problem-solving, so I would say that generally puppeteers are brilliant in a site-specific setting. Rather than talking about pitfalls, I’d like to talk about the gifts of site-specific work. Objects exist in a site-specific setting in a way that they can’t when the environment is inauthentic, like a theatre. In the theatre, the object can’t ever be ‘real’. Whereas, in site-specific work, objects seem to garner a greater reality.

My final piece of advice is to think about your audience in site-specific work. If they don’t have a seat, and you’re not moving after 10 minutes…beware an audience’s rage! They’ll be distracted from the work, wondering why they can’t sit down. Thinking about the work from the audience’s point of view is so key in site-specific projects.

Our Still Curious Tuesday sessions are enabled thanks to the generous support of Arts Council England.