Leading puppeteer Steve Tiplady tells Terry Grimley why small inanimate actors are in demand in British theatre...
Things are looking up for puppets at the moment. Long relegated to a sub-ghetto within the shamefully undervalued ghetto which is children's theatre, they have recently been keeping more adult company.
Much of the credit for this must go to Steve Tiplady, former artistic director of London's Little Angel Theatre, one of Britain's few surviving theatres specialising in puppetry. Last year he collaborated with Royal Shakespeare Company associate director Gregory Doran on a dramatisation of Shakespeare's erotic poem Venus and Adonis in which Michael Pennington was relegated to a voice-off role while puppets took centre stage, to great critical acclaim.
Tiplady also subsequently worked with Doran on his production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, now playing in London.
Can puppets now make themselves at home in mainstream thea-tre, or is this just a pasing fad? Tip-lady is cautiously opimistic.
"It's certainly happened a few times before, but this time I think it's been more sustained. The physical theatre lobby has really established skills like puppetry and I think people now see it as just another tool in the box.
"You probably could have counted the number of puppet directors on one finger five years ago. Now I reckon there are a lot more - probably 15 or 20 of us around the country doing this work. The stuff that's being done out there gives elements of transformation to theatre that it so sorely lacks.
"I'm a great advocate of taking puppets to actors as a rehearsal and warming-up tool. It gets people working together - even if you don't use it in the shows it's a great thing to do."
Tiplady, who returns to the West Midlands this week to give two performances of his classic one-man show Pinocchio at the Dream Factory, Warwick, says his own conversion to puppetry came about by a roundabout route.
"I wasn't one of those people who lived and breathed puppetry from my adolescence at all," he says.
"I took a drama course at college and ended up with a vague notion of wanting to act, but when I managed to start doing that I found it very unsatisfying. I was doing children's shows and working with Sue Buck-master who runs a company called Theatre-rites who do a lot of puppet-based theatre for very young children.
"Although I wasn't interested in puppets per se, I was interested in using objects to tell stories.
"I ended up creating this show called Pinocchio. I've done it for a long time but it's stayed fresh because it's evolved over the 12 years I've done it."
His first connection with the Little Angel Theatre came about when he performed Pinocchio there.
"I remember it was a great honour to actually do my show there. They have a few visiting companies and they set the bar high in terms of standards, it seems to me.
"Then about four years ago I ended up directing a show, Jonah and the Whale, there which was very sucessful. So when the artistic director's job came up two years ago I applied for it."
He left the job last August, having found the commuting - he lives in Cambridge - a bit of a stretch. He now freelances - including a recent shadow play which toured Birmingham primary schools in association with Balsall Heath-based company Language Alive.
A new show for very young children is due to premiere in April, and Venus and Adonis is due to be revived next year as part of the RSC's Complete Works festival in Stratford.
And then there is always Pinocchio.
"It's what I do - the show I hope I'm still touring when I'm 85," he
"I feel a huge personal connection to it, and I just love doing it. The story is told by a carpenter and it's created on stage, so all the tools in his workshop come alive in the story, and Pinocchio emerges from a log.
"I made it in 1994. Actually I haven't done it so much in the last couple of years because I've been so busy, but I've probably done it 600 times.
"It has elements of improvisation in it, so there's no way it will be the same twice. So that keeps it alive, and I find new things in it all the time. That's why I think of it as my core show, the thing I love to do. "
* Steve Tiplady performs Pinocchio at The Dream Factory, Shelley Avenue, Warwick on Saturday at 1.30pm and 4pm (Box office: 01926 419555).