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A catch up with Stephen Mottram

Our Producer Becky Pereira caught up with master marionettist Stephen Mottram ahead of him bringing his renowned production 'Moments from In Suspension' to Newcastle Puppetry Festival next week.

BP: Where did the inspiration for the show come from? 

SM: The inspiration for the first piece I’ll do in Newcastle was finding a dumped load of prosthetic limbs in a ditch in Norfolk. They were wooden arms and legs, painted in quite bright pink and ochre colours with leather straps and I thought, “why not make whole bodies which look like that?”

BP: Parts of this show are 30 years old, how has it evolved and how have you evolved as a performer in this time?

SM: The show ‘In Suspension’, is really a body of about three hours of work made up of individual 10 – 15 minute pieces which I made throughout the 80’s. Some were suitable for children and some less so. That allowed me to vary the programmes to suit different audiences. The pieces themselves are very different, each developed from a different movement idea. I suppose what unifies them is that on each project I worked with a composer, to ensure a very tight link between sound and image. This

working practise eventually led to a longer work with Glyn Perrin, who produced the score for ‘The Seed Carriers’.

This bigger project forced me to confront the question of what I wanted to express to an audience and that turned out to be a sort of anguish at the precariousness of the human condition, nevertheless presented in the most magical way I could achieve. I wanted to make a piece using marionettes which left the audience talking about the content and the music instead of the puppets as they left the theatre.

The next show was The Seas of Organillo and that was about the biology of reproduction, presented however, using the traditional marionette form of the ‘Underwater Ballet’. There were a lot of swimming creatures which I enjoyed showing, but maybe the subject matter seemed a bit abstract to the non-cell-biologists which must have made up my audiences….

Recently I have moved away from the String Puppet and have been experimenting with really minimal puppets, like a handful of white sticks, which can be made to show movement to an audience which almost magically expresses the human body and its emotions. The start of this process was ‘The Quest’, made with Oxford Youth Theatre in 2013 and then ‘The Parachute’ which was a musical collaboration with Sebastian Castagna in 2016.

BP: Who, where and what influenced your style when you first began building and performing with puppets?

SM: I was originally drawn to the physical object of the puppet and wanted at first just to make them. My first marionette was made when I was studying in Sweden in 1976. It took some time before I realised the real point of it all was to engage with an audience. Then in 1982 I had an Arts Council Bursary which allowed me to spend a year studying mime and movement, and that made me want to work in movement theatre, using puppets. This has more or less always been my attitude to puppetry. The movement is always the key element. So, my first mime teacher, Desmond Jones was a big influence, as was the puppeteer, Barry Smith. The great marionette showman Eric Bramall showed me what the String Puppet was capable of and made me want to use them to make theatre. The same is true for Albrecht Roser and John and Lyndie Wright. I suppose the big discovery which helped me to make more serious work later, was that marionettes could work well with some types of electroacoustic music, so I have to thank Denis Smalley the composer for his early help in steering me towards musical collaborators when making the later pieces for ‘In Suspension’. I am also very grateful to Ray DaSilva for his support and wisdom over the many years I have known him.

BP: What is your favourite performance memory?

SM: I have a ballet-pastiche which uses very simple puppets - nothing more than small pieces of cloth. One of the characters is a Prince. His movement is very intuitive because there is no real way to be certain what he will do as a result of the pulls on his strings. He is just a piece of cloth with three strings to connect him to me. One day, performing in a primary school in Uig, on Skye, I must have been so intuitive about my manipulation, that I found myself watching him do something which I had not consciously led him to do. His behaviour was so perfectly ‘in character’, that I started

laughing. I had a joyous sensation that the puppet was separate from myself and acting alone. I’ll be doing the Ballet in Newcastle, so the Prince will once again be treading the boards.

'Moments from In Suspension' will be performed Tuesday 11th April 2023, 6pm at Dance City. Book your tickets here.

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