Puppets for Refugees 8
When and how to end
I set off for Athens last October with a one-way ticket and an open mind, not knowing if I’d be gone for two weeks or six. Five months later and I’m still here. I came with a very specific agenda, to do puppet making with refugee children – financially supported and encouraged by friends, family and even people I don’t know through a Crowdfunding cause, Just Giving – Without this, I doubt I’d have done anything like this. I’d also just run the Beacons Lantern Procession so combined my wages from this, packed my rucksack, half full with puppets and left.
There’s no denying that the situation in Greece is challenging and critical; both with the economy and for refugees, but my personal experiences are heart-warming and positive. Some of this has to be credit to the puppets or rather puppetry, and some credit I guess my nature, but more importantly, the fact that people like, need and love to play. The value of small groups engaging in creative activities should never be under-estimated: To draw, paint, make and perform/be performed to; to bring a few children together, away from everyday life and its’ troubles to draw birds or make shadow puppet fish – to share and do something, make something good together; show it off and laugh and run around and play is marvellous – That’s what it’s all about for me.
The trouble with having an open-ended project is, not knowing when it will end. Back in January I thought, maybe ‘Puppets for Refugees’ is all done. I looked at what activities I’d done; whether it was worth it; how long I’ve been here; the money I’ve spent and if there’s more to be done: Self-evaluating.
My original crowd funding brief was – to run puppet making activities for young immigrants and refugees living in unofficial camps and temporary accommodation in Athens, where facilities and activities for young people are much needed.
After three months of being very active, running activities most days, I was feeling a sense of accomplishment – I’d done what I’d said I’d come out to do and felt like it had gone well; exceptionally well. But when will it end? Also by the New Year, I had decided I wanted to stay in Athens for longer – for as long as I could! I was making good friends and starting to collaborate on other projects. While working these things out, I started making ‘soft puppets’ hand/glove puppets made from fabric, found materials and 2cm foam – and so appeared, Frank/Fotis, Spyros the seagull and Φίδι the snake to name a few.
Was I getting distracted from my purpose or was I developing and evolving as I do?
At one point, I decided that I’d end my crowd funding agreement, only to find myself running more workshops, putting on plays and making giraffes for refugee children and taking them to a street carnival. I strongly suspect this is what I’ll keep doing wherever I am. But as far as the Crowd funding ‘Puppets for Refugees’ cause goes, it’s time to conclude, making this my last blog post and say, Thank you kindly – for me it’s been an unbelievable lifetime experience and I hope it’s brought some joy where it’s really needed. Well, I know it has – and that will continue.
The Old Man and the Seagull – at Spirou Trikoupi 17
Spyros was very pleased with himself. With his face full of expressions, beautiful yellow legs knotted at the knees and his folding/flapping wings, he felt ready for a show. My good friend Martin came from England to see us and we prepared. I cut open a large cardboard box which unfolded into a small stage and became the sea once I’d cut out a wave pattern along the top and splashed blue, green and white acrylics and smeared with a wet sponge: Great effects and an exhilarating experience!
Our venue was a housing squat for refugees; one I’d only just been introduced to. The large empty room would be our theatre for the night. We set up our back of stage in an old serving bar; rigged up a line and suspended a sheet and dangled a small flock of cardboard cut-out seagulls behind it to be lit. I’d met Bram two days before and asked him if he’d like to be a fisherman in our play and delighted to say, he was up for it. The three of us raced through our ‘private dress rehearsal’ and set off to perform. Robin gathered lots of very excited young children, parents and a few friends appeared. The rest was a blur. Probably because I’d let the kids play with the puppets before the show – it was chaos. They just wanted to play and I was playing along with them. Eventually the show got underway, but I couldn’t be heard. I came round the cardboard sea stage with Spyros to catch fish and the poor gull was pulled and grabbed. I could barely keep my head above water. Fortunately, Robin came to the rescue – “Patrick! What are you doing? Nobody can hear you! What is the story?” – I just gulped. She pulled me and Spyros ashore and clapped her hands. “Right, children!” Me and Spyros sat upright next to her and mimed out the rest of the show – adapted so that it could be heard and enjoyed; which it was! – Very much so, by everyone, although a few of our friends looked very bemused.
I understand now why theatres have curtains!
The Big Catch – at Khora
The following week we did a sequel show, though much developed.
On the Tuesday afternoon, we take some paints, pick up some cardboard boxes on the way and set up in the cafe where there were a few adults sitting around after lunch. I open out a large cardboard box and draw out the sea with a marker pen while chatting to a lady sitting there who seems amused as I squirt blue and white paint in swirls. I pass her a brush and she chuckles and blends the paint that become the crests of the waves. I draw out some fish, a crab and a fishing boat on card. A guy comes over and introduces himself, saying he can paint; he shows me a picture on his phone and takes a cardboard fish to colour. Some lads gather round and soon we were all busy painting and chatting about fish, racism and where we are all from; Morocco, Pakistan, Syria, Afghanistan, England. A little girl joins us from the crèche and decorates several fish beautifully while Robin paints the boat. A couple of hours later and we’re all done. Everyone’s had a good afternoon.
The next day, we go back with Spyros and Fotis the fisherman. We pick up the cardboard set and set it up in the crèche. It’s a quieter day than usual. There’s about 7-8 kids, about 3-6 year old’s. They’re all very giddy, but Robin soon has our audience sat crossed legged and still. We set up the cardboard sea as our stage, Robin puts on Fotis as the fisherman and I take Spyros.
Our story begins with Spyros moaning that he’s tired of flying all the time to catch fish. He sees Fotis has a boat for sale and fancies fishing from a boat. Fotis rents him the boat for 10 fish a day. “Easy!” Spyros says and sets sail. Robin narrates the story and has the children saying how many fish Spyros catches: 1, 2, 3… Spyros, feeling peckish, eats all his catch and soon falls asleep. Suddenly a storm brews and wakes poor Spyros – “Oh, no! It’s getting dark and I haven’t any fish!” It’s windy and raining but he keeps fishing and catches more – 1, 2, 3… 8, 9…and Oh! He catches a crab! “It will have to do!” he thinks and heads back to shore where Fotis is waiting for him – “Well, have you got my fish?” Spyros and the children count out the fish, 1, 2, 3 ..9 – and a crab. The crab pinches Fotis on his toe and he throws all the fish in the air and Spyros catches them! Fotis says he can have the fish and takes back his boat. Now Spyros is happy and decides flying is for him after all.
The show was all over in 15 minutes. It was exhausting but the kids loved it! We left them playing with the cardboard set and took Spyros and Photis home until another day. Both of the Spyros shows were completely different – in fact every time I do something it’s completely different. As much as I enjoyed preparing the set beforehand for ‘The Old Man and the Sea Gull’, I think it works far better to do a lot of the preparation with others – who will then see/be in the show.
I’ve long since liked ‘painting on cardboard’ as an activity, but this really comes to life when making a set and props for a show – exploring different combinations of involvement/participation: Making and performing the puppets myself; writing the play with a collaborator; making the set with a group of children: various concoctions – It’s an ever-evolving process. Adapting, developing and shaping the format and then trying something completely new and different because its’ been offered. It’s good to have a plan and be prepared not to stick to it!
A Tower of Giraffes
I was introduced to the people organising Metaxourgio Carnival in February. They were busy making costumes and a giant sacrificial ram made of junk to set alight at the finale of the carnival – I met them just in time as I had it in my head to make a giraffe. I discussed my ideas and they welcomed them. There was less than two weeks to go. I’m not sure where the idea to make giraffes came from. I remember last October, going on a day-trip with a group of refugees to the Acropolis – As not to get lost, we raised one arm in the air and moved our hands resembling an ostrich. It worked! We kept together and nobody got lost. Somehow, I think this transformed into a giraffe as a good idea for a carnival character.
Using cardboard boxes and brown paper found on the street, I made my first giraffe. Robin came round and we made more.
We walked the giraffes across Athens and joined the carnival. The children wore the giraffes on their heads and carried them held high. It was wonderful seeing our giraffes above the bustling crowd, bobbing against the bright blue sky, walking the streets of Athens.
When it was time for the family to leave, we handed the giraffes over to people in the crowd and watched them disappear into the carnival. Later on, we re-joined the carnival and spotted the giraffes still having fun. We even made an appearance in Athenian on-line magazine, Lifo
Light and Shadows
For the first few weeks here, it was mostly shadow puppetry that I did with the children. I find it works well as an activity for various reasons. Shadow play is:
- Zero-budget – some card, a sheet and a light source and you’re away!
- Quick results – With sometimes several languages to contend with, all instructions are communicated through actions and examples. Aims and objectives aren’t easily clarified so the process needs to unravel quickly to reveal the purpose and result; from drawing a bird on card, cutting it out, attaching it to a chopstick and illuminating it with a torch from behind a pillow case – keeping the kids engaged and entertained enough to want to get involved.
- Accessible – You don’t have to ‘be able to draw well’ a torn piece of card can resemble a fantastic beast.
- Simple and Reliable – The simplicity of light-shadow puppetry never lets you down.
Doing sessions in different places meant travelling light and with shadow puppetry, all that’s needed is thin card, pens, scissors, sticks, a sheet, a washing line and a light source. I enjoyed experimenting with different lights; simple bulb in a mains socket, various LED torches and lamps and fairy lights. When the lamps failed (the electrics didn’t work or it was too bright) we used sunlight.
My first screens were a torn pillow case and a shoe box with a window in the lid, covered with tissue paper from inside the box. I made a small puppet of a fox that I still carry round with me to show ‘how it works’ From using a large sheet of cardboard box with a window as a screen frame, Javed kindly made us an excellent, solid frame from plywood that the kids painted. This worked perfectly and led us to our first proper puppet show. There’s plenty of scope to experiment, adapt and explore.
My learning from trying to put on a show with children as the audience is, don’t! There are better ways. Children want to be actively involved, participate, take control. They don’t always want to sit quietly and be entertained by adults and what adults think entertains children. I think children should be included and involved wherever possible.
I love puppetry but painting has to be the most essential creative practice of all! It can be delicate and precious – it can be untamed expression. Where puppets induce play, painting is cathartic therapy. I find that I need to change activities every now and then to keep my interest and enthusiasm alive. Switching from working with puppets to paining does this.
When we were painting our new shadow screen-frame, Javed made, there were 10 or so children, ranging from 4 years to 15. The older ones took time and care in detailing the animals and flowers they painted, whereas the youngest child, was content to mix all the colours together like mud and make swirls for hours. It was hard not to be precious and protective if one child painted over another’s picture, but considering the amount of children, different ages/needs and their incredible energy – they produced a work of art and beauty.
If you’re ever stuck for what to do with children, put on an old shirt, open up a big cardboard box and get out the paints!
With Puppets, I consider myself a maker – or facilitator of makers, and definitely not a performer. When making puppets with others, it’s inevitable that a puppet show will asked for and why not? This is one reason why it’s good to collaborate with story writers and tellers, extroverts and actors, musicians and organisers. Something in me craves to perform to others and be entertaining and overcome my social awkwardness and reservations – Then needs must and I find myself offering to sing or perform, so I do it. It doesn’t always go smoothly, but it’s always fun.
I Think I’m Going Soft
I brought some of my puppets with me to Athens; Three soft puppets; Little Gob, Croc and Baby Croc. I also brought marionettes with me, even though I knew that they wouldn’t be puppets that children could play with or operate. They’re labours of love and with heads made of non-fire clay, so they’re quite fragile.
Morris did make an appearance at one of the workshops and even did a jig alongside while our friend, Sakis played his violin. One young girl found him very entertaining, while another ran off shrieking when she met him. Morris does look a bit scary, I guess! But the soft puppets have had nothing but great times. They’re not only soft, yet sturdy. They can withstand being ragged and pulled and even worn, which is essential!
Puppets are contagious! I love it that some of the friends I’ve made here have starting making puppets. Valeria had an idea to make the Mechanic of the Universe, a frog-like alien who fixes the stars when they go out – paying homage to her grandfather, it was made as a gift for her niece.
It’s a clever puppet – with its’ soft, fluffy green head and yellow eyes that light up and long green arms with gloves that the puppeteers wears, enabling the puppet to dance, hug and pick up his hammer and wrench from his tool box and fix things. Watching him in action is completely memorising!
Robin’s made a badger, a goat and a mole. It was great watching Robin make the mole; he’s terrific. She conjures him up from a bundle of old clothes she’s found along the way, sews on his pink snout, dons a scarf and Hey presto! A perfect example of a zero-budget puppet – impressive!
Make Incredible Puppets
Throughout January and February, I ran workshops on Sundays at an architect’s studio in Psirri, in central Athens.
My friend and graphic designer, Luisa produced an amazing design, a Facebook event was made and friends were invited. I took a bundle of materials, a few tools, some puppets for back-up and got to work. Around 6-7 people came to the workshops; adults and someone brought their 10 year old son.
Most of the puppets made were by using the Muppet-style head template and made out of foam. Each of them took on different forms. We sat for 6 hours on Sundays making away – I was in my element. It was incredible!
Soft Puppet Making
Situated next to Akademia Platonos (where Plato taught) Kafenerio is a friendly co-operative café I particularly like. Last Halloween, Valeria took me and Little Gob and other puppets there – I soon found myself talking to lots of people and being invited to take my puppets to run activities elsewhere. So I was delighted when I was asked to run a couple of puppet making workshops there – and in particular, soft puppet making for children and adults. Perfect!
I find my way there and empty my bags over two tables. Scraps of fabric, foam, ping pong balls… all sprawled out, along with Spyros, Croc and Little Gob. A couple come in with their two young girls. “Hello, would you like to make a puppet?” – I start with my sister, Sarah’s technique and hand the girls a piece of paper and marker each and ask them to draw, what they’d like to make. One draws a fish, the other a cat. Dad and the older daughter set about making a fish by wrapping a piece of foam around her arm. The younger girl wants an open/closing muppet-style head, so I draw out the template on to the foam for her to copy and cut out and glue gun together with her mum. The hours pass and they take home their creations to finish – they all seem very pleased. As I’m about to pack up, a woman and her daughter start to make a fairy, but their food arrives before we get properly started. I’m invited to join them and we eat together – I feel very looked after. Before I leave, I’m discussing running more sessions there. I think I’m going to like it here.
Soft Puppets go to Estia
It’s time to get out of the city for a while. I hop on a bus with a bagful of puppets and head for Galaxidi, to Estia Agios Nikolaos the life-sharing community for adults with disabilities. In November, Robin and me spent a week at Estia making and painting shadow puppets and putting on a show. This time we run a couple of soft puppet making sessions with just a few residents. We make a few foam heads in preparation – One, using the Muppet-style head template and others by wrapping and sculpting 2cm foam around each others’ hands for them to add to.
The table is full of pieces fur fabric, colourful feathers, tactile scraps of material, ping pong balls and things to choose from and personalise their puppets with, arranging pieces in place for me to fix with the glue gun.
The shared laughter from everyone as the puppets come to life is a treat.
More soft puppet making!
Why? Because it’s wonderful. Right now, I like having the Muppet-style foam head to start from, but the hood of a jacket or a woolly hat works just great. Soft puppet making is accessible and liberating. – I think they’re the two prime ingredients for me, in puppetry with others. Anyone can make a puppet! You can use old clothes, gaudy fabrics, buttons for eyes, broken zips for mouths – You can sew – or learn to sew – Now that’s a handy skill to have. You don’t need to spend ANY money! But you can if you want and mooch around market stalls hunting for that special ribbon or treat yourself to a good glue gun and a sharp pair of scissors. You can make with other people, spend hours sewing while putting the world to rights. You can play. You can be cheeky! You can bring joy – and if you really want to, you can put on a show. You can make ANYTHING – a goat, the mechanic of the universe, a horse, an ex-boyfriend, a black seagull that turns into a boy, the Abyss, a fish, a pink octopus-thingy – these are just some of the things I’ve witnessed come to life this year, all made by other people, all first time puppet-makers, all completely incredible. There really is no end.
The Travelling Shadow Puppets
Teaming up with Robin last October has been brilliant. We’ve worked really well together, complimenting and encouraging each other’s skills and abilities which has led to many unforgettable fun-filled experiences. We’ve been quite prolific and built up a solid portfolio of work – so we’ve founded this collaboration and named ourselves, the Travelling Shadow Puppets. We have a website for you to look at HERE – We are looking for more projects that will sustain our work with refugees and anyone else who could benefit from some puppet-play.
Thanks again for supporting me in bringing joy to refugees through puppetry.