A puppet carving course with John Roberts at Little Angel Theatre

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‘A rites of passage for puppeteers and makers.’

‘Be prepared for it to be full on’

‘Be prepared to not finish your puppet’

‘Careful of your fingers’

‘John Roberts is lovely’

I guarantee people will say one of the above phrases when you ask them what John Roberts’ puppetry course is like.  I’d say it seems to be a rights of passage for anyone that wants to be a puppeteer, or a maker, or anyone at all in fact. One of John’s most dedicated students is an osteopath, apparently.

I’d never held a power drill in my life.

As you can probably see from my other blog posts, I’m happy enough with a needle and thread in my hand, or a lump of clay, or a laptop. But I’ve never used a power drill, never handled a gouge, and never had to sharpen a pin on an electric grinding machine, until John Roberts came along.

Swapping the desk for a work bench.

John Roberts is the calmest, most zen-like teacher I have ever had – particularly given the intensity of the course. His sense of humour is also very, very special.

There were six of us, all working on our own puppets, each with our own workbench and equipment in the making workshop at the side of the Little Angel Theatre. Everyone at the theatre is very welcoming and helpful and serious about the craft of puppet making. It felt like being at home on a completely new planet.

Let the puppet making begin.

It was a week of FULL-ON, fast paced, no-messing-about puppet carving. We started off with a short tutorial about wood grain, carving tools and how to avoid gouging our own eyes out. Then we launched into what felt like a non-stop week of 9am until 7pm of measuring, drawing, tracing, sawing, carving, gouging, drilling and chopping.

There was no time for pondering, theorising, facebooking or nattering. Tea was made, but making time to drink was a skill to develop in itself. How often does such concentrated work happen for 5 days in a row? It felt good – exhausting – but very wholesome and good.

I have never made so many mistakes in my life.

The first thing I gained from the course was a much deeper respect for craftsmanship; all the minute considerations, the accuracy required down to the millimetre, the history, the quirky names for tools and the importance of looking after your chisel (including how to avoid letting Larry the theatre cat sit on your chisel).

I also learned that getting things wrong is a pain in the ass, but a problem isn’t a disaster – it’s part of the process. You just do it again and you do it right. At points during the process I became very frustrated with myself. Very very frustrated. But luckily there was no time for the inner critic to do anything about it. John doesn’t permit meltdown. I just had to pull my socks up as quickly as I could and keep going. That was a lesson for life; don’t dwell on it for too long, just get on and do it better.

The end result.

There is an end result and there isn’t. As in the picture above, the end result is in pieces, and far from finished. Doing a course with John Roberts is about the journey. It’s like being a fly on the wall in the life of a dedicated master craftsperson, but getting roped in. Actually, being a fly on the wall in The Little Angel Theatre for the week is a hugely valuable life experience in itself. The puppet is incidental.

Now that I know my way around a chinese chisel, and I won’t get the fear when someone hands me a power tool, I’d love to do it all over again. I might well sign up for another week next year. I know now that I can just get on with it.

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To book a course with John Roberts go to http://www.puppetcraft.co.uk/. I’d highly recommend it.

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