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Mark Down - The S*x Lives Of Puppets Interview

Blind Summit are some of the most established puppeteers in the world (their cohort of exceptional makers and puppeteers have contributed to the creation of some of the most extraordinary spectacles of recent years, including War Horse and Pinocchio at the Royal National Theatre, The Lorax at the Old Vic and giant storybook characters in the opening ceremony of London’s 2012 Olympic Games). 

Their new show, ‘The Sex Lives of Puppets’ runs from 4th Jan - 13th Jan 2024 at Southwark Playhouse. The show is a multi-layered piece of theatre. On the surface, offering a fun and frank exploration of puppet desire at the hands of their Dionysian puppet-masters, and on a deeper level engaging skilled puppetry to express human moods, fears, worries, hang-ups and desires that will immediately resonate with its audience.

Ahead of the run we caught up Mark Down, artistic director of Blind Summit, to discuss the show.

Where did your puppeteering journey begin?
Well there was a Punch and Judy show in Weymouth where I was brought up and I did put on a puppet show in the village fete when I was a kid, but actually I date the beginning of my interest to seeing a show by Philippe Genty in Edinburgh Festival called “Derives”. I didn’t even realise it was a puppet show until three of four years later when I was auditioning for drama school and someone there was talking about it in the context of puppetry and my ears pricked up. At drama school I was studying acting but learned some puppetry and afterwards I got the odd job as a puppeteer-actor. One of those jobs was to do a workshop with a new company that had just been set up by puppet maker Nick Barnes called Blind Summit Theatre. Strangely he had just done a summer school project with Philippe Genty…
How do you reflect on your journey with Blind Summit?
To begin with Blind Summit was something I’d do between jobs, when I was “resting” from acting work. Then we applied for some funding from the Arts Council, and we got it, so we had to make the show. That led to a two year residency at BAC, which led to Edinburgh Fringe, touring, collaborating with ENO, Met Opera, Complicite and so on. In retrospect it looks a bit like some sort of plan but in reality it was pretty random, and it still is. At the core of it I’ve remained fascinated by the power of puppets and puppetry, the adventure of discovering what they can do, and the thrill of meeting and working with amazing creative artists. I followed where the puppets led and I’m still following them. 
What inspired/attracted you to this piece?
We were experimenting with puppets talking to each other in improvised dialogues a bit like Creature Comforts. A sort of fly on the wall “mocumentary” style. It was fun and made us laugh and I wanted to find a way to put these on stage. I realised that they were most fun when they were talking about their relationships with each other, and about sex. That led me to do some research on sex lives with the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. What is really exciting is watching puppets who obviously don’t and can’t actually have a sex life, talking about sex openly and frankly. It’s a very strange and enlightening experience which makes you wonder why we don’t talk about it more. 

How do you approach telling a story such as this one through the puppets?
Well I start by running workshops with a variety of puppeteers and actors improvising around the subject, looking at the research material, and trying to make the puppets work. Always it is about how to make the puppets work. Then we show what we’ve done to an invited audience to get feedback. And I video everything we do so that I can review it later. This process continues over a series of workshop/ rehearsal periods and we slowly close in on what the core of the story is that the puppets want to tell. Another thing I do is to try and work out who the puppeteers are since ultimately they are the storytellers: they choose the puppets and make them do and say what they do and say. Then, when we are ready, we put it in front of audiences and they help us finish it off. Puppets only really come fully to life when they are in front of audiences, so I try to leave enough room for the show to grow and change during the performances so that they really live and breathe. Ultimately the story will be the story the puppets want to tell.  
What keeps you inspired?
Mostly the people I work with. I love seeing performers discover something in rehearsal. I love when someone makes a strange suggestion that sometimes lead to something magical, and I love when a strange suggestion leads to something that is  just strange. In this project I have worked with an amazing variety of actors and puppeteers, ending up with a cast of four who are making the final steps. I am co-writing and directing with Ben Keaton who is a remarkable and talented comedian/ writer/ actor and claims to know nothing about puppetry at all. Lots of different people contributed to making the puppets which happened over years, and puppet maker Russell Dean has worked brilliantly to bring them all together to make a coherent and wonderful puppet cast. And Professor Chris Bonell from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has been our puppet sex consultant. Working with all these people makes every day endlessly interesting. 
What do you hope an audience takes away from seeing the show?
I hope they will laugh at the puppetry, listen to what the puppets say and be moved by what they do. I hope the stories will fascinate them and that the sex lives of puppets will make them think about their own sex lives. And I hope they will be inspired to talk about sex, and enjoy talking about sex after the show. Since puppets really don’t have an actual sex life, they embody the fact that these things are projected inventions, and that by talking about them, we can take control of them and understand what they are. 

The Sex Lives of Puppets will run at SOUTHWARK PLAYHOUSE, BOROUGH from 4th  Jan - 13th  Jan 2024 – you can get tickets at:

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