The puppet master
- Credit: Archant
She did a degree in social anthropology so how did Meg Amsden end up making puppets? Sheena Grant went to find out.
WHEN Meg Amsden was a little girl she saw a sparrow drop out of the sky and land dead in her garden.
The cause of this disturbing event, her mother told her, was a deadly insecticide called DDT, widely used in agriculture after the Second World War but eventually banned in many countries, including the UK, because of the environmental damage it caused.
The episode happened many decades ago but Meg has never forgotten it. In many ways it has helped inform much of the direction her life has taken since.
Meg lives in idyllic surroundings over-looking the Blyth estuary, near Southwold. From here, she runs the Nutmeg Puppet Company, which next year celebrates its 35th year of producing original shows and workshops inspired by environmental issues, history and legends.
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“The environment was something I felt very strongly about right from early on,” she says. “I grew up in the country and my mother was really keen on wild flowers and we used to go for walks and identify things.
“I was a child when birds started raining out of the sky because of DDT. It had a profound effect. I remember being in the garden and there were sparrows falling out of the sky. We kept finding dead birds in the garden. My mother was quite concerned about things like that.”
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Nutmeg Puppets was founded in 1979, at the end of a decade when concern about environmental issues such as nuclear weapons, commercial whaling and toxic waste had gathered pace. There was plenty for Meg to get her teeth into, even then.
“The environmental movement was growing at that time and the challenge was to present the issues we looked at in an entertaining way,” she says. “I like writing stories, so it’s never been difficult.”
Her puppets range from loveable animals and charming children’s creations to the compelling, incorporating masks and other dramatic devices to convey a story or emotion.
This year, she’s even produced her first film, called Psyche! Open the Box, a retelling of a famous story by first century Roman writer Apuleius, and is currently working on a shadow puppet show to inspire children to learn more about Suffolk’s ‘Famous Five Birds’, the bittern, barn owl, bearded tit, marsh harrier and nightingale.
A desk in her studio is littered with storyboards for the show, along with a selection of black paper ‘bittern legs’ and drawings by primary school children she has worked with as part of the ‘Famous Five’ project and is trying to incorporate into the production, which will tour venues in Suffolk and Norfolk during August and September and also features poetry, songs and film.
The studio - and adjacent office - are full of materials and papers but, surprisingly, very few puppets are in evidence.
Only a few hang on a wall in her office.
“I didn’t make those ones,” she says. “People have given them to me as gifts.”
A second look at the wall-hanging puppets confirms the absurdity of the idea that these could be the work of a theatrical puppeteer.
For, compared to these mere tourist trade marionettes, Meg’s work is exquisite.
Yet she never set out to be a puppet maker. It’s a way of life she really only stumbled upon through a somewhat unlikely route.
Brought up in Hertfordshire and academically successful at school, Meg got a place at Cambridge University to study classics.
“I hated it,” she says. “So I ended up doing archaeology because I had been interested in it in my teens. It was combined with social anthropology and because I found the archaeology bit rather dry and masculine I moved solely on to the social anthropology.
“I got to the end of the course and thought, I don’t want to study other people having fun making masks. I want to make the masks myself.
“I did do art at school. The problem was that I also did music and liked writing and dance. I liked too many different things and my school was very academic. It was thought you only did art if you couldn’t do anything else.”
After university she ended up in London for a couple of years, doing office jobs, booking people on to holiday ferries and working in shops.
“I couldn’t wait to leave London,” she says. “I grew up in the country and I felt lost in a big city. In hindsight it was useful to have that experience though, if only to know what you don’t want to do in life.”
A move to Suffolk for her husband’s work, however, gave her the chance to pursue the sort of artistic life she had first coveted at the end of her Cambridge course.
As a child she had learned contemporary dance and this provided a route into the theatrical world she now decided she would rather inhabit.
“I wanted to get involved in small-scale community events and took a dance leader’s course in Ipswich,” she says. “I had danced all my childhood, doing contemporary dance, using the imagination, which is useful if you are getting people to do their own work in workshops and such like. I also had a background in film at university, having got in with a crowd of people who made films and watched films every single night. It was a little like going to film school really.”
By now it was the mid-1970s and Meg soon found the circles she was moving in while living in Suffolk gave her the opportunity to learn and hone the skills she would need as a puppeteer.
“There were so many artists around that I knew and worked with that it was possible to learn things,” she says. “With a little touring dance and education company we went into schools and did shows and through that I met someone called Guy Richardson, who did Punch and Judy shows on Yarmouth beach.”
Guy showed Meg how to make masks for dance productions and, almost immediately, she started making puppets too.
“Guy had a way of working that was experimental. All the time we were trying things out,” she says. “I think you learn by doing that. I have the sort of mind that likes problem solving so that worked well.
“I worked with him for four of five years altogether but gradually started setting up my own ideas too. I started doing shows on Southwold beach and right from the start they were about the environment. Then we did a show about Sizewell and another about rubbish on the beach. I was interested in mythology in a general way and that feeds into telling stories, which is what my shows are about.”
The irony is that as a small child, Meg was terrified of masks and puppets.
“I couldn’t bear them,” she says. “They were just a bit too powerful. That aside, I think puppets are a very good way of presenting things one removed. Children will talk to puppets in a way they won’t talk to people. They will relate to them on a deep, intuitive level.
“It is a medium, something between you and audience that you project on to. If you do that properly no-one will even look at you as the puppeteer. It is very physical as well, so having a background of dance is useful. A puppet show has to be well choreographed.”
A few years into her beach shows, Meg was contacted by the Broads Authority and a relationship developed that has persisted ever since.
“They believed in the power of arts to educate and inspire people to love the environment,” she says. “They wanted us to do a show about the environment around the Broads. You don’t know what is going to have an impact so have to throw out a lot of stuff and hope some of it sinks in.” While many of her shows have been for children and families she has also put together performances for people in residential homes and day centres, still with an environmental theme.
Along the way, she even found time to set up and help run a children’s art club and work on an ‘Eco Puppets’ project with people in the Danube Delta area of Romania.
“We went and did workshops and worked with teachers over there to interpret the wetland environment and educate,” she says. “It was fascinating to see the birdlife and work with the people over there – that was when the social anthropology kicked in.”
More recently, she’s turned to film, collaborating on the Psyche project with musicians, other puppeteers and artists.
“I produced a shadow show about Venice that involved some film and then last year I made Psyche! Open the Box, which premiered a couple of weeks ago. Now we just have to find some venues to show it,” she says.
The 27-minute film actually grew from something that started life as a puppet show that took in themes around the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the 1980s.
“It lends itself to film because some of the items in it are small and it really needed to be set outdoors,” says Meg.
Filming took place at Meg’s home, in nearby Yoxford and even as far away as Derby and Cornwall.
The film tells the story of Psyche, the youngest and prettiest of a king’s three daughters, who attracts the attention of Cupid – and the raging jealousy of his mother Venus. Abandoned by her lover, Psyche must carry out three dangerous trials and go down to the Underworld to prove her love.
“The story is as relevant today as it ever was, as its heroine, pregnant and abandoned, puts herself into the hands of her enemy and willingly undergoes the most terrible trials in order to regain her love,” says Meg. “This she can only do with the aid of the natural world.”
The film will be shown in the cinema tent at FolkEast, which takes place in August at Glemham Hall.
Meanwhile, Windy Old Weather, a revival of Nutmeg’s popular show about the power of the wind, will be performed at Latitude on July 20. The story, told by puppets and actors, delves into history and mythology and carries the audience on the back of the wind through to the giant turbines of the 21st Century.
Pip’s Wildlife Garden, a story for three to six-year-olds, will also be on at Southwold and at Easton Farm Park’s Maverick Festival this summer. “I would like to do more film,” says Meg. “I’ve done a huge amount of touring and performing and this is something different.”
Whatever she decides to do in the future her concern for addressing environmental matters will continue.
Sadly, there’s more subject matter than ever to draw on in these days of melting polar ice caps, global warming and ever-increasing human populations.
Despite the scale of the problems, Meg takes a pragmatic view.
“I feel that there are things that are so huge that if you look at the huge picture you would just crawl into a hole and die,” she says. “You have to do what you can do. There are reasons to feel optimistic. Environmental organisations, such as the RSPB, have so many more members than even a few years ago.
“(Environmental change) is already affecting us. Humans have always affected the climate and our environment. We are animals and the will to survive is strongly developed.
“Puppetry is a medium and all I hope is that the work we do can inspire someone to care, to perhaps go on to do something else.”
? To find out more about shows being performed by Nutmeg Puppet Company this summer go to the ‘programme’ page at www.nutmegpuppet.co.uk.
? Psyche! Open the Box will be shown at FolkEast, which takes place from August 23 to 25 at Glemham Hall. For more information go to www.folkeast.co.uk.