Blog: Lori Hopkins

The puppeteer on getting physically fit enough to operate Raymond Briggs's The Bear

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When I was young I used to love creating epic stories with my sisters using toys as the protagonists. Barbie became a life-saving superhero. Sylvanian Families would scale mountains and traverse deserts and the Lego worlds we built could take over rooms. The desire to play characters and channel energy into small figures is common in many children but the joy of it stayed with me into adulthood.

I decided to go to drama school and become an actor but after spending four months of my degree on studying puppet theatre in Prague I remembered the love of bringing inanimate objects to life and started focusing on puppetry. There aren’t many opportunities in the UK to do courses in puppetry but I was fortunate to find the London School of Puppetry where I completed a postgraduate diploma. More training opportunities are popping up all the time however (the Curious School of Puppetry and Brighton School of Puppetry) and puppets creep ever more into the limelight. Yet some still view puppets as simply children’s toys rather than tools for learning or creating art.

Recently Tory MP David Davies remarked: “Vast numbers of people go off to university doing ludicrous degrees – surf studies, puppetry, media studies and the rest of it – not coming out being able to find work.” His misunderstanding of the value of vocational training and the idea that a niche subject equals unemployment is exactly the thinking that’s threatening the arts in this country. Being a freelance puppeteer is hard work – you have to be proactive in making connections and promoting yourself – but if you look at theatre, television and film you will see puppets are everywhere.

If one person loses concentration we get unfortunate comedy moments like the polar bear’s feet starting to walk one way and the body marching off in the other direction!

There is no regular day in the life of a puppeteer. One day I might be phoning theatres to book venues for the tour of my one-woman show, the next I could be making shadow puppets or using glove puppets to help children with limited English learn new vocabulary. Most recently however I have been rehearsing a show called The Bear for Pins & Needles Productions. This fabulous show features a polar bear that visits the house of a girl called Tilly and is based on the picture book by Raymond Briggs. The bear is one of the largest puppets I have worked on and can be operated by one, two or three people depending on what needs to happen in each scene. Myself and the rest of the cast have worked hard to strengthen our bodies to be able to move this complex puppet with the grace it deserves. The clever design by Samuel Wyer means that the puppet can be worked as just a head or a head with two paws or a head and body with all four paws for the grand finale, with each of us moving a different part of the puppet.

The challenge of manipulating this puppet is the need to listen to each other so that we can create one believable beast. If one person loses concentration or has an idea that the rest of the team are not aware of we get unfortunate comedy moments like the polar bear’s feet starting to walk one way and the body marching off in the other direction! The way we have worked in rehearsal is to use our breathing and voice to signal to each other about how we are going to move. Our directors Hal Chambers and Suzanne Nixon have helped us to work on detailed choreography so that the polar bear can leap, run and swim in the most visually effective way. When we are completely in sync with one another there is a real joy in being able to replicate such a powerful yet beautiful creature. What I’ve enjoyed most is the contrast between finding moments of truly realistic qualities of movement and then the fun in breaking out of it when the bear dances to Saturday Night Fever or drinks from the toilet bowl.

The Bear will be in two theatres this Christmas, at Waterside Arts Centre in Sale and at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff (

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