The Puppeteer

Puppetry is an essential part of Bristol’s creative community, but did you know the craft’s spiritual city home is tucked away on Harbourside? Rosanna Spence speaks to artist Chris Pirie of Green Ginger about Puppet Place, and the role it plays in nurturing Bristol’s most exciting emerging talent.

Are you ready to enter a fantastical realm where anything is possible? Where animals spring to life, aliens crash land and creatures of the deep rise from the darkness – often without a single pixel of CGI in sight? Lights Dim. Enter, stage left Chris Pirie, artistic director of 45-year-old theatre company Green Ginger.

“We ask audiences to take a leap of faith and suspend their disbelief,” he tells me. “Live puppetry can basically do everything that an actor can’t. We take our audiences into bizarre worlds and extreme situations, whether it’s outer space or underwater, to create reality from the ground up. Then we put crazy stories into those situations.”

Credit Andrew Cioffi Lyric Opera Chicagos Queen of Spades

From the iconic War Horse play to the colossal Sultan’s Elephant, puppets light up our imaginations when gracing our stages and wandering our streets. But you don’t even need to leave the city to be mesmerised by puppetry mastery. In fact, 20 artists are busily creating their next projects all under one roof – at Puppet Place. Founded as a resource and training charity 40 years ago by Di Steeds and Jim Still, it found its feet in Bristol’s Albion Dockside Estate in 2007/8 after Pirie persuaded more and more artists to share his (at the time, very leaky) studio, where he’d been based since 2004. The Puppet Place charity was reinvigorated so it could take over the building’s operations, create a festival and transform, quite literally, into a place for puppetry.

The award-winning projects from both the emerging and established artists within Puppet Place are world class. Green Ginger alone counts Netflix, BBC and Channel 4 among its clients, and has created puppetry solutions for Aardman Animations, SS Great Britain, Bristol Old Vic, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Travelling Light, Arcadia Spectacular, and Wake the Tiger among others. There are also very early talks about an upcoming project with English Heritage at Stonehenge (watch this space). Pirie has even performed in front of hundreds of thousands of fans alongside other Bristol-based puppetry practioners on Coldplay’s latest world tour Music of the Spheres as a fictional alien musician, operating a puppet created by LA’s Jim Henson Creature Shop.

Even Puppet Place itself is a spectacle to behold – during previous public ‘open doors’ days, it’s been one of the first venues to sell out, with people queuing for up to an hour around the 200-year-old Harbourside building to wander and wonder at its technicolour curiosities. The team is keen to find more opportunities to invite the public in to watch the masters at work in a safe way that solves current issues with the structure’s historic idiosyncrasies. But Puppet Place has evolved to become so much more than just a studio space.

As theatre-makers, our job is to reflect the world and try to make sense of it”

Nurturing new talent

Pirie – who is a trustee of the Puppet Place organisation as well as resident artist – explains how vital the space is as a functional incubator that nurtures new and emerging artists making puppetry solutions for TV, film and theatre.

“We’ve all been emerging artists,” he says. “I can remember what it’s like to be trying to get your foot in the door and establish working practices. It’s really scary and it’s hard to take risks. So since it’s been based at Harbourside, Puppet Place has been creating meaningfully affordable space. I don’t mean in the way ‘affordable’ has become a buzzword for housing. I think we are the cheapest in terms of square footage. We’re able to provide emerging artists with space to either come in as resident artists and be based here, or as associate artists who can hire workspaces, sign up to ‘hot-benching’ [like ‘hot-desking’ in an office] and use the rehearsal studios and meeting rooms. We’ve had artists travel from London because what they pay for a whole day here would be the equivalent for an hour in the capital.”

It’s a huge commitment for Puppet Place to maintain this level of accessibility. But it’s not just affordable spaces that matter – there’s meaningful mentoring as a support too from the artists there.

“Green Ginger regularly mentors students that are either just graduating or who are just out of drama school, and are trying to take those early steps,” Pirie days. “I really love peer mentoring. I’m in my 60s now, but love to be able to peer mentor someone in their 20s. They’re getting the valuable advice of someone who’s been working in this industry for four decades or so. But I’m also getting a really fresh perspective on what it’s like for them as digital natives in their 20s.

“They have a very different perspective on many things in life. As theatre-makers, our job is to reflect the world and try to make sense of it – and help others make sense of it too. That’s why I really value that kind of mentoring, which is very much a two-way conversation.”

Pirie is curious to see who the next key cultural offerings of Bristol will be, considering existing titans Banksy, Massive Attack and Aardman Animations already have careers spanning many decades. Without crucial, affordable spaces, such as Puppet Place, for new artists to put their ideas into action, small artistic start-ups can’t grow shoots from their seeds, let alone stand a chance at flourishing alongside the greats.

Securing spaces for the future

The future of such creative places is under threat. Artists and craftspeople are finding their spaces on a fractious frontline as wider regeneration takes place across the city. With the likes of Invisible Circus having to leave its warehouse performance space, and many other notable projects seeing arts funding reduced or cut by the council, Bristol’s prominence as a cultural hub can sometimes feel at odds with the reality of life as an artist here.

But Pirie assures me “it’s not all bleak.” Sometimes, he says, these things galvanise artists and help them come together. This is especially useful in moments of unexpected crisis.

“When the Underfall Yard had its arson attack in 2023, for example, my Puppet Place colleagues’ immediate response was go straight to their neighbours in Harbourside, to reach out and offer whatever help was needed. People in another historic building lost their livelihoods overnight, but the response to that was heartfelt, immediate and real. The kind of spirit that exists among craftspeople around the Harbourside means everything to me. Real empathy and understanding – these communities in the city are alive and kicking, and that’s where the future lies. That’s why I sustain hope.”

There’s the same feeling of empathy and support in day-to-day life too, however, with artists sharing skills whenever needed.

“Within our building there’s a real synergy, if somebody needs someone to support them with writing, creating a video or needs help with something robotic or electric, there are people with those skills under one roof,” Pirie says. “Then immediately outside the building, we have real connections and relationships with the other creative organisations around us. We have Bristol Old Vic’s scenic workshop over the way, Aardman Animations next door and JAG Props too.

“That’s why we’re very well placed to to give meaningful support to young artists. And it’s not just in Bristol, either. Our remit is to support south western practitioners, but also we’re part of a larger national hub. We work closely with the other puppetry organisations and animation organisations to support UK-wide industry.”

Credit Paul Blakemore

Education through puppetry

Pirie also teaches and mentors at universities and colleges throughout Europe, as well as engaging with local higher and further education institutions closer to home, including the University of Bristol, the University of West England and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. And for younger students, Green Ginger will soon take its RATLab show back on the road, going into Swindon primary schools.

The free and bespoke show centres on a team of extraordinary engineers who use cutting-edge medical science and puppetry in their test lab to help rugby sports star Ronnie get back to the playing field after her hip replacement. Children are given a glimpse into the surgery, learning more about bones, the mechanics of how bodies move, and how engineering solutions can fix them when they go wrong.

Oh, and the lab? It’s run by rats. In fact, most of the characters are rats, dogs and pigs. Suddenly, it appears the children are paying attention.

The pilot project, created in 2021 by Green Ginger in partnership with University of Bath’s bio-mechanical engineers, and with funding from the Royal Academy of Engineering, will be delivered back into primary schools in areas of low arts engagement in Spring Term 2024. The project, funded by Arts Council England and Orthopaedic Research UK, is an innovative schools intervention solution in a pop-up environment, and is designed to challenge negative associations with engineering and reframe it as an exciting study and career path.

Though Brexit, the pandemic and the climate emergency reducing some people’s preference to fly have changed the way Green Ginger, Puppet Place and its artists work, Pirie and his peers still never know what new, wonderfully weird project will be around the corner. Whether that’s the creation of more online content, or finding themselves on stage as part of a Valencian opera, the future of Bristol’s puppeteers looks bright – the sector’s flames fanned by the irrepressible spirit of its supportive network of artists.

Keep an eye on Puppet Place’s website to find out how its residents will be marking 40 years since its inception, as well as 45 years of magic from Green Ginger:;

Image caption: Chris Pirie in his studio (credit: Andre Pattenden)