Emily Morus-Jones is a Welsh born, London-based puppeteer and puppet maker who has worked with the likes of Sesame Workshop and Handspring Puppet Company, as well as high profile musical artists like Dua Lipa, Iron Maiden, Rag’N’Bone Man, and Ed Sheeran. When the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, like so many other artists, her work dried up and she decided to return home to support her family in Northern Wales.
While in lockdown she conceived of Puppetry at the Pop-Up Palladium as a sort of virtual puppet slam that could help puppetry artists showcase their work and audiences learn about different styles of puppetry in the comfort of their own homes. So far the series has featured an impressive line-up of puppetry artists that have included the likes of Ronnie LeDrew, Handspring Puppet Company, Drew Colby, and Laura Bacon (Patsy May of Britain’s Got Talent fame).
While getting ready for the upcoming sixth installment of the series Emily was kind enough to answer ten questions about Puppetry at the Pop-Up Palladium, her career, the state of puppetry in Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom and more.
To begin, I was really curious to know how you got started in puppetry? What originally attracted you to the art form?
Emily: Jim Henson was once quoted saying “When I was a kid, I never saw a puppet show, I never played with puppets or had any interest in them. I really did that whole thing in order to get on television because my enthusiasm was television and film.” I definitely fit into this category. As a kid I always really liked puppetry – I was a HUGE Sooty and Sweep fan – but as a girl who comes from a small rural community in North Wales I never for a second thought it was something that I would actually be able to do as a job!
I had no idea what I wanted to do as a career and didn’t get much help or encouragement. I just did all the things that I thought you were supposed to do, finally graduating from Politics and History in 2008 straight into the worst financial crash in decades. Graduates of my year had the worst employment prospects for 30 years (especially politics and history grads!).
After a year of working several jobs as a librarian, life model and barmaid to pay the rent, I was depressed so I decided to heed my inner voice (something I now strive for as standard protocol) and saved up to go to Circus School as a way of doing something for myself, to help with my confidence, and just because it looked fun.
Circus work taught me that your life is your movie so you might as well pursue the things that speak to you as best you can. I worked out a way to move to London that was affordable for me, making it possible to pursue more opportunities to work in TV doing things like van driving, making props and costumes. This eventually came full circle when I met a company that did a lot of circus stuff on a small feature film. They employed me to work on a 9ft monster for the band Iron Maiden, and once you’ve made a monster, you don’t want to go back!
I kept on pursuing work in TV and film in any capacity I could and eventually met Andy Heath (see previous posts) from Talk to the Hand making a pitch film for a Kickstarter project entitled The Truthful Phone. He took me on as help building puppets for ABC Bear and on work experience on the TV series Yonderland – I owe a huge amount to him. Then the opportunity to apply to be an intern on the Sesame Workshop/CBBC production The Furchester Hotel, and much to my surprise (it was the second time I had applied) I got the job! Having never puppeteered on screen before I was suddenly on set with Sesame Street performers – it was a baptism of fire, on steroids, but a really incredible learning experience.
From there on I just kept on pushing to meet new people and pursue new projects – one of the cool things about puppetry is that there is always more – more to learn, more to make, more ways to do it and that is, in essence, what attracts me to puppetry. I love the variation I get to build interesting, bespoke things, I get to perform characters in a myriad of different ways, I get to sing, to act, and think about different worlds and the beings that exist in them. It’s the closest thing I can get to living breathing fantasy which I love, and I get to not be me and express some pure, unsolicited weirdness though this vessel that is the puppet.
Q: You’ve worked on these great projects like The Furchester Hotel, and for/with major artists and directors like Michel Gondry, Rag ‘N’ Bone Man, and Dua Lipa in a relatively short period of time. Can you tell me more about how you broke into television and video work?
Emily: Well I think I have pursued film and TV for a very long time, and am very passionate about storytelling on screen. I just got lucky in that I discovered this really cool side to the film industry that I have been able to chase. I knew I wanted to work in TV after finishing my degree as we made a student TV show that I really enjoyed, I just didn’t know HOW to get into the industry as there wasn’t anything like the schemes and initiatives for young people (in the U.K.) that there are now, and certainly not the online job sites that we have now.
When I graduated in 2008 the film industry was much more London centric. You had to be able to afford to move to London and work for free to get the experience you need for someone to take a chance on hiring you which I could not afford to do until I discovered ways around the extortionate rents to be able to live there (London is famously one of the world’s most expensive cities to live in). London was also a very intimidating place to me, who had come from a small community in the countryside of North Wales and I still find being there really stressful.
I think breaking into TV puppetry was a mixture of extremely hard work where I was willing to do anything to get my hours up on-set, doing whatever I could – I spent a great deal of time driving vans for commercials for instance. I also did courses at The Little Angel Theatre which helped me begin to understand about puppetry. I still do training courses whenever I can to try and improve and learn more. I just finished studying at The Curious School Of Puppetry before the pandemic hit which was an incredible experience. That combined with luck in that I taken on some great kids TV shows as a runner/art department, then my van driving boss wrote a script that had puppets in it, which is what got me meeting puppeteers like Andy Heath and met some really wonderful friends and colleagues along the way.
Q: What is the puppetry community like in Wales?
Emily: Well on the whole I’d say there is a pretty strong scene for such a small, dispersed country – Wales has the U.K.’s oldest and only purpose built puppet theatre called The Harlequin Theatre in Colwyn Bay, which is ran by Chris Somerville. In South Wales there is the award winning PuppetSoup who are currently working with at home and internationally to promote and teach a particular Brazilian style of puppetry called Teatro Lambe Lambe. There is also Hijinx Theatre, they work with disabled performers and are currently working on finding out how screen content can be made in an authentically inclusive way for learning disabled and autistic actors, and what new processes might be needed to create inclusive storytelling, which is really cool.
One of the great things about this project is that I have got to learn about all these companies that I didn’t know about before such as Vagabondi Theatre, Small World Theatre, Magic Light Productions and Puppet Theatre Wales who are all doing their thing as well and I hope to work with them all in the future.
Q: Artists all over the world are struggling right now, but what is it like for puppeteers in the U.K.? Has there been much support for artists and the arts during the pandemic?
Emily: Pop-Up Palladium received funding from the Welsh Arts Council without which it wouldn’t have been possible, so I feel very fortunate that the Welsh government decided to back my project. I think the Welsh government on the whole has been pretty good about supporting freelancers with extra grants but I also cannot ignore the fact that my experience has been leaning more towards the exception rather than the rule and there are many artists who haven’t worked for months and months.
There are also many people who didn’t qualify for the U.K. government support schemes in place because you had to have been self employed for a minimum of 3 years and earning above a certain amount. (People) are slipping through the net ultimately because Boris Johnson’s administration has a very basic/no understanding of what it is like to work as an artist in this country and apparently don’t value the arts industry despite the fact that we contribute £10.8 billion a year to the U.K. economy.
I think the fact that high profile actors and the Film and TV Charity have had to start up funds to support freelancers in theatre, film and TV tells you everything you need to know – that said, at least they’ve been able to offer some extra support.
Q: Here in Canada, even in normal times, making a living in puppetry can be very challenging because although we’re a very large country geographically, our population is relatively small and very spread out. It’s difficult for artists to tour or gain access to a large audience.
I’ve always been a little envious of puppetry artists in the U.K. because you have a solid network of festivals, theatres, organizations involved in puppetry, and access to a much larger market. What do you think the professional prospects will be like for puppeteers there once the pandemic is over?
Emily: In the 80s and 90s (there used to be) an incredibly healthy network of small venues making it easy for artists to tour their work. Sadly they’ve been on the decline since 2000 and (the past) 10 years of austerity hit a great deal of these venues really hard. I think the biggest casualty of the pandemic has been our small venues and theatres, and that is going to have a huge impact on artists across the board of UK Arts affecting everything from the music industry to theatre and comedy. I agree that we are very fortunate in being able to tour relatively easily as our country is comparatively small to others, but it doesn’t really work if all the small venues that you would ordinarily perform in are bankrupted out of existence.
That said, I think there is hope in that I think online events are here to stay in some form and that leaves opportunities for international performers to join in which is super exciting. I also think that puppetry in particular lends itself well to outdoor arts and performance, so this is cause for hope in the immediate future.
Q: Puppetry at the Pop-Up Palladium began last year after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. What was your inspiration for it?
Emily: My thinking behind the Palladium was that if I wanted to learn how to build a puppet of some kind, or if I wanted to learn how to perform a particular kind of puppetry then there is an abundance of opportunities – which is great! I think there needs to be recognition and kudos given to the generations of puppeteers who have worked really hard to make that so.
My reason for pursuing the Palladium was that it is not easy to get stage time with a puppet, particularly when if you want to be performing to an adult audience. So I wanted to create an event, using this new online medium that was suddenly all that was available to anyone, to see if I could create a platform for people to showcase their work and find the audience that was into it and try to open up this amazing art form to a new audience.
I also wanted to create an opportunity for myself to work on my own puppetry performance and learn new skills in hosting the event because – as the old saying goes – puppeteering is like wanking, at its most enjoyable when done in the company of others and probably at its least stimulating when it’s done on your own in front of a mirror!
Q: You’ve had a really impressive mix of relatively well known puppet characters and puppeteers in past editions, along with some younger and up-and-coming artists. What is your philosophy when curating the show?
Emily: Well I knew that trying to sell an event that was a completely new format (online on zoom) to a new audience (adults/older kids that were interested in puppetry-based entertainment) was going to be really tough – there’s just too many new things there to ask people to take a punt on, especially when you consider that prior to doing this I had never produced an event on of any kind before in my life!
I had to reach out to more established artists to see if they would participate so that there would be something that was a known quantity to prospective audience members. Having said that though, in the context of a pandemic, it felt wrong to only be giving opportunities to the people who were already well established and thus important to include up-and-coming artists as well. This actually worked really well, because the artists that have had long and successful careers in puppetry want to see more puppetry promoted to new audiences. They want to see up-and-coming puppeteers make a success of it and so were only too willing to offer their support and participate which was a really heartening part of the whole experience.
I’m not sure that I have a particular philosophy when curating the show other than trying as best I can to put artists together that I think would be a good ‘fit’ for the bulk of it and then throwing in a little extra that is completely out of that comfort zone to offer something completely different and see what people make of it.
Q: You’ve been collaborating on Puppetry at the Pop-Up Palladium with the Cardiff Animation Festival. How did that connection happen?
Emily: I absolutely could not have done any of this without the help of Ellys Donovan and Lauren Orme who run Cardiff Animation Festival. There’s just no way I could have done it without them. I have never collaborated with animators before so I have no basis for comparison, but it never would’ve occurred to me that collaboration between these two mediums would’ve potentially been a problem – maybe it has something to do with both events being ran by women and that prevalent feminine energy being really conducive to collaborations?
Over the pandemic, animators seem to have done really well because they’re able to keep working in isolation and I specifically remember chatting to Lauren at the start of lockdown and her saying to me that Cardiff Animation Festival had been looking for groups that were struggling to work with so it made perfect sense that one of those groups should be puppeteers who have seen their work dissipate because of the need for social distancing and the closure of theatre/screen industries.
Q: Here in North America, many people tend to view puppetry and animation as completely distinct art forms. I’ve noticed that in the U.K. and the rest of Europe puppetry and animation seem to more happily coexist alongside each other, whereas sometimes there is outright hostility from artists when they are put together in festivals on this side of the ocean.
What are your thoughts about the relationship between puppetry and animation?
Emily: Puppetry and animation are undoubtedly two separate, but complimentary art forms. It’s very rare over here for people to work in puppetry AND animation but I know that people in both fields are inspired by people in the other – for example; puppeteers can be inspired by the physicality and slapstick timing of cartoons and animators have used the puppetry of Jim Henson to better understand lip sync.
As with any potential divisions amongst groups, there is more that unites us than divides us. Both mediums are interested in visual, as opposed to verbal, storytelling; both mediums appeal to adults and children alike; both mediums are excellent at utilising slapstick and physical comedy and both mediums strive to create interesting new worlds and characters.
I am a fierce believer in collaboration over competition and personally see no reason why these two factions should compete – they both have their strength and so it all comes down to a matter of aesthetic choice which is, to some degree, dictated by things like time, budget, and story arks but I think increasingly in film productions Directors are choosing to utilise a combination of both mediums which in my opinion produces great results. Both groups can learn a lot from one another so why waste so much energy on being hostile to one another? What do you really gain from doing that?
Q: Are there any artists that you’d like to have on Pop-Up Palladium that you haven’t yet?
Emily: I think it would be great to have a chat with Kevin Clash about his work – I think his contribution to puppetry is huge, his groundbreaking work with Sesame Street is incredible and I really hope he starts to look towards directing in the future. I think it would be really interesting to have a conversation about representation in puppetry with him as I think it’s important to encourage further diversity in puppetry (particularly TV puppetry) and animation for that matter where both women and people of colour are under-represented. It is changing, but it’s going to require a concerted effort to catch up. I would also like to have a chat to the guys behind Royal De Luxe in France and The Creature Technology Company in Australia because their work is absolutely bonkers and I would love to find out more about how it came about.
On the whole I’m always on the lookout for people who are creating exciting, innovative work so hit me up!
Chapter Six of Puppetry at the Pop-Up Palladium takes place online Friday, February 4th, 2021 at 8:00 p.m. GMT (3 p.m. EST / 6 p.m. PST) and features a stellar line-up that includes Mavis Maves, Nod at the Fox, Folded Feather, Hugh Purves and the one and only Louise Gold.
For tickets and more information visit PopUpPalladium.com.