5 Minutes with Jimmy Grimes

Jimmy Grimes preparing puppets for The Shepherd's Life stage show coming to Theatre by the Lake In Jimmy Grimes workshop with clay models for The Shepherd's Life Herdwick puppet models being prepared for The Shepherd's Life A puppet model in progress ready for The Shepherd's Life stage show

Introducing 5 minutes with… Jimmy Grimes..

Who is… Puppetry Director of The Shepherd’s Life, coming to Theatre by the Lake on 26 March until 23 April.

Tell us about the puppets you are creating for the stage production of The Shepherd’s Life…

Every puppet that is made is an original design, so although there are techniques that have been used before it’s very much a case of testing and discovering as we go. Sometimes things deviate from the plan and you suddenly realise a puppet can do something you hadn’t expected. I like to get my hands on them while they are being developed to look out for these little accidents.

Are the puppets Herdwicks? Swaledales?

For The Shepherd’s Life we’ve got a flock of Herdwicks, ranging from a hogg lamb before first clipping to fully grown yows and tupps. It’s been a really fantastic experience learning about the way the Herdwick breed develops as it grows up. We’re trying to capture the distinct colour changes from black, to dark chocolate brown and finally the beautiful blue-grey tones of a fully grown Herdwick. Their distinct physical features are also incredible to observe. I had the pleasure of spending a morning on the farm with James Rebanks (author of The Shepherd’s Life) where I could see the sheep up close and talk to him about what makes them so special as a breed.

Production of The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks, at Theatre by the Lake this spring
Production of The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks, at Theatre by the Lake this spring

Do the Herdwick puppets look realistic or impressionistic?

We wanted to capture something distinctly Herdwick, but with puppets on stage I tend to lean away from trying to be ultra-realistic. For a start, there are limitations with the puppets that mean we simply cannot duplicate real life exactly. It’s also a case of making sure the puppets fit in with the director’s vision and the set designer’s broader concept. They’ve made some lovely theatrical choices in their approach that allow us to have a lot of creative license with the puppets. With a slightly more impressionistic approach to the look we are always acknowledging that these are puppets, and actually this is part of the game and allows us to find movement that, although inspired by reality, works for the puppets.

Tell us about your experience working on the puppet horses for the stage production of War Horse?

My role as Associate Puppetry Director is to train the puppeteers through rehearsals and then keep an eye on the show throughout the run. War Horse has been a life changing experience for me, working with and learning from an amazing family of puppeteers, actors, technicians and directors. I am standing on the shoulders of some wonderful puppetry pioneers, and will be forever grateful for the lessons I’ve learned. Despite the incredible spectacle of the performance, the biggest lesson I’ve come to understand is just how much emotional and psychological depth a puppet can be imbued with through the minutest movements.

Why do audiences like puppets?

This is a question worthy of a whole book! But from where I’m standing there are a few things that I think contribute to our enjoyment of puppetry. As a species we seem to have something built into our DNA that gives us a desire or need to imagine life and feeling in an inanimate object. As children we imagine our toys are alive and as a race we have anthropomorphised all sorts of things from masks and statues, to the weather.

Recognising life, imagining the thoughts and intentions that the puppet is having, our eyes and hearts being tricked into seeing life at the same time as being aware that really is just a puppet. I suppose these are simply extensions to the reasons we enjoy watching plays or being told stories, our imaginations are being engaged.

Like all great art, puppets can take your imagination on an exciting journey and they excel in an ability to tell stories visually.

What can puppets achieve in the theatre?

Telling a story through images can provoke thought and feeling, responses and connections that more dialogue-based work approaches differently. In my work, and in the stage production of The Shepherds Life, I spend a lot of time trying to capture something of the character and movement of different sorts of animals.

I hope that in this production, the puppets will help to paint a more detailed picture of farming in the Lake District that we wouldn’t see without them.

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks will be at Theatre by The Lake, Keswick from 26 March – 23 April

Tickets are available now at Theatre by the Lake

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