Thursday, 29 December 2016

December Dogs and Puppet Shows

It has been a real pleasure to make dogs for Christmas this year. I was able to spend more time on their design and the fur is so soft. We had one Christmas show this year: 'Where is Rudolph' where I was a head elf and enjoyed the company of  both puppets and children in my quest to find Rudolph. As always, we included a scary character - this time a large snowman with a missing nose. To begin with, he could be heard grumbling and growling from behind the puppet theatre. Next we used scary music as we climbed the mountain to meet him, in the hope he could help us. When he was revealed, the children were relieved to find out that he was only grumpy because of his missing carrot nose which we could replace for him. Once again, we overcame a scary problem and were able to rejoice with Christmas songs and mince pies. ...And as for Rudolph, well, he was in the Elf Farm all along, preparing for full fitness to pull the sleigh. It is all a bit silly, but within our stories we include the joy of being kind and helpful, alongside overcoming problems by working together. The Hands-On Company believe these sentiments make a good resolution as we move into 2017.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Preparing for a Tudor Workshop - Melissa Waldron

Last week I was very lucky in being able to attend a talk by Lucy Worsley at Hampton Court Palace. A new BBC series will be launched soon exploring the roles of Henry VIII's wives and the talk focused on the role of each of the women in Tudor England. It was an entertaining and inspirational event.

We will set our Living History workshop in Elizabethan England. But the talk on Henry has really set the scene especially in considering the fate of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth's ill fated mother.

Work is now being carried out to prepare a lively and interactive workshop for young people in schools. Set in a stately home outside Stratford-Upon Avon, we ask how the household will prepare for the arrival of the Queen...and Mr Shakespeare who is showing off his new play 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. We are very excited about launching this hour and a half workshop at a primary school next week.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Puppetry For Sensitive People.

Recently, I’ve been working with sensitive children and young people. In fact, all of us are sensitive in some ways, but when children are sick, or going through trauma, their sensitivity is much more visible.

Puppetry is a lovely medium to use where laughter, silliness and care are wanted. The energy being focused on the puppet takes away the emphasis that this is about the participant’s needs and issues. Instead, it is the puppet that has our attention. It is similar to giving yourself permission to do something enjoyable such as eat cake or watch a good film. A puppet can give the same light relief with the added bonus that it is something we can enjoy together. If there is an issue to be discussed, we can make the puppet into a coat hanger, of sorts, by putting the issue onto the character and trying to help him/her. We use our brains differently when we focus outside ourselves, and this opens up options and solutions that are harder to come by when the process just remains in our heads!

The emotions that can be provoked through puppetry are perfect for sensitive people. It is possible to play around with feeling safe or threatened by creating an environment where both can be expressed openly. Finding solutions for difficult scenarios in real life can be acted out through make believe with truly effective results.

Take this example for younger children. A dragon flies into a story session and roars at the group while threatening to hurt them all, but he quickly is spluttering and coughing because he has run out of fire. He asks the group where he can go and get fire in order to breathe it all over them. It is up to the children to decide if they will tell him, help or trick him. For the puppeteer, it is a fine line between scaring the children and appearing too harmless. The aim is to take their power away initially, through being a bit scary, and then to judge when the fear becomes too much for any member of the group. At this point, the dragon’s body posture changes and his voice becomes whiny and softer as he asks them for help. The group gain their power back as they decide what to do. The puppeteer can use the dragon’s body and voice to diminish the fear and to provoke either empathy or humour (depending on the aim of the story). If the puppeteer can interject with the initial scary voice and body language to again threaten coming back and breathing fire, this can help keep the energy fresh and exciting. The fear is still there, but the group are keeping on top of it through decision making. Depending on the group’s decisions, the puppeteer can help implement the action of running away or tricking the dragon or maybe the group will decide to try and help him be kind and stop his behaviour. The puppeteer can lead the story forward, but the participants can be empowered to make the decision. When the dragon is dispensed with, the group can reflect on their decisions. How can this be used in everyday life when something is scary? Was working as a group helpful? If you have fearful feelings in real life, who can you tell? Are there dragons in real life? Why was the dragon being unkind? What else do we find scary? And so on.

Puppetry can be gentle, humorous, encouraging or unnerving, but all these emotions and more can be expressed in a safe environment. It allows us all to reflect on how we will deal with various scenarios in everyday life and helps us find solutions to problems. For the sensitive souls among us, that can only be a good thing.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Ancient Egyptians - Melissa Waldron.

When I was young, my mum insisted we visited museums and art galleries in the school holidays. She thought it would be good for me. And she was right when it came to The British Museum and the Egyptian rooms. The artifacts were interesting, but it was the mummies in glass cases that were truly fascinating. A few years ago I was lucky enough to visit Egypt and I headed straight to The Valley of The Kings. I rode a camel and visited the Pyramids. My interest in the Ancient Egyptians, their culture and fantastical beliefs in the After Life, is still as strong today as it was when I was a child.

This is the first era I have tackled in exploring the history workshops. It's chronologically the first civilisation in our new repertoire.

The grisly and the bizarre is a great starting point for the content of this workshop. I am currently becoming a bit of an expert on mummification and dramatic rituals. I'm going to have the opportunity to wear lavish make up and play an intriguing character. I am really looking forward to finalising the details of the new workshop for Primary Schools.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Bringing our new Living History Workshops to life.

Launching the new one woman history workshops is Melissa Waldron -  lead facilitator at The Hands-On Company. do I feel?

It's very exciting and a bit daunting. We have been in negotiation with Gill Whitten for nearly a year, concerning taking over her wonderful primary workshops for exploring specific historical eras. And  now it is real.

Gill has been an inspirational presence in schools for the past 25 years. I have shadowed her and witnessed her impact on young people. There is a real sense of occasion and excitement when she arrives in a school from children and teachers. Can I fill her shoes?

I have spent a lot of time with Gill and her generosity in sharing her philosophy on interactive learning and her creative approach to history has been impressive. I know I'm gushing about Gill, but she is a force to be reckoned with.

This summer I've researched different eras, visited museums and made new artifacts. I am anticipating an awfully big adventure when I take on this work.

Back to the books.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Puppy Play

To follow the doggy themed photo from July, we have welcomed a little rescue dog to our team. He has enjoyed the summer holidays settling in and begins modelling for new dog puppets on Thursday. If I can manage to recreate his fluffy ears, I'll be onto a winner I'm sure. We are training him using a dog listening system which suits our work ethos perfectly. Learning happens through play at a level that he innately recognises. We are taking the cues from him in the same way we do with the children we work with. We ignore the behaviour that doesn't work in this environment and congratulate the good stuff. As with children, we believe it is impossible to say - "well done" too often. With the new term approaching fast, we are all excited to share new workshops and puppets with our customers. In the meantime, Alfie needs a little snooze after such perfect photo posing.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Things to try, that put you in a good place within yourself.

When we try and make changes to feel happy, we often read pieces of wisdom that resonate and make us want to live in a new way. For example, to be kind and authentic is a lovely way to live life and if it was a switch we could turn on in each person, the world may be a very different place to live in now. How can a person become kind and authentic all the time? We can carry the intention around with us, but when something goes wrong, or an internal button is pressed from a past blockage, we revert back to the behaviour that we don’t feel so proud of, or that harms us. 

I think most people are lovely, but if you fancy trying something, this is what I'm doing. When you start the day, decide how it will go – don’t control it, just decide you will be kind and true to you, no matter what happens in the outside world. Get up with this frame of mind and then dress kindly to yourself. Smile in the mirror and tell yourself you are worthy of a good day. Imagine in your mind’s eye a kind and authentic day – what would that look like? Then walk around kind and authentic. 

If something or someone comes along that challenge these two feelings, take a deep breath and see the humour in the situation – here you are being kind and authentic and this person/situation has arisen to challenge you. Take the challenge to deal with it through being kind and authentic. If you feel the kindness takes away your authenticity, remember that who you truly are is kind and a part of you that isn’t kind is a habit or response to an earlier hurt. You can be kind and strong. Trying to make your point without hurting anyone is no problem if you consider their feelings during an exchange. 

Be fair and kind and  then you will feel authentic. It really is that simple. Don’t see it as hard work. It is like coming home to a part of you that is your friend and has your best interests at heart. You can still be cheeky and have fun, but not at another person’s expense. You will discover a whole side of yourself that is curious about the world around you and that is non-judgemental and can see the good in most situations. It will feel like coming home. 

As play is always at the heart of this blog - play with it and don't take yourself  too seriously. Try being kind with a twinkle in your eye and a light step. It has definitely worked for me today. How strange that people respond with kindness too  - I think I'm on to something!

Monday, 27 June 2016

Magical Moments.

At all ages we use play to learn about ourselves. I first wrote about this fundamental aspect of my work when I was training to be a teacher, twenty five years ago. I am still passionate about it now and that is why I run The Hands-On Company, where we play through interactive puppetry and drama. Our small team of teachers and puppeteer/actors run workshops for all ages, and between us we focus on social education topics and storytelling. 

On the road we work in a wide range of establishments, from nursery schools all the way up to care homes for the elderly and each session is led by the participants within a planned framework. It is an inclusive, exciting and thought-provoking way of working where we are often surprised and deeply moved by the personal stories we encounter.

Part of the reason why I love puppetry, is because of the magical moments I have experienced through its application. I use puppetry as a safe way for others to express and explore feelings, where the puppet becomes a coat hanger for any issues or situations. It is a playful space where we can reflect on the world around us and our place in it.

I remember a session I ran with a group of parents who needed ideas on how to improve their play with their children. We were surrounded by social workers, but even within this slightly uptight structure, we were able to enjoy 
light-hearted fun the minute the puppets were unpacked. One boy within this group was labelled a selective mute. Imagine the shock of all gathered when he began to converse through the puppet he had created with his mum. It was a truly touching moment to hear his puppet voice explain exactly what his puppet likes to do. Three years later, a member of another family group got in touch and told me they were still using their family puppet to discuss personal changes and issues.

Another recollection is of a workshop about friendship issues, where each child had a puppet to create different types of friends. A nine-year-old girl called her dog puppet Meatballs. She decided he looked like a meatball and that this was his favourite food. We had great fun building up his character and deciding that he was a true friend as he was caring, but needed lots of meatballs to keep his energy up. Within the evaluation feedback for this session, the leader subsequently told me that this girl's parents had been thrilled that she had asked for meatballs for dinner that evening and excitedly had described the session. Her younger brother was very ill with leukemia and she had not been eating properly because she felt so out of control of the situation. Naming and playing with the puppet seemed to be a turning point for her. I still have that dog puppet and, to this day, his name is Meatballs.

In another session I encountered a thirteen-year-old boy who was brave enough to share a bullying incident through the voice of a large monster puppet. Elsewhere in my work, through dramatic scenarios, numerous teenagers have understood that considering these three statements: where you are, who you are with and how you feel, can make a big difference in making informed choices around sex and drug usage. Moments like these happen whenever we interact with people - from a senior manager becoming overly attached to a hairy puppet, simply because of shared conflict management scenarios, to an elderly gentleman living with dementia suddenly waltzing with a human-sized puppet and a flustered puppeteer trying to keep up!

Something special happens with play. Put a puppet in the mix and watch the sparks fly. There is no pressure to be someone other than the part of yourself that enjoys being expressed in this way. Give puppetry a go for your own magical moments.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Monster Power

Monsters are great for expressing feelings and exploring behaviour because they look a little like us, but are far enough removed to feel safe and fun. We can project our feelings and thoughts onto a puppet such as this, but imagine we are playing and this keeps us lighthearted. 

The more I work with children and young people, the more I see evidence that exploring feelings and behaviours in a lighthearted manner is where the biggest growth and understanding happens. It is as if we learn about ourselves in spite of our ego and desire to control our thoughts. Our inner self is allowed to come forward through the medium of puppetry and this creates an honest, deep rooted response to situations and occurrences that may worry us and bring up fear. Keeping the energy light and playful, allows us to think outside the box and come up with solutions that will work for the individuals in the room. The fact that solutions may be different for each of us, is made safe by putting them onto the monster puppet and keeping a third party indifference. Of course we can then take the information on board in a more personal way when we leave the session and have some alone time. 

For younger children, we can end the workshop by having a quiet 'sleep' with our puppets where we whisper in our puppet's ear what we found helpful today and our puppet can whisper back what it thinks will help us moving forward. This quiet, personal time with a puppet is where the reflection and transference can happen in a safe and non judgement way.

Here at The Hands-On Company, we are now making large monsters similar to the one above. We create a pack of smaller monsters that come in multiples of six, alongside one large monster for the teacher or facilitator to use. Teacher notes are being written at the moment to accompany these packs. More details will be available soon.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Have Fun and Play

Why is play so important?
Sometimes I think we take ourselves too seriously and lose sight of what life is about. When we are ill, or stressed and unhappy, the weight of these emotions can make us feel wretched.  There have been countless projects looking at happiness and how we find it, but what if the truth is that it isn’t outside our own bodies and minds? Looking elsewhere is just short lived and dissatisfying without first going inside ourselves to find the solution.

Being Present
Through play, we can shift our perspective to the present moment. Try this - think about your surroundings, what you can see and hear. Imagine the feeling of your clothes on your body. Try and ignore any physical or mental pain by pushing it to the background as much as possible. Breathe deep, imagining you are breathing in good healthy air and expelling any negatively when you breathe out. Do this deeply three times. Expect this to make you feel good – it doesn’t have to be a miracle cure, but enough to feel better than before.

Try This...
Now think about what you like to do that is playful. What games do you like to play? What activities make you smile? Sit back and imagine you are doing the activity in your mind’s eye. See yourself having an amazing bike ride, or football game, or knitting a beautiful jumper – whatever the thing is, imagine it and let the feeling flow over you. Imagine you are doing your activity with someone special – a film star you admire, a pop star, an author or a sport’s person, your best friend or family member. It doesn’t matter how many people you imagine, just enjoy the pleasure of the game. Let the scenario play out. What do they say and do? What is fun and goes well? What is the outcome?

Breathe deep and enjoy the thoughts you allow in your head. Let them flow for no reason other than enjoying the imagination you have. Allow yourself these fantasies whenever you have a quiet moment. At the end of your time, let the pictures drift away and thank your mind for creating them. Be clear that this is a form of playing and is not real – it is just for fun.

Adult and Child Play
Feeling better on the inside can help us when we share play with others. If you have children in your family, ideally have a play session with them. Borrowing them from friends can also be an option (with permission!). Don’t control the play. Let the child be the leader and you are their play slave. Listen carefully to their direction and follow it. Before you can analysis what is happening, you will tap into your innate knowledge of how to play and will start enjoying yourself. If you try to control the play, your adult part will take over and the authentic part of play will not work. Also try not to become childish - just be childlike (if you allow yourself to be childish, you’ll feel out of sorts and it won’t be much fun). Go with the child and you will be amazed how it feels. Remember this feeling when you next want to play without children.

Sport and Hobby Play
Play without a child is about the balance between what goes on in your head (your imagination) and what you physically do. Team sport is a good way of exploring this as you can use both parts to physically experience the play with other people, which then will trigger your internal play. If you don’t like team sport, allow your play to be day-dreamy, refreshing and challenging (if it’s a quiet personal play such as putting a jigsaw together, or crafts, or a solo sport like cycling or swimming may be). If your play is losing yourself in a book or film, once again allow your imagination to take the concept further. What are the characters doing in 10 years’ time? Who would you be in the story? Share the theme with someone else and discuss what you did and didn’t like. Book clubs exist for this type of play. If possible, try and find other people who also like your form of play and do it with them, or talk about it with them. Allow your heart to be light and enjoy the exchanges. Delight in the feeling of doing something that makes you feel curious and interested in what is happening around you. Engage in your play in as many ways as you can and you will have respite for the difficulties in life and the pains in our bodies and minds.

Enjoy Your Play Time!
Thinking about play in this way, is at the heart of what we do at The Hands-On Company. Sometime just by giving us all permission to dream and engage in play, can be healing and enjoyable for all ages.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

What happens when you work with a new puppet?

It has been a week where I have thought a lot about the process of manipulating a puppet. Trying to take photographs of puppets looking for new homes, made me realise that the personality of each puppet is tricky to capture in a photograph aimed at attracting a new puppeteer. I wanted to hold each puppet in a way that expressed the essence of its character. I hoped it would make the right new owner feel touched in some way and then compelled to take the new friend home.

Of course, what I didn't think about is that the special relationship between the puppet and puppeteer is personal and unique to that union. I once saw a famous puppet being manipulated by someone other than his creator. You could see the new puppeteer's skill and knowledge of the character, but something special was missing. He hadn't made and developed the character himself, or didn't properly relate to him and it looked like a poor look-alike agency act. I think that same magic was missing from my photos. I was trying to push my interpretation onto something that would be better as a blank canvass, new and ready for someone else to pick up and create between the two of them - puppet and puppeteer.

When I introduce my puppets during a workshop, I make it clear that certain puppets are just for me to handle. These are defined character puppets and it would ruin the whole feel of the work if their magic was broken by another's hand. However, the puppets that are given out are totally up to each puppeteer to discover. We spend time looking into the puppet's faces, time moving our hands to find the best form of manipulation, time to ask our puppet what it likes to eat, what makes a good friend and what it likes about us? I see the relationship build quickly as the puppet becomes a friend and someone to express parts of the puppeteer that relate to the subject at hand. I love that moment when the puppet is cheeky, or naughty, or sensitive and funny as I see a part of the puppeteer expressed in such a safe way.

I am about to retake the photos for our website with more neutral puppet poses. I hope that a future puppeteer will see the potential and start the magical process of creating a bond as soon as the puppet arrives on their doorstep.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Mediating monsters

We are feeling excited about a slightly new way of using our monster puppets. Just a small movement of your hand, makes these little chaps pull the best faces and children are responding to the range of expressions with amusement and interest. We have found that having a conversation between two monsters, with an adult mediator holding the questioning together, creates the perfect, safe environment to tackle conflict and anxieties. A solution, or action can be found for the monster that may be helpful for the participants too. In fact, we have tried this with a class of 30 students, each with their own monster and the results were fascinating. We are making more monsters to try another session with the inclusion of a large monster to oversee the session. Now that will be fun.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Teenagers need to play too.

The Hands-On Company believe that play is for all ages.We use a combination of role play, hot seating, monologue creation and improvisation to bring 'pshee' to life in secondary education and have found time and again how useful these techniques are to lower inhibitions and allow our groups to learn while having fun. We can concentrate on one subject, or highlight the importance of informed choice-making across the pshee curriculum. Within the teams that work with this age group, we employ two young presenters who are fully trained in social education. They are often young actors, or gap-year presenters looking for a career in teaching, social work or acting. Their confidence and light-hearted approach to the workshop content usually rubs off on the group within the first few minutes, making the teacher facilitator's task of imparting relevant information so much easier. The atmosphere is non judgmental and the expectation is respect for all while having fun.

Teenagers are usually going through the process of moving most of their play from a physical urge to a more cerebral movement and while the change is ongoing, embarrassment, fear of negative peer response and a desire to be grown-up can limit involvement in a more hands-on approach, especially with drama and puppetry. We have found that the more hairy, large and comical looking our puppets are, the more teenagers can relate to them. When we made specific teenager puppets, they were not as  lovable as our more outlandish creations. It seems that by moving the puppet part away from real characters in realistic scenarios, the groups feel they can have a go in a playful manner. On the flip side to this, we have found that if we show the groups, more realistic drama with our role play presenters expressing situations in real life scenarios and acting with sincerity, the young people in the groups, are happy to become involved with giving advice and considering consequences to actions. Sometimes they want to observe us, sometimes to observe a handful of their peers working with us, they may want to answer a question or ask one themselves. A combination of silly puppets, activities involving beer googles, plastic willies and condoms, mixed with hard hitting drama and information group activities works a treat to involve each member of a group. We are allowed to play in a way that suits the individual's mood on that day, while considering informed choice making at the same time. A win-win for all.