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Unexpected Conversations: Alex Milledge

Updated: Sep 21, 2021

Over the past two weeks, we've been busy rehearsing our upcoming recorded theatre performance of Looking Down On Me. This enchanting original show was praised by audiences at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which inspired us to reproduce it as a digital resource for charities and schools, to use as a respectful talking point on the subjects of grief and bereavement.

At our head office in UP Studios, Hamble, we've noticed two new members of the team have joined us recently! For this version of the show, the characters of Annie and Sam have been recreated by talented puppet maker Alex Milledge.

Based in Cardiff, Wales, Alex has been collaborating with theatre designers and visual artists since 2014. She has designed sets, costumes and puppets for several Fringe shows.

Our Creative Content Producer, Caroline James, got in touch with Alex recently, to find out more about the work she has done for Looking Down On Me, as well as the creative process of puppet making.

Caroline James: So, when did you start getting interested in puppet making?

Alex Milledge: I’ve been making puppets professionally for probably about 4 or 5 years now, but I’d always been making stuff as a kid. I would make weird puppets out of salt dough, or Dalek puppets out of random bits of recycling, but I think I really started taking an interest in puppetry when I was at college. I went to see a show by Knee High called The Wild Bride and they had… I think it was a deer puppet? It wasn’t complex; it was mostly really a shape that they had manipulated through the space – and it was amazing! So that really piqued my interest. At uni, I started taking a deep dive into making and then kept going from there. I was always open to trying new things; I would mainly play around with the materials, make something and then just keep building off of that. So usually it’s a case of noticing what didn’t work, learning from it and making a better product. And now I’m here, doing it as a job!

Caroline James: What was the training process like?

Alex Milledge: Most puppet makers don’t have specific training. I know a lot of performers have professional training, but I think lots of makers start off as people who like making things and have an interest in puppetry and then build on those skills. That’s what I did. I just started making things while I was at university doing my undergrad. It was an academic Drama degree, so I had a lot of time on my hands. I've always just really enjoyed making things, it's part of who I am!

I did work experience with a company called Oily Cart Theatre while I was doing my undergrad. It was very “make heavy”; I did a lot of sewing with them and used new materials I had never used before. From there I started doing workshops with different theatre companies. I did a couple with Little Angel Theatre, because they do some great puppetry-specific workshops. Then I did one with Jimmy Grimes who is an amazing puppet maker. He makes these absolutely beautiful mechanised puppets. They’re usually very stripped back as well, so nothing is hidden. Part of the beauty of puppets is that you can see how they work, but you believe they're real. So essentially, I started doing workshops whilst working at the same time and invested my money into improving my skills. During the pandemic, I studied an MA in Design for Performance at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. This includes puppetry. It was a real privilege to be able to just focus on that completely with the amazing tools and equipment that the college had and not worry so much about finding freelance work.

CJ: So, how did you get involved with Unexpected Places?

AM: I have some friends that I think Becky, Looking Down On Me's producer, worked with before, or knew because they worked at the same place…or something? (laughs)

It was basically through a friend of a friend and Becky messaged me on Instagram two years ago, when you were touring the show in Edinburgh and other places, and she just needed some quick repairs on the puppets that they had at the time. I was living in London at the time, so she just sent the puppets to me in the post and I did, like, two days' work on them and then sent them back. I think literally the day after, they were in the show.

CJ: Wow!

AM: Then this year, when you guys were going in for funding applications, she messaged me again, to ask if I wanted to make the new puppets. I’ve learned a lot in the past few years and my style has come a long way, so I was eager to look at the original puppets and the changes I did there and think, “Okay, how am I going to make these better?”

CJ: What’s it like working as a freelance puppet maker?

AM: I always come back to it because I love the flexibility of making. I’m a maker at heart and even when I’m not working a job, I’m always making something. Puppetry gives me the ability to incorporate pretty much all the theatre disciplines and keep experimenting. There will never be a point where I’m not learning, because there’s always something to change or a new material to use or a new technique to try, so I’m just always challenged by it.

It can be really hard, the pandemic made it particularly hard for everyone, because freelancers lost everything; that’s exactly what happened to me. Everything was cancelled overnight. Six months' worth of work was gone and I was like, “Oh God, what am I going to do!?”

I've worked office jobs in-between creative things, but I’m always looking for the next creative project and I always come back to it, because it gives me life! It makes me happy, you know?

CJ: You mentioned that you are always learning because there are always new techniques for puppetry and puppet making, so what sort of new techniques are you really excited about in the puppet making industry?

AM: I’m really keen to examine puppetry in film and television a bit more because there are a lot of productions at the moment that use puppets as a way of beginning the process of giving performers something to work with. A lot of shows with animal characters use puppets, rather than a tennis ball and a stick, which is what they used 10 years ago. They use puppets as a way of getting more authentic performances, so that is super interesting to me.

There’s a new film called Anette that uses a puppet for the child character. I haven't seen it yet, but according to what I've read, there's no CGI involved, she’s clearly a puppet, which I think is super interesting because we rarely get films that show puppets as puppets. I'm really looking forward to seeing that when it comes out.

Also, mechanisms. I'm always super interested in mechanisms, but it does complicate a puppet a lot and it takes a lot of time to get a mechanism right. I really like making people, so I'm going to try and work on developing new ways of creating human movement in the next couple of years, I think. There's so many things! (laughs) I could go on forever!

CJ: So, coming back to Looking Down on Me, what was the process of creating Annie and Sam like?

AM: So, because the show already existed in one form and there were already the characters, it meant that I began knowing what the old puppets looked like and had some idea of what Rosanna (the artistic director) and Becky wanted. When I'm making for myself, I often start with the question, “What does the puppet need to do?” We knew that they needed to go on film, so they needed to have a really refined quality up close. I think making for screen is definitely a different process, because in theatre, you can exaggerate different textures and shapes and things.

I knew that they needed to have a really soft quality to their skin, but also you have to accept the fact that they will always look puppet-like. There's an acknowledgment that this is still a puppet - and there's a joy in that, I think. I didn't want to hyper-realise it and ruin that element, there's definitely a balance to be found, I think.

I started off the process with some really simple drawings of what the internal structure would look like, just to give Rosanna and Becky an idea, and then did some making; started developing the basic structure of the bodies and then did some illustrations of what they would look like. Played around with a couple of different styles of faces and we talked about whether we would go for more of a realistic look.

Personally, with my own style, I find that realistic eyes often don't give the life that you want in a puppet, because when we look at other human beings, we look into each other’s eyes and that’s a major part of human communication. So, with an object if I put in almost photo realistic eyes, it’s immediately obvious to the person who’s making eye contact with the puppet that it’s not real. It's very 'uncanny valley' and it can creep people out, which is the last thing I want to do! Normally, what I do is put in little black beads for eyes, then make the other facial features slightly more realistic. I find that that softens the expectation that this is a real person and you're more likely to project emotions and believe it than you are if it's got really human-like eyes.

For Annie and Sam specifically, I wanted them to be fully skinned, which is a little bit unusual because I wouldn't normally design puppets that have multiple costumes.

Texture was important too, I didn't use paint, which can give you a shiny, tacky texture, which, especially for lighting, I don't think would work well on screen.

Then once they have their skin and costumes, it's just putting in the final details and doing some testing; I do a lot of playing with them to figure out where I need to strengthen something or if something is a little bit loose or if I need to reposition something. The final finishing touches for these ones were haircuts, which was a challenge. I did do a bit of research on how to cut kids' hair as well to make sure that it was, um, style relevant! (laughs) This was much more realistic hair than what I usually use - and then lastly, adding soft features. With these ones I added a bit of blush to the cheeks because they're kids, and added some freckles - and a bit of colour to their lips. That's really kept it quite simple, I think, which hopefully will work best on screen, because it's really soft and gentle. Then I packaged them up and put them in the post!

CJ: What advice would you give to people looking to learn how to make puppets, or forge a career out of it?

AM: I think the best advice I can give would be: make things. Because the best learning is when you’re making mistakes and you’re practicing and you’re playing and giving yourself the freedom to get stuff wrong; don’t even think of it as getting stuff wrong, think of it as trying new things and then if that thing doesn’t work, that’s fine; you just make it better, or you take it apart and you try again! It’s always a process. Try making puppets, find puppet makers that you like, have a look at other people’s puppets and play with them and inspect them and see how they move and try and recreate that. I think most puppet makers are usually willing to kind of give you the freedom to kind of examine what they’ve made and take some pictures and see if you can do it yourself because even if you did remake it, it'll never be a complete carbon copy of the original.

It takes time to develop a toolbox of knowledge, so start simple and get more and more complex as things interest you. I started making Muppets style puppets because I could sew and fabrics were easy to get hold of. I think I used my granny’s old sofa cushion that she didn’t want anymore and recycled a lot of materials, so that things didn’t cost a lot of money when I first started. There are also some great YouTube videos of people making puppets; it gives you a good flavour of different styles of making. Also, watch as much puppetry and theatre as you can, because it gives you ideas. You can decide what you like and what you don’t like and what styles you want to use in the future. I don’t remember how many pieces of advice that was now! (laughs)

CJ: My final question is, what interested you about working on Looking Down On Me?

AM: I really like working for companies that make family theatre. I think puppetry in family theatre is really powerful and the companies I've worked for that make theatre for young audiences have made some amazing things. I’ve seen some beautiful puppetry for young audiences and I feel like kids immediately believe, you know? When you present them with a puppet and a person they immediately believe. It's almost like you don’t know if they know it’s not real - and I think that’s amazing; I love that. So, I was super open to being part of that for this show as well, because it’s a bit of an experiment and that definitely piqued my interest. Making puppets for screen rather than for theatre is definitely a different challenge. I was keen to be involved and I’m so excited to see what you guys make and how the show develops. I think it will be really, really interesting.

You can find out more about Alex Milledge and her work on her website. She is also on Instagram and Twitter.

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