Puppetry – Behind the bird with Jon Coddington
Whilst performing, master puppeteer Jon Coddington’s is completely in the moment.
As he moves his puppet across the stage, his facial expression changes in line with the clicks and hisses of the vulture. Once the show ends, we are greeted with Jon’s radiant smile, and his once enigmatic face is transformed as he dances along with Gerry, his puppet.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jon and quizzing him about his process, and his history with puppetry.
What first attracted you to the arts?
Well, I’ve been drawing and sculpting since I was a kid, but I didn’t take it seriously as a profession until after my first year of uni.
I was going to do illustration, I thought that was my way, even though I didn’t see it as an end and more as a means. Honestly I thought I’d just end up owning a café, or being a draftsman or an architect.
But then at the end of my first year, I completely switched my whole degree. I studied performance design at Toi Whakaari and I suppose I’ve only been seeing it as truly viable in the last couple years.
The arts has always been with me, I’ve always been a creative type but I feel lucky that I’ve just sort of dropped into it, rather than seeing it as my goal or anything.
Can you remember the first puppet you ever saw?
I suppose it would be Sesame Street and The Muppets. I was really big into The Muppets when I was a kid. My grandfather loved it and sort of drilled it into me and made me love it too.
But I think it was really Warhorse, made by the Handspring Puppet company that changed my whole perception of puppetry. It showed me what I could do and introduced me to the beauty and mechanics of puppetry.
When did you first handle a puppet?
I made little things when I was a kid, but properly it was when we did a block course at uni. It was 3 weeks long, focusing on puppetry, and the lecturer brought in some exquisite marionettes. I was the first time I actually played with something professional.
When did you first create your own puppets?
Properly, it would have been when I was doing a 48 hour Film Fest. I was on a team and we weren’t quite sure what we were doing but we wanted to do something with puppetry. I hadn’t made anything before, but I thought ‘what the heck’ and they wanted some string puppets so I thought I’d biff something together.
So, I went away, and I made a man, a woman, and an old man, and there was no genre or anything at the time, so I just had them ready. And then we got our genre, and it was twin movie and I thought ‘of any genre, this has to be the worst’. So that night I had to go away and duplicate one of the puppets I’d made. It was sort of trial by fire, but I loved it. The making and the performing. Because I never saw myself as a performer before that. I’d always preferred being behind it and doing the ‘making’.
What would you say is your favourite part of being the puppeteer?
I suppose on one side it frees me from performance anxiety. All the focus is out ‘there’, and there is a great sort of relief for me in that. But also, it’s really the magic of it. And not purely in the theatrical sense, but also being able to do things that humans can’t. And that’s what I really dig about puppetry. You know, there’s got to be a good reason for why a puppet exists in a show. And if it’s not doing something extraordinary, then I don’t see a reason for it. It’s that extraordinary aspect that really vibes with me.
Do you ever worry when you’re onstage that people are watching you and not the puppet?
It’s gotten easier. Performance is really tricky for me. Making Puppet Fiction as a fringe show, and then deciding to do it just because I love the source material so much, I was surprised by that.
Just having that puppet to move through, because I’m enjoying the puppet as much as the audience. I’m not sitting there being precious about it. The beauty of puppetry is you get to see the final product as it’s being made. An actor can’t watch themselves do it. An artist will have to wait till the end of the painting. But I’m seeing it as it’s happening.
When you’re making the puppets, do you let your designs grow organically, or do you have a design in mind from the start?
I’m a very iterative designer. I have a basic idea of things. I have images of the original design for the vulture, and it’s basically all there. But with puppetry especially, so much dictates everything else. The weight will affect the performance and certain materials won’t move the way things need to move. I really like doing material research and just playing until something works, that what I tend to do.
How long does it normally take to make a puppet?
It depends on the puppet. I can bash together a hand and rod monster puppet in two or three days. But something like Gerry would take at least a couple of months. And that just gives enough time for trialling and putting it through different spaces and all that.
What’s Gerry made out of?
Plywood, cane, muslin, a bit of Resin, his head is rotocast Resin, his legs are made out of PVC pipe, some bike breaks, a bit of fishing line and I think that’s about it.
How did you start working with Indian Ink?
It was through John Verryt [Indian Ink’s Set Designer/Projected Imagery Artist]. He was working on a show for the same company I was working with at the time, and later on he put me in touch with Justin. When I met Justin, I actually built a tiny little vulture puppet and just explored the different mechanics and how it could do things, but it was more of a CV to him, just to show them what I could do and it just grew naturally from there.
How do you make the Vulture noises?
(Laughs) They just come out of me.
I didn’t intend to do the noises, I thought it would be a track or something, but they asked me to do it and I gave it a crack and I just sort of got it. I’ve looked at vulture videos for a long time now and maybe I’ve just been subconsciously practising while building them, who knows.
Is puppetry your happy place?
Yeah. It really is, yeah. I know it’s a short answer, but it is, I’m really happy doing it.