For the 2010 Samhuinn Fire Festival in Edinburgh, I co-organised a group representing the role of the spirit of Summer, doomed to fall to the wolves of Winter, by means of a carnival troupe of mediaeval-style musicians, fantastical animals and basket-bearers distributing flowers and cake, glitter and bubbles. I led the puppeteers together with my friend Hannah Werdmuller, and Andy Glowaski organised the rest.
I figured that as real animals go, you don’t get much more fantastical than the tapir – an animal that looks something like a cross between an aardvark and a hog, but is in fact distantly related to the horse. It seemed a particularly apt metaphor for the end of summer since the tapir is critically endangered everywhere it exists – in sun-soaked South America and Malaysia.
According to Japanese myth, tapirs eat your dreams.
After performing at Beltane with a huge, towering puppet, I decided I’d rather scale back a bit for Samhuinn. There is something to be said for being so tall that a crowd of hundreds can see you clearly, but it’s also true that as soon as you are a head and shoulders above any crowd you can start making an impact from a long way off.
My tapir, Tara, was roughly life-sized, and positioned like I was giving it a piggy-back. Tara’s body is built right onto a backpack frame, using withies (bendable willow-sticks) to give it its shape, while the head, the back legs and the front feet are made mainly from thick aluminium wire – just bendy enough to work with my hands, but thick enough to hold its shape well. The front legs are built around sticks of bamboo, with a withie framework for bulk, and the feet attached by wire.
The whole thing has muslin stretched over it to create an illusion of solidity. The hind legs are attached to the waistband of the backpack frame. The front legs are attached to the top of the frame, and come over my shoulders so that I can control them with a sort of bamboo handle.
The trickiest engineering work went into the head, which is designed to be mounted on top of my own. It is built out of wire, held together by bending bits around so they’re parallel, and sticking them together with gaffer tape. It’s possible to make surprisingly solid structures this way! The base of this is what I know as a Brazilian headdress, and uses a pattern and technique I got from Lindsay John in a workshop in 2008.
I made a hinged and counter-weighted jaw so that when I tip my head back, the mouth gapes open and reveals Tara’s fearsome tapir teeth and lolling tongue. For the hinge, I just twisted the jaw-wire around another wire going horizontally across the head. The principle is pretty straightforward – the weight keeps the jaw roughly level, while the rest of the head rotates around it – but getting the weighting exactly right required a fair bit of trial and error.
The dangling proboscis was even more fun. To make it wave back and forth in front of the head, I continued the cloth covering several inches beyond where the wire frame stops, making a sort of sleeve. I weighted this with a double-ring of wire bent into a pair-of-nostrils shape, something like this: ∞.
To make the puppet more visible in the night, and to give the wolves of winter something to show off after they dismembered Tara, I made a glowing brain out of two LED push-lights and cotton wool, and tied it to the top of the head using flimsy wool. I gave her cheap glass eyes from a craft-supply shop, and to enable even more dramatic dismembering, I attached them to optical nerves made out of red epoxy putty, and held them in place with wool.
Tara was joined on her journey by an extremely varied group of puppets – Hannah‘s manticore Manny, Milk‘s snake, Koralia’s fish-beast, Alison’s fairy-lit ram and Ross‘s giant Beebeard, attended by spotters wielding sticks topped by a bird, a bee and a pig. Here’s a video of us all in action, and here’s a gallery of photos featuring Tara.
For this year’s Samhuinn – tomorrow night! – there are even more puppeteers. It’s going to be spectacular. My own puppet is a sort of a giant wolf-beast, on the Winter side of the battle this time. I’ll post all about it after I recover from the night itself…