Go and read a review of a show containing puppets by designer Nick Barnes and it’s likely that you will find a comment such as “this production will be remembered for its puppets” or “the stars are the puppets”. It’s not unusual to hear someone state that they even outshine the actors in the production, with the puppets being described as “easily the most authentic characters on stage”. It’s undeniable that Barnes’ creations are exquisite; so detailed and full of life that it’s easy to forget about the puppeteers surrounding them altogether. So what does it take to design a puppet that’s going to steal the spotlight? According to Barnes, experimentation is the best way to begin.

“I think the advice is reasonably simple – I think you need to make stuff. I think that’s the way you learn,” Barnes tells me when asked for any tips for aspiring puppet makers. Barnes himself was studying drama at Hull University when he first discovered his interest in puppetry. “I made some bits and pieces for shows that I did at Hull and then I saw Philippe Genty, a French puppeteer” he explains. Little did he know that, after studying Theatre Design at Slade School of Fine Art, he would go on to win a Duveen scholarship to train in puppetry with Genty at the International Institute of the Marionette. It was after returning from travelling in China in 1997, however, that Barnes developed his own incredibly life-like puppet style. “When I went to China I wanted to come back and respond to the trip in some way”, he recalls. Forget photographs, scrapbooks or postcards – to remember his journey and the people that he had met, Barnes created a puppet of a man that he had been introduced to on his travels. “What it did was give me a definite starting point in trying to make someone real for a purpose”, he elaborates. This was the time that Barnes teamed up with fellow puppet maker Mark Down to found Blind Summit, a company that describes itself as a group of puppetry innovators.

Skip forward to 2016 and Blind Summit are known worldwide for their modern and relevant work that challenges people’s attitudes to puppetry whilst exploring contemporary issues. Barnes has a huge array of credits to his name with this company, from the intricate Bunraku puppets for Anthony Minghella’s Olivier Award winning Madam Butterfly to overseeing the puppetry in Danny Boyle’s stunning opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics. “Our role was slightly different when we were working on the Olympics opening ceremony because we were sort of puppetry consultants and we cast the puppeteers, rather than designing the puppets”, remembers Barnes. Blind Summit worked alongside another puppetry company to help pull off the massive production, the scale of which was unlike anything that they’d ever experienced before. “When you’re trying to operate a hand that’s 10 metres above you via a rope and it’s dangling off another rope, it’s limited as to what you can do”, he explains, laughing at the memory, “but you still want to try and achieve something that feels exciting”.

When the scale is brought down, Barnes’ puppets are often incredibly realistic and seem to have their own unique personalities and quirks. “One or two of the puppets I really wish that I could still have around”, he muses, “I guess I do get quite attached to certain puppets. There was a puppet that we made for a show called Faeries, an old woman, and I did get very attached to that one… sometimes you do find yourself wishing you didn’t have to give them away.” As well as his charming human puppets, Barnes creates animal puppets that look life-like enough to fly, swim or – as in the case of one of his most recent projects, the national tour of Mr Popper’s Penguins – waddle unassisted.

As the interview draws to an end, Barnes sounds positive about the future of puppetry as an art-form in the UK, commenting that current festivals such as Suspense at the Little Angel Theatre are “wonderful places where people can meet and be immersed in puppetry”.

Mr Popper’s Penguins is on at the Rose Theatre Kingston 14-17 January.  

Image by Helen Murray.