Mark Down with a prototype Wolf mask © Jane Hobson
Mark Down with a prototype Wolf mask
© Jane Hobson

Entering the Blind Summit puppet studio is less like entering the realms of Geppetto and more like opening the door on Professor Branestawm’s laboratory, but with body parts: arms, legs, torsos and heads are scattered across the workspace. Puppets from previous productions line the shelves and walls, whilst the ones currently being created are industriously experimented on.

I meet Mark Down, Artistic Director and co-founder of Blind Summit. Over the past 20 years of leading this company as Master Puppeteer, he has worked with world-class artists and companies, including the ​English National Opera, the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala theatre, among many others. You might also remember his 18-feet tall Voldemort from Danny Boyle’s 2012 London Olympic Opening Ceremony.

Asking Mark about the genesis of his career in puppetry, he revealed that, like Harry Hill, he trained as a doctor prior to entering the performing arts. After a stint in casualty, he realised that it was not for him but the arts were, leading him to train at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. During this time, he discovered that puppets existed outside the booth – in the theatre – and this excited him, particularly when he discovered that French artist Philippe Genty’s work, which he admired, was actually puppetry.

This also provided a serendipitous touchpoint when Mark met puppetry designer Nick Barnes. Nick had made puppets inspired by Genty’s work, and Mark found them extraordinary. Nick had already set up Blind Summit when he employed Mark on a four-week workshop. The pair gelled creatively and built their philosophy of puppetry from the ground up. This serious start to their work took a while to lead on to the discovery that they found each other very funny. “We did a science lecture about space at a cabaret in a pub somewhere and the chalk became a rocket and took off” remembers Mark. “During that, I discovered that Nick was funny and maybe he discovered that I was. We nervously inched out of our serious box”.

Assorted puppet parts in Blind Summit's studio © Jane Hobson
Assorted puppet parts in Blind Summit's studio
© Jane Hobson

Since those early days, Blind Summit’s work has spanned the performing arts, from serious to funny, from theatre to opera and beyond. Asked about the invention and creation process, Mark explains that it could happen in a number of ways. In the case of their current production for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Peter and the Wolf, the starting point was the music, to listen to and understand the historical context and to watch existing videos, to get a feel for what form the puppets should take. Mark describes this as having an immediate want, and then puzzling it out. It led to a number of questions: what kind of puppet? What kind of puppeteer? What budget? Between those questions, conversations with the commissioner and thinking about the space, answers started to emerge. Mark sums it up as being the combination of that first impulse and the practical parameters. “Fundamentally,” he tells me “I am trusting Prokofiev”

To make a new puppet it can take anything between six months and a year. Materials used include cardboard, cloth, aluminium, wood, MDF, Styrofoam, papier mache, Plastazote (gym-mat material), gesso, jesmonite, synthetic fur, silicon and latex rubbers. It is a fairly low-tech world, with springs or hinges being perhaps the most high-tech material used.

Working on Peter's head © Jane Hobson
Working on Peter's head
© Jane Hobson

Inevitably, although the style reflects the content of the piece and the author of the work, each puppet contains something of the puppeteer who made it. As Mark explains, “a puppet is made out of imagination and love”.

Blind Summits’ work covers a wide range of art genres, but Mark feels that opera, classical music and puppetry are natural bedfellows. “The big thing about working with opera,” he tells me, “is that because it’s a deconstructed art form, it’s just absolutely primed for puppetry”.

Among the many productions he has worked on that he has particularly enjoyed, Mark conjures The Magic Flute and Le Rossignol.

Le Rossignol
was created at Bregenz Festival, where the company had five puppets in the Lake Stage production of The Magic Flute. They were asked to create a new piece in the afternoons, against the beautiful backdrop of the lake and mountains. “The nightingale is played by a singer and all the other characters are played by puppets, sung from beside the stage – the puppets lip-synch” explains Mark. “They’re cubist puppets so it’s a sort of Alice in Cubist Wonderland version of The Nightingale”. This production will appear again in Cardiff, at the Wales Millennium Centre, as part of Welsh National Opera’s 2020 season.

Ruth Paton, Fiona Clift, Peter and Mark Down © Jane Hobson
Ruth Paton, Fiona Clift, Peter and Mark Down
© Jane Hobson

In The Magic Flute, Mark found great humour in Mozart’s creation of the Three Ladies, which was explicitly expressed via three puppets. “There’s a deliberate joke about getting these three singers to be all sexy, over and over again, up and down and round and round” he says. “When you do it with puppets, you clearly see the author’s intention, which is really fascinating. Mozart is taking the mickey out of the singers because he’s writing something that makes them have to do that”. Humour can also express itself spontaneously during a show, such as when bits of puppets fall off. For instance, during one performance of Madama Butterfly, when the boy meets Sharpless, the hand came off in Madama Butterfly’s hand, just as she was about to sing ”Give Him Your Hand”. Happily, only the cast noticed. Mark also discovered something fundamental when working on Puss in Boots, with director Moses Kaufman: that the piece is judged by how much people want to hear the music. “In the end,” Mark says, “you might as well take a massive risk, because you're not going to spoil the music.”

And Blind Summit’s latest project, Peter and the Wolf , is also set to be very exciting. “The Los Angeles Philharmonic are going to play it as a staged concert, in the Hollywood Bowl, which is vast,” explains Mark. “A puppet is playing Peter and there are six dancers in masks playing the other characters. The challenge with the Bowl is that you can’t see anything on stage, because it’s miles away, yet it’s live-relayed to four screens so you can see the stitches in the costumes. We’ve got to make things very well: it’s almost like a live movie. The narrator will start with “Peter went out into the big green field” and look through a pair of binoculars. The camera will have a binocular effect and will whizz around, finding Peter running through the crowd. The characters will appear all over the Bowl, not on stage, because the orchestra is on stage”.

Fiona Clift, Ruth Paton and Mark Down working on <i>Peter and the Wolf</i>'s puppets © Jane Hobson
Fiona Clift, Ruth Paton and Mark Down working on Peter and the Wolf's puppets
© Jane Hobson

This production’s puppets are now moving from the experimental stage into manufacture, with some overlap. Ruth Paton, who is designing, is making drawings and asking probing questions into character and costume, such as “Why is the Cat in a suit but the Wolf is dressed as a ballet dancer?”. These questions lead to such answers as the Wolf being a kind-of Freddie Mercury character and the cat as a Gogol-esque accountant, with all of them being part of a ballet company. This is still a developing process, so more questions will produce more answers and more development.

It is clear that puppetry is a serious business, yet the fun and suspension of disbelief involved in seeing a production including puppets seems to give rise to a frustrating belief in itself. Asked what is the most surprising thing to other people about his job, Mark responds: “The biggest thing is that they don’t know that it’s a job!”