Interview: 'Extreme Puppetry: It's Much Like SAS Training, but for Puppets.' Mark Down and Ben Keaton Of Blind Summit on THE SEX LIVES OF PUPPETS

We speak to the writers and directors about their brilliant new show.

By: Jan. 12, 2024
Interview: 'Extreme Puppetry: It's Much Like SAS Training, but for Puppets.' Mark Down and Ben Keaton Of Blind Summit on THE SEX LIVES OF PUPPETS

Flipping the script on the notion that puppet shows are for children, Blind Summit's latest show The Sex Lives Of Puppets is a thought-provoking portrayal of modern lust, love and everything in between.

Artistic Director Mark Down and his co-director and co-writer Ben Keaton worked with Chris Bonnell, Professor of Public Health and Sociology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to put together a series of "interviews" with a diverse range of respondents. A pair of lesbian talk about their intimate encounters, a couple (married, but not to each other) discuss how they named each other's privates and an older woman tells us about how she decided to ditch the attentions of her husband in favour of a more reliable alternative (as long as the batteries don't run out).  

BroadwayWorld spoke to Mark and Ben about how the show came about and what the inspirations were behind it. 

Can you tell us a bit about your early years and how you developed an interest in puppetry?

MARK: I thought I became interested in puppetry when I saw Philippe Genty show in Edinburgh at 22, but now I remember I was brought up in Weymouth where there was a famous punch and Judy man - he was on hi-dee-hi - and at some point in my early teens I copied his show in a village fete. I was a weird teenager!!

BEN:  To be honest, I lied my way into this production.  I don't have much puppet history.  I remember going to the marionette theatre in Angel at some point.  There were a few shows in the Mime Festival and Genty was one of those.  I wanted to work with a great company, it happened to be Blind Summit.

Blind Summit's puppets have a recognisable look and feel. How did you arrive at that aesthetic and what were the influences that evolved your puppet design over time?

MARK: It's an organic process. the puppets in sex lives of puppets have evolved over about 12 years. they are the work of many different people and have been in several shows. the first one - originally called "Nigel Mound", who now plays "Preston" in Sex Lives - came from wanting to work with puppets who could talk with a moving mouth. they were finished and pulled together into a cast by Russell Dean working closely with us in rehearsal to develop the characters as we made the show. 

How do you develop and hone your own puppet skills within or outside Blind Summit?

MARK: We have a method that I call "extreme puppetry". it is a process of learning through improvisation with puppets. the key is to think about genre which I think is the equivalent to character in acting. the strength of it is that you get a very alive puppet that is in the moment and can respond to audience reactions which I like. 

BEN: I've witnessed the 'Extreme Puppetry' technique.  It's full on.  Much like SAS training.  But for puppets.

Interview: 'Extreme Puppetry: It's Much Like SAS Training, but for Puppets.' Mark Down and Ben Keaton Of Blind Summit on THE SEX LIVES OF PUPPETS

Has there been anyone or any show that particularly influenced your approach to the physical or dramatic side of puppetry?

MARK: Philippe Genty's show "derives" which I saw twice in Edinburgh in about 1990 changed my understanding of what puppetry could be. I didn't even recognise it as puppetry at the time. 

BEN: What I am amazed by is the ability of puppets to express such a range of emotion.  They can compress everything I know about my own acting training into flash point right before your eyes.  So their expression is melting of everything I've learnt from others.

Blind Summit has never shied away from more adult topics and discussions. Was that a deliberate choice from the beginning or something that has come about over time?

MARK: I try to make shows that I would enjoy seeing, and I’m an adult. 

BEN: Sex is a thrilling and dangerous subject at the moment.  It's what drew me to this production.  I was so impressed by those experts who advised us along the way.  They made it clear that while sex is deeply personal it's also the common human experience.  The message was 'calm down, you're not the freak you think you are.  It's just sex.'

Sex is a very broad and controversial topic. Was there anything which was ruled out from the off? And was there anything ruled out which made its way in at a later stage? [Or vice versa].

MARK: We were working in collaboration professor Chris Bonell and the "National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles". this was our reference and, although the stories in the show are invented, we made sure that anything we said we could point to in the interviews as being essentially based on true stories. but remember, this is the sex lives of puppets, so only they know the real truth. 

BEN:  The puppets are not people.  It's their world, not ours.

There's a (possibly apocryphal) story that a gay actor in and the lesbian producer of Puppetry Of The Penis ended up having a relationship after working on that show. Has working on this show affected how you and your colleagues view your own sex lives?

MARK: Nothing quite as exciting as that I’m afraid! we did get very used to thinking and talking about sex all day and that felt very healthy and something we should do more in our real lives. we did have an agreement to stop the rehearsal if anyone ever felt uncomfortable, but I don't think we ever used it. we found that people love talking about sex and a safe place to do so is very valuable. 

BEN:  Oh my god, I've talked about sex for a whole year.  I just want to go home and walk the dog.  And no, that's not a euphemism.

The Sex Lives of Puppets is running at Southwark Playhouse until 13 January.