Jim Barnard is a director, a puppeteer, a dancer and a man with a wonderful energy. Our coauthor Kairi Kivirähk asked some questions to find out about Jims past and future, ideas and thoughts about dancing, puppets, life and more.

Jim Barnard

Jim Barnard

How did you begin with puppetry?

I was a dancer before. I trained as a dancer for 4 years. Then I worked as a dancer for about 14 years full time, and in that time working with dancers I pretty often took over the roles of people, who weren’t available to go on tour. And a really good colleague and friend of mine in Amsterdam was Duda Paiva, he made a puppet show with someone, who became unavailable for touring and he said: “Jim, come down to a studio and try that out and maybe you can come to a tour.” I went to the studio and picked up the puppet, I liked it, learned the role in two days and then I was in front of the audience being a puppeteer. I covered Duda’s roles in three more productions. So I learned puppetry on stage, got coaching from Duda. Actually because I worked mostly in dance theatre I worked a lot with objects. I had to develop a lot of principles, ideas and how to treat an object on the stage. A puppet was just another stage object. The hardest thing was not to make myself visible on stage. Because dancers are very busy with the “Look at me, look at me, I am on stage, wohoo!” attitude. Manipulating and animating the puppets was pretty easy in the beginning, but making myself invisible on stage was much harder.

Do you write your plays yourself?

I am actually writing a lot of texts, which I haven’t done before, not for theatre. Text usually comes through improvisation, you get into a theatre space, you have an idea, you start playing, it starts to develop and there it comes. But just sitting down outside the studio, writing a text, it’s new as well, something what I haven’t done before. This complete abandoning of any notion of story or character. That is really new. Even in dance theatre, you don’t have a regular story like – there is a problem, what needs to be resolved: so you set up a problem and you will get it resolved – that’s the story form. In dance theatre it is not so linked with that, it doesn’t quite abandon it completely. The big writers of Absurdist theatre believed that both story and character were impediments – they got in the way of the most important thing about theatre and that is revealing essential human experience. It has nothing to do with story or character. Essential human experience doesn’t work like that. Life doesn’t actually exist in stories. We just put stories on things because it is is more pleasing and competing for us. Things don’t get resolved. There is no nice beginning, a middle point and happy end. It doesn’t work like that in life. It just goes on, and it is confusing and difficult, this is how it is. All this Stanislavsky thing of character and a character on stage having a past before the theatre, it is just nonsense, and it gets in the way to get into the roots of human experience – the stuff what we really feel: despair, love, confusion, anger. And for me the real power of theatre is to trigger those emotions in the audience. So by providing things, which make the audience feel as part of their own experience, authentically, generally. We are reminding the audience that they are in the theatre, they are not in a mystical forest or 12th century Denmark, we are in the theatre, here and now. Now we are doing the thing. That thing lets you reflect your own life experience, having an emotional response and how you feel about your own life experience. And then you are in the room with hundreds other people, who are all reflecting their own life experience and emoting it in a similar, but never the same way and it creates that magic thing, which is exciting and interesting for you.

What is the role of puppet theatre in society, why is its existence important?

I think mostly its role is to entertain children. In most places that’s puppet theatre. But I think it can do much more than that, it has much more possibilities. Actually, when you work with puppets, it allows things for the director, that are usually inaccessible, when working with just actors. I keep discovering new things – One of the first things I learned, was that with puppets you can discuss difficult, challenging, uncomfortable subjects, because it’s the puppet saying these things and not the actor – the public accepts them. Strangely, as long as you give the puppet life, which is basically a technical issue. If the public believes in the life of the puppet, then they will accept almost anything that comes out of the puppet’s mouth. As an artist, as a theatre maker, one of the basic themes of art and theatre are the darkest sides of human nature, our demons and how we deal with them. When I picked up the puppet for the very first time, I just almost immediately found it, it was just such an elaboration as an artist , you can just express your weirdest, darkest most twisted fantasies through a puppet, and its all fine. People say: “Oh its puppet, no problem!“ And now that I got more deeply into it, I start to find other really interesting benefits of working with puppets. I have a big problem with acting and actors, I hate seeing acting on stage. Only the very best actors do acting without you noticing that they are acting. And if they are not very good, you sit there in the audience saying, “I am watching an actor acting now”. That just makes you step back from what they are doing. A puppet is a puppet – it is immediately accepted. With some basic skills, it is easily animated. What the puppet does is represent symbols of things, so a puppet could be very dramatic and emotional without being a good actor and it doesn’t bother the audience. They read the symbols of anger, of despair, of frustration and then they look at their own feelings about anger, frustration and despair. It triggers the feelings in them, in a way it is so much easier than with an actor, unless it is a very good actor. I this very interesting. What I’m starting to do in this latest production, is to use my actors as puppets and to try to get them to treat themselves as puppets and not as actors.

Why has Estonian puppet-theatre attracted you? How did you find it?

I’ve also made puppets. I made them for a puppet-production, which premiered here a year and bit ago in “Detox the Dummy”. I made those puppets for Duda, and people liked them here. I was invited to come back and teach a puppet-building workshop. Then I had many of the NUKU (The National Youth and Puppet Theatre of Estonia – ed.) puppet makers in a workshop, which was nice. In my world, as a puppet theatre maker, if I want puppets made for production I need to make them myself. In this world, you send some designs to the puppet makers department and then they make them. These people aren’t writers, actors, directors – they are literally just puppet makers. It was lovely! Then I talked to people about me being a puppet theatre director and how I have a show coming up. I invited them to come and perform in that show in your festival and they said ”Yeah, ok!”. And I did it and it was great fun! And then I said that maybe I can come to direct a show in your theatre and they said “Yeah ok, come!”

What are you doing in Estonia right now?

Working with a new show. I became recently fascinated with absurdist theatre. I have been studying absurdist theatre. It goes against a lot of what I have done in the past, but also it explains a lot. It didn’t seem a strange to me. I have been a performer for about 20 years now and in this moment with this piece I am kind of throwing away and breaking a lot of my rules, a lot of thing I have thought. In order to develop yourself as an artist, you need to destroy your past. If you keep holding on to what you know, you can never truly move forward. That is what I’m actually are doing in here, in NUKU. I am trying to do something radically different for myself.

Can you describe the people in NUKU, the staff and the actors/actresses?

I really like it here. I really like NUKU a lot. My actors are great, very committed – real professionals. They have different backgrounds and experiences than I do. For example, in a basic technical level, I have worked mostly with moving mouth puppets. Here it’s rare, it is not normal puppetry here, even thought that they are really experienced actors they have done tens of shows more, a lot of them don’t have a lot of experience of moving mouth puppets, so I do find myself coaching, but that’s ok, they are concentrated, focused and they learn quickly. This is not a problem. They show up every day with enthusiasm and focus, they work hard and they produce results. As a director that’s what I want, I am happy.

What kind of a relationship does puppet actor have with their puppet?

It is not so much about the emotional link, within the context of the show obviously he is expressing me and my ideas, thoughts, desires etc. But I mean with Stan in particular, he is made of foam-rubber, which is very delicate and those kind of puppets will take many many hours to make. They do just get damaged so you have to repair them anyway. I wouldn’t go to a workshop for 7 year olds and say “Hey there you go, play with that.” I wouldn’t do that. It is more like a practical thing, that this puppet took more than hundreds of hundreds of hours to make and I just don’t wanna be this destroyed.

What do you think what puppets do when they are alone?

I will tell you what happened to me in Erlangen, Germany. There was a fantastic festival, a huge puppet festival and I was performing Stan there. And I left him in my hotel room and I came back and someone said to me, “You really scared one of the cleaners, she came into the room and saw that figure there and freaked out.” “Sorry, shit”. Next day when I returned to my hotel room the cleaner lady had put Stan in front of the TV with a remote control in his hand. So for me when you leave a puppet and you don’t animate it, it is dead, but clearly not for everyone; she nevertheless wanted him to be entertained after she finished cleaning the room.

You have said that you are doing “puppet theatre to twist your head and warm your heart.” What is the recipe for making a great puppet theatre show?

I don’t know what the recipe is. I just throw away my recipe book. And I experiment with the ingredients. Recipe is too specific, but I have some guidelines. Bottom line – the most important thing to me about theatre is timing. It just makes something work or not work. You can just have the most genius content, but with bad timing no one will get it. They won’t even hear it. You can have to most meaningless, shitty, tired, old content, but if you have a beautiful timing, you will touch the audience with that. And as a performer that is the most important thing. I spend a lot of time with my cast working on this piece just to get the timing right. That is going to sell it in the end. As soon as the audience switches off and starts to think what they will get for dinner or where to go to holiday, you have failed. It can’t happen even for a moment.

Where is it possible to see your performances?

In TREFF festival (Tallinn Treff Festival is a large scale theater festival in Estonia – ed.), and anywhere where my agent manages to sell my plays. Check out my website – www.jimbarnard.com. Next upcoming thing which is certain is that I am working with Stan at the Scandinavia Punk festival somewhere in Denmark.

When someone who will read this article wants to contact you and be your friend how should she or he act? Give some hints?

Firstly you can be a friend of my Facebook community – Scallywag Theater. But personally – buy me a drink, it is a good start!

When you could recommend one thing for all the people on the Earth, what would it be?

Guru Jim Barnard says, I have so much good advice, you really want only one? Ok, I will choose one of them: Focus on what you have and not on what you don’t have!