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Christopher Leith with Overcoat Masks Photo with permission Christopher Leith

Christopher Leith with Overcoat Masks Photo with permission Christopher Leith

Interview with master puppeteer, Christopher Leith

Local writer and artist, Chandra Masoliver talks with master puppeteer and writer, Christopher Leith, whose work-in-progress 3 Stages for Lazarus was recently performed at the White Rock Theatre.

It is a joy to explore the meaning of words with Christopher Leith, as they become living images. During my interview with him, we played with the meanings of ‘right angles’ and ‘wobbly’, moving on to think of the limitations of words like ‘partner’ and ‘disability’, as if the depth of their meaning has to be skirted around. We even examined the word ‘interview’: a process of ‘inter viewing’; the interconnections between two people’s views, not just the firing off of questions and answers.

When you moved out of London why did you choose to live in Hastings rather than Brighton or some other place on the South Coast?
Hastings is a remarkable place with remarkable people. I like that it has no side, no airs. My friend Robbie didn’t want to move to Brighton. He said it was like London on heat… too fast. We lived in the Old Town first, but then I moved to Saint Leonards; the Old Town houses were too wobbly… there were no right angles in any of the houses.

How did you first discover your love of puppets?
When I was about ten years old, I became fascinated with puppets. I watched them on television in the ’50s and I asked for them at Birthday and Christmas times. They were Pelham puppets, which were well made. I was very ambitious, I even had lighting. The family didn’t approve; my step-father said I was ‘playing with dolls.’ Retrospectively, I think I was creating a world I could control, but as I reached my teens, puppeteering changed from being a need to being a vocation.
                                                                                                                                              During our last conversation, you spoke of a blind man who gained so much by losing his sight that he said he would never want to recover it. Do you feel at all like that? (In 2013, Christopher developed motor neurone disease.)
I don’t want to score off my disability, nor be defined by it. It’s relevant, but it doesn’t overrule things. As to the story of the blind man, I’m not there yet – and I do not want to go into emergency mode. Through our lives, we imagine how our end will be, I know. For me, it was a wake-up call about what I still want to do.

Lazarus Photo Manuel Vasquez

Lazarus Photo Manuel Vasquez

I have said how lucky I feel to have been there for your performance of the ‘3 Stages for Lazarus’. Could you tell me a bit about how it was for you?
I’m aware I’m tackling a big theme, full of archetypes, knocking on quite deep doors. I’m feeling quite tired, but it’s encouraging what’s coming out. As soon as you begin to work with a puppet, it comes to life. There is a spirit that comes down… puppetry is a very simple thing and a very subtle thing and when I see it it reminds me why I love puppets. That’s just the way it is.

In the paintings of Bonnard, Rembrandt and Gwyn John, as they came nearer to death, the body and clothing of their self-portraits seem to be a veneer to cover their spirit; it shines through translucently. I can feel this in myself as I grow older. Is this part of what you are expressing in ‘Lazarus’?
The back of Lazarus was the last piece of carving I ever did… to see it coming to life in this way is magical; it’s beautiful. I started working on Lazarus in 2010, well before any signs of motor neurone disease. I heard the words ‘fixed and cannot move’ in a song; that’s how puppets are – and are not. Lazarus is about the fragility of life.

I love Goya and there is a wonderful fresco in Madrid of St Anthony raising someone from the dead; the man is just waking up – and I wanted to sculpt something of that of my own. The naked crawling figure was what first interested me… the naked Lazarus, the naked spirit, bony Lazarus, pared down, near the edge on all accounts. Yes, those self-portraits you mention are like that.

When I carved Saint Cuthbert for St Cuthbert and the Otters, I wanted to do a healthy male body. With Lazarus, I wanted to carve a very thin emaciated body. There’s something about the bare bones of magic there. I have done lots of plays about saints… I take on big themes… they are sparked off by an image, a chance meeting, paths crossing. Each character has a part of me in it. Beowulf is the warrior, but there is also the monk. Part of me wanted to be a monk. I studied Gregorian chant, but that would be too… I would be no good with poverty, chastity and obedience.

St Bernard & The Demon Photo Manuel Vasquez

St Bernard & The Demon Photo Manuel Vasquez

I understand that ‘puppet’ is a generic term covering all kinds of puppet, while ‘marionette’ is specific to puppets held by strings. Could you tell me about how you have made and dressed your creations? I know you have some still with you, and a cupboard full of materials.
The puppets I usually make are three feet tall, but I have made marionettes up to five feet tall. Carving is a process that I don’t think I can go into in a nutshell. This is an art form which takes a long time to learn. All I can say is that I’ve found that practising, practising practising and never giving up are the best pieces of advice I could give. Oh, and keeping up with my life drawing too.

In making costumes… when I lived in London I knew all the fabric shops. I would spend a whole day walking up and down Berwick Street looking at shops until I knew I’d found what I wanted.

You’ve said how singing is important to you, what has been your experience of singing in ‘Lazarus’?
I do feel when I sing that I do touch some emotional level, some emotional keys. I feel I can get in touch with a part of myself that I don’t necessarily get in touch with when I am acting, or even… oh, it’s diffetent with puppeteering… oh, yes.

There is no Jesus in your story – and you’ve said that you tried countless ways to put him in, but it just did not fit. I notice that at the end you call the Master Puppeteer the ‘Master Creator’. Does he replace Jesus?

Now this is a religious story without religion. I mention Jesus once, from Thomas in the wonderful Nag Hamadi Bible: ‘Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will be troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over All’.

The Master Puppeteer does seem to become the Master Creator, but there is an irony there that some people have seen in the fact that in the wheelchair this Master needs to be manipulated like a puppet himself! There is the irony of being a puppeteer who has no arms; I can barely lift them. So if he’s the Master Creator, who manipulates him?

This takes us on to the Unheard Voice… this is a bit of a mysterious thing. It could be the voice that whispers to us constantly, perhaps unheard. Or is it a little bit of ‘music of the spheres’? It is certainly the true voice that perhaps we often choose to ignore. It is the voice of dreams perhaps. It is the voice of truth that threads its way

Christopher Leith Photo with permission CL

Christopher Leith Photo with permission CL

in and out of our everyday experience.

The 3 Stages for Lazarus will be performed as part of the Little Angel Suspense Festival on Monday 2 November at 2.00pm and Tuesday 3 November at 11am at the JW3, 341–351 Finchley Road. London NW3.

Chandra Masoliver’s first article on Christopher Leith.

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Posted 13:47 Wednesday, Sep 2, 2015 In: Performance

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