Emma Powell is an artist and director, whose practice centres on puppet design and fabrication, and extends into robotics, animatronics and science communication. We sat down with her to find out more about her background, her diverse skill set and how her passion for engineering informs her creative works.
How did you get into puppet design and fabrication? What’s your background?
I’ve always made things but when I was younger it was with a very unfocused and scattergun approach. I wanted to learn everything! I studied Illustration. Perhaps another degree would have been better, but luckily I was allowed the freedom to work in both 2D and 3D and it has been very useful for designing and also communicating ideas to others. I undertook some work experience with a company at Puppet Place and meeting the community here was a huge relief. Finally I found a discipline where being a jack-of-all-trades was valuable and where design and technical understanding converged.
You need so many skills to make good puppets. You never know whether you might be sewing, sawing, drilling, welding or painting. For me, part of the attraction of working in puppet theatre is that there are just not that many formal training routes for it. People come from all sorts of different backgrounds, and they bring their own perspectives, skills and experience with them. I have great respect for puppeteers. Doing it well is much harder than people think. The novelty of seeing a great puppeteer bring a puppet I have made to life will never wear off.
Your practice also extends into robotics, animatronics and science communication. What projects have you worked on, in this regard? Is it unusual for women to be involved in design and engineering in these fields?
I think it’s an extension of the child in me that wants to master everything! I love my job and working in the arts, but I am also drawn to engineering and science and enjoy working in teams that have varied skill sets within them. It’s exciting to get to know about other people’s practices and approaches. I recently worked as Lead Designer and Fabricator for Puppet Place residents Rusty Squid, on their project How to Build a Robot for Channel 4. Having to design around hardware, moving parts and electronics makes the job more challenging, but also more satisfying when you get it right.
I’m not sure how unusual it is for women to be working in fields like mine. I know lots of amazing makers who are women, across all sorts of disciplines. It’s just good for people to know that these options are out there. It took me nearly 30 years to realise that I’d like to study engineering. Now I’m doing a MEng part-time with the Open University and it feels great.
In a similar vein, another project I worked on this year was Small Victories, a collaboration with Becca Lewis and Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. The culmination of the project was a storytelling show about women in the engineering history of the area, of which there are a surprising number. It was great to be able to work with puppetry to tell these uncelebrated stories because the stories we hear affect how we understand the world and how we consider our roles within it.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working as Lead Fabricator on Green Ginger‘s new production, Intronauts. It’s a great design challenge because half of the show is set within a human body, so we’ve been figuring out how to use puppetry’s magic to best effect. I’m making the lead puppet character in a range of scales so that the perils she encounters are given the epic quality they deserve. The production will tour the UK in November 2018, so watch this space..!
For the first time in many years, I have a few weeks in September to do some professional development – providing no interesting projects come up before then! It will be good to take some time to make for pleasure, rather than working to a brief. The only person I’ll have to answer to is myself. I’ll be getting comfortable with some new CAD software and speed dating some 3D printers, as well as getting my hands dirty with some old-fashioned clay.
The next big project is undertaking a Research and Development period for a show I’m currently writing (working title ‘Drumroll’). It’s supported by Nordland Visual Theatre in Norway, and I’m looking forward to going there with a small team in early 2019.
To find out more about Emma and to view her portfolio of works, visit her website: https://www.emmapowell.com