WHEN it comes to making a success of all things theatrical, award-winning and Durban-based entertainment personality PETER COURT has always been able to pull strings. Perhaps never more so than now, with his re-entry, in a big way, to the world of puppetry and puppet-making. BILLY SUTER reports on the latest creations, puppetry workshops and upcoming shows from this ebullient talent from Swansea in Wales.
AWARD-WINNING actor, director, teacher, puppet master, costumier, prop-maker, Durban panto stalwart and all-round-nice-guy, Peter Court, has something saucy up his sleeve…at the end of rods…or in his hands.
He is the brainchild of Puppet Porn, a novel and naughty-but-nice stage cabaret featuring puppets designed, created and operated by him. Scheduled for premiere performances at Durban’s OnStage@Altitude, 25 Silver Avenue, Stamford Hill, from November 25 to 28, nightly at 6.30, it is but one of a number of Peter’s latest passion projects. Tickets cost R100 each and booking is online via Quicket.
Although he has long created, dressed and operated puppets in theatre productions, Peter has thrown himself with renewed vigour into this fascinating art form in recent months, having studied the craft further online, created his own online workshops and taken commissions for his talents.
More sass than smut, more raunchiness that rudeness, is what the advertising blub says of Puppet Porn, which has an 18 age restriction and is being presented by Thomie Holtzhausen, owner of Club Altitude.
Holtzhausen is the producer and a popular, regular cast member of the venue’s annual naughty adult pantomime which this year will be Peter Pan, featuring him, Bryan Hiles, Cara Roberts, Kirsty Ndawo and Darren King (who also scripted and directed). It is scheduled to run at OnStage@Altitude from December 8 to 30.
Peter and Thomie go back a long way, Peter having been with the adult pantos since inception, when they were the big festive season draw at the Playhouse Cellar. Peter was the director, writer and sometime star of these successes for about a decade.
“Puppet Porn came about during a random conversation with Thomie. He was saying he had an empty venue and wouldn’t I like to use it sometime. I suggested an ‘adult’ puppet show and Puppet Porn was born,” says Peter.
The show, featuring only Peter and puppets, is a cabaret hinged on a series of songs and the odd (very odd) gag here and there.
“It is naughty… but all in good (not too) clean fun. The subject matter is sexual and the show is for open-minded adults, who like to laugh,” Peter adds.
“The number of puppets in the show is constantly changing as I keep adding new numbers and removing others! For the most part, I remain unseen, or in the background, as the puppeteer… but you never know, I might just bounce onto the stage at some point or another.”
The production has a full cabaret set that Peter has specially designed and constructed. It is on two levels – one for table-top puppets and the other, higher, for glove and rod puppets.
Music in the show is very eclectic: “Everything from pop song parodies to classic show tunes with a twist. Think drag show with inanimate objects!”
The show will have legs beyond this season: “The idea is to be able to tour it and two other shows around the country and to international festivals. I have also created a traditional kids’ show for under-7s, to be performed in the morning; a Gothic version of Rumplestiltskin for children aged eight-plus, for the late afternoon/early evening; and then the late-night Puppet Porn cabaret for adults, So, a full day’s work!”
It was during the crush of early Covid-19 lockdown restrictions that Peter became determined to be more involved in puppetry.
“There is a theatre company in Vermont, USA, called Sandglass Theatre Company. Each summer they run a three-week, full-time course in puppet-making and I had always wanted to attend… but could never afford it (Surprise, surprise)!
“Then, along came Covid-19. Everything shut down and people had to start becoming inventive to keep bread on the table. Suddenly, the Sandglass course was online! Yay! But I still couldn’t afford it. Boo! So, I wrote to them, explained my situation (and the current rate of exchange) and they gave me a bursary!
“I loved it. I then took their style of animating puppets and combined it with my own style of puppet construction. After that, I joined more and more online classes, and I started running some myself, with the assistance of PuppetSoup in Wales and the National Capital Puppetry Guild in Washington.”
Peter then had a request from Public Works Puppet Theatre in Lafayette, Colorado, to design and make a set of puppets for their upcoming production (opening this weekend) – and so an international collaboration began.
“You know what they say: when you find your tribe… And I have found my tribe. An international community of people who are all just as mad about puppets as I am,” says Peter.
His production of Rumpelstiltskin came about, he explains, after he ran a short course in Paper Pop-ups for Puppet Performers and a woman called Deborah Hunt joined the course from Puerto Rico.
“Deborah is probably one of the best-known puppet-makers in the Southern Americas and has been an idol of mine for many years. I pooped myself… I can’t teach this woman anything, I thought, She knows it all!
“Well, she was so gracious and fun and we started exchanging ideas for productions. She pointed me towards her ‘suitcase’ shows, and I developed the scale and style of Rumplestiltskin from there.
Paper Pop-ups for Puppet Performers is being run again by Peter, online, from September 14 and another workshop, Needle-sculpted Puppets, will run from October 4. Both courses are two nights a week, for three weeks, and cost $150 per person. However, there is a discount for drama teachers and performers in Southern Africa (both courses are can be taken for R1000).
Anyone interested should contact Peter to book a place (numbers are limited) at email@example.com
Peter has a combined honours degree in Design Arts and in Theatre Arts and Performance, from the University of Plymouth in the UK. His speciality field was Symbolic Theatre – dance, puppets and circus and their uses and meaning in performance.
Peter’s passion for puppetry was ignited when he was four and living in Nigeria. That was when his father bought a puppet theatre and a set of glove puppets from colleagues returning to the UK.
He has produced hundreds of shows and puppets since, and tries to use recycled materials as much as possible. However, not for export – all fabrics into America have to be new, he says.
He smiles recalling some previous puppet creations: “I once used ham to make a puppet that had to rot away during the show. I’m never doing that again – the flies and maggots were too much for me to cope with!”
The biggest puppet with which he was involved was one for Durban’s KickstArt theatre company: “Most of the making of it was by the genius Greg King. It was the amorous Dragon from Kickstart’s Shrek The Musical. I was the puppeteer, and she was about 5m tall and 5m long!”
The smallest? Peter once made an ant puppet, about four-times life-size, which was operated from underneath by magnets.
”The most challenging puppet? It is always the one you are currently working on. It’s a series of problem-solving activities at every step of the construction. The puppet closest to my heart is, I think, The Little Prince from Starchild, staged in Durban many years ago.
“There have been multiple productions that I have created in Durban over the past 30 years that have involved puppets and puppetry, either at the centre of the storytelling or as part of a bigger production.”
Other highlights, he says, have included the use of puppets in education (teaching educators to use puppets) and the employment of puppetry in therapy and coaching (not solely with children).
Peter has worked in education, the creative arts and theatre for almost 30 years, and in South Africa for more than two decades. Much of his current work focuses on strengthening school systems through the creative arts and life-orientation programmes.