Spotlight on … David Currell

As a young child growing up in Plymouth, David had been given a selection of glove puppets with which he occasionally created short stories, and his earliest puppet show, other than to immediate family, was as an 8- or 9-year-old performing in the dining room to a group of children who lived nearby. The cast was a mix of his existing glove puppets together with a few he had created from fabric using his aunt’s Singer sewing machine which he had learned to master at a very basic level. He performed in a booth made from a large cardboard box and the scripts he wrote must have been quite odd as they had to include the peculiar mix of characters that he possessed. 

David Currell performing aged 16

Alongside this, attempts at making glove puppets in primary school were disappointing with papier mâché heads that took weeks to dry, glove bodies that didn’t fit his hands, and no time to perform before term ended.

That might have been his last exploration with puppets had he not seen the marionettes of Guild member Gordon Staight when he was 14 years old. David was fascinated by his puppets, which he used for a variety-style show designed mainly for children. He was fascinated by the design and construction, so he enthusiastically accepted an offer from Gordon,  to see how they were made. The next Sunday morning he was on Gordon’s doorstep at 9am! 

David made his first marionette, an 18-inch figure, with help from his father and a poster from Waldo Lanchester’s book, Hand Puppets and String Puppets. Sadly, this was the only puppet he ever made with his father who was taken ill and died a few months later. However, he continued to visit Gordon, learning construction, manipulation, and assisting him with his shows.

Performing on a third stage

Initially, David concentrated on construction and manipulation until Gordon offered him an opportunity to put his first act – a guardsman trying to control a regimental goat – into an evening performance he was giving at David’s old primary school. On this occasion Gordon was using a portable proscenium stage, 6’ high and 12’ wide, so David was well-hidden for his initiation that would probably be described as ‘dolly-waggling’. However, he did survive and went on to make more marionettes, now 22- to 24-inch figures. 

By his sixteenth birthday, he had created enough marionettes for a short show, so David made an open-style stage, borrowed a tape recorder for background music and started to perform, assisted by a few friends. The performances were for children: birthday and Christmas parties, charity fetes, schools, hospitals, etc. (Later, having seen Albrecht Roser with Clown Gustaf, he adapted the shows for adult audiences and introduced larger marionettes but the demand for this never matched the bookings for children’s shows.)

At secondary school David’s puppetry activities were encouraged but he was expected to progress to university and study English or possibly teach. He did not enjoy the university interviews compared with an interview at the College of St. Mark & St. John, Chelsea, for primary teaching where they discussed how puppets could be used in education and David received a booking from the Deputy Principal for a performance, so that was where he went. Studying in London, he was exposed to a wider range of puppet theatre, attended Guild meetings and discovered the Educational Puppetry Association (EPA) and L’Union Internationale de la Marionnette (UNIMA).

At college, David spent considerable time in the art department and, for three years as a student, undertook voluntary experience at Sulivan Primary School, Fulham, where the headmistress was committed to education through art and where he held his first teaching post. He also introduced puppetry activities in each of his teaching practice schools. 

Through these varied influences, David discovered the potential of puppets in education and explored rod, glove and shadow puppets as well as marionettes. This formed the basis of an Arts & Crafts dissertation that his tutors encouraged him to take to a publisher who extracted a tiny snippet from his student project to create his first book, Puppetry in the Primary School

In the five years after qualifying, David held posts as teacher, deputy head and acting head teacher in London primary schools before becoming Lecturer in Education at the Froebel College,  a constituent college of  Roehampton University. He was also studying part-time for a BSc in psychology at London University and had submitted a book on marionettes to Pitman Publishing who wanted instead The Complete Book of Puppetry, so he spent four years editing and expanding his puppetry dissertation alongside teaching and his psychology degree. 

Meanwhile, discussions between the Guild, UNIMA and the EPA to create a national centre for puppet theatre had made no progress, so a group of individuals from each organisation went ahead and established the Puppet Centre Trust in 1974 in Battersea Arts Centre. Its aim was not to compete with other organisations but to support and promote them along with puppetry in all its forms. The three organisations were well represented informally on the Trust by figures that many Guild members will have known such as Jan Bussell, John Wright, George Speaight, John Blundall, Barry Smith, A.R. Philpott (Pantopuck), Gordon Shapley, Jane Phillips, Ray DaSilva and Ronnie LeDrew. Somehow, alongside these major figures in puppet theatre, David became Chairman of the Trust Council and its Executive Committee for the next 18 years.

A 32″ Marionette

Other committee memberships had arisen so David was soon Vice-Chairman of British UNIMA, Company Secretary for Art of the Puppet Ltd. (festivals) and Chairman of the National Puppet Centre Ltd. (premises). The EPA also became the Education & Therapy Unit of the Puppet Centre with me as chairman.

For some years Maurice Stewart, a theatre director, together with David,  jointly ran at the Puppet Centre two weekly, evening, Adult Education courses in puppet construction and performance plus monthly, weekend courses on a wide range of topics related to performance, education and special needs, with contributions from leading figures in their field. 

By the mid 1970’s David was receiving many requests to run courses and workshops for those who sought someone with both teaching and puppetry experience and, gradually over a twenty-year period, his performing gave way to these other demands.

There were courses for nursery nurses, in-service puppetry courses for teachers throughout England, and visiting groups of students from abroad. One of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools regularly invited David to contribute puppetry to week-long, residential courses for teachers of children with special needs and these were often followed by puppetry activities with his students in some of the teachers’ schools, often using Jessica Souhami’s style of colourful shadow puppet.

Travel abroad included work as UNESCO consultant in puppet theatre in the Middle East, performances and workshops with a theatre company in Jamaica, and as Visiting Professor at a Canadian university. Erasmus exchange programmes enabled his student teachers to engage in puppetry projects which he oversaw in London, Netherlands and Belgium, while the European Council of International Schools invited him to contribute educational puppetry to their Early Years conferences in many countries of Western Europe. 

Over David’s 41 years at Roehampton University, puppetry featured from time to time in undergraduate or postgraduate programmes in early childhood studies, education studies, teacher education, and in drama, art, music and English degrees. After retiring he continued to contribute to Primary Education Design & Technology courses in which puppets were a major focus for first year students.

These experiences over the years have fed into his books and articles, through which he tried to preserve the traditional crafts and techniques as well as encouraging experimentation and innovation, and he is particularly grateful to fellow puppeteers for their generosity in sharing their stories, techniques and photographs. 

David has recently started restoring his earliest puppets and documenting more fully some of the special needs experiences and information that he carries in his head or in notes on PowerPoint presentations. He hopes that they will be of use to others working in this area in the future.

Books by David Currell:

Shadow Puppets and Shadow Play (2007) The Crowood Press *

Making and Manipulating Marionettes (2004) The Crowood Press *

Puppets and Puppet Theatre (1999) The Crowood Press *

An Introduction to Puppets and Puppet Making (1992) Quintet

The Complete Book of Puppet Theatre (1985) A & C Black

Learning with Puppets: Four to Fourteen (1980) Ward Lock Educational

The Complete Book of Puppetry (1974) Pitman Publishing