Practitioner focus: Theatre-Rites

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Guardian has described Theatre-Rites as ‘a company making shows for children that is right at the forefront of contemporary British theatre practice.’

The Welcoming Party (2017), Theatre-Rites
The Welcoming Party (2017), Theatre-Rites


The late visual artist and theatre maker Penny Bernand founded Theatre-Rites in 1995, inviting puppetry expert Sue Buckmaster to create a joint vision for the company, re-evaluating what children's theatre might mean. From 2001, as artistic director, Sue Buckmaster pioneered her puppet whispering technique and established Theatre-Rites' reputation for creating ground-breaking object-led theatre and site-specific experiences.


In the book Theatre-Rites Animating Puppets, Objects and Sites, it is noted that ‘theories of child development in psychology have underpinned Sue Buckmaster's puppetry direction, teasing out the unique capacity of animated objects to act as symbolic markers for different kinds of attachments and rites of passage’. The child development theories of D W Winnicott and Sir Ken Robinson have been particularly influential, as have Melanie Klein and Adam Phillips' theories of object relations.

The magic realism and symbolism evident in Theatre-Rites' productions are inspired by visual artists such as Leonora Carrington, Pipolotti Rist, Louise Bourgeois, Chiharu Shiota and Hannah Hoch. Notable influential figures in the world of puppetry and animation include Julie Taymor, Handspring and Jan Svankmajer.

Key features of Theatre-Rites' work:

  • Puppetry
  • Object-led
  • Devised
  • Site-specific
  • Visual storytelling
  • Magic realism
  • Physical theatre
  • Collaboration
  • Installations
  • Cross artform
  • Composition

The company specifically promotes the understanding and enjoyment of object-led Theatre which celebrates the power of visual storytelling, poetry, animation and site responsive performances presented in unusual spaces from corner shops to hospitals, salt factories to museums.


Theatre-Rites' ethos is to offer children and their accompanying adults theatrical experiences that are challenging and inspirational, providing them with ways to observe the world around them. Their work is often a celebration of rites of passage or a response to major global issues such as neuroscience, and the climate, refugee, and financial crises. Transformation and reparation are central themes of every production.

Exercise 1 – Object-led theatre: Working with a tennis ball as a puppet

Hold the tennis ball as if it were a puppet's head. Think about your position in relation to the ball. Try to hold the object so that the focus is on the ball looking out at an audience and not on you looking at the ball. If you have the ball tilting towards you it will look more like the latter.

Once the ball seems to be looking outwards, explore the space as if you were looking through the object's eyes. Look directly at the back of the object and through the eyes and not at what the ball is looking at. Once the object has sight, explore how the ball hears and smells the room. If you are in a group, you can have the tennis balls explore each other.

Exercise 2 – Imitating the object

An exercise for pairs (Performer A and Performer B) and one long foam tube. Performer A will place their foam tube on the floor and B will lie next to the foam tube on the floor, with the tube in view. A will gently start to move the foam tube and the body of B will respond, mimicking the movement of the tube through their own body.

A, try to see how little you can do as well as how much you can do to move B. B, sometimes you will have to explore how you can interpret the movement of the tube that you are imitating. A, see if you can manipulate the object to get B to stand up. Explore how that is possible.

Once standing, you can both explore how to manipulate the tube to move around the space, for example you might bend the foam tube in the middle to create two legs. Explore the best way of walking. B, how do we balance and use our pelvis to shift the weight? Experiment with different tempos of movement.

Exercise 3 – Dramaturgy for visual theatre

After a week of exploring and improvising with visual ideas, puppets and objects, in silence ask yourself or your group to take six plain postcards each and draw the most memorable images from the improvisations. Then still in silence ask the group to lay out all the postcards in a storyboard order along the floor. If two images seem identical, they can be placed in the same space.

Anyone in the room can move an image to another position in the order. What is happening, without discussion, is that everyone is naturally looking for the connections between moments. Allow this to go on until everyone is as near to group consensus or until you have been doing it for more than an hour.

Take a look at the order of images and either discuss it as if it were a show or collect them up in that order and take them away as a visual record of the work you've created, and a potential show you would create at that point in time.

Theatre-Rites: Animating Puppets, Objects and Sites celebrates the theatre company's 25th anniversary and is published by Routledge.