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With strings attached

01/24/2008 06:37 PM | By Qadijah S Irshad, Staff Writer

There's Ping and Pong. There's also Peter Parrot. Plus, many other characters who come together to dance and play and tell stories on stage that leave kids (as well as grown-ups) laughing till their bellies ache. Welcome to the magical world of puppeteering that recently wowed the UAE.

Magic is part of every good theatrical experience an elusive element that tugs at your imagination, unleashes it and then there is no limitation to thought. In the Lamberts' world of puppets, colours, ideas, words, silence, music and movement create magic which is the main chief component.

When I walked into Qanat Al Qasba, Sharjah, for the Noel Lambert puppet show a few weeks back, I just about managed to catch the end of the show. A catchy tune was playing in the background and the puppets were bidding adieu to a not-so-large but rather enthusiastic audience. I found myself tapping my feet to the music and singing out the words.

But this joyous spirit was shortlived, thanks to the sceptic in me which told me that surely this art form is facing extinction due to lack of patronage? Are not television and cinema dominating the entertainment industry?

Wrong. I had to just look around at the happy faces of kids (and those who are kids at heart) who were enjoying the show's every moment filled with laughter, colour, music and pure unadulterated fun that was inextricably woven together to tell a tale. Even my one-year-old, who generally couldn't concentrate on a TV programme for more than five minutes, was glued to the antics of Ping and Pong the clowns, the raucous Ring Master Peter Parrot and the host of other colourful characters who occupied the stage. I was convinced. Here were either examples of what great puppeteers could create or there was sheer magic in the air.

Magic comes in twos

As Eva Lambert, the wheat blonde, smiling, bubbly co-owner of the Noel Lambert Puppet Theatre put it later, "That's the deal about a good puppeteer ... it's about creating magic!"

And the husband and wife team, the creative engine behind the enterprise, possess a secret potion that releases the magic time and again. Noel with his Grecian good looks, and the petite Eva with her beatific smile, both capture hearts immediately with their show.

As I rush backstage for my appointment, a dozen screaming kids beat me to it. Backstage is a flurry of excitement. There's 20 minutes to go before the next show and Noel, Eva and the puppets are interacting with the kids, trying to get their station into order for the next show, while managing to talk to me all at the same time.

With four shows in a row and having their arms up and moving most of the time, I would have expected them to rush to their dressing room and have a few moments of peace to rest their hands. Instead they are fuelled by the magic powers of passion and enthusiasm to go on with the same gusto.

Puppeteering: RIP?

Amidst all the excitement and squeals of delight, I felt a bit foolish asking them if the puppet theatre was on the verge of extinction but well, that's what I came here for to begin with.

"The secret lies in moving on with the times. Of not being afraid of television or the electronic media at large. Puppeteering, like everything else, has to evolve with the times," says Noel, who creates the scripts and music for the productions. "It's true, however, that there has been a decline in puppetry, especially in the West. Even I have found myself closing my eyes at some shows, probably because there isn't much visual stimulation taking place. [Puppeteering] is all about creating the right visuals, understanding your audience and making it fun for them."

According to the observations of the Lamberts (and you'd better take their observations seriously because they are master puppeteers in Puppet Land ), the art of puppetry would not just survive, but actually thrive through the next century or so. "It has a special place in the so-called "legitimate" theatre. Especially in Eastern Europe and Russian theatres, where most productions have some form of puppetry in them," says Noel.

It doesn't stop there. The world of puppets has transcended shows and stage and has found its niche not only on TV and movie productions, but also in education and in the psychologist's room. Today puppets are being widely used in counselling and resolving family conflicts.

"We even mix puppets with special effects and incorporate them into movies (called Puppetoons)," explains Noel about the evolution of the puppets. "One of the best compliments we ever received is when a child (during a performance in Ireland ) exclaimed, 'Mummy, this is real-life cartoon'."

What's the big idea?

Yet puppeteering is nor only about having a good laugh and being entertained. The kind of puppet shows the Lamberts stage try to achieve a purpose. "Through our shows we hope to bridge the gaps between the young and the old, between black and white, between nations and beliefs. And when it works, it's a fantastic feeling and if it doesn't, we can at least tell ourselves 'Well, we tried'," says Noel.

Back to puppets as a form of entertainment. The question arises what do these puppets possess that actors or cartoons do not? Well, actors possess certain natural advantages over puppets they can lend characters the complexity, gestures and expressions of the real human form. These assets are nothing to sneeze at. Still, actors remain inherently constrained. They come in a limited range of sizes, shapes, colours and kinds. The flexibility of their limbs is subject to time and help.

Cartoons, on the other hand, exceed all these limitations, but even with the latest Walt Disney tech marvels, remain just too two-dimensional. As Oscar Wilde once wrote about puppetry, "There are many advantages in puppets. They never argue. They have no crude views about art. They have no private lives."

That's what the puppets and puppeteers of the present generation bank on. With the flurry of colours, shapes and sizes, puppets are undeniably the best contortionists and entertainers. And we're not talking just about appealing just to children. With creative boundaries being pushed all the time, there are several productions that cater to grown-ups as well.

Famous puppeteers including Jim Henson have had success with older audiences. "We experimented with show for grown ups which ran for a year on Irish TV and it was a great success," recalls Noel, who is currently working with his wife on another series of puppet shows for grown ups.

"When it comes to children, too much virtual reality can be dangerous, unhealthy and damaging," say Noel and Eva, who have been travelling the world since 2005 and have entertained more than 20,000 children around the globe. "Live performances, on the other hand, lead children to go home and start thinking. Puppets stimulate imagination like no other form of art does.

"One of the most gratifying moments in our lives,'' say Eva and Noel, "has been after a performance we put up at a school for the mentally challenged children in Dublin. A couple walked up to us backstage in tears. They told us that their child, who had been diagnosed with Attention Deficiency Syndrome, sat through a show quietly for 40 minutes for the first time in his life.

"The same day, another special needs child came up close with the puppets backstage and actually began speaking to them. Her parents too were moved to tears because it was the first time in six years that the child had spoken anything.
"We have always believed there is magic in our puppets. That day it was confirmed.''

Happily ever afters

Although entertainment is their focal objective, the Noel Lambert shows never fail to send out subtle messages to their audiences. "There is always a moral tag lines in all our shows. The message is subtle and educates in a way that it plays on the language, behaviour, a child's relationship with nature and with the people around him," says Eva.

"But we always keep the message subtle and the interesting thing is that the children do pick it up. Noel understands children well, and he always believes that if you try to force things upon a child's imagination, it achieves just the opposite effect.

"A lot of children's programmes these days have nothing in terms of good content. There are no moral messages or happy endings and so it is that children grow up receiving wrong messages, having the wrong ideas and values.

"If we don't believe in happy endings, then what is left to believe in?"