One of my favourite times of the month is when I get to sit and chat to our residents, find out things I never knew before, all of the exciting things they’ve done and what they have coming up. Today I caught up with Rowan Watts founder of VIP Puppets and long-standing Make Baltic resident to find out about some of the amazing jobs she has done since starting her company!
Hi Rowan, Can you tell us what you make/do?
I set up a company officially 5 years ago called VIP Puppets. We mostly do giant puppets but some other puppets as well, including shadow puppetry and some other smaller puppets. We also perform the puppets at festivals and events, we have a team of puppeteers who perform and we take the puppets to events to entertain people.
The summer is our time, the rest of the year is fairly quiet. A lot of our events are large outdoor council events or music or children’s festivals and they’re all over the summer period. The performing is lovely. When you run your own business and do everything it can be frustrating. But when you’re out and performing and get reactions from the crowd and the kids and they’re so involved in what you’re doing, that’s just the nicest time. The kids get so engrossed because we give them little roles like they get to feed the giraffe and clean up the poo, sometimes they get to wear the zookeeper hat and lead the animals along. I like that it’s not just the kids, adults almost become like children when they’re faced with the puppets, they can be transported a little bit which is nice.
It was great to have a go in the giraffe a few weeks ago!
Oh yeah! We were fixing up those giraffes for an event in Norway which was quite different from what we normally do. I went out with Aisling Leyne (VIP Puppets movement expert) and we trained up a bunch of Norweigan performers to perform with our giraffe, lion and monkey puppets. They trained with us for 4 days and then performed at the festival. It was a really rewarding experience and it’s lovely when you’re in a new place.
What sparked your passion for puppet making?
I think the thing I enjoy the most about it is the interaction. It can be quite a lot of work on the build-up, but once you’re there and everything happening and you’re engaging with the kids or the grown-ups or whoever it is, that is the absolute loveliest time.
I studied set and costume design so I came at it from a making perspective and then the puppet thing sort of happened by accident a little bit. One of the elements of a training course I did was puppetry and I just really liked it. Even though the company has been going for five years, I’ve been making giant puppets freelance for quite a long time before that, maybe 15/16 years ago I did my first one. The company made it a bit more official when I started to do it as an act instead of just making it and handing it over.
I did a set again a couple of years ago for 20 Stories High, a cool local company.
What has been one of your favourite projects you’ve ever worked on?
The project that stands out to me the most is the one that kind of kick-started the company. That was probably the first year I was at Make, so about 5 years ago, I wasn’t a company then. An events company in London approached me because they had heard that I might have a giraffe puppet and asked if I had any others, I didn’t but said I could make some more. So that job spiralled and I ended up taking over lots more of the studio, I hired out the incubator space* and ended up employing everyone I knew in Liverpool for months to make all of these puppets, and perform them at the event, and it was so bizarre. It was all for a one evening event in London for one celebrity with only 20 people there. I hired at least 20 makers and had 18 performers.
I couldn’t take any photos or film at the event so before it, I hired the Isla Gladstone Conservatory to rehearse. Lots of friends helped out by taking photos and filming the rehearsal. The team and I invited loads of family and friends too so it was lovely that they got to see it. And I also got to keep the puppets after the event.
*Make Baltic meeting and hireable space
What would your advice be for anyone who wants to work for themselves or start up their own company like yourself?
What’s helped me is having a shared space because I started working from home and I struggled. Having colleagues to sit and have lunch with is amazing. Also, having a few different things I do, so I’m not always relying on that one income. The puppet stuff is very seasonal so it mostly happens over the summer, so I have other jobs that I can earn money over the winter or times when the puppets won’t be as busy. That in itself can be quite challenging, as some people know, when you work for yourself it’s feast or famine. Sometimes when you have three different jobs, it works out quite well as one job finishes another one starts, but sometimes you’re left with everything happening at once and it’s nuts.
But what you need then is really good people to work with, who you can trust to do certain aspects of the business you’re not as confident with. I came from a maker background so when it comes to the performance side of things I usually bring in someone else, usually Aisling, who leads the rehearsals.
I’d say have a lot of people around you that you trust to work with you or take certain things off your hands.
What are you working on next?
We ‘ve had a few things cancelled over the summer due to the current situation so we’ll be gearing up for next summer mostly. I’m still dealing with some inquiries at the moment so we will see what happens.
Tell us one new interesting thing you’ve discovered recently (about your craft or just in general).
One thing I’ve learnt a lot about the last year or two is the complexities of working abroad. I’ve had to learn a lot quite quickly about the shipping of very large objects. The challenges of getting lots of people to another place, dealing with companies where there may be a language barrier, that’s been interesting.
Once, we had to ship the zebra puppets to Norway for a children’s festival. I worked out the weight of the puppets and that you could take them as hold luggage, which made getting the puppets there doable. The client said that they would pay for the shipping but not the containers, so I Googled different types of containers that would be light and big enough. Then my friend rang and told me she had an old compost bin, I measured it and it worked so I ordered 5 and they worked beautifully. We did get some very strange looks walking through customs but we got them to Norway and China too!
One of the things about puppet making is that you end up using bizarre materials for things. A lot of the spines of the puppets are made out of drain rod; it’s really strong but it has movement.
What’s it like having a studio at Make?
It’s been really good over the years. The flexibility has helped me at times. With the first big job I got, I was able to quickly expand my space because my area was only small. Because Make has multiple spaces, It’s been really helpful when I’ve needed rehearsal space as my space at Make Baltic is office space only. So being able to use Make North Docks has been great. There aren’t many places that have tall enough ceilings for me to rehearse my giraffe in. Even the Make team helping me out by wearing one of the puppets is helpful. For me to hire four people to just try something on would make certain jobs impossible. It’s nice having people around to help out for an hour.