GUEST BLOG – Animated Objects: Bringing Aura to Life

Writer: Dawn Dyson-Threadgold

Why is a company based in Scarborough North Yorkshire bringing a giant puppet to Crawley?

Aura’s Odyssey is an ongoing journey. So far she has travelled hundreds of miles on her travels. She is a visitor; an explorer; curious about meeting others and making new discoveries. Animated Objects are committed to bringing large-scale puppetry and artworks to venues that may not have previously had the opportunity to see something of this scale on their doorstep. We specialise in creating pieces that allow space for local artists and community makers to share their work with a wider audience alongside larger-than-life characters, and we’re all really excited by the incredible plans Crawley has in store for Aura’s visit. It’s going to be amazing, and the people of Crawley are right at the heart of it all.

Dawn Dyson-Threadgold, the Creative Director of Animated Objects Theatre Company was born in Sussex and lived in nearby East Grinstead, where trips to Crawley for clothes shopping was a regular highlight of her childhood. Dawn was thrilled at the idea of creating an event so close to where she grew up, and bringing Aura to explore places she knew well when she was younger. We also have a number of our puppetry team who are based in West Sussex, and it’s great to collaborate with them again so close to home.

Bringing Aura to life has been nearly five years in the making as part of The Odyssey- An Epic Adventure on the Yorkshire Coast. We have been working with the Yorkshire Coast BID team to deliver participatory arts along 100 miles of coastline, reinventing Homer’s epic tale in a near future setting with local communities at its heart for the last two years.

As part of this giant project we had always planned a large-scale puppet to be part of our version of the story of the Trojan Wars; to tell the story of a survivor in contemporary terms; a teenage girl displaced by this legendary conflict. It opens up a fresh perspective on the exploits of heroic narratives and the actions of characters such as Achilles, Agamemnon and Odysseus himself. We wanted people to reflect on this, and how it shapes Odysseus as a character as his journey reaches its conclusion next year.

Lee Threadgold, artistic director of Animated Objects has worked with puppets alongside the public for over twenty years in different settings.

“There’s something really magical that happens when you bring a large scale puppet to life directly in front of people. The boundaries of age and experience that sometimes exist between generations melts away – perhaps because of the size of the character before an audience – you see adults feel the joy of being a child again. People watching are often surprised to find that a large puppet doing something as simple as walking along their street can be quite moving, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people say ‘I get it now. It’s not just for kids.’

And people often want to get close to large puppets. Obviously, this isn’t possible when walking along the street as we want people to be safe. But this is the main reason why we add times of rest to our walkabouts, where puppets come down to ground level for a while; so those who are curious have the opportunity to meet them face to face. It’s always great to meet people in this way, and there’s always conversation; questions or the sharing of ideas. It’s one of the many things that makes our work a real pleasure.”

Undertaking the design of a puppet that is as tall as a double decker bus takes weeks of careful planning; starting with the artistic vision, and rapidly developing into the engineering, logistics and mathematics of large scale construction. Every decision taken had an impact on how Aura would look; what her movement would be like; and the size of the team required to bring her to life. Structural materials and surface textures have to be chosen not only for their appearance, but also their function; strength and weight.

Once the design was completed we produced a full size drawing of Aura to help us keep everything to scale. It was also a really useful piece of artwork for giving people an idea of the scale of Aura in the months leading up to her first walkabouts. This drawing became the reference point for every part of the construction, as it gave us precise measurements for limbs, joints and surface fabrics.

The first part of Aura to be fabricated was her inner frame – made of aluminium to hold her safely in position on the forks of a telehandler as she stands and walks, with a steel spine to keep her head in position and facilitate movement.

From this central point we then sculpted her torso, limbs and feet using soaked willow, with reinforced joints made of plywood and rope.

Her head and hands were made from a number of different materials – including high impact foam, medical grade thermoplastics and bicycle parts to help with mechanical movements. Her eyes were hand painted and encased in perspex to give them their distinctive shine. Aura’s hair was made from waterproof nylon fabric, and to reflect her origins inspired by a literary classic, her skin is made of paper, treated with liquid latex to make it watertight. These materials were chosen specifically to make Aura capable of withstanding the North Sea, as she first appeared in the water on the Yorkshire Coast. Whatever the weather, she’s built to take it all in her stride!

This is also true of her clothing. You can’t go into a shop and buy trousers for a 5 meter tall puppet, so patterns had to be made for every garment, including her boots. Aura’s legs are over three meters long! It took nearly 50 metres of fabric to make her clothes, and weeks of cutting and sewing to complete the designs.

As Aura’s story is that of a survivor of conflict in our version of the Trojan Wars we wanted a connection with the refugee community living on the Yorkshire Coast and we were privileged to meet and work with a group of young Iranian boys who had traveled to the UK as unaccompanied minors.

Over a number of sessions we worked with them to sculpt Aura’s heart in aluminium wire.

Working with the boys and another group of young women from Afghanistan we worked on artworks inspired by their hopes and dreams for the future that now feature as part of the welcome blanket made by communities on our coast. A humbling but very rewarding experience, that touched many people on her first journey.

From start to finish, Aura took over six months of planning, design and fabrication, and we can’t wait to bring her to the streets of Crawley this summer!

Aura first appeared on Yorkshire’s east coast at various locations in late April as part of this epic tale. She started her journey washed up on a shore unfamiliar to her. She was lost; frightened and alone! She was then recovered and cared for before walking and exploring her new environment and welcomed by the community in each town.

At Hornsea her second appearance we were joined in the sea by 50 Hornsea Mermaids; an amazing group of female sea swimmers who have found the love of sea swimming to help them through the difficult times of lockdown and support through new friendships and the joy of sea swimming all year round. Seeing Aura recovered and welcomed by this amazing group of women was very emotional as was her welcome by all the communities she met along the Yorkshire coast.

The response from audiences has been incredibly moving and the community engagement led by Animated Objects, is what brings Aura to life. It was overwhelming, to see thousands of people come along to welcome her and find out more about Aura’s story and how she fits into the narrative of The Odyssey.

Dawn Dyson-Threadgold from Animated Objects said:

‘We are delighted that Aura’s Odyssey is coming to Crawley this August as an exploration of a new place and community for her. The tale of Aura is beautiful, relevant and important, and shows the kindness all people should be treated with.Her appearance with the support of the local community will really help bring her stories to life, working with local organisations taking Aura to their hearts.’

Aura’s Odyssey will run as part of Creative Crawley from the 11 – 14 Aug – Click here for more info

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