Being a puppeteer

 31 March 2011

Corina Bona is a multi-talented puppeteer, whose career is a successful blend of performance, bespoke puppet-making and workshop facilitation. She spoke about a career in puppetry.

Corina peforms, creates and runs workshops with puppets.
Corina peforms, creates and runs workshops with puppets.

Corina has worked with many organisations including Green Ginger, Pickled Image, Stuff and Nonsense Theatre and Soap Soup.

She also runs exciting workshops with adults and children, including Hop, Skip and Jump in Bristol, bringing puppetry skills to children with autism. She is passionate about the benefits of puppetry, and their ability to help people communicate feelings in a non-threatening way.

From costume design to puppetry

“Puppetry doesn’t feel like work for me. I work long hours, but I am not desperate for a break as I enjoy this so much."

From a young age, Corina had always been interested in theatre and performance, and opted for a first degree in Cultural Media Studies and Drama. However, whilst at university she soon discovered that acting was not for her.

“As an actor I didn’t like becoming the character, partly because letting go of this was difficult for me. Neither did I want to be the main focus of attention.

"That’s why I enjoy working with puppets so much, as they are the focus and not you. There’s something magical about puppets, and they help to raise your self confidence in a unique way.”

After finishing her degree, Corina attended the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and completed an MA in Set and Costume Design. Several years’ experience working behind the scenes provided the ideal background for Corina’s skills in puppetry.

Developing puppet-making skills

Corina has always been interested in how toys and dolls are put together. Charity shop finds were taken apart, and by a process of trial-and-error, she looked at their structure and manufacture.

This experience proved useful before she embarked on the all-important professional training. Whilst working as a prop designer, Corina helped a friend who was working on a puppet show and this further sparked her interest.

“I realised I had a natural ability for bringing inanimate objects to life. After three years of very intense work I realised I did not have the right qualities for a career in set and costume design.

"I applied to Green Ginger’s professional training Toast in the Machine, and was one of the lucky few. Over 250 people from all over the world applied for just five places on this programme, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The training involved selecting your own scheme of professional development which was then funded. I chose a series of intense short courses in puppet craft, which included:

  • The techniques of wooden and foam-based puppet making
  • How to make the joints in the puppet’s arms, legs and ankles
  • Puppet manipulation.
  • Workshop facilitation
  • Marketing and running a small theatre company”

Corina has not looked back and enjoys every minute of her work. “Puppetry doesn’t feel like work for me. Yes, I work long hours, but I am not desperate for a break as I enjoy this so much.

"Puppets are fun, stimulating and rewarding. They are also very nurturing.”

Audience participation in puppetry

Gonzoole, a Bristol-based puppetry collective, is one of Corina’s latest projects, working with other artists. The performances combine shadow puppetry, live music and poetry.

Shadow puppetry is created with two-dimensional cut-outs, using front and back projection techniques with a screen. Corina aims to create a warm and supportive atmosphere that encourages audience participation. 

"Puppets help children with severe behavioural difficulties to express themselves in a friendly way."

“Enabling the audience to create and participate in stories is important to my work. The themes we are developing for Gonzooler are often based around the sea.

"The audience and performers work together to explore myths, fables and other stories, which are enhanced by sound and imagery. I love idea of creating something very different in each performance.”

Corina works with several prestigious puppet companies, sometimes using other techniques including torso puppetry. She performs with her head covered by a veil, and her legs are connected with the body of the puppet.

Making bespoke puppets

Corina also makes bespoke puppets, mostly for other theatre groups. These might be for children’s shows such as ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’ by Pins and Needles Productions or for adult productions like ‘Tattoo’ for Company of Angles. There has been a recent resurgence in the use of puppets in mainstream theatre, meaning Corina’s talents are in demand.

“Before I set to work on making the puppets, I always meet with the theatre director to discuss their needs. Together we look at the function of the puppets, the ability of the puppeteers, and mostly importantly the budget. I then select appropriate materials, which are often recycled if possible.”

A variety of different techniques are used to make the puppets. The body parts may be sculpted in clay, and are then cast in plaster before a latex mould is made. Foam is widely used, which is carefully shaped before being covered in fabric.

“I design the look of the puppets, which are often made to look like other actors in the production. Choosing colours and fabrics and sewing is all part of the process.

"Depending on the level of collaboration I might get some assistance with the sewing. The wardrobe mistress for The Elves and the Shoemaker was a great help with this.”

A range of puppet workshops

"There’s something magical about puppets. They help to raise your self confidence in a unique way.”

An important part of Corina’s work is running workshops for teachers, children and parents, as well as professional actors. Puppets help children with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties to express themselves in a friendly and non-threatening way.

“This is especially true for children with autism, although my workshops help the parents as well, who can feel isolated. With older children I use more technically challenging puppets, such as ‘Bunraku’ rod puppets. The increased number of joints and hinges make them challenging to operate.

"I ran a workshop for teenagers about gang culture, using gangster puppets they created. The puppets helped the young people to effectively explore their attitudes to gangs.

Puppets encourage physical engagement and for Corina this is a vital part of children’s learning. They help to develop and inspire a desire for learning.

“The puppet, in its own physical way, gives people the freedom to say things that they might otherwise be unsure of. If a child is behaving badly in the classroom their feelings might be quite shut down. A puppet may help the child see the impact of their behaviour on others.”

Making a living as a puppeteer

Having several strands to her work has definitely helped Corina weather any financial storms. She has not relied on any particular funding, and organisations pay her directly for her work.

“I have noticed that organisations are trying to keep costs down. So when I plan a workshop, it is better economically for everyone if I can fit two or three into one day. I also have to factor in time-consuming preparation time when I am charging.”

Advice and resources for puppeteers

  • Aim for top-quality short courses, such as those offered by the London School of Puppetry
  • Become a member of Puppetry UK
  • For funding to train check out the Puppet Centre Trust
  • Use YouTube for advice on puppet making and manipulation
  • Go and see lots of puppetry and develop your own niche
  • Join local puppetry networks  like the Puppet Place to make contacts in the industry.

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