The Puppet Masters

The art of puppetry with street theatre alchemists, theatrical engineers Creature Encounter

For the past decade, Creature Encounter has been wowing adults and children alike with its innovative creations. TOAST talks the art of puppetry with co-founder Michael Crouch.

We first heard of Creature Encounter (CE) when we interviewed boutique party planners Festival in a Box for TheEdit. The company’s Natty Taraskevics was raving about a recent, in particular, one of her regular hires, Creature Encounter's Teddy and Otto. Dashingly kitted out in tailcoats, the anthropomorphic fox and otter are as much of a hit at grown-up get-togethers as they are at family events.

From knights to lions and camel-riding meerkats, unique new characters are continually added to Creature Encounter's ever-evolving stable of weird and wonderful creations. Since setting up the company a decade ago, Crouch and his business partner Jamie Duncombe have travelled the world with their puppets, from Norway to Indonesia, and have entertained everyone from the Dubai royal family to No 10 Downing Street.

It’s a dream job for Crouch. “I was obsessed with puppets when I was a kid,” he says. “I’d go see a show and in my imagination the puppets would leave the theatre with us. As an adult, I became interested in creating characters that can do just that – they don’t need that artificial space around them in order to function.” 

Crouch dabbled in street theatre and circus performance before meeting Duncombe while working in a bank. After attending a mime course together, they decided to set up shop in a Victorian pen factory in Birmingham’s historic jewellery quarter. “I’d worked a lot in events and felt there was space for puppetry. Goblins taking tickets on the door, trolls behind the bar, that sort of thing.”

The duo were keen to break boundaries from the start. “One of our early recipes was trying to combine an element of puppetry with an element of illusion. We’re always looking at ways of reinterpreting what each character needs, whether that’s concealing a performer within the puppet or maybe strapping a smaller puppet on the side of a larger one.”

Depending on the intricacies involved, it typically takes five weeks to make a large puppet from scratch. The process for animal characters is particularly involved. After studying photographs and the movement of the creature, Crouch and Duncombe come up with a sketch and mechanical frame before seeking out the right materials to bring it to life.

"The magic of puppetry is making non-organic movement look organic. We try to go for a realistic finish. The problem is, the more material you use, the greater the movement you lose, so we’re always looking for that sweet spot between a strong aesthetic and strong movement.”

Teddy Otto Events

Epico The Dragon

Epico The Dragon In Battle

(Teddy & Otto and Epico the Dragon)

The life of a puppet master is anything but dull, says Crouch. “We wear multiple hats. Most weekends, we’ll be out performing then take a couple of days off. Midweek, we’ll usually repair existing stock and tackle new projects.” It’s been a learning curve. Crouch and Duncombe used to build “right up to the wire, but now we make sure we finish a couple of weeks in advance, so we can test the suits and make sure the performers are comfortable.”

The team’s favourite characters are “buffonish” creations – “those with a strong sense of their own importance, which the audience can see is completely misplaced. Whether you’re a child or adult there’s something endearing about a character who is ignorant of their own flaws.”

One the most popular puppets to date has been Snow Lion, an animatronic creation that plays music. It premiered at various markets and parties last Christmas and is en route to his first wedding in New Delhi. “There’s something quite mythic about him. He seems to vibrate with people on a very deep level. We’ve had a few spontaneous criers – and I mean adults!”

Snow Lion Creature Encounter

Snow Lion Creature Encounter Character

(Image: The Snow Lion)

Business is clearly booming for this talented team of magic makers – how do they manage to stay on top of their game after 10 years? “It’s very easy to repeat yourself and bang out the same stuff. Ultimately, I don’t think that’s very fulfilling. Like any creative business you do this work because you don’t want a normal job, but the more successful you become the more time you spend in the back office facilitating other people doing the fun stuff. We’re always trying to find that balance between working towards a deadline and holding onto the joy of the creative process. So we try to approach something in a new way, such as using a new material, and help reignite that passion.

"I love what I do. Wherever we go people are really please to see us. That’s definitely shifted my perception of the world.”

Creature Ecnounter Characters

(Iamge: The Winterbottoms)

Creature Encounter Honopopo

(Image: Honopopo)

To book the Creature Encounter characters for your next event, or to speak to them about creating one of your own characters, take a look at their profile in our Little Black Book. 


Posted in Spotlight

by Alix O'Neill
on on 01 June 2017

  characters, entertainers, puppets, street performers

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