British designer and maker Jo Lakin speaks about creating '101 Dalmatians' at Hotel Elephant
Londoner Jo Lakin is a puppet designer and maker. She trained in Theatre Design at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, where she graduated with a First Class Honours degree and was awarded the The Philip and Christine Carne Prize for Theatre Design, and The Paul Kimpton Prize for Innovation. She works as a freelancer on commissioned projects and she's been based at Hotel Elephant since June 2017.
Jo comes from a predominantly theatre-based background and her skills encompass a range of practices, including model-making, prop-making, scenic art, and puppet design and making. Jo has a wealth of experience ranging from producing 1:50 scale models to designing and building life-size puppets, and some of her work has travelled the world, as far as China and Australia. Such pieces include the majestic elephant created for the international tour of The Road Company’s ‘Circus 1903’ show. Another example of her large-scale work is a 14-foot long Aslan puppet, which she created in collaboration with Meryvn Millar for a production of 'The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe' produced by the Birmingham REP Theatre.
We met Jo in her studio at Hotel Elephant, Spare Street to find out more about her latest project, her studio at Hotel Elephant and to get her advice for those starting out on a creative career.
Hi Jo! Your practice is something unusual. When did you get passionate about puppetry and why is it so special for you?
I discovered this practice during my BA studies at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, where I graduated in 2010. I spent a term in both my first and second years working on a huge puppetry show—designing, making, and performing with the puppets, and working with industry practitioners, which was really inspiring. I like puppetry because it incorporates lots of different disciplines, from the problem solving and designing of a prototype, to the engineering and mechanics of how a puppet moves, along with the aesthetics, painting, and finishings. I love the diversity of this kind of work. Puppetry encourages people to think creatively and use their imaginations; it’s entertaining and moving, but it also challenges the creator and the spectator in many ways. It’s awesome seeing something you’ve made come to life on stage and to see an audience’s reaction to it.
We’re sure the pictures and sketches on the walls mean there’s some exciting project on the run! What’s that about?
My current project is definitely the biggest project that I’ve worked on since having my own studio here at Hotel Elephant. This project is also one of the reasons why I decided to take on my own space, as I need somewhere to go, focus, and work hard. I’m creating the puppets for ‘101 Dalmatians,’ this year’s Christmas show at the Birmingham REP Theatre. I worked with them a couple of years ago on 'The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe' and they called me back for this exciting opportunity. For this project, I’m collaborating with Jimmy Grimes. He’s doing the puppetry design and direction, and I’m heading up the workshop for the build. All of the dogs in the show are going to be puppets, so I’m creating lots of different types of dogs. There is a variety of solutions for how we will portray each breed, depending on their character, movement and their part in the narrative of the play. Some will be represented by a whole body that will be puppeteered, but others may have more gestural anatomy with missing body parts or visible mechanics, such as wheels featured in their design. Conceptually it’s still very much a work in progress. I’m using a wide variety of materials to create them: for example plastazote foam, plywood, aluminium and plastic as well as various fabrics and leather which we will treat and manipulate for the finishing.
Can you tell us a bit about how you use your studio at Hotel Elephant for your practice?
My overall practice is based in my studio. It’s here that I carry out most parts of the creative process, from researching, sketching, and drawing, to sculpting, using tools, and building the puppets. However, when working on big pieces I tend to build the pieces on-site at theatres or in larger workshops. At the moment I work mostly for commissioned pieces and, although there’s always a level of personal creativity involved in these jobs, I would like to start some personal projects of my own to gain more ownership of my practice, and start exploring new techniques in order to learn and develop new skills. Now that I have my own ‘little haven’ to come and make things in, I hope I will find time to focus more on that too.
What do you like the most about working at Hotel Elephant?
I was immediately attracted by the fact that Hotel Elephant is a diverse community, with lots of people doing lots of different things. From makers to digital designers, it’s such an inspiring place. I also love that there’s this section dedicated to makers, where we’re allowed to make as much noise and mess as we need to. Generally that’s not allowed in other shared workspaces but it’s such necessary part of many artists' work. I’ve also had several meetings in the cafè, and it’s great to have a space that allows you to step out to do that and also to socialise.
At Hotel Elephant we’re interested in creating a creative community and encouraging collaborative working - How important do you think collaborative working is to your industry?
I don’t even think it would be possible for me to do this job without collaboration. Sometimes I collaborate with designers, who commission me to realise their ideas, and with teams of other makers as well, especially when working on big projects. Sometimes I need to commission others to help bring my designs to life, so collaboration is essential for most of the work I do.
Do you have any advice for recent graduates or those just starting who want a career as a puppet designer or in the creative industries?
Firstly, I’d say if there’s anyone whose work you admire, contact them and ask if they will meet with you and take a look at your work. If that's not possible it can be useful to book onto a workshop with them or attend a talk they're doing. Any experience or advice you can get is really useful. As I said before, This is mainly a collaborative industry, so getting out there and meeting people is really important. Secondly, just make things. Every single thing you make is different, so the more you make, the more you'll learn.