ANZAC theatre production – interview with Australian puppeteer Sue Wallace

While I think it’s great that there are so many wonderful international experiences in my home city, I also can’t deny the importance of honouring and commemorating Australian cultural identity.  A big part of that is the ANZAC legacy.  As someone who, although not having any direct relatives who fought in WWI for Australia or New Zealand, I know many people who, every year on the 25th April, honour their families for their ANZAC contribution.

I have been keen to check out an ANZAC-related production at the Riverside Theatre called SHELLSHOCK, which I’ve mentioned previously.  Opening night is 30th July and it’s part of the year-long commemoration of the ANZAC centenary.  I was lucky enough to get in touch with Australian puppeteer Sue Wallace, whose work is pivotal in the production SHELLSHOCK.  Here are the thoughts on SHELLSHOCK and her work as a puppeteer:

How did you get involved with the production of SHELLSHOCK?

The Producer, Camilla Rountree had seen my solo show at Riverside Theatres, which included shadow puppetry, and invited me to join Shellshock.

For those that have only seen puppetry as a form of entertainment for younger audiences, could you explain the use of puppetry in performances for older audiences and how this adds to the production?

Puppetry has long been a popular form of entertainment for adults as well as children. In recent years puppetry has played a major part in shows for adults, such as Warhorse, King Kong Live on Stage, and Lion King. Puppetry can distil the essence of a character generating empathy from the audience.

For me, shadow theatre is powerful because it focuses the audience’s attention on just the character. With other screen-based media like film or television, there is a lot of visual noise in the background. Shadow Theatre again distils the image to its essence.

Puppetry is another form of storytelling where gesture and movement can be just as important or even more important than words.

How do you develop your pieces/puppets for each performance?

Writing for the Sydney Puppet Theatre productions, I usually start with the germ of a story. Then through research I start to develop the characters.

We work in all forms of puppetry and include acting, movement and live music in our work. The narrative drives the type or types of puppetry that will be used in the performance. Most of our shows include a mixture of puppetry styles with the puppets interacting with performers/puppeteers.

So, from a rough narrative we start to design and build the puppets and set. Then work with these during rehearsal. The script will inevitably change and we might decide to create more puppets. It is interesting that once the puppet is created it can start to affect the work in ways that you didn’t envisage. Sometimes it can physically do things that are a surprise or a minor character becomes stronger because of the power of its presence.

Puppetry can distil the essence of a character generating empathy from the audience.

How long does it take to firstly make one character/puppet and then to work on the voice and personality of the puppet?

A puppet can take a month or more to make depending on its complexity. Even shadow puppets which can take a day or less to build can sometimes take a week or more as I struggle with the physics of what the puppet has to do and how many hands there are to operate it.

The voice is driven by the character – for example, is it old or young, bossy or docile?

What skills does a person need to have to get into puppetry?

Puppetry requires many skills. Firstly, as a theatre medium, the puppeteer needs to be able to act. Knowledge of dance or movement is very useful because the puppet expresses itself through gesture. Some puppeteers choose not to use voice. I feel that good vocal skills allow much more flexibility.

Then there are the art and craft skills needed to make the puppets including working with modelling and casting materials, making mechanisms, costuming, painting etc.

Puppeteer Sue Wallace at work.  Image courtesy of promoter.

Puppeteer Sue Wallace at work. Image courtesy of promoter.

How did you get started in puppetry?

I was sitting in my agent’s office reminding her that I was a young actor looking for work when a call came through from the Marionette Theatre of Australia looking for people to audition. My agent literally looked at me and said, “You’ll do. Do you want to audition for a puppet company?” At the same time I had a call back for Evita. I got the job with the MTA and discovered how much I loved the complexity of puppet theatre. I was very lucky to be working with some of Australia’s best puppetry artists.

Puppetry is about making the impossible possible. Puppets can do (and sometimes get away with saying things) that humans can’t.

How long did it take to develop the puppets used in SHELLSHOCK?

The puppets are still in development and I expect that they will keep evolving during rehearsal.

What is it about the art of puppetry that you love?

Puppetry is about making the impossible possible. Puppets can do (and sometimes get away with saying things) that humans can’t. One of things I really love about being a puppeteer is the range of characters I get to play – from a young girl who doesn’t speak but dreams of flying, to a very spoilt and bossy princess. I might play a bombastic Pasha of Egypt or an excited dog. Often you play more than one character in a show and you have to be flexible. However, a puppet is always intrinsically itself. So, once you have developed the character and sometimes this means listening to the character that is emerging from the puppet, you know every time you pick it up it comes with its own life.

What’s next for you and the Sydney Puppet Theatre?

We have a number of projects on the go at the moment.

We are members of ImaginArta – the Australian Puppet Centre Inc. and are currently preparing to open Australia’s first Puppet Centre in Sutton Forest in the Southern Highlands, promoting puppetry through performance, exhibitions, workshops and discourse. Our Gala Event on August 15 is “Life with Mr Squiggle” and the extraordinary art of Norman Hetherington presented by Rebecca Hetherington (This wouldn’t be possible without the support of the Wingecarribee Shire Council and the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust.)

We are also half way through the “Puppet Up” project working with children from small regional schools to create short puppet shows in just three days (organised by STARTS).

There are also a group of chickens on our workshop benches getting finished for a production of “George’s Marvellous Medicine” for Epicentre Theatre Company.

Details for times, tickets and booking for SHELLSHOCK can be found below: 

Thurs 30 July 11am; Fri 31 July & Sat 1 Aug 7:30pm; Mon 3 Aug & Tues 2 Aug 11am; Wed 5 Aug 11am & 7:30pm; Thurs 6 Aug & Fri 7 Aug 7:30pm; Sat 8 Aug 2:15pm & 7:30pm

Adult $49 / Conc $44 / 30 and Under $35 / School Students $23

From the Box Office (02) 8839 3399 or


Featured image via Pixabay under Creative Commons CC0


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