Why This Disabled Puppeteer Won't Hide Behind Her Puppet Anymore

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter
Performers during the Banff Puppet Theatre Intensive show

Emma Fisher (right) performs during the Banff Puppet Theatre Intensive show, 2016. Photo: Don Lee

Without someone to animate them, puppets are helpless — lifeless, really. They need another’s arms to simulate even the simplest movements. This is not far off from how Irish puppeteer Emma Fisher used to feel about herself.

“People would try to tie my shoelaces when I was perfectly able to myself and this would frustrate me. Which is in my head. People are just being nice,” she says. “And then I’m in my head, going ‘they think I’m this helpless creature.’”

When Emma was nine, she was hit by a car while riding her bike. This left her with permanent nerve damage and limited mobility in her left hand. Since then, she’s focused her life on movement. She studied interactive art and theatre before discovering puppetry. 

Her disability, while not immediately noticeable, can be an inconvenience when it comes to controlling the limbs of a puppet, as her left hand is unable to grip without help. But she finds humour in the obvious parallel.

“Really hilariously, a puppet can only have one hand if it’s operated by one person and it needs help to operate the other one. ...I’m a puppet!”

Puppeteer Emma Fisher (left)

Puppeteer Emma Fisher (left)

This realization, and the fact that she rarely saw representations of disability in theatre, lead Emma to pursue a PhD in puppetry at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, which in turn brought her to Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity to attend the Banff Puppet Theatre Intensive. Her project zeroes in on the history of disability theatre as well as the way people with disabilities regard and represent themselves onstage. 

“I used to really strive to operate a puppet that was fully perfect — like had two legs,” she says. “Puppets don’t have to be that, puppets can be whatever you want them to be.”

In preparing for the performance aspect of her PhD project, Emma has enlisted the help of a group of disabled artists to share stories about how they think society sees them. She hopes it will serve as a kind of cathartic coming out for the participants. Of course, the stories will be presented in puppet form, which Emma believes provides the one degree of distance that will allow for some difficult conversations to unfold. 

She herself has been shocked by the surprising realizations she’s had about her own identity while writing and crafting puppet self-portraits. The strong, willful girl who wouldn’t let anyone help her tie her shoes is still in there somewhere, but she’s now more willing to accept help and ready to own the language surrounding her mobility issues. 

“I had this weird personal revelation that I had never ever seen myself as disabled. Never. ...but I think the more I start to own it the better I feel about it.”

In February Emma will travel to London, where a special splint has been created for her just for puppeteering. Using a system of pulleys, she’ll be able to control the movement of her left arm with her right shoulder, as well as pick up and release rods using her left hand — a crucial move for any puppeteer. 

“I really like the idea of it. It’s like I’m puppeteering my own body, which is a really weird feeling.”

Studying for her doctorate, as well as founding Beyond the Bark — her own inclusive puppet theatre — has taught her to be herself and embrace her disability as a point of pride. 

“I think for the first 10 years, up to this year, I’ve hidden behind the puppet,” she says.

“I don’t want to hide behind it anymore. I want to embrace it.”

The Banff Puppet Theatre Intensive is co-artistic directed by Old Trout Puppet Workshop's Peter Balkwill.