Earlier this month, we visited puppet artist and performance maker Isabel Lyster at her self-built yurt located in the beautiful Cotswolds countryside surrounding the town of Stroud. Fascinated by the power of moving objects and the theatricality of characters onstage, Isabel skilfully combines design and performance and pushes the boundaries of reality in order to express deeply personal inner truths through beautiful puppetry and live storytelling.
We joined her for a walk in the surrounding woods with her dogs, Oscar and Tara, during which Isabel shared with us memories from her trips to India and from her time in Sicily with Caravan Stage Company, where she lived on a boat and worked on giant spider marionettes. Later on, we headed to her studio at Stroud Valleys Artspace where she showed us the characters of her solo show, The Skeleton Woman ‒ a dark, ghostly yet funny tale based on an ancient Inuit story that explores the theme of transformation, relationship and healing.
For those who don’t know you, who is Isabel Lyster?
At the moment I live in Stroud in a yurt with my collie puppy Oscar and boyfriend Reuben. I like being in nature even when it’s raining, and I often find myself thinking about creative projects or planning nifty campervan conversions.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I strongly remember the trauma of climbing up a tree and not being able to get down. Hitting my brother over the head with a metal pole. I guess quite dramatic events. Being tickled on my belly, and eating squid (less dramatic).
What or who inspired you to become an artist? Are there any artists in your family?
I don’t think there was any one point when I became an artist. I always enjoyed practical things and drawing Warner Brothers characters from my POG collection. Drawing has been a strong thread through my life, and as I grew up I just tried very hard to form a life where creativity and making was integral. I have developed my practical skills, and critical thought is always present in my mind. I really try to promote the idea that being creative is something that everyone has the capacity to do. Being an artist to me seems like an inappropriate label, since its application can apply to everyone.
My mum owns a textile business, dying antique cloth. My brother is a lighting designer, and my sister is studying fine art. So yeah, you could deduct that there is some form of nurture there. Thanks mum!
What sparked your interest in puppeteering?
I watched a really touching and visceral puppet show by Faulty Optic when I was a teenager, it really touched me. Since then I think I have been captured by the power of moving objects and characters onstage. I love the combination of design and performance. For me, it’s just super.
Tell us about your experience as a student in London. What was the highlight of your living and studying there? What about the downside?
London was a big challenge for me at the beginning. I grew up in rural countryside with a small community of friends, so it was a shock to my tiny system! I think it blew open my horizons in terms of human experience, cultural diversity, and taught me how to navigate around city infrastructure! My low light was the loneliness and the feeling of disconnection. My highlight was 6 years on when I lived in Hackney Wick, surrounded by a great community and cycled everywhere.
Is there an underlying philosophy that informs your work?
That’s a hard question. I think my “personal” outlook on life is present in my work, but I’m not sure whether I follow any philosophy. I often enjoy building objects that have pleasing sculptural and material quality to them. Then I am thinking about social and cultural issues that affect me, and people’s stories, and try to communicate these ideas through storytelling. Maybe I’ll have a better answer for you in 50 years!
How do you first approach an idea for a new performance or project? Where do you usually begin?
It depends. If I’m working for a client, company or applying for a residency ‒ they usually have objectives. I will read the brief, and think about it all for a while and how I can interpret it in an interesting way, and begin to form a vision. Then write a mammoth application, work out a budget, draw up technical designs, think about social outreach etc… then I do a pitch, or whatever they are asking for. This can be quite a demanding process.
If I am producing my own work then I tend to think about ideas for longer. My friend calls this the “dream state”... I’m happy to let things linger, and when I find the right time, or people to work with then I bring the ideas into fruition ‒ I always seem to have ideas floating around my head at all times.
It seems that puppetry has a timeless, magical appeal for audiences of all ages. Why do you think that is?
I’ve thought about this a lot! I think puppets represent life to us. They act as a medium that expresses emotions, and allow the audience to interpret this is in a completely unadulterated way. They require the belief of the viewer, as a child this seems to come completely naturally. It is as if children’s imagination just happily jumps towards them. And when adults make the same lead towards believing the life of the puppet, it’s quite touching.
How important it is to stir reactions in the audience? In which ways do these reactions affect your work?
In a way I feel as a theatre maker you are constantly just provoking different reactions in the audience. Like being a chef and cooking up flavours, and being aware of how they will taste.
You are passionate to create, but also to teach. What can you tell us about the young generation’s interest in art? How important is art for them?
I think every young person has the potential to be creative, and when I teach all I want to do is make people realise this potential and also begin to craft it and use new techniques.
When it comes to commissioned work, how do you draw the line between your own aesthetic taste and the expectations of a client?
That’s such a tricky one! I used to be much more proud about my “style” and always trying to reinterpret a commission into my own style. Now I’ve changed, and I realise that a lot of people like a puppetry aesthetic which I don’t really like ‒ the cartoony, colourful, furry type of puppet. Now I’ve come to realise that there’s a place for everything, and got over myself… I’m happy to make this kind if that’s what they want.
What was your most meaningful collaboration so far?
My most epic was with Lebara Sim card company, where we worked with migrants that had made the journey to the UK and told their stories through puppetry. Most touching I think is a project called “Walk” I did a long time ago with Jemima Yong, where we interviewed young and old people about what they had wanted to be when they grow up, and how that had changed as they grew older.
Tell us about your fine furniture making venture. When and why did you decide to step into this field?
When I moved out of London and back to Stroud, I was panicking that I wouldn’t be able to find employment as a puppet/theatre maker. I have lots of friends who are trades people, and that security really appealed to me. I love woodwork, and there are many crossovers to puppet making ‒ so it seemed like a no brainer.
What other disciplines are you interested in or involved with?
I love elegant craft, woodwork, paper, and all forms of elegant design. I’m really excited by data and technology ‒ and inspired by the ideas and information that science has to offer. I also really love drawing and the freedom you can experiment with when just scribbling on paper.
According to your recent Instagram posts you are self building a yurt. Can you tell us more about this project?
Well well! We’ve been kindly lent a yurt frame, and I spent about 3 weeks sewing a new waterproof canvas for it on an industrial sewing machine. Hard work on the shoulders! We have custom made some of the furniture inside. And we’re designing an outdoor kitchen at the moment and getting ready for the scary winter months with insulation and a wood burner!
What are some of the highlights of your time in Sicily with Caravan Stage Company?
That was such a transformative time for me. Living on a boat and really embracing communal living was a highlight. I made some really close friends and the emotional bonds were so strong. The fabrication of set was a new learning curve, and I learnt a lot about rigging and safety when working at heights. The giant spider marionettes were mounted about 20ft high and I spent a lot of time up high animating and fixing them. Also it’s got to be said the Mediterranean sea and climate is so wonderful, and I found a new love of pasta and coffee.
Who are your favourite contemporary artists?
Sculpture by Henry Moore, Ai Weiwei, Louise Bourgeois, Antony Gormley. Performance by Nick Green, Marina Abramović, Julie Taymor, Handspring, Compagnie Pre-o-coupe.
Where do you go to unwind and get inspired?
I love walking the dog, and having coffee with friends. Visiting mountainous landscapes. I practice meditation daily, which is an important part of my life.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Have confidence in yourself.
What advice would you offer to new and emerging puppet artists?
Work hard and remember what it is that’s magical about puppetry. Stick to your guns.
Do you travel often? What were some of the most memorable places you have visited so far?
I think I travel a lot actually. My granny lives in India so I have travelled there a lot. That’s the most amazing and rich country, smells and ancient culture. Russia was really striking with warm hearted people. I think my favourite place in the world is the Himalayas. Endless mountains.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?
Oh, that’s so hard! If I could transport all my family and friends to the south of France that would be handy.
What are some of your favourite places to hang out in Stroud?
Stroud has some real gems, like Star Anise Café for coffee. The Fleece for a pint. The Crown in Frampton Mansell for Sunday lunch and a dog walk. Woodchester lake for a wild swim.
What does a perfect Saturday evening look like for you?
Dinner with friends and a few drinks. A good band.
What are you working on at the moment?
Quite a lot actually… I’m preparing my solo show, The Skeleton Woman, and introducing new musician Rob Pemberton into it for the Stroud Theatre Festival. I’m making a camel puppet for the Worshipful Company of grocers, and freelancing for Costume Construction and Peter Pullon.
What are your dreams and ambitions for the future? How do you see yourself evolving as an artist?
I’ve just applied to do a summer residency at the Norland Institute, which will be a dream come true if I get it! It’s located on an island off mainland Norway in the Arctic Circle. I would like to develop my range design products that all have an “animated quality”, like flying bird mobiles, zoetrope lamps and lantern cards.
Can you recommend us:
A film: Kubu and the 2 strings.
A book: The Island Under the Sea, by Isabel Allende.
A song: “Memory of… (US)”, by De La Soul (feat. Estelle and Pete Rock).