One of my incentives for starting to practice Buddhism was to make people happy, and I soon came to realize that I needed to start with myself as I had a very cynical, negative approach to life. Gradually I began to take responsibility for my life and change my attitude, becoming more open-minded.
Self-expression was frowned on at home and in school, but I had a rich heritage of “make-believe,” playing on my own and with friends, asking, “What if?” then seeing what answers and actions presented themselves. “Let’s pretend” was the phrase we used, and I still enjoy bringing everyday objects to life. I feel fortunate to have been brought up in an era when entertainment was generally “homemade” and “hands-on,” as I believe this can contribute to a more creative intelligence.
I feel play is essential to human growth and development. One can only participate in life fully if one is prepared to let go of predetermined outcomes, and share the wonder of unpredictable encounters with objects and people (or other animals!). Play is not just superficial—true spontaneity is forged through discipline, focused intention and assiduous application.
When it came to fulfilling my own potential, these words by my mentor, SGI President Daisaku Ikeda, struck a chord: “You must never slacken in your efforts to build new lives for yourselves. Creativity means pushing open the heavy door to life. This is not an easy struggle, indeed it may be the hardest task in the world. For opening the door to your own life is more difficult than opening the door to all the mysteries of the universe.”
These words have percolated through my life and led me initially to work on films at the BBC for individuals and groups who felt misrepresented or underrepresented by the media.
I now work as an entertainer—puppeteer, clown, storyteller and Punch & Judy “Professor”—putting smiles on people’s faces! I have a puppet shop in London where I sell old and new puppets from around the world. There is also a studio space where I can rehearse, perform with and create puppets, as well as make films using puppets as protagonists. I call my shop “Puppet Planet” as it is we human beings who “pull the strings” of our Planet Earth according to the Buddhist principle of the oneness of life and its environment.
To me, playfulness is the presence of mind to transform any event or object in the moment regardless of circumstance. That’s how I discovered the power of puppetry—I took two yogurt pots and used their corners to create “talking” mouths, named them “Bill and Suzy” and found that my two young children would do whatever Bill or Suzy asked them to, even if they were being told to brush their teeth and go to bed!
When an audience “suspends disbelief,” that’s when the magic of play begins—when I’m showing, not telling, as no one likes to be told. I still enjoy breathing new life into everyday objects; for example, the yellow hat that I wear becomes the sun, and a simple blue scarf becomes a stream. I use puppets therapeutically when working with teenagers excluded from school for bad behavior. Sometimes they’re in secure centers where I’ll go to perform Punch & Judy, which is full of knockabout, slapstick humor. After the show, I get them to discuss whether portraying violence can be cathartic, then give them puppets to tell their own story.
I see individuals finding their voice, saying things through the personality of the puppet which they may not have even said to themselves. Puppetry gives the freedom to express ideas and feelings; an ideal way to transmit information as well as spiritual truths.
On a recent trip to research puppetry in India, partly funded by a bursary from Arts Council England, I met master puppeteers and learned many techniques, but it’s thanks to the SGI and my mentor Daisaku Ikeda that I’m able to give full play to my talents and abilities.