Embodying a Mythical Beast: a Study of Becoming Dragon

Is it possible to design a ‘convincing’ puppet but wanted to discover if you can make an audience feel as though “a beast has life” even if “the being in question doesn’t exist”?

How do you develop, conjure, and embody a believable yet mythical beast based on several points of reference?

The team behind Embodying a Mythical Beast: A Study of Becoming Dragon’ were interested in discovering what material constructions and bodily co-ordinations are required to ‘become dragon’. They were not simply interested in designing a ‘convincing’ puppet but wanted to discover if you can make an audience feel as though “a beast has life” even if “the being in question doesn’t exist”. To achieve this, they had to consider whether an audience can distinguish the constituent parts that comprise the puppet, and whether this in fact matters. And whether it is possible to craft a mythical beast based on various real and imagined creatures that ‘reads’ as a true, living creature.

This project sought to venture into unmarked territory in the world of puppetry. The success of the project was dependent on the animal being a believable hybridization of multiple real and imagined animal behaviours and morphologies. Marking a potentially valuable contribution to the field of Animal Studies in its concentration on the representations and recreations of animal life.

What did the project involve? 

The researchers employed video ethnography to document and witness the director and performers developing the ‘character’ and co-ordinations of the dragon during the development and performance process.

The project began with the director using reference points from across mammal, reptile and bird groups, and the incorporation of reference to folklore. To attain a believable puppetry of a mythical beast the director taught the cast to work as components of ‘one animal’ by rehearsing a variety of emotions and movements – such as ‘the dragon gets anxious’, or ‘the dragon sniffs for food’. Following this, the cast watched videos of different animal behaviours in relation to three key points of the dragon’s story:

  • Egg hatching, and animal walking for the first time: references morphologies and behaviours exhibited by birds and reptiles.
  • The ‘majestic’ animal moment when the dragon wakes up in the morning and bathes: references morphologies and behaviours of large mammals such as elephants.
  • Metamorphosis and flight: references behaviours and morphologies of insects, crabs, and reptile skin shedding.

During this process, the researchers gathered and shared documentation with key groups (i.e., the puppeteers, the set-designers, the cast, etc). They considered how ‘animality’ is being conjured, and whether the constituent parts of the animal are combining to create a single believable being.

From this point followed a series of redesign and rehearsals with the researchers and the performance team collaborating to embody the mythical beast. During the final performance of the dragon the researchers sought to assess whether the production was successful in conjuring a sense of ‘becoming dragon’ / ’believable beastliness’. The researchers collected a sample of audience responses, in relation to the three key animal replication points in the story (hatch / majestic moment / metamorphosis to flight).

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Andrew Flack (Modern and Environmental History, University of Bristol) is an animal and environmental historian, working primarily on human engagements with the non-human animal world across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • Merle Patchett (Human Geography, University of Bristol) is a cultural-historical geographer by training, focused on theories, histories, and geographies of practice. This focus has led her to engage empirically with a range of specialised skills (e.g. taxidermy and plumasserie), practitioners (e.g. artisans, artists and architects), and places of practice (e.g. museums, galleries and archives) and to develop practice-based methodologies.

What were the results?

Dr Merle Patchett published a photograph essay entitled ‘Becoming Dragon’ documenting the construction of the puppet and the training of the puppeteers. The following is an excerpt from that essay:

“From the breath comes the movement: the breath and movement partnership create phrases which map the score of the performance. Training the puppeteer is thus to train a bodily awareness of the breath as impulse to the movement, which in turn suggests life.”

The dragon puppet was constructed and performed with the art company Trigger. Photographs, videos, and audience testimony of the performances can be found on their website. The first performance occurred in Plymouth entitled The Hatchling World Premiere, Trigger also released a video of the premiere. The puppet was brought out for a second performance for The Hatchling: Platinum Jubilee.