2nd May 2003 at 01:00
A giant winged dragon in Rastafarian colours is set to proclaim the creativity of a group of teenagers from a referral unit. Martin Child previews the fifth Blackpool Puppet Festival

Move over Punch 'n' Judy, a new puppet called Centaufarian will be stealing the limelight when the fifth Blackpool Puppet Festival bursts upon the piers and promenades of the seaside town. Puppet Up, from May 14-18, is the biggest annual festival of puppetry held in the UK and dozens of schools will be taking an active part in workshops, parades and exhibitions.

Centaufarian, which will be unveiled at the main parade on Saturday, May 17, has been created by half a dozen Year 10 and 11 pupils from the Isis Centre, a local pupil referral unit. The winged Centaur, with a dragon's head and Rastafarian colour scheme, is about eight feet tall (2.4m) and 11 feet long (3.4m).

It was created at a small pavilion in Stanley Park in Blackpool - a haven of peace, away from the hustle and bustle of Britain's busiest seaside resort. With help from their art teacher Lucy Wilson, and Emma Clarke from Action Factory (an organisation that is actively involved in public and environmental arts projects), the boys spent five consecutive mornings working on their giant automaton, which they hope will be a real head-turner at the parade. A cart to provide a base for the puppet was made by students from nearby Myerscough College, using two bicycle wheels and a metal frame supported by large castors. With this in place, it was down to the Isis group to get on with the business of making the puppet itself.

The theme for this year's festival, Crazy Creatures, proved to be an inspiration for the pupils and at the brainstorming session on the first morning, there was no shortage of ideas. The chosen design, by 16-year-old Craig, started life with a Rastafarian head but subsequently evolved into a dragon. Most of the construction was achieved by creating a framework of flexible withes (shoots of willow), which were easily bent into suitable shapes and taped or tied together. The great thing about this technique is that it is possible to create quite complex curves and large shapes quickly and easily.

Once the withes were shaped, sheets of paper were stuck to the skeleton using polyvinyl acetate glue. Just two layers of paper made a very strong, durable, surface, ready for painting. The body of the creature, complete with very long tail, was attached directly to the frame, leaving enough room inside for a (small) person to push the creation. The torso, head and legs were all made separately. The head is designed to move and open and close its mouth, the four legs are animated by the movement of the wheels, while the two arms can be waved separately. The finishing touches will take place during a visit to the Action Factory workshop in Blackburn before the parade.

The pupils were clearly very well motivated and there was an obvious sense of achievement in the group. They had worked on areas they had chosen themselves and were actively engaged in resolving problems that came up, with a little bit of guidance to keep them focused. "They were fantastic and I totally enjoyed it," said Emma Clarke from Action Factory. "I was prepared to do a lot of planning and very structured work but they just got stuck in. They have done a really good job and the Centaufarian shows off their imagination."

Craig, who wants to go to art college, described the week as a combination of "Brainpower and teamwork".

The Isis students will be joined at the parade by peers from more than 20 local schools who will be showing off their own giant masks and puppets.

Julie Bather, manager of the Isis Centre said: "One of the reasons that we were keen to get involved was to break down and change people's attitudes.

Because the pupils have all been excluded from mainstream schools there is a lot of stigma attached. Working alongside these schools shows they are not ashamed of who they are."

As well as the main parade, there will be a programme of exhibitions, street events and more formal puppet theatre productions. The Horse amp; Bamboo Theatre Company will be performing Company of Angels at Blackpool and the Fylde College and the Little Angel Theatre Company will be bringing King Arthur to Bispham High Arts College. In early June, the Beach Restaurant on Blackpool Pleasure Beach will be exhibiting some of the larger puppets and masks made by schools for the festival.

For full programme details contact the Blackpool Town Centre ForumTel: 01253 476246 Email: forum@blackpool-town-centre.

org.ukwww.blackpool.towntalk.co.ukoutabout.shtmlAction Factory Community Arts Tel: 01254 679335 Email: allstaff@actionfactory.org.ukwww.actionfactory.org.uk

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