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CREATORS ON THE COAST Gabrielle Paananen imitating life

Gabrielle takes one of her possum puppets out for a test run in Bouddi National Park.

GABRIELLE PAANANEN WORDS JENNIFER ENNION imitating life Gabrielle Paananen is passionate about breathing life into inanimate materials using the universal language of puppetry to engage people and tell a story.


When you think of puppets is it Punch and Judy puppets that come to mind or Jim Henson’s much-loved Muppets? For a while, puppetry became overshadowed by the unlimited possibilities of CGI in movies. While animation thrived on screen, it took new puppets like the equine hero in War Horse to bring their souls back to the theatre, turning ‘new puppetry’ into latter-day stars. That expertise then found its way into movies in a hybrid of new technology and traditional puppeteering that allowed character animation for movies to be created in minutes instead of days.

But Gabrielle Paananen wouldn’t have been able to comprehend or predict any of this when she first fell in love with puppets at the age of six.

‘I’ve always just made creatures out of things; things I found in the op shop,’ Gabrielle, now 23, says.

Having grown up around animals, the MacMasters Beach local has always been passionate about anatomy and how things move. Gabrielle is inspired by her local Bouddi National Park and has even made installations with fungi found in the Bouddi region.

An unconventional childhood during which she was homeschooled while living in Uganda, the Solomon Islands and Australia gave Gabrielle the wings to carve a path to puppetry. Fascinated by connections and patterns in nature, she has studied natural history illustration, animal behaviour, taxidermy and mycology (the study of fungi).

‘I was able to pick very specific, odd things that I was interested in learning and then just follow that,’ she says.

At age 16, Gabrielle was ‘taken under the wings’ of mentors at Sydney puppet theatre company Erth and she’s never looked back. Now, she not only makes puppets but also designs them, performs with them, and repairs them when they need to visit the ‘puppet doctor’ on tour.

She has completed a Diploma of Production Art and has illustrated several scientific papers, as well as a book about permaculture. Making a name for herself early on, she was awarded the PACT/BBM Performing Arts Scholarship (2016) and, in the same year, the Bouddi Foundation for the Arts scholarship. Let us remind you, she’s only 23. »

ABOVE Internal mechanism for an inflatable carnivorous plant for the Little Shop of Horrors stage show.

RIGHT Study of a grey goshawk during an artist residency in Finland.

ABOVE Clockwork automata character designed and built to wander through Sovereign Hill display village in Ballarat.

BELOW Vivid Sydney: Marri Dyin Great Woman and schools of fish.

More recently, Gabrielle worked in Melbourne, making puppets and costumes for a show, while previous jobs have included creating puppets for Vivid Sydney, the most impressive of which was the 6.5-metre-tall, illuminated Marri Dyin, operated by 10 people.

One of the things Gabrielle loves about being in the industry is how audiences are enraptured by puppets.

‘Puppetry engages people in a different way to other forms of theatre or art,’ she says. ‘When you’re making a creature move, there’s a magic that happens; the puppeteer just disappears.’

That magic is also present when Gabrielle introduces people to puppets she’s made to celebrate our endangered animals. She’s been inspired by local possums through her wildlife rescue work on the Central Coast and recently created a tiny Leadbeater’s possum puppet that had blinking eyes and a nose that wiggles. She says focusing on endangered species is special because most people never get the chance to get up close to such creatures.

‘They’re way too fragile to put into someone’s hands,’ she says, ‘so it’s a really nice way to talk to people about extinction as well.’

Gabrielle hopes to create more puppets of vulnerable creatures and is working with wildlife centres, studying animal anatomy and movement. She’s so dedicated to her craft that she’s even learning about skeletal articulation, which involves preserving animal bones and recreating their skeletons. It’s a skill like this – plus the taxidermy, illustration and installation – that helps bring her puppets to life.