Thursday, September 27, 2018


This is my presentation at the 

For PDF of Full Program, see:

I was suppose to give a talk via Skype at this seminar. As I experienced health challenges during the past few weeks this became a challenge. But with the kind support of David, Jane Boyd, and Claire Boyd and Jane Jermyn I was still be able to write this paper.  My deepest gratitude.
Also a huge thank you to Roberto Ferreira da Silva for his understanding, kindness, and agreeing to have the translator narrate my story.

© This paper may be quoted, using the website-page-link; Corina Duyn; 'Stepping Out of the Disability Box'; Presented at: I1 Puppet Therapy Seminar of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, September 2018

Corina Duyn
'Stepping Out of the Disability Box'


My name is Corina Duyn. Dutch born artist, writer and puppet maker. I live in Ireland.

Thank you Roberto for inviting me to share my experience of Puppetry and disability with you all here.

Unfortunately my health took a bit of a tumble during the past few weeks. As a result I am not able to give my talk in the way it was planned. Via Skype link.  But with the help of some amazing friends, young and old, I have been able to prepare this presentation for you.
...... [translator's name] will read the translation of my transcript for you along with the images and videos I forwarded. For English speaking audience, there are printed copies available.

I do hope to join you for the questions and answer session at the end.

Thank you so much. I hope you will enjoy my story, and I look forward to see you afterward.

I was born in Holland and grew up in a creative family. I made my first doll at the age of ten. My first puppet when I was about 15. Over the following decades, I explored books and methods to create my own style of dolls and puppets as a hobby.
I studied and worked as a palliative Care nurse and social care worker, and I worked with people with learning difficulties.

When I moved to Ireland in 1989 my dolls and puppets started to be influenced by the natural surroundings and the folklore of my adopted country.
My work took off, and I became a full time working artist. Fantasy Folk Artist Dolls are in public and private collections in a great variety of countries.

In 1998 I started to teach puppet making in a group home for teenagers. It was a wonderful experience to see how eager these young people were to engage in this art form.
There was one young man of about 13. Funny lad. He was making a clown. The puppet head was gorgeous, open, and funny. But when it came to making the hands, he ended up making fists.
A very powerful experience.

For me this was the pivotal moment to realize the power of art. Especially the power of working with clay. The clay ‘does not lie’.
The deepest fears, joy, wishes and challenges appear from our hearts, our minds, through our hands into the clay.

Unfortunately I did not get the finish the project with the young people as I became very ill with the neurological illness M.E. (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) in the summer of 1998.

But this experience of the power of the arts stood with me throughout my now twenty year journey through illness/disability.

Illness/disability M.E.

In a very, very short time I lost the ability to look after myself, to walk properly, to sit up and talk, to read, write, or do my work. A life altering experience.
But my creative mind would not give in. Or give up. Even if I wanted it to.
I made drawings of eggs, and birds, of fear, of freedom, of wishes and dreams, of challenges and desires. And moments of beauty.

The drawings became paintings and collages. Paintings led to plasticine sculptures. Many of these early explorations are documented in my book ‘Hatched, a Creative Journey Though M.E. (2006).
Years later I began working with clay again.
About a decade later, my work suddenly changed; I began incorporating roots in some of my sculptures.
I realised, many months later, that they reflected how I had become much more rooted in my reality. Maybe the earlier bird images were not showing freedom, but a flying away from realty?
I had finally acknowledged to myself that I probably wasn’t going to recover.

During the past five years or so, a sense of movement appeared in work, which ultimately led to my return to Puppetry.

As my work reflects where I am at in life, I had utterly convinced myself I was going to dance again. That I would be well. Physically well.
I now know that it was my dance with society. To be part of society again.
A different kind of dance than I had anticipated.

 Puppetry, Disability, and Human Rights

Being disabled should not infringe on our human right to create.
Besides the rights to have access to a building, to exhibit our work or attend an exhibition, we actually have a right to create. And not just that; we should also have the right to be a facilitator - to be the person to decide what is going to happen.  And not just a participant on a project given by able bodied people.

For me it’s not just human rights, it’s also a human need.
The creative process taught me so much. It helped me to understand my illness. To learn to live with it. To find a place to be free. To explore. To share. Although a solitary journey, it has given me contact with people all over the world through my images, exhibitions, books and later my website and other social media. And during talks.
I utterly believe that I am still alive because of my creative explorations.

Life Outside the Box

In 2014 I became an active member of the Irish Wheelchair Association. I had been a member for fifteen years, but I never had the courage to actually go to their outreach centre.
But my illness was making me more isolated again. Also, I was hoping that staff could help me with my clay work, which had become difficult to do.

Other members and staff became interested in my sculptures. The then Centre Coördinator asked if I could facilitate a puppet making project. We didn’t really know what that entailed, but after discussions with members and seeking financial assistance, we started our project in summer 2015.
We made nine puppets who all in their own individual way, stepped out of society’s disability box.

Our group consisted of about 12 people with a variety of disabilities: acquired brain injury, MS, congenital birth defects or M.E.; ages 27 to 72.
I tried to give everybody a role in the project. For example one woman didn’t want to make a puppet, so I suggested she write notes on what was being said. The often hilarious comments were collected for our book about the project. Another man, who was unable to work in the large group, worked one to one on the large paper-maché hand. It was beautiful to see how he flourished working with his hands. It still brings a smile to my face.

It was a very empowering project, for the members but also for myself, as it was the first time in 17 years that I had been teaching again.

All were amazed by their hidden abilities. One young man thought that he couldn’t hold / use the scissors, but when he didn’t close them fully, he realized he could cut fabric.

The group became more cohesive because of “oh, I can do that for you” etc. There was also a sense of ease to talk about our disabilities. It was a safe place.

We filmed the puppets stepping out of the disability box in our local shopping centre. We choose a public place on purpose, as we wanted that interaction with society.
We wanted people to see that we could do things and not just drink our tea/coffee and play cards, which unfortunately is what happens a lot of the time at the centre.

On one occasion we brought some of the puppets with us to the beach. The minute we took the puppets out of the box people started talked to us. They didn’t see wheelchairs anymore; they saw the puppets and talked to us as fully competent adults, not the prejudice we often experience.

The short video we made in the end of the project, which I will share with you here, has been shown in Canada and London (UK) at the disability festival, and on our local cinema. Every three months there is a one minute version on Irish national television.

For me personally, the project led to the invitation to speak at the first Broken Puppet Symposium (2017) in Cork, Ireland, and as key note speaker at 2018 Symposium in Bath. As well as giving talks in other festivals in UK and Ireland.
I suddenly found myself in a world I did not know I was part of. How beautiful.

Short film: Life Outside the box  (4 min)

I am proud to say as a person with a disability that I was able to facilitate a project with people with disabilities.

Since last year I taught several people puppet making in my home studio, and via distant learning. Some have disabilities, other want to enjoy learning a new art form, or use the skills in their therapeutic practises.

In all cases, what I see is that the puppet is in total control on who it wants to be. What issues, thoughts, or desires are hidden deep in the maker, and need to come to light.

Like that first experience in the group home with young people: the clay does not lie. As powerful an experience as twenty years ago.

The Reflection Girls

In 2013 I was staying at The Tyrone Guthrie Centre Artists Retreat/work place. On the last day I was invited to visit the dance studio. After walking up the slight hill using my walking sticks, I was faced by wall to wall mirrors.
I know how I walk, I know how I am, but coming face to face with myself like that was a big shock.  

I wanted to share this experience through puppetry.  
I made the first puppet head in 2013. It turned out much more realistic than my usual more whimsical faces. I left it on my studio table. Not forgotten, but I was probably not ready to totally embrace the story.
I restarted working on this puppet and it’s reflection during the past year.

Short film: The Reflection Girls-  pilot 2 min)

Through stories like these, I am hoping to explore and share, the challenges of life with chronic illness with the help of puppets.

People often react to Puppetry. In a positive or challenging way.  It does give reactions.


One of the challenges I faced during the past year or so, is that I don’t have the strength to hold the cross of my marionette.
Yet again I had to explore alternatives.
I embarked on creating a puppet which could sit on my knee while I am in my wheelchair. Or which can sit independently on the table.
It was months of trial and error. Which I will show you in a video.

Throughout his process I was aware that I had to face my disability, look at my illness, but also my ability. Observe where my boundaries are, and how I can work within that.

The hidden benefit of creating totally new works is that the brain is active. Like waking up in the morning thinking ‘how could I make the head move...’?
Instead of thinking of how painful or uncooperative my body is, I can focus on something fun and productive. A therapeutic benefit of the creative process. It alters the focus.

Creating, and sharing my life with Póilin Puppet also made me aware of the link between puppetry and meditation.  
I feel that the very subtle movements, the abstractions, often tell a more powerful story than the larger movements in regular puppetry.

This, I realized, is also something I do and see in my writing.
I take abstracts, the essence, from longer pieces to tell the story better, and to leave it up to the reader, or the audience, to add their own thoughts.

One day Póilin was sitting at the table, I was lying on the couch. She was staring at me, looking bored.  
She made me get up off the couch and as I turn her head towards the window, as the light caught her, it was as if she smiled.
This tiny movement spoke to me like poetry.

Short film: Poilin's Travels with M.E.  - our journey over the last 6 months. (5.50 min)

‘Miracle. Miracle.’ Exploring Prejudice of chronic illness/disability

During the past few months I have been working on a new puppet project. So far with the support of an art student.
It is still very much a work in progress, but as always, the story, her story, is evolving with time, and through interaction with others.

At first glance it is a woman in a wheelchair. Covered in a blanket, she looks helpless. It evokes pity.
When she removes her blanket, she reveals her ability to stand up and walk.
Like me.
It confused people when I step out of my wheelchair. I don’t fulfill the image the spectator has in her or his mind. I challenge their perception.

A puppet can do anything – even roller skating. (I can’t quite say that about my ability). She takes her walking sticks from the back of her chair and proceeds to ‘ski’ on her roller blades. Wearing a miniskirt, knee pads, and perhaps a leather jacket.

I hope to tackle more social issues with this piece, like LGBT. Maybe the wheelchair pusher is a funky, cool teenager with a radio on her shoulder... who knows!

I have come to understand and accept that I am not a puppeteer in the ordinary sense. I don’t have the ability to be a performer. But am a teller of stories.
I find the way I can best tell my puppet stories is through film, which I can direct, film and edit.


Apart from making puppets, teaching, giving talks, and filming, I am interested to research puppetry and disability in greater details.
I have been invited by Rachel McNally from Puppet Place in Bristol, UK to take part in their research on puppetry and disability.  To explore the challenges and opportunities as makers, participants and audiences with disabilities. Sarah Wright from The Curious School of Puppetry is also on this research panel. I am honored to be asked.

Thank You All

I would be delighted to answer any questions here today. Or to communicate via email, at a later stage. And be involved in whatever way I can in this most interesting intersections of disability/illness and Puppetry.

A lot of my work can be viewed on my website and blog, and YouTube.

Corina Duyn

For more about Life Outside the Box see the Puppet Blog 

Contact Corina

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