Sunshine Coast’s purposeful puppets

Feb 11, 2019 | Features, Visual Arts

Disillusioned with working in high-end fashion in Sydney, Rebecca Dostal decided to put her creative talents to better use, bringing wonderment and joy to thousands with her colourful and intriguing puppets.  

By Judy Fredriksen

Convention is not a doctrine that Rebecca Dostal follows. Born to a native Bohemian father and English mother, her childhood in the Blue Mountains was a collage of experiences that few could comprehend. Bohemian artistry ran in her blood and her lifestyle was eclectic, surrounded by her antique dealer parents, musicians and artists.

Her father’s deeds during WWII, when he escaped from both the German Army and then Communism, were miraculous. Her grandmother had been a silent movie actress in the 1920s and the famed Australian artist, Norman Lindsay, was her adopted grandfather. Adding to the mystique, Rebecca swears the house they lived in was haunted. 

Then, whilst playing in the bush in 1970, Rebecca aged six and her sister aged eight, found the dead body of Vicki Barton, one of Australia’s most high-profile child murder victims.

The discovery catapulted the family unwittingly into the jaws of the media, introducing them to a stream of TV and newspaper reporters. It also connected the family to famous people like Mike Willesee and John Laws.

The foundations of Rebecca’s artistic side had been laid for a creative life with many twists and turns.

“I started with a fashion degree and after working in the fashion industry, which I found to be soul destroying because of the working conditions for machinists, I left and made a range of different lines, from children’s clothing, hats and then wedding dresses until I started making my own leather range of collectable Celestial Dragons in 1994,” explains Rebecca.

“When I moved to the Sunshine Coast I studied writing and drama at Sunshine Coast University. So I’m a performer as well now but I still have to make something, so… you put the two together and you make something to perform with.”

“The puppets bring so much joy to the world,” says Rebecca. “They are the mouth to the soul of someone else, and they inspire people to find their imagination.”

Rebecca’s extensive collection of puppets ranges from hand puppets to the full body-sized Ruby and Beryl. All have personalities as diverse as the United Nations and all are hand made by Rebecca, a professional dress-maker and milliner. 

Several of the roving characters are celebrities in their own right, having performed at Woodford Folk Festival, Horizon Festival, Anywhere Festival, The Old Ambo and the Imagineers Festival.


But the puppet performances are not simply light-hearted fun for children. Rebecca also uses her puppets to help people in high-care or with severe disabilities.

“I’ve been using puppetry for social change. Puppets can be used to tell stories or address issues that are not easily brought to public attention. For instance, the girls (Ruby and Beryl) have a play about death. They are actually dead.”

Called Dying to Meet You, the play is about demystifying death and dying.

“Beryl has just died and Ruby helps her transition into the afterlife, figure out what on earth has gone wrong… slaps her on the wrist for not having an advanced health directive and also sends her back to help her family find the will ’cause she’s hidden it in the drill box in the tool shed.”

Performances like this have been staged at Anywhere Festival and at Ignite Conference as part of Dying to Know Day. Other similar educational puppetry projects have been aligned with Supporting People in Respite and Lifestyle (SPIRAL) and Rebecca hopes to take her puppets into public schools in 2019.  

Rebecca has been fortunate enough to learn from one of the masters in the industry – Mike Quinn of Jim Henson Muppet Studios. “I’ve been studying puppet making and puppeteering online for four years and will continue to do so.”

When it comes to making a puppet, Rebecca has no preordained concept of the character she is about to create. As she did when she worked in fashion, she selects a piece of fabric and builds on that, deciding which features work well with the texture and colours and which embellishments will enhance the puppet’s personality.

“Something magic happens when the puppet comes alive,” Rebecca says, demonstrating by picking up Ruby, gliding her hand into a secret recess and standing the glamour gal before me.

A gossamer veil lifts, an unfamiliar voice begins to speak and enchantment floats over me. I no longer see a stuffed granny dress and a tacky wig, but Ruby, the bossy blonde sister. 

Apparently I’m not the only one to be mesmerised by Ruby coming to life. “When we were at Woodford Folk Festival and Bill Hauritz and Bob Hawke stopped to interact with Ruby and Bazena Troll, both grinning from ear to ear, it proved to me what joy my puppets can bring,” says Rebecca.

Rebecca’s dream is to keep exploring puppet making and puppeteering and go to Prague, her father’s home town, to study traditional Marionette making.

“I would like to share this traditional method here on the Sunshine Coast.”

A resident of Maleny for 18 years, Rebecca holds puppet making workshops from her studio The Puppetarium, and one day soon, would dearly love to have her own touring puppetry troupe on the Sunshine Coast.

When that happens, I have no doubt it will be a welcome addition to the already burgeoning Sunshine Coast Arts scene, and I, for one, can’t wait to see it.


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