…..Even More Toy Theatre Adventures!

Bode's Koffertheater

The Opening Image of the Book Cover From "Tom Sawyer"

At last – Yet another instalment of our lovely visit to the Vischmarkt Papierentheater Festival.

If you are wondering what the reason for the huge gap has been, it is not because I have had such a dull time I’ve had nothing to say, it is rather that I’ve been so busy with things that I have had no time to blog about it.

Just for the sake of your curiosity, since the last post I have done a set of Hansel & Gretel themed workshops at Pontefract Liquorice Festival, (our first return there since I made the toy theatre for them in 2006).  Previous to that we did Alice in Wonderland again at Hebden Bridge Arts Festival, and the next thing coming up is Shoe-Box Toy Theatre workshops at Buxton Puppet Festival at 10am on the 30th of July, (you have to book for these in advance so get in touch with them now if you’re interested).  On top of all this going on we have been frantically moving the last stuff from our old house and cleaning it all as well.  So that’s my excuse for deserting you all for so long.

Another reason I delayed writing reviews of the other shows at the festival is that, with one exception, they were all in German or Dutch, (neither of which do I understand).  For this reason I was only able to appreciate the plays from a visual and technical viewpoint and was in a state of mild bewilderment about what the action and the story might be.  Not wishing to give an underwhelming write-up to what were undoubtedly fine toy theatre plays, I have taken the time to research the stories of the shows I have already seen so that I now know more or less what was going on.

The first show I saw was by Dick Zijlstra from Alkmaar.  This was a version of “Ruddigore” a Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta that I was wholly unfamiliar with.  When I read up on the story I discovered the plot is so confusing and that there are so many twists and turns that perhaps the people who understood the Dutch may have struggled nearly as much as me!

The things that particularly impressed me about this piece were the singing and the special effects.  Dick used a recording for the character voices and the singing, all the voices were done by him or his wife and the very competent and professional sounding singing was all done by Dick.

As part of the story the main character’s ancestral portraits came to life which was done in a very simple and ingenious way and, like all good magical transformations in the theatre, the changeover was disguised by a puff of smoke.  Other exciting effects included a frieze of dancing skeletons that almost seemed to move about by the eerie flickering quality of the light.  A macabre, bottom of a pit in hell effect was also created very nicely and simply by having sliding friezes seen through a circular aperture in a black card background.

When we got to see back stage, we discovered to our amazement that Dick actually had an actual smoke machine for his smoke effect and an actual strobe light for the dancing skeletons!  Another simple and clever technique was Dick’s method of being able to turn double sided figures completely around.  I was pleased to see that he had created home-made turn table sliders for his figures as I am a big fan of creative ingenuity with cheap or recycled materials.

The paper theatres were mainly beautiful traditional printed theatres all of different kinds.  I believe one of the delights of a festival like this is the pleasure people get at seeing all the different types of paper theatre from all the different countries people come from.

The next show we had the pleasure of seeing was the only other in English we got to see, and was “High Toby” by Priestley, sets by Doris Zinkeisen and was in a very tiny traditional regency English theatre.  Despite the small size, however, we were able to see what was going on very well.  The play was all about highwaymen and silly young ladies and the like.  I guessed from the archaic form of the language that I was at an advantage compared to my international fellow performers when it came to understanding this play.

Like ourselves Pat & Brian Hollins, (who were incidentally very friendly and helpful to us when we arrived at our hotel, not sure what was going on) had opted to speak the lines of the characters live and also, like ourselves, had two people working the figures, scenery etc.  I thought that they did a good job between them of doing different distinctive character voices for each of the characters, which is one of the major challenges in puppetry or toy theatre.

Ab and Mantas Vissers were a father/son team, who were performing “Big Claus and Little Claus” in Dutch.  This is a story by Hans Christian Anderson which I knew I had read a long time ago, but at the time I couldn’t remember any of it.

My impressions at the time were that the energy and expressiveness of the voice work Ab was doing were very good, and I am sure I would have been in stitches of laughter had I understood the language.  He also spoke the lines live.

I also admired greatly the marvellous 3-D set.  It had that great quality of depth that good toy theatre creates using 2-D images.  For example, there was a lovely bit where the main character Little Claus was “walking” along in the foreground and this was shown by the background moving backwards behind him.  The artwork, which was by Helge Harvey-Hansen was all very beautiful and high quality.

Those who know the story of “Big Claus & Little Claus”, will know that there is a lot of people hitting other people over the head with things.  One of the main things I was spying out for in other people’s shows was different techniques for creating animated rather than still toy theatre characters and sets.  When we saw behind the scenes afterwards we saw how the arm of the man was made to come down through a cunning contrivance and then had to be reset in the upward position by pushing back up with the fingers.

Another very useful technique that was employed in this show was the pre-setting up of entire scenes with backdrops and wings in position so that each entire scene was on a board that could be slid in and out from the side.  Another thing I was watching out for in particular, because we found it challenging ourselves, was the transitions between scenes.  Ab and Mantas did not attempt to change the scenes in front of the audience but lowered a very beautiful printed curtain and played incidental music to cover the changes.

Ab is also the one who gave me some excellent constructive pointers as to how we could improve our show Hansel & Gretel and also a “joke” present of some Dutch liquorice.  I’m still eating the honey liquorice, the salty is being saved for the trick or treaters, (aha!).

Gisa Nauman-Namba from Papiertheater Tschaya performed Wilhelm Hauffs’ famous story: Kalif Storch in German.  Though if I’m honest this is my first encounter with W.Hauff’s work.  Harry Oudekerk tells me it is a very useful repertoire of stories for the toy theatre creator and that I should look into him in more detail!  Although I don’t understand German the story is very simple, and it was easy to follow what was going on from the visuals.

I very much liked the live voices and sound effects.  The figures and scenery were printed, again, but decorated very beautifully with lovely colours and lots of sparkly things and glitter adorning them.

A very visually spectacular piece altogether with the finale containing the royal couple on the back of an elephant was fantastic.  The storks flying across the sky was cleverly done and was a change from the main paper theatre presentation.

In general it was quite a simple lo-tech presentation style compared to some of the others, but none the worse for it.  However my desire to spy out animated characters was well satisfied by the lovely owl which had moving wings.  Unfortunately we had to rush off for our own performance after that, so I didn’t get to see behind the scenes on this one.

Jens Schröder and his daughter Pauline peformed a very creative version of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” in a very different kind of toy theatre.  It was a theatre built into a suitcase which has an interesting history.  It previously belonged to a man called Bode who, (as I remember it) used to do shows for the residents of an old people’s home.  It has mechanical sound effects and music built into it.  The toy theatre as Jens has adapted it is like an add on to the existing structure and they did not use the mechanical sound effects in this show.

I was particularly drawn towards attending this show, as I recognised Pauline from the video of the previous festival and had got chatting to them at one of the very excellent meals that were provided.  I also thought that I stood a better chance of enjoying this one, as I have read the book of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, so I knew I’d be able to follow the story.

Both Tim and myself were extremely favourably impressed by the scene changes in this performance, as unlike most of the others, they did not use a curtain to cover the change.  Instead, appropriate and fun music was played while the scene slowly transformed piece by piece before your eyes.  Most of the scenery bits slid on and off from the sides, but some transformed by tilting forwards towards the audience by 90 degrees, a technique that allows a piece of scenery to change from one thing to another at speed.

I was also impressed that it was one of the few, apart from ourselves, who had devised the artwork etc. from scratch, though Jens told me that it was based on artwork from the Tom Sawyer comics in the series Classic Illustrated.  The exception to this was the scene in the cave which used printed Danish Toy Theatre scenery which was very beautiful and worked very well.

Other creative touches included a lovely silhouette chase on a hill with moving figures moving up and down the slopes in a very ingenious fashion.  A lighting technique for the moon also caught my eye in particular.  This involved a translucent backlit piece of paper and a piece of card at the front with a round hole in it.  This looked very nice indeed.

Another little miracle was the scene where they white-wash the fence.  I didn’t see how they did that but it was very good.

Backstage again I picked up a useful tip to avoid having too many sliders.  Have one or two sliders with a magnet attached, and detachable figures also with magnets!  Hope he doesn’t mind my giving that one away.

I almost forgot to mention how marvellously the father daughter team did the character voices.  They put a lot of life, energy and drama into the characterisation and the story.  A fantastic show altogether.

Annoyingly we did not get a chance to see the Pop-up Treasure Island by Ted and Enid Hawkins, as they were playing at the same time as us on every performance, but we did manage to meet up and take a look at each other’s theatres in a break.

They were another UK group and I had admired Ted’s article about a short play he’d done about pirates in the “Puppet Master” magazine.  His figures were very cleverly sculpted into a low relief 3-D by gently curving the pieces of card.  I had been intrigued in his article by the clever solutions he had come up with to animate the characters and get them to do things like firing guns and picking things up, (something that is not an issue in conventional theatre, but quite a problem when your actors are cardboard).  I was very pleased to have some of his trademark animated figures demonstrated to me, (indeed, the mechanism on one was stuck, and had I not asked to see it, it could have spoiled their next performance!).  Unfortunately, I was told that Ted feels he is getting a bit old to carry on doing shows and that his previous show was meant to be his last one!  A sad day for the toy theatre when Ted does his last show, I feel.

It was very nice to meet the Hawkins family as I discovered they are not too far from where I live, so I have a local toy theatre contact to exchange ideas with at some point.

Dear readers, if you have enjoyed reading about my toy theatre adventures, please visit our Wefund page and support our journey to this festival.  The deadline expires in about 3 days and if we should not reach our total by then, then none of the money pledged previously will reach our pockets.  I know it is a long shot to reach the total by then, but please take a look at the page and tell all your friends and contacts to do the same.  It is generous supporters of the arts like you, that help to make creative work like this possible.

We have a new show page for Hansel & Gretel on the main Rough Magic Theatre website and watch this space for brand new pictures of the show on the gallery page, (as soon as I’ve taken them!).  In the meantime if you’ve not already seen them, here are some official pictures from the festival.


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