If you read my earlier post about our visit to Ted & Enid Hawkins in Blackpool and read the title carefully, you may have noticed that I did not mention the “4 generations of Toy Theatre Enthusiasts” at all!
Now, when we were invited to come over and do our Hansel & Gretel show at Ted & Enid’s house, there was talk of arranging it so a couple of Ted’s smaller relatives,(Grand-children I thought) could watch it as well. I thought this was a good idea as we would have a bigger audience, which is always nice! Also, at the Toy Theatre Festival at Vischmarkt where we had premiered the show there had not been a single child in any of the audiences! So for this reason I was keen to find out how engaging small children would find our first ever toy theatre show.
However, when we arrived, we discovered that these two little girls who were coming, were not in fact Grand-children, but Great Grand-children, aged only 4 and 3 yrs respectively!
It seemed that Wendy, (Ted & Enid’s daughter) who helped perform the Treasure Island was the mother of Rachel, who was the mother of the two little girls. So during the course of the day we did in fact meet 4 generations of Toy Theatre Enthusiasts. I get the impression that Ted is the most fanatically obsessed, but most of the other family members, including Rachel’s husband have been roped in to do voices or manipulate the figures etc. at some point. Though, as I say, I think Ted is the real fan, the rest of his family do seem to find it interesting and entertaining as well.
As for the two little girls, I was taken aback by just how young they were. I had obviously missed that part in the email. I was concerned first of all about whether they would be restless, and secondly about whether the content would be too adult and scary for them.
You may recall in my earlier posts that I had been considering the balancing act of exactly how scary the show ought to be. I am of the opinion that theatre should affect you in some way emotionally and that a story with all the scary bits made nice is not worth telling. I do believe that you need a moral or happy ending to justify and counterpoint the scary bits, and not just scare everyone witless for no apparent reason. At Skipton Puppet Festival Prof. Geoff Felix said something similar to me about his Punch and Judy show. He thought that peril, (in the shape of a very snappy crocodile and a ghost) was very important in his show, and helped to engage the children and adults with the characters in the show. I think this is very true; if nothing truly scary or upsetting happened to Hansel & Gretel, and if they are never in real danger, how can you feel truly delighted when they triumph over their difficulties?
Anyway, with all this in mind, the two little girls sat on their parent’s knees for protection. I also made a point of telling them, before we started, that the show had scary bits; but that there was a happy ending, so they shouldn’t worry too much. I think we did a good performance and the two little girls seemed to be thoroughly engaged throughout. This was fantastic considering their ages and put my mind at rest about whether the show was suitable for children as well as adults.
We questioned both the girls and their parents about what they’d liked and how they coped with the scary bits. The children were a bit shy, but Rachel, their mum, said they’d particularly liked the part where Hansel & Gretel were eating the house and the witch was peering out at them through the window. Rachel was a bit worried about how the girls would cope with the scary scene with the monsters in the woods, but they managed very well and there was not a single scream or tear from either of them.
Ted also enjoyed the show, saying it was “Brilliant!” which I thought high praise from someone as experienced as himself. I think from his conversations with Tim and myself that he had feared that it would be all “nicey nicey” and just aimed at children. He liked the fact that the story was not dumbed down to remove anything too nasty or scary and was therefore engaging for adults as well as children.
Now all of this has been about our show, but we did of course get a chance to see Ted and Wendy perform their marvellous Treasure Island show that we had missed at Vischmarkt.
Ted showed me the Toy Theatre play book from which all of the characters and scenery had been taken. I realised then that I had got the wrong end of the stick about how he had created the show. I had assumed that he had started with a pop-up book of Treasure Island and then used the pictures to create a toy theatre show version. In fact, it was the other way round! Ted had taken a book which was designed to be made into a toy theatre show with pictures to cut out etc. and made the decision to design the theatre scenes in the form of a pop-up book.
Now this is a marvellous idea because it means that as the “page” is turned a highly complex set pops up, already in place, instead of having to individually change each backdrop or set of wings for every scene. As Ted pointed out, however, there are many additional technical challenges created by working in this way.
For starters, the level of the floor gradually drops as more and more pages are folded away behind. Though, this also gave Ted the opportunity to have a specially designed and coloured floor to match the background in each scene. Keeping the characters from falling over on an uneven floor was another challenge. To avoid this, Ted created slots in each floor for the characters to move in, (having slots in the floor is not a new idea, but having a different floor for each scene and having to have slots in every one is a little out of the ordinary, I think).
As with his previous work that I had heard about, there were many figures with ingenious moving parts, the creation of which seemed unremarkable to Ted. He is extraordinarily modest. He also has a bit of a decoupage hobby and that seemed to have inspired him to create very effective curved and ever so slightly 3-D, layered costumes on the characters in Treasure
Unlike ourselves, Ted had opted to pre-record the voices and include them with background music on a soundtrack. This meant that he and Wendy were free to concentrate on moving the characters and changing the scenes. Ted recorded all the voices himself and did a remarkably good job of coming up with different sounding voices for so many different characters, (including women!). As I said to him at the time, however, it is a pity he could not find a clearer voice for Long John Silver, (he had been running out of ways of creating new voices and opted to stick a finger in his mouth while he was talking). But that, and perhaps the sound of the waves being a bit over loud in places, is my only real criticism and I am very hard to please. We had opted to do the voices live ourselves, because I had read that it is the easiest way to keep movement and voice synchronised and because I did not fancy having to keep up with a recording. If anything were to go wrong you would be in a fix.
Ted sent us a DVD of their “last and best performance” in which he felt they synchronised their movements well and generally gave their best performance. As soon as I have worked out how to get a clip of it onto my computer, I shall be posting it on the blog, so watch this space!
Talking about our performance later over the phone, I was very pleased that Ted complimented me on a particular section where Gretel is throwing wood into the witch’s oven. It is quite a simple technique and indeed Ted commented that our set-up was a very simple one generally. But the way we did it, using top down rods with pivots created an effect that could not have been created in the same way using the more conventional slide mechanisms. It was something that impressed Ted, and to impress an experienced practitioner with something in our first ever toy theatre show, we must be doing something right.
Our aim was always to tell the story well, and in an entertaining way, and I think I can say we achieved that alright. Please feel free to look at the Hansel & Gretel show page on our main website for more information.