About Collette Knowles

I am artistic director of Rough Magic Theatre, and I have been performing and making puppets since 1999. I have a Drama and Arts Education degree from the great Bretton Hall College, (Yay!). I started the great loves/obsessions of my life in about 1997, (Celebratory Arts, Street Theatre and last but definitely not least Puppetry). I am also an actor, artist, musician and all the other different roles necessary in the field of puppet theatre.

A great first outing for Festa Italia Lancaster!

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I was invited to provide the family entertainment for a new festival in Lancaster (organised by Lancaster BID) by “The Melodrome Mobile Stage“.  It was an Italian themed festival called “Festa Italia” with food and entertainment in an Italian theme which would also hopefully promote interest in Lancaster’s Italian businesses.

I was invited to perform my two Shadow Puppet Suitcase shows “Edward Lear’s Nonsense” and “Jabberwocky!”, unusually with both shows within each 30 minute set.  I normally stick to one show per set to avoid having to swap 2 sets of puppets over mid-set.

My first set was in Church St. where a lot of the Italian businesses are and I started off with the Edward Lear’s Nonsense (as this has more puppets) and swapped to Jabberwocky afterwards.  This was relatively manageable as even though this show has scenery it only uses 8 puppets and Edward Lear has at least twice as many.  I also had Rough Magic Theatre’s Tim Austin as puppet wrangler (aiding me getting the two sets of puppets swapped around).

It had looked like it could be raining all day when we set out and we were worried no-one would be there but there were plenty of crowds and the occasional showers did not put people off.  We were also fortunate that it was dry at the times we were performing.

We met lots of the other acts in the Green Room in Lancaster Museum including a group promenading in Venetian Carnival inspired costumes:

Our second set at the Melodrome Stage in the Market Square attracted much larger crowds and we, the audiences and the Melodrome Stage were all very pleased.  We were very fortunate that at the time of day we were due to perform at the Market Square the sun was going in the right direction so we did not have to rely on artificial lighting and got really clear shadows.  Normally speaking when we perform this show that is not an issue as we just perform in the right direction for the sun and get the audience to move to the right position, (or perform for people who are already in the right position) but in this case there was already an area for the audience with seating etc. set up for the Melodrome stage so it was convenient things turned out as they did!

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It seemed to be a very successful day all round and there were crowds there for the bands and food etc. long after we had finished at 4.45pm.  This was great as at most festivals I’ve attended people start to head home at around 4.00pm!

We had a great day and were well looked after by the Melodrome team.  It was also a first successful outing for the Shadow Puppet Suitcase shopping trolley!

I had had an idea some time ago to do a new version of the suitcase theatre with a bigger screen and puppets by converting a pram, (you can see the previous post about it HERE).  I had been concerned that it might be too low down and David Goboff suggested I look into shopping trolleys instead.

It occurred to me recently that I needn’t wait to build a whole new theatre on top of the trolley but that I could simply strap my existing theatre to the trolley and be able to use it right away.  Feedback I have had so far suggests that not having the theatre strapped to me makes the shadows clearer as it is not moving around as much.  It is also easier to operate the puppets though slightly more challenging to lower the “curtain”.

I decided to try this set-up now as I am currently expecting another baby (due in February) and so did not want to be strapping the fairly heavy suitcase to me.  I am available for bookings up to the end of this year and from September next year and Rough Magic Theatre’s Tim Austin will also be available for his solo shows: Mad Hatter’s Tea Party walkabout, The Interrupted Wedding shadow puppet show and Jolly Rodger Pirate Parties for summer next year.

Please get in touch if you are wanting shadow puppet workshops in schools this year and family entertainment for Christmas events or Festivals of Light.

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Beverley Puppet Festival and Upfront Puppet Theatre’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”

We optimistically purchased tickets to see Drew Colby’s “My Shadow & Me” (Shadowgraphy) some time prior to the Beverley Puppet festival and checked whether we would be ok to bring a 1 year old child with us.  We thought that with a showing of 2pm we stood a good chance of being able to get Anthony ready and travel over 100 miles east across Yorkshire in time.

Then we found out that there would be a Puppeteers UK meeting there as well at 10am and I thought to myself if we do REALLY well we might even get there for the meeting too!

We did NOT get there for the meeting too.  We didn’t even get there for 2pm.  We only managed to leave the house by around 10.30am and of course we had to stop for lunch and in the end only just got to the festival in time to see anything at all!

We caught most of the “Tiniest Cellist” act by Ettenoiram (of Hungary).  Clive Chandler’s Punch & Judy was nearly over when arrived so we just had a little chat with him after his show.  We also saw Lady Lucinda Harrington-Carrington by Noisy Oyster (of Frome) heading by (whom we had encountered at Beverley when we performed there previously) and also saw Professor Ambrose Merryweather & His Fabulous Fossils by
Vivify (of Scarborough) in the distance.

We had been thinking disappointingly that in order to be back in reasonable time to put Anthony to bed we would have to set off home again but when Mark Whitaker appeared for a 4pm performance of A Bird in the Hand Theatre’s “Special Delivery”, we thought we couldn’t really pass up an opportunity to actually see a full show.

Ironically, the main two acts I had caught at Skipton Puppet Festival the previous year (when Anthony was a very tiny fellow all wrapped up in his pram from the rain) had been Mark Whitaker’s “Special Delivery” and Clive’s Punch & Judy.  We had unfortunately not been able to watch all of Clive’s show as at that age he had found it too loud and started crying.  Anthony was able to watch and appreciate properly Mark’s show this time and my husband and Rough Magic Theatre co-performer had not seen it before, either.

It is a lovely little street theatre show – very adaptable (somewhat like my shadow puppet suitcase shows) in that the whole staging is mounted on a bicycle which is wheeled into the space by Mark and then remains there, freestanding, (using the kick-stand).  This leaves Mark free to perform around it and use more of the space (coming close up to the audience for various bits of action etc.

The show includes a whole range of different types of puppetry and story-telling techniques including a “crankie” and Kamishibai style “storyboards” and various small “table-top” type puppets.  These show the interior of various people’s houses who are receiving parcels, which are themselves in little puppet theatre boxes designed to look like paper packages on the bicycle.  This is in addition to some lovely wordless slapstick character work by Mark, (in the character of hapless postman) involving sandwiches and self-raining umbrellas (a joke that worked much better in Beverley in the sunshine than in Skipton, where mother nature was already providing plenty of rain!).  Altogether a very charming and magical show (the finale with the hot air balloon is particularly lovely).  It is, however, definitely a show for an intimately sized audience as the puppets are very small scale.

 

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As I explained in my previous post, John & Elaine Parkinson of Upfront Puppet Theatre were kind enough to invite us to see their new improved version of their production of the Pied Piper of Hamelin based on the Michael Morpurgo version of the story.

We were not sure how well Anthony would cope with an indoor marionette show of this length but he seemed to stay pretty happy for a good long stretch before needing a bit of a break for a drink.  When we tried him again after the interval he once again seemed to get frustrated that he could not get close and play with the puppets, (making distressed noises when characters disappeared from view).  This unfortunately meant Tim did not get to see all of the show as he took Anthony out when he was getting too noisy.

The Michael Morpurgo version of the story has (as you would probably expect) a bit of a moral and political agenda compared to the traditional tale.  The town of Hamelin has a sharp divide between rich and poor – with the poor street children at the bottom of the heap and kept outside the town walls scavenging on the rubbish tip.  Because of their unwillingness to share with or even encounter the street children (who are forced to steal to survive) the townspeople begin to foul the streets with rubbish to avoid having to take it to the tip.

The rats migrate from the rubbish tip into the town (and so do the children in their search for something to eat).

The Mayor of the town is the villain of the piece being greedy and not using the people’s taxes to benefit the townspeople (by dealing with the rubbish properly for example).  He of course refuses to pay the Piper properly and in this version of the story the Piper promises to return the children of the town when the town is made a fit and proper place for all the children with food and housing and education etc. catered for.

I particularly liked the Mayor puppet who has a good strong caricatured shape to his body and clothes.  I thought the movements of the puppet fitted his character and the meaning of the words and action he was expressing in various different scenes very well.

There were also various very ingenious and quite effective techniques for moving large amounts of puppet rats about the stage.  UV lighting was used to good effect to light up the eyes of the rats and give them the sinister and evil appearance required by the story.  The most impressive effect involved a large number of rats moving across the stage on a gauze curtain and then somehow diving off the curtain rail into the “river”.  Though there were also some cartwheeling rats diving into the river that were very effective too.  I think the fact that a variety of different techniques were used to control the rats made it a lot more interesting dramatically.  I think some of the rats being pulled on strings across the stage snagged at one point, but as there were other rats still being moved with various other techniques it did not detract from the action and I doubt if the majority of the audience realised anything had gone wrong.

There was a very nice effect for the magical opening of the cave which I won’t describe so as not to spoil the surprise and the turntable stage and various other set changes were slick and effective.

To meet the the technical challenge of the large number of children heading in and out of the cave large numbers of children were grouped on 4 multiple controllers that in turn were slid across the stage on an overhead rail/pulley system.

The music was particularly good, (I hear via John’s article in the BPMTG newsletter that it was composed by a folk duo and roped in children from the local school for chorus songs).  It really helped to set the scene and keep the story moving along during set changes as well as providing necessary sound effects for the action.

I think it is a very ambitious production for the number of puppeteers (4) and uses a lot of complicated mechanisms to portray the action, (but I guess that is probably the nature of marionette productions and I cannot claim to have seen a great many traditional marionette shows).  In my experience, the more complicated the mechanisms in a production the greater the chance of something going wrong and as we were fairly early in the run I think things were not quite as slick as they doubtless will be towards the middle and end of the run.

Overall the show was very entertaining and told the story well and the puppets and sets are all beautifully made.

It was very interesting to hear from John at the end in the Q&A time about the lengths they had gone to to ensure that the production was a good match for the original book.  For example, specially printing up fabric patterns for the puppet costumes directly from the illustrations and having the puppets inspected by the illustrator to ensure they were a good match.  I think John did a good job translating the 2D images into 3D puppet heads, which cannot have been easy.

It was also wonderful for the children (and indeed the adults) to be allowed to come up close at the end and take photos and ask the puppeteers questions about the puppets.  This is also a great idea because it discourages people from taking surreptitious photos during the show and distracting the performers and other audience members.