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.

 

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A Whole lot of puppet stuff!!! Pt.2 of 2 – Wolds Words, Central School of Speech & Drama & primary puppets in Middlesbrough

Apologies for the huge delay on the second installation of “puppet stuff!!!” avid puppetlady readers:

On Saturday 24th of October Tim Austin (my Rough Magic Theatre co-performer and husband) were invited to perform our “Alice in Wonderland” show for the “Wolds Words” festival in the library building in Louth, Lincolnshire.  On the following Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I was due to teach the First Year puppetry students at Royal Central School of speech and drama and the Monday following that I was due to work in a primary school in Middlesbrough making hand and string puppets.

The performance space for “Alice” was upstairs but we had lots of help getting all our props and costumes up to the room from Angela Reynolds (the lady who booked us from Magna Vitae) and her young daughter.  It was a modestly sized but very appreciative audience, all of whom were very reluctant to leave at the end of the show!  We invited them to ask us questions and to see any of the puppets they were interested in more closely which they seemed to enjoy immensely before they left.

So after packing up and eating a well earned meal we went to Norfolk to visit Tim’s relations (which is not too far from Louth) and planned to go on from there to London on the following Tuesday.

I had made contact with Nenagh Watson through Facebook earlier in the year when we had a chat about how my suitcase shadow theatre worked as she was interested in making something similar herself.  She expressed interest in my coming to work with the students at “Central” (I shall use this as a shortened form of “Royal Central School of Speech and Drama” for the rest of the post) but I explained that as I live such a long way from London that if I ever came to work with the students it would ideally need to be a block of work rather than the odd day here and there.  It wasn’t possible to book this in at the time that we spoke about it but Nenagh thought she could probably arrange something later on in the year.  In the meantime she asked me to make a suitcase theatre for her which she used to create a little show for her wedding.  CLICK HERE to see my previous post on the making of this suitcase.

Then when I enquired about doing some work at Central a bit later in the year Nenagh managed to arrange for me to do a block of 3 days with the first year puppetry students.  This also coincided with the “Suspense” puppet festival organised by Little Angel Theatre.  This is a festival that we have never attended previously as we do not produce theatre specifically for adults ourselves and because London is a bit out of the way just for a pleasure jaunt.  Nenagh also kindly arranged for us to stay with a friend of hers who lives in London and we came in a day early (Tuesday) to get settled.  This also allowed us to attend a Devoted & Disgruntled event on the Tuesday evening that was hosted by the Little Angel as part of the Suspense festival.  The discussion question was “Puppetry – Shackled by the Past?”.  If you do not know what a devoted and disgruntled event is CLICK HERE to see more information about these events which are run by “Improbable Theatre Company”.  It was a great event and there were lots of interesting discussions and I was able to meet not only Nenagh herself and some of the students I’d be working with but also several puppeteers who I had only met through social media before, such as Sian Kidd and Penny Francis.

Sian was performing Mirth & Misery’s “Death Puppet Klezma Jam” show as part of the festival but unfortunately this was not on while we were there.  While we were down in London, apart from the D&D event, we managed to see “Ubu & the Truth Commission” by Handspring Puppet Company (of Warhorse fame) and also the official “Suspense” opening event which had lots of time for chatting, munching and mingling and a puppet cabaret which included some snippets of upcoming shows in the festival.  We got to meet Aya Nakamura again, (of whom I am a huge fan) and also her co-performer Mohsen Nouri from Rouge 28 Theatre who I had not met before.  They performed their Mademoiselle Lychee humanette striptease act which I hadn’t seen before either.

For the workshops with the first year puppetry students from Central, I performed both of my Shadow Puppet Suitcase shows for them, (“Edward Lear’s Nonsense” and “Jabberwocky!“) for inspiration and Nenagh also brought the suitcase theatre that I had made for her to show the students and she also showed us the puppets and techniques that she had used for the special puppet show that she’d created for her wedding.  She had used some 3-D shadow puppetry using a scene made out of wire and acetate and did a starry night scene using card with pin-pricks and a torch which was very effective and also did some shadows outside of the suitcase using a white shirt and a light with red heart attached to it, (it’s a bit difficult to describe but the technique showed a glowing red heart through the shirt).

Having had all that inspiration the students had the rest of the three days to create their own short shadow puppet performance which they would perform with the suitcase theatre.  Jemima and Freddy both chose nonsense poems as inspiration and Jo picked a short poem by Robert Louis Stevenson from a book I’d brought to give them ideas, while Seb decided to make a shadow puppet play out of an environmentally themed piece that he had written previously.  They all did excellent work and performed their shows for some of the other students on the Friday, (all of whom seemed very impressed and well entertained).  All of the students helped each other to perform their shows rather than choosing to create shows where they were being entirely self-sufficient.  This gave them greater scope for creativity, more challenging lighting and sound effects.  You can see photo’s of their work below:

Work by Jemima Hand – Jemima created a performance based on “On The Ning Nang Nong” nonsense poem by Spike Milligan

 

Work by Frederica Hayes – Frederica created a performance based on a short section of “The Hunting of the Snark” by Lewis Carroll (“Fit the Seventh – The Banker’s Fate”)

 

Work by Sebastian Mayer – Sebastian created a performance based on an environmentally themed story that he had written previously.

 

Work by Joanna Wheele – Joanna created a performance based on the poem “Windy Nights” by Robert Louis Stevenson

When I finally got up to our base in North Yorkshire I had to make the journey to Middlesbrough for my primary school workshop through all of the very foggy weather we had at the time.  An early start at quarter to five ensured that I reached the school in good time but unfortunately my sat-nav took me on the worst possible route back again through the Yorkshire Dales, (which can be misty at the best of times).  Luckily I got back in one piece but it was very low visibility and made for hairy driving conditions!  I did hand and string puppet making using the same technique that I had used previously at a school in Bridlington (CLICK HERE for pictures and more details).  I wasn’t able to take any pictures at the Middlesbrough school unfortunately.

I have crammed an awful lot into this one post so if anyone wants to ask for more information about anything I have written then please ask 🙂