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.



Rough Magic Theatre Returns to Buxton Puppet Festival!

You may remember last year I did I shoe-box toy theatre workshop at Buxton Puppet Festival 2011, (click HERE to see last year’s post).  After doing the workshop in the morning, I had a great time watching Sim-Sim puppets free street performance and pottering round the Pavilion Gardens in the sunshine.

Well it did not seem likely that there would be a single moment spare for pottering, rest and relaxation this year as we had been booked to do 2 performances of our “Alice in Wonderland” show in the afternoon and a shadow puppet workshop in the morning.  Luckily my new van has a tiny bit more space than the old one, which was crammed to bursting when we loaded it with our “Alice” show.

Previously when we had done Buxton Puppet Festival it had been a Sunday and I arrived in plenty of time for the workshop.  This year we were there on a Tuesday and as a result the half an hour extra time I allowed in order for us to arrive at 9.00am, (an hour early for the workshop) turned out not to be enough as we got severely delayed by traffic.  Despite this we arrived in time for the start of the workshop, but with no time to prepare in advance.  The large number of helpers meant that the workshop materials were soon unloaded and I simply organised the workshop slightly differently, so that people were not left hanging around while I set up.

The children and their accompanying adults were soon happily working away and everyone had time to make one or in some cases two puppets and were able to try out their puppets on the Sari shadow screen we brought for the occasion.

Because I thought we would have a range of ages and abilities I had more than one technique for making the puppets.  I was conscious that smaller children do not have the same ability to cut out complicated silhouettes, so I did some example butterfly and dragonfly puppets using strips of thin corrugated cardboard to form simple shapes like circles and tear-drops and they could then have the fun of attaching bubble wrap or doilies to create interesting textures.

Everyone, (including the adults) seemed to have a great time and be very proud of what they’d made and went away with the knowledge and skills to make more puppets and make their own shadow theatre at home (all you need is a puppet, a light source and a screen of some kind to project onto).  We also went through some of the basic manipulation skills and techniques.

The time disappeared remarkably quickly and then we had the mad dash to pack up, drive across the road to the Pavilion Arts Centre, unload the props etc. for “Alice”, then back across the road to park.  After that we set up the show, went backstage to change and were back up to perform without a single spare moment.

It turned out that James Morgan was the techy assigned to us and was an old school friend of my fellow performer Tim Austin from Norfolk.  He was extremely helpful and efficient, even producing a big piece of wood, a saw and some other tools to fix our wooden expanding maiden.  It is what we use to hang various costumes and other paraphenalia during the performance and it had cracked through on one of the joints.  If James hadn’t swiftly and effeicently done an excellent temporary repair job it could have proved very awkward indeed during the performances.

We had two audiences of around 30 people in the end, which considering the beautiful sunshine outside was quite a lot.  The weather has a huge impact on audience numbers, in my experience, and in sunny weather you can have quite poor attendance as everyone decides to enjoy themselves in the sun for free rather than go indoors and spend money on puppet theatre (however excellent).  Street theatre of course is virtually the opposite.

The first audience were quietly appreciative.  I was close enough to see their smiles and laughs but Tim would have preferred a louder audience who needed a little less encouragement for the audience participation.  The second audience gave him what he wanted, though I don’t know how much that was down to the people and how much down to us ramping up our performance to try and get a bigger response.

In any case, in my opinion both audiences had a really great time.  I think perhaps the first audience were totally absorbed, as when we came to the end they seemed to need a few moments to come back to reality and leave the theatre.  I think, because we know it so well and have performed the show so often, we can forget what a big effect all the surprises and tricks in the show can have on people.  Normally, I do like to have a chat with the audience after and let them have photos if they wish, but there was no time for that on this occasion.

As soon as the second show finished at about 4.10pm we had to get our things out by 5pm so the people doing the evening show could get in.

Even taking into account the fact that we had extra hands to carry things out to the van for us, I think we did the fastest striking of the set that we had ever done, (about 45min).  It is no simple thing, as we have to dismantle and pack things away carefully so they are not damaged and then take everything out to the van in the right order and position everything in exactly the same way each time so that everything will fit.

It turned out that the show after mine was Rouge 28’s “Urashima Taro” that we had been so impressed with at Skipton Puppet Festival.  Since then, I had been in touch with Aya, the performer by email and on Facebook and had planned to meet her and see her in “The Twittering Machine” at the Boo at Christmas.  Disappointingly we did not make it, as I did not fancy risking the black ice that there were severe weather warnings about at the time.

So I was delighted to get a chance to meet Aya in the flesh, (however briefly) when they arrived to set up their show.

As we had not stopped since the moment we set off in the morning for the supposedly 2hr 10min drive, we went back to the dressing room for a cup of tea after the van was loaded up and parked again.  Amazingly enough, after that there was some time to show the lovely Pavilion Gardens that I had enjoyed so much on my last visit to Tim.

It was a lovely end to a tiring but enjoyable day to sit and eat our sandwiches in the sunshine.

On the way back, as we were passing and needed to eat, we actually popped into the Trafford Centre for the evening meal, which was particularly nice as Tim had never been before and had yummy curry and a drink for a surprisingly reasonable price.

Now in the previous Buxton post, I had great difficulty getting the blog to display two separate lots of photographs – one of the Toy theatres the kids made and another of the views around Buxton and I discovered after that the pictures of Buxton had disappeared from the post.  So I have displayed pictures from Buxton, both last year and this year and some from the Shadow puppet workshop with captions to show which is which.  I hope you enjoy them.  If anyone has any experiences from Buxton Puppet Festival they would like to share, please leave a message in the comment box at the bottom of the post 🙂

Not long till the Masquepony Festival in Cartmel, where I’ll be performing “Edward Lear’s Nonsense” on August the 18th.  See the “Where You Can See Me” page for more details.  I understand that the majority of the entertainment is free or “pay what you like” so why not come along and bring a picnic for the banquet in the evening.