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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The Iron Man at Woodnook Primary School

I recently visited Woodnook Primary School in Accrington to do two different shadow puppet workshops with two different age groups.  Class 3 had been working on “The Iron Man” by Ted Hughes and their teacher, Mrs. Macleod, thought it would be a perfect story to make into a shadow puppet show with her class.

I agreed wholeheartedly and was very inspired by the idea of working with this story for a shadow puppet show.  I had read the book when I was at primary school myself but thought I had better get a copy from the library to refresh my memory.  Our local library in Bentham is one of the ones threatened with losing its paid staff so I had a New Year’s resolution to make a point of using it more.

The copy of the book that I received was a very recent one with very interesting, award winning, illustrations by Laura Carlin which actually use photographs of paper-cut figures and shapes and their shadows.  So I took this along as well to provide a bit of extra inspiration for the class should they have a different version of the book, (I figured the more different versions of the illustrations they had access to the better).  I did however go through all the different ways the Iron Man is described in the book with the children.  They knew the book really well and remembered nearly all the clues to his appearance eg. taller than a house, a foot as big as a single bed etc.

We also did a bit of work on music and sound effects for their shows, and the class worked on different scenes from the book in groups and performed their shows for each other at the end.  The class seemed to really enjoy using the OHP (over-head projector) that I brought in and the lighting gels for their shows.  Children in primary schools now have never seen traditional OHPs before and the children saw it as a very magical device, (which it is of course).

The children all did really nice work and came up with some fantastic puppets and performances – particularly considering they had never made shadow puppets or performed a shadow show before.  The children who chose to do the scene at the beginning of the book with the Iron Man at the top of the cliff did a fantastic joint narration, (they had memorised that section of the book together as a class previously).

The second, older group (class 5/6) had been working on the “Light & Shadow” topic previously in class.  It was suggested that we could potentially use “The Highwayman” poem that they had been working on in class as source material. This struck me as quite a hard subject matter for a shadow show for children because of all the period costume that they would be unfamiliar with.  Horses are quite challenging to draw as well.  So I gave the groups the option to either do “The Highwayman” or to come up with a story and characters out of their imaginations.  I did, however, use the poem as an example to help them think about how to draw and cut out a character as a shadow puppet for a show.

The second group, despite having slightly less time than the first, did remarkably well and came up with some very creative character and story ideas.  They also did some very nicely cut out puppets and performed their little shows for each other at the end.

I also did my “Jabberwocky!” suitcase show for both classes to give the children inspiration for their own shows at the beginning of the session.

If you would like a shadow puppet workshop or a show for your school or youth theatre group CLICK HERE to get in touch.  The content of the workshops can be tailored to fit your group.

If you are thinking about a puppet show as a treat for the whole school, remember that it is the 150th Anniversary of “Alice in Wonderland” so CLICK HERE to find out more about our adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s fabulous book.