In response to the often asked question “How do you put a show together?”, here’s a breakdown of “Flights of Fancy” which is currently touring festivals this summer.
We’re fairly practical in our approach-we make a checklist of the artistic elements we’d like to include, along with a checklist of the practical considerations of how to actually do it. It’s a question of balancing daydreamy ideas against the nuts and bolts. Fear of failure is a constant factor which we try to hold at bay by reassuring ourselves that we’ve done it before so we can therefore do it again. But within that thought lies the fear that we are simply re-hashing old ideas and staying within our comfort zone. so we try to make sure there is at least some element of risk in a new technique or approach. We need to believe that pigs can fly.
Travelling to and from gigs in the past couple of years has provided time to brainstorm possible directions for our festival performances. Our nominal starting point for the new project was to use Commedia stock characters with a ritualistic feel, live music, and a practical performing set-up. We would also need to be able to hold and satisfy completely adult audience, as well as a family audience. No pressure then!
We liked the idea of using a nonsense language and somehow incorporating a love story and a bird motif. The bird idea suggested a cage as the basis of the set, and maybe Su and me as birdlike characters. I was keen to abandon the restriction of the “Piggery Jokery” format of an enclosed walkabout theatre, and this suggested that the puppeteer being released from anonymity and the confines of his theatre would parallel the flight of the bird. We rarely worry that someone somewhere has probably done all this before. We are all fishing from the same pool, and the point is that we haven’t done these ideas, and our audience almost certainly hasn’t seen them before. We already had the technique for flying a bird into the audience (used successfully in our “Mad Hats” show) so we felt we had the underlying basis for a show. Working backwards, we now needed a simple story which ended with the release of the puppeteer, and the flight of a bird. Along the way we needed to integrate Su’s musical accompaniment, and to work out the relationship between our characters.
We also discussed using trick puppets or variety turns, and we decided on a “Menagerie of the Imagination” being a sequence within the story. Ideas that were discussed and eliminated included skeleton birds,harpies, angels, devils, flying fish, bats,humming birds, a formation team of Red Sparrows (still a nice idea…might include that one at some point?!) a flea circus, and a human cannonball. The phrase “Flights of Fancy” was written down. While we were talking about all this, I was busy performing our schools show “Town Mouse and Country Mouse” which uses interchangeable heads on white-gloved hands, and also a sequence involving chickens made from gloves. Why not use the same technique for the new show?
So now gloves became a motif which we felt we needed to justify. Why would glove enter this story of confinement and release? Maybe the gloves themselves could be released from the earth-bound hands to fly?
Su drew male and female bird heads so that we could at least play with something tangible.
We looked at the idea of a compere character who could introduce the story and comment along the way, allowing for some improvisation (another box to tick on the checklist!)We thought about a raven for the compere:
Then we visited the Raptor Centre near Ringwood, and came away in awe at the beautiful owls and hawks.
We decided to make an eagle-like character to be the MC:
A while back I had noted down an idea for using balloons as the basis for a glove-puppet stage:
Luckily, I also had a more down-to-earth idea at the same time, namely to use our sack-trolley as the basis for the set. Su had the vision for the completed look:
And it turned out pretty much as she imagined. Performed within a large rope circle, the audience can choose how to view the action…the illusion from the front or the mechanics of backstage……. postmodernism and all that.
After trying all different kinds of gloves for the birds, we played around with some cheap cotton ones (5 pairs for 99p!). Su said “They’re Glovebirds!” and the show moved into a higher gear. Now all the birds would be glovebirds, and the compere would have the job of educating the audience about the variations within the species, in a kind of nature mockumentuary. Mixed in with this would be the idea of an airline steward or stewardess giving spoof health and safety instructions, to enable the audience to be taken on a flight of fancy.
So now we have a physical structure-a quick assembly puppet theatre-and a dramatic structure. the two birds build a nest, lay an egg, the baby bird hatches and eventually learns to fly, after a series of novelty routines.
Now Su could think a bit more about the music…we’d agreed the Hurdy-gurdy should feature, it being possibly the perfect small-scale show accompaniment…..but we weren’t sure about appropriate bird sounds. We tried all kinds of whistles and noisemakers, and settled on a double whistle I’d brought back from Budapest years ago. Su came up with some great original tunes fairly quickly, based on the requirements for the characters and action. She is able to visualise completed designs and tunes, whereas I have to go through a longer process of dreamy cul-de-sacs before solutions come to me!
But what about the script? That’s one of the last things to do when putting a visual-based show together. We had given ourselves the restriction of not talking as human characters. So that leaves just the puppets. Puppets talking is deathly theatre when there is no action. The script serves the action and needs to be cut to the bone.
We were approaching the deadline of our first performance (Beggars Fair in Romsey) and were struggling to get a cohesive show out of our bits and pieces. We called on our good friend Clive Chandler and he gave generously of his time and expertise for a couple of days., helping us through rehearsals in our local village hall. He really pulled it together with his patience, perception and practicality. Thanks Clive! He identified the dramatic aspects of the piece, and sure enough he was proved right in the debut show.
At the time of writing we have also performed “Flights of Fancy” at the Warwick Folk Festival, and it’s certainly proving popular. It has its own distinct flavour which marks it out from previous shows, and with repeated performances it will no doubt tighten up a bit, and we will hopefully discover all kinds of delicious moments which are hidden from us right now.
Thanks also to my brother Don for the photos of our first performance.
That’s enough. Must fly!