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Pigs will Fly

26 hours on the plane with one suitcase full of puppet pigs and another with the hurdy-gurdy and we finally arrived in Taipei, capital of Taiwan.

Word of mouth about Hand to Mouth got us the gig, and what an intense experience it was….15 shows in 3 days………and with both of us being ill with colds…..and on the other side of the world too!

The festival was “Close to You” which was a great idea in which the audience walk between 3 venues in the course of an hour and a half and get to see three different shows of 20 minutes each, all in non-theatre spaces. Over the course of a week and two weekends 9 quite disparate companies put on their shows which made for a varied menu for the ticket-holders. It turned out that the organisers had seen this principle at work in Dordrecht in the Netherlands, and it’s one that I’d love to see duplicated over here too sometime. It gives the audience a fun and interesting tour around a district they may never have been in before, and a pot-luck experience of object and puppet based micro-theatre.

Our space turned out to be the basement of a friendly and stylish cafe, with hardly room to swing a cat, but just enough to fatten a pig. Shows were in batches of 3, with 10 minute resetting time and a little extra for audience arrival contingencies. Our show is very direct and energetic and so it was quite a challenge to pace ourselves physically and mentally to be able to succeed consistently. The only other time we have performed in the Far East (South Korea in 2005) we had audiences of 500 outdoors in an amphitheatre. This time the maximum number was 25!

Over the years I’ve been really lucky in having been pretty fit and have rarely had to cancel or postpone a performance, and so it was really tough to have to face up to the realisation that I was indeed in the throes of a heavy cold on arrival, and that if it developed in a flu direction the performances would be in serious jeopardy. The dress rehearsal on the Friday afternoon was hard going, and was not a great rendition of the piece. But Doctor Theatre, or to give him his alternative name, Professor Adrenalin, is a wonderful fellow, and I was able to rise to the occasion and get through the first batch of three shows that evening. Su was her usual magnificent self ,acting with her eyes and playing the spine-tingling gurdy. We had the perfect wind-down and quiet celebration upstairs under subdued lights in the back room of the cafe where the bar owner insisted we sample his collection of whiskeys of the world, including single malts from Japan.

 We loved the crush of the crowds in the night markets, the smells and sights of the foodstalls and endless tiny shops, and the apparent obliviousness of the scooter riders barging their way through the pedestrians. Buddist/Taoist temples, pandas at the zoo, and the National Museum topped it all off.

Scooters and motorbikes were superabundant in general, and swarmed ahead of the rest of the traffic at the intersections of the wide streets.

We soon got into the swing of our trimmed-down show, which at 20 minutes meant cutting lots of favourite bits, but we had to be ruthless and it paid off with audience reaction which was voluble and at times, ecstatic. I can now say “Whopper” in Taiwanese and get a laugh! As always Su’s eyebrow raising and musical prowess was a source of much intrigue. She only just made it through the final day’s shows however, as she went under with the cold which I kindly passed on to her. She was as white as a sheet in the final three shows after which she threw up. Ah…… the glamour of showbiz.

And to finish, here’s a couple of random images, one of a shop display, and the other from a toilet cubicle, clearly showing what is acceptable and what is not.

Thank you and goodnight.

Five a day

Time I actually wrote about those objects formally known as puppets.

We are currently putting the finishing touches to one of our new productions, “Gingerbread”, in which various bits of fruit, vegetables and objects tell a two stories, mostly for school audiences. A couple of characters who appeared 5 years ago in a Jack/Beanstalk story are being re-rehearsed to tell the Grimms story of the Magic Pot. The Mother is composed of an onion for a head, and a kitchen roll and holder for her body. Being prone to crying (that’s onions for you) she is able to wipe her eyes on the kitchen roll.

The daughter has an apple for a head, and a cheese grater for clothes. They are so poor…..look at the holes in her clothes!

There’s a wise old woman in the woods, and she has no option but to wander the world with her naturally bent body (a banana, naturally). Her journey is not entirely fruitless of course. Porridge rises from the pot and threatens to engulf the planet, which just goes to show there are limits to growth. Luckily puppets are by their nature embodiments of the “Small is Beautiful” point of view.

The Gingerbread man story is told using other kitchen items. The father ‘s head is a jam doughnut, and his wife, who is French, is a croissant. Their clothes are teatowels.

They bake a baby between them after much hilarity, and the eponymous hero is taken from the oven by the Story Cook (me). When he is cool, he is seriously cool,  to the extent that he turns out to be a rebellious break-dancing rapper. He meet Farmer Pepperpot who is made from….well you’re into the concept now.

The Hungry Horse is not intended to be a reference to the pub franchise, but can be if it gets a laugh. The Pig is a pink collander for a head, and a bare hand for his piggy body. Hope I don’t strain my wrist.

The Fox is made from ovengloves, and is named….how clever is this…I should be getting an Arts Council grant…I’m wasted……….is named “Foxglove”.( No it’s not an homage to Love of Seven Doll by Paul Gallico…but could be if that increases my artistic credibility).

The final scene where the fox eats the man in several stages is enacted, but then re-enacted as take two, where the gingerbread man runs away to the Olympics and wins a gold medal. Now I wish I’d thought of that ending a year ago…I could have got Cultural Olympiad cash too! Well, the children’s laughter is its own reward isn’t it. Isn’t it? Ha ha ha ha ha.

Travelling Players

Thank goodness for British eccentricity! The proliferation of the outdoor festivals continues despite the evidence of the pattern of weather which mitigates against the concept. And it’s the fickle nature of the weather which gives rise to the optimism… and also that every place in England seems to have its own micro-climate

It all began with Michael Fish I suppose. We all know the forecasters are only guessing . That and the peculiarities of the weather itself means we can look up at a black sky, and know there’s a possiblity that it will blow over any time soon. Or not.  And so our little theatre company continues to accept bookings for outdoor events, even though the evidence of 30 years or so is that an act which relies on the delicate mechanism of the hurdy-gurdy is probably not the best idea when it’s raining. Or that an act which depends on keeping a full-sized umbrella balanced on our heads is probably not the best idea when it’s windy. But when we find ourselves in the optimum conditions, in the Goldilocks zone……not too hot etc…….and with a space where we can be seen and heard, it can all come together, and all make sense. Yes it all makes sense.  The deeper meanings of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a wire” is illuminated in the minds of the audience as the pink flamingo unicycles between our yellow hard hats on a tight rope. Ah, so that’s what he meant………….The Circle of Life becomes clear as the piggie grows fatter and is turned into sausages. Yes, it’s a responsibility being spiritual beacons. Its a dirty job and I suppose someone has to do it.

So we performed our last six outdoor shows of the year last weekend at the Bromyard Folk festival, and apart from one attempt at the Mad Hat Band which had to be abandoned, we managed to fit in with the storms and hurricanes quite well. For a moment our nodding piggies shook their heads as they looked out at the rain. But then in the words of the immortal Formby, it turned out nice again.

For those who don’t know, we have an act in which songs are given extra depth ( who would have believed how low we could go?) by the addition of mechanical hats, mostly activated by a string attached to our wrists as we strum our little banjos. Here’s a snapshot of the hatstand waiting to be wheeled onstage.

And hats off to the extraordinary millinery confections of the morris men.

Life on the road has a certain romance, and we are often surprised by the attraction of the contents of our van, which to us is a series of tools for the job, but which of course are the stuff of dreams to some passers-by.

This time around the trip did indeed take on an extra dimension for us, as a few miles up the road is the village of Martley, where Su remembered being told that was where her great grandfather came from. He had 20 children from two marriages and managed to play the church organ too. 

Martley church

We performed comedy in The USA on the night of 9/11

Well it’s true, and I’ll preface this description of why and how it happened by by saying that in retrospect we should have refused to go ahead with the show! But the reason we did so was a reflection of what has sometimes been overlooked in some reminiscences, which is that everyone was so stunned because there was no precedence and therefore no reference point emotionally or socially about how to react. And the reasoning on the day was, at least in this instance, that whoever was responsible for the attack would not succeed in defeating the right to go about our lives as planned. That to grind to a halt would be a victory for the assailants.
 Our family had flown into Boston the night before, and were driven along the US route 1 to Portland, Maine. We had come over to perform at The World Puppet Festival that was to begin on the 11th, and performers were coming from all over to take part. We hadn’t sorted out visas or work permits and had blagged our way in at the airport, surely becoming among the last people to do so since the attack. It is also quite probable that we passed the bombers going the other way, as it is thought they went from Portland to Boston at that time, boarding the planes the next day.

We went to bed in a house that had been generously loaned to the festival, and the owners weren’t around when we arrived, or when we awoke. It’s always exciting to wake up in another country and Leo our son was particularly keen to watch American TV, as he found there was a set in his bedroom… untold luxury in itself! After a while he found us to complain that all there was on the telly was the news. And there it was, the whole thing unfolding in real time, with “America under attack” flashing up over the images. The first plane had struck and that was enough of a shock. Then we watched the second plane hit, and eventually the fall of the towers. It was obvious to us, as it would be to everyone else,that we were witnessing a shocking world history event.

But what a confusion, we had a job to do, and we hadn’t even met the organisers, the theatre artists Carol and John Farrell. We took the bus as instructed to their place, and the focus was first on getting a message back home to say we were safe. then we moved on to the question of how to proceed. We heard that Velo Theatre from France had been in the air when the attack happened, and that they had landed in Canada, with all their equipment on another planesomewhere else.  There had been an enormous ammount of work done to get the festival together, and this was planned to be its opening day. and we were  theorectically ready to perform, and yet……of course it all felt wrong.

We were in a neutral gear, waiting for a change to forward or reverse. We let John and Carol decide, and for the reasons given at the start of this piece,we headed downtown to the Portland Stage. We did a technical run through on a lonely stage facing what seemed like a huge auditorium. And later we went through the motions of performing our two 30 minute pieces as an act of defiance,in front of a handful of folk who came defiantly as audience members. Out of respect for those who died we maybe should have cancelled , but then again the counter argument  was strong on the day, and that was the one we went with. I don’t recall if anyone laughed, but the feeling of the weirdness of performing comedy on that night will remain as the enduring memory for us.

Treefest 2011

So there we were, camped up amongst the trees at the National Arboretum at Westonbirt in Gloucester for 12 performances over four days. The piggies delivered as usual, and we are grateful to them for their ability to continue to bring home the bacon.
There’s always a long list of items to organise for these events-the show equipment,food,camping gear, and pigcare paraphinalia. So when I discovered I’d forgotten to pack certain essential articles of clothing (four pairs in fact) I went into Tetbury, the nearest town, to buy some.

Had I been desperate for antiques, a nice sit-down with tea and cakes, or an upmarket gift, then there would have been no problem. I eventually found someone who wasn’t a tourist and asked them if there were any normal shops in the town, you know, where I can buy clothes? “Oh no, ” was the reply, “you need to go to Bristol for that!” This was seriously posh territory. Highgrove to the left of me, Princess Anne’s gaff to the right, and the Earl of Something somewhere else quite close. I was getting worried…..closing time was approaching, and this was Bank Holiday weekend. I went into an exclusive couture establishment and blurted out my problem to the manageress. “There’s nowhere here” she said,” unless, maybe, just maybe…..” “Yes, yes” I said, nails scratching Into the polished mahogany counter. “Unless possibly the tailor can help you.”

I hurried in the direction she pointed, visions of bespoke underwear with the royal crest and being measured for inside leg. The proprietor of the establishment was not at all phased by my breathless manner or my rural accent. He may have seen my sort on the television and was at least familiar with the type. Actually the place was sufficiently utilitarian to cope with my simple request, and I came away with just what I needed, each article with its own “Tailor of Tetbury” label. In fact the shopkeeper even suggested  turning them inside out on the second day, which is taking recycling a little too far in my opinion. Though no doubt Prince Charles was grateful for the same advice the last time he visited the shop.

The Arboretum is a marvelous place, and popular with dog owners. After a while of observing endless 4x4s disgorging its canine passengers, Su pointed out that there were no mongrels amongst them. Every one a pedigree breed. It was like being judges at Crufts.

 Treefest’s personality was slightly split. It couldn’t quite decide if it was a nice day out at a country fair, or if it was a local folk festival with a bit of camping attached. Nothing wrong with that, except for the 8-o-clock curfew when the music stopped, just at the time it would be getting going at a music festival. So a bit miserable for anyone hoping for a session around a camp fire. It was no-one’s fault that it rained quite a bit of course.What a pleasant surprise then, when on the Sunday evening our tinkling instruments were joined by subdued and sensitive drumming from the newly-pitched tent next to ours.Turned out to be Alastair Bodhran (Mr and Mrs Bodhran’s lad) who the next day engineered a spot for the three of us on the main stage to finish the festival with some songs and tunes which got everyone dancing. That’s the kind of serendipidy which either happens or doesn’t, and when it does, makes for a happy and memorable festival moment. Thanks to 4014 for their indulgence to our interloping.

Treefest 2011

Treefest 2011

Flying Piggies

Flying Piggies

Pigs will Fly

Here’s our oft-admired nodding flying pig mascots welcoming you to my Hand to Mouth Theatre blog.
They’ve been keeping us company on our summer adventures as we’ve criss-crossed the country performing our “Piggery Jokery” show, and they’ve watched wistfully from the window as we’ve been breaking-in our new act:The Mad Hat Band”, maybe wondering if their piggy days will soon be over, and that they may be replaced by nodding hats.
In this blog I intend to relate a few of our tales of people and places as we tour our whimsical brand of musical and visual theatre. This would be a long entry if I were to do a catch-up on the stories from the summer so far, and I don’t want lose you after we’ve just met, so let’s just say we’ve performed at festivals of stories, folk and rock music, and just today we’ve returned from a Wood Fair in Dartford. And to finish, here’s the nodding pigs from the front, with the trees from the wooded venue reflected for their pleasure. Cheers ‘till next time. Martin Bridle.

A splendid day out at Joydens Wood.

A splendid day out at Joydens Wood.

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