Hand to Mouth Blog

The Man in the Moon came down too soon, and asked the way to Norwich

Or….Memories of Norwich Puppet Theatre.

Some extraordinary things appear as if from nowhere, and then after a while they become normal, and then taken for granted, their origins ignored and unknown.

Such is the case of Norwich Puppet Theatre, one of a very very few dedicated spaces in the UK, and as rare as hens’ teeth. Hand to Mouth Theatre (Martin and Su) has a long connection with the place and the people involved in it, stretching right back to its beginnings 40 years ago.

Fresh out of Art College, we rented a winter let on the Norfolk Broads, with the intention of helping establish a new craft gallery.  At the time we had performed a little with an experimental animated show, and also a traditional one. We felt in awe of arts professionals in general, and of Ray and Joan Da Silva in particular, as Martin had strong memories of watching their popular large scale productions as a young teenager. So one time when we went on our weekly bus journey into Norwich we visited the decommissioned church that was to become the puppet theatre, we felt too shy to go in amongst the building work and rubble to say “Hello.” Silly really, in retrospect.

Two or three years later (1981) Martin was awarded a bursary from the Gulbenkian foundation administered by the Puppet Centre in London, and we travelled back up to go to their AGM at the newly opened theatre, and a little after that Martin joined the Da Silvas for a short run of “Hansel and Gretel”, a large scale marionette show that toured northern and midlands theatres, including the Sunderland Empire.

Martin with Stephen Mottram in “Hansel and Gretel”

 

A few years later (1990), having established his own touring company,  Martin was amazed and delighted to be booked at the theatre for his solo “Big Top and Small Tales” show. Hand to Mouth have performed almost every year since , sometimes as solo performers, and sometimes together, and sometimes visiting more than once a year.

With our children Leo and Rose outside the theatre, beneath billboard for our “Goldilocks” show

 

We performed at the 25th anniversary celebrations, and our abiding memory was standing backstage holding our portable stage on a rucksack arrangement for what seemed like half an hour while the previous act waited for kettles of water to be supplied for their water puppet spoof, as the theatre’s boiler had broken.

We’ve been aware of the roller coaster of difficulties of keeping the NPT alive, have watched artistic directors come and go, and have been full of admiration for the tenacity of Ian Woods in particular. Special mention should also go to all the behind the scenes people, the volunteers, and to the extraordinary dedication of Darren who puts in endless hours covering a host of duties. Live and interactive theatre is needed now more than ever, as a counter-balance to excessive screentime, and Norwich Puppet Theatre surely deserves greater appreciation and be more highly valued.

 

Funny business, this funny business!

Funny business, this funny business!

The question of bums on seats, artistic integrity, and nostalgia are all mixed up for us at the moment!

Just recently we performed our “Goldilocks” show to full houses at the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton, and at Watermans in South London on consecutive days, and as far as we could tell, everyone left feeling happy, having had an uplifting experience. We also left the theatres feeling happy and uplifted, though for the additional reasons that this show was more or less the same one we devised in 1983, being our first attempt at a non-Punch and Judy piece for children. That’s right… the show is 34 years old, and the first one we thought of! We continue to perform it from time to time because the title draws people in, and the show itself still works its magic.

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Naturally we’ve devised and performed lots of different shows since then, and in a variety of styles, often stretching ourselves artistically, and pushing the artform a bit as we have done so. We’ve included table-top puppets with the operators visible, we’ve become characters ourselves acting with puppets, and we’ve used state of the art technology with sound, lights, and projections. Our background is in fine art and performance art as well as being interested in folk and popular forms of expression. So why is it that a simple glove puppet show with live music has such a strong and satisfying effect on the audiences?

If we had the complete answer to the winning formula we’d bottle it and sell it, but for now, this is what we think:

Despite all the advances in childrens’ theatre and puppet theatre in particular, there remains a truism that “what’s old becomes new” to a new generation.  Being brought up with screens, and being over-familiar with the apparently interactive media, glove puppets with the puppeteer hidden appear to children to be more magical and direct than ever. Obviously we think that the way we do it is key to the show’s success, but that’s not for us to judge. It’s quite amusing to think of the billions being spent on developing 3D interactive immersive experiences when as far as our audiences are concerned, they experience exactly that with a few cloth characters and a hurdy-gurdy.

The story is a good one too, as all the children know it, and feel safe with the knowledge. Maybe it helps that the main character is a feisty female, and a naughty one too. We play it for laughs to an extent, but also concentrate on the drama, so that all the characters are believable. There is repetition, and familiarity, but we also add a humorous villain who gets his comeuppance with the collusion of Goldilocks, the bears and the audience. The story is innocent and the form of the glove puppets is naive, which is on the right wavelength for any child who chooses to come to a show with the title “Goldilocks”. There is eye-contact from Su who acts as the narrator and musician, and this format of interpreter for the puppets is a traditional one. Because we were coming at this from having mad our living busking with puppets, there are plenty of bits of tried and tested visual gags which we would think twice about putting in new shows these days. But they work, and provide belly-laughs for children. And that sound of laughter, coupled with the sound of pin-drop silence as they watch the other sequences with baited breath, is the best sound in the world.

Successful as it is, we may very likely drop this show from the repertoire at the end of the year, so I was going to say that the last chance to see it will be at the Lyric Hammersmith on Saturday 25th March but we’ve just heard that those shows are sold out too! So the last chance may well be at Polka Theatre, Wimbledon where we will be performing 6 shows on June 2nd, 3rd and 4th although the Adventure Room there is very small so these are also likely to be full.

What a funny business! Maybe the show is not too old fashioned, not too challenging, but just right!!??

Baby Bear

Darwin and the Origin of the Species of Puppets

                                                                           Darwin and the Origin of the Species of Puppets.

Darwin waiting for puppets to evolve into something less frivolous.

Darwin waiting for puppets to evolve into something less frivolous.

Life is movement, and movement is life as far as the subconscious is concerned.

Evolutionary psychology has a plausible theory that when we were evolving, it was in our interests of survival to treat any unknown movement in the landscape or in the nearby bushes as either being caused by a living creature or being itself a living creature. Then it’s fight or flight until we can work out if it was just the wind which caused the movement. If that’s true, then that would put our suspension of disbelief in puppet theatre at a very primeval level. It explains why really bad puppetry can still have some success with an audience, at least until their intellect kicks in.

With a supposedly more sophisticated audience, we can expose the technique, showing the operators/puppeteers in full view. In modern cabaret, Nina Conti skilfully plays over and over with the alive or not-alive conundrum, along with the performer/puppet relationship.

Nina Conti waiting for Monkey to evolve into something less articulate.

Nina Conti waiting for Monkey to evolve into something less articulate!

If the focus is on the object/puppet, moved with the illusion of inner life, then the effect is very powerful, tricking the intellect and satisfying the limbic. A popular example of this are the horses in ‘War Horse”, although here an added layer is given, where there is a confusion of using abstracted sculptural shapes combined with very naturalistic movement. The puppet has adapted to it’s environment amongst humans telling a serious historical story. Horses for courses. Without the abstraction the horse would incline towards pantomime comedy no matter how hard the puppeteers try.

Puppeteers finally being taken seriously. Next job-Daisy the Cow in Panto!

Puppeteers finally being taken seriously. Next job-Daisy the Cow in Panto!

Puppets in general do incline towards comedy, intentional and unintentional. Any ‘serious’ subject matter risks the whole edifice collapsing if the movement of the puppets strays even momentarily over the line . Its a tightrope, and below are the clowns waiting to take over until the daredevil its back on the wire.

Within its historical environment-the bespoke puppet theatre-puppets are capable of, and indeed exploit, non-naturalistic movement. Since the revival of puppet theatre which began at the start of the 20th century, we’ve been able to see different types of puppet adapt to their most comfortable environments.

Glove puppets are possibly one of the hardest forms to use for serious content,and as such have tended to find their niche among young audiences, utilising their bright-eyed belief and unselfconscious inclination to laughter.

Gnafron, Madelon et Guignol en bas du GourguillonÉ

Rod puppets, stately and imposing, tell the tales of goddesses and kings with ease, but then have had their ages old technique combined with mouth puppets to create the Muppet style which are brilliantly and completely at home within the proscenium of the television screen. A hybrid for a new medium.

wayangFozzie-bear

Marionettes, which somewhat annoyingly remain in the popular imagination as intrinsically proper or sophisticated, are perhaps the only ones which have failed by and large to adapt to modern tastes and changing theatrical environments. An evolutionary cul-de-sac maybe? Though the puppet artist Stephen Mottram may be the exception who disproves the rule.

marionette

Stephen Mottram. Re-imaginer of the potential of marionettes.

                        Stephen Mottram. Re-imaginer of the potential of marionettes.

Further theatrical engineering brought animatronic puppets to the big screen, now more or less supplanted by CGI.  Computerisation has spawned another variation with the creation of the realtime operated CGI character. Puppetry once again, though it probably dare not speak its name in that rarified context. But the problems and complexities of the “P” word might be the subject of another blog!

The next step in the evolution of the puppet? It has to be the autonomous AI robot, freed from its creator and operator, no longer giving the illusion of life, but possessing actual independent life and an equivalent machine consciousness. In the same way as Phillip K Dick asked “Do androids dream of electric sheep?” we might perhaps ask “What (or who!) will robots enjoy controlling for their amusement?”

AI

Ingredients for Spiced Punch

My on/off  Punch button is currently set to ON as we approach the annual Covent Garden shenanigans where there are predicted to be around 40 Punch and Judy theatres performing in a madcap  celebration of silliness.  Following hard on the heels of the seriousness of the election, it will be a well-received affirmation of the triumph of anarchistic nonsense I’m sure! Putting to one side the show itself, a subject which has filled many a thesis, I was thinking about the peripheral stuff which Su and I have been involved with over the years, which I think have added a little spice to the recipe for success. Lately, I’ve been honoured to have supplied the voice of Punch to the mix of an outstanding new song from “Telling the Bees” called “A Puppeteer Came to Town” on their brand new CD “Steer by the Stars”.

tellingthebees

Also, I’ve just completed a new animated hat for Su to wear at Covent Garden.  A string is attached to her banjo/uke-strumming wrist, and the up and down action causes the crocodile’s jaw to open and close, snapping at the out-of reach sausages, while Punch hangs on for dear life on the croc’s back, swaying to and fro.

Sucrochat

 

Su has a history of eccentric performance at Covent Garden, and she used to be a frequent sight bent over forwards with large P&J torsos strapped to her back, giving the impression of two figures dancing (pictured with music provided by myself, Rod Burnett and a small Leo Bridle).  It was always a surprise to the audiences when she stood up at the end of the dance, to find one person beneath! She also performed it for the seminal TV documentary “Pleased as Punch” directed by Glyn Edwards.

1992 Martin Leo Rod and Su's dance IMG_3349

Our booth made passing appearance in Neil Gaiman’s “Punch and Judy” graphic novel

IMG_3348

And we had an overhead view of our show on Broadstairs beach in a book by David Gentleman:

IMG_3347

 

 

 

Although we haven’t been performing Punch regularly for 25 years, preferring to concentrate on other aspects of visual theatre, we happily still get asked to do it all again for festivals all over the world. And as it seems right now that the world is even madder than ever, and is indeed “a world turned upside down” maybe Punch is indeed a reflection of the times in which we live.

P&J round

Lasi Piggies

 

Performances abroad are the cherry on our theatre cake. We never plan where to go – the invitations come randomly and unexpectedly. For our Romanian adventure in October, our third foreign festival this year, we were recommended to the organiser by Nik and Sarah from Noisy Oyster who had performed there last year. Based in the northern city of Iasi (pronounced Yash) towards the Ukraine border, it was a visual/physical theatre festival and a fairly prestigious one too – companies from 15 countries were performing. We were only able to see three of these due to scheduling, but as always these opportunities provide us with inspiration which is sometimes lacking in homegrown shows. Of particular note was a Czech presentation entitled “Putin goes Skiing” which used a minimal set to create imaginative and sometimes absurdist scenarios for the harrowing machinations of Putin, based on the book “A Russian Diary” by journalist Anna Politkovska, who was murdered in 2006.

pputtinnn_88320500

Image from “Putin goes skiing”.

Following us on the small stage in the Iasi theatre was the Philippe Genty company performing “Odyssey”. We had seen an English language of this before in London but this time performed in French, the performers were more relaxed and able to enjoy the free flow of the comedy  between themselves, and I understood far more what they were aiming at. It had many moments of satisfying invention, but the self-referencial conceit is not, in my opinion, enough to justify the length of the show. A great performance nonetheless, and deserving of the thunderous reception.

11“Odyssey”

The third show we saw was a site-specific piece which was commissioned for an underground lake in a salt mine, and was partially re-created for the festival by staging it on a nearby stretch of water.

iona-300x234

This link gives an idea of the mood of the original piece: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usKqFmCw5P

A lone actor on a raft searches for an exit, and muses on …..well we couldn’t be sure as we didn’t understand the language but no doubt he’s musing on the meaning of it all!  A fantastic performance from Florin Vidamski and an unforgettable experience.

Our Piggies did us proud, as the packed audiences of children and adults responded in a way that was quite wonderful…delighted by the comedy and silent and rapt for the more poetic sections.We were overwhelmed at the end of each of our two shows, especially with the gifts of flowers from the children. Thanks to Oltita Cintec ( the artistic director) for the invitation. Thanks also to the very attentive and helpful technicians in the theatre and also to the lady who swept the floor after we’d left it littered with paper snow!

Pigs continue to fly! A festival director from Austria was in the audience for our first show, and was so enamoured by the piggies that she’s invited them (and us!) to perform in 2015. Thank you Piggy-Wiggy!

The Hatching of the Egg.



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.

Empirical proof.

 

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:

The completed compere bird in action

 

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.

The wading Glovebird

 

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!

 

The room in the elephant

Jim Henson. The Biography

It’s 24 years since Jim Henson died at the early age of 53, and I’ve just been reading his biography by Brian Jay Jones. There is much to enjoy and wonder at in this book, but I guess the principle elements that stand out for me are his extraordinary drive and sense of purpose, coupled with optimism about himself and his work. Apart from the staggering amount of work he did, it was the quality of the work which was always the key factor.  Coming from an American culture it’s no surprise that in order to achieve his personal vision and mode of self-expression he needed to finance those dreams with hard-nosed business decisions relating to commercial work, always treading a fine line between the two. The purpose of the money was to finance better work.

Also key to his attitude was that puppets were a means to an end i.e. to be involved in TV and film, and his invention of a new form of puppetry was subservient to this goal. All the main performers were reluctant puppeteers at least at the start, despite their brilliance and commitment to the work.

It was fascinating to discover that the first book he read about puppets was Obratsov’s “My Profession” which remains one of the few books giving insights into the deeper motivations behind puppet theatre creation. Obratsov was quite revolutionary in presenting cabaret numbers which used a moving mouth operated by a concealed hand (The drunkard) and also a puppet which used human hands as its own (Ritardando). He was also using the kinds of raised staging which Henson would later adopt.

In France Phillipe Genty was presenting the kind of variety show parodies using bright, feathery,and goggle-eyed creatures which paralleled the early Muppets.

In recognition of these and other innovators, and maybe as a nod towards their influence, Henson put together “Jim Henson presents the World of Puppets”in 1985.

Sadly this series is no longer available on DVD, but there are fascinating excerpts on Youtube:

Bruce Schwartz: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpwEwoauxkU

Phillipe Genty: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZl0yI7IGC0

Richard Bradshaw: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-fmsVDFpTE

Triangel : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yfEEMHtyhg

One of those performers was Bruce Schwartz, whose mastery of both a rustic style of glove puppetry and a highly refined table-top style resonates still with me, and also I’m sure with a lot of other performers of my generation.

 

Jim himself was keen to encourage new performers to investigate new means of expression, and not just follow the form that he had made successful.  He surely must have found it strange to have spawned an entire generation of American puppeteers, amateur and professional who have adopted the Muppet-style of operation.

My contact with him and his work was minuscule, but nevertheless profound. I’m proud to have made Jim laugh with my audition piece for “Labyrinth”and apart from several weeks operating background goblins and Sir Didymus’ ear (!) in that film I later spent a couple of days being Rowlf’s right hand, and Kermit’s legs whilst filming inserts for one of the “Best of Muppets” video tapes. It was those couple of days in particular which introduced me to Henson’s extraordinary stamina, focus and quiet command. I quickly realised I was way out of my league technically, though I think I just about got away with it! I also realised the way that the Muppets had taken the art several planes away from anything I’d experienced before or since. I also witnessed Frank Oz take a minor character and use it to give a riveting performance. I was in the room with the world’s greatest puppeteers. I was both humbled and inspired.

10 years later at the “Festival of the Millennium”in Seattle, Jane Henson saw our “Piggery Jokery” show (the format of which was inspired by Bruce Schwartz) together with our version of “Punch” and spoke to me about the possibility of bringing the shows to a small theatre in New York as part of the Jim Henson Foundation’s work. Although the possibility remained just that, it is a tantalising “What if?” and also highlights the effect of the ripples sent out by Jim’s life.  So many people were affected in so many ways.

The end chapter of the book deals of course with Jim Henson’s death, and it is very moving. One of his bits of advice was simply this:

                                               “Please watch out for each other and love and forgive everybody. It’s a good life. Enjoy it”

                                              

Cat and Mouse

“Town Mouse and Country Mouse” is on the road!

I set out to produce a show which is simple to set up, and gives the impression of simplicity to the audience, but which draws them into a puppet world which holds them for 45 minutes. Audiences numbers are up to 180, so the show had to work visually and audibly for the children sitting at the back.

The journey towards the illusion of simplicity is far from simple though, and ideas,themes,puppets and props have been ruthlessly cut and edited to distill ambitious concepts into a workable form. (N.B: No mice were harmed in this cut-throat process)

The constraints are useful, because they stop my flights of fancy from taking me into self-indulgent arty areas which is a tendency which can yield fruit sometimes, but usually get in the way of what I do best. And what I do best is puppet movement and characterisation within strong situations. It’s taken me 35 years to accept this, and I’m happy to have arrived at this conclusion after many (albeit successful ) attempts to break out of the format which best suits a one-person show. That is, a format that suits this person anyhow!

 A candidate for a leading role being gently told she was unsuccessful in her audition.

Cats are difficult! This has been remarked on before by sculptors, and the reason is because their skulls are small and the bulk of what we see is fur. Their profiles are not too good for puppets either! My first attempt (below centre) looks more like an owl

Preliminary heads

So I tried again, with polystyrene shapes cut and stuck to the shape below. (The whiskey bottle is not integral to the telling of the story by the way…)

As usual with my solo attempts at controlling the whole operation of putting a show together, I fall at the last fence , and  Su rides to the rescue to take me to the finishing line. Her colour sense,  design and craft ability pull everything together. She adds great suggestions to the drama of the play too.The multi-talented Josh Elwell also gave generously of his time , encouragement and suggestions. Like any creative act, getting the show together has been a bit of a cat and mouse game, running after those elusive moments of inspiration, and pinning them down into something real and usable.

Here’s Su’s finished cat head:

So the show is all together and  a joy to perform. It’s quirky, funny and musical. Belly-laughs followed by moments of dramatic tension.

Hickory and Dickory

At the time of writing, after half a dozen performances I can honestly say I’ve succeeded in my aim ,which is just as well, because there is an extensive schools touring schedule ahead, and several theatre performances including a week at Polka Childrens’ Theatre in April!

I like glove puppets when they are manipulated well, but over the years I’ve always been disappointed with my own efforts when I’ve watched video recordings. Often what I thought I was doing with little moments of  action and reaction, dramatic pauses and so on, didn’t come across as I’d hoped. Although a step or two up from the type of mindless puppetry known in the trade as “dolly-waggling”, I figured that my style was being hampered by the design of the puppet gloves themselves. Even when made to measure, the subtle movements of the fingers often don’t translate through the glove body. So I experimented with using regular cotton gloves and detachable mouse heads, and I liked what I saw. I’m sure I’m not the first to think of the technique ( and don’t say “Fingermouse”….. that was a different method again….!!) and I was probably re-inventing the wheel, but it works for me and the audiences, and it opened up a visual theme of gloves which allowed other characters to be made this way.

I’m considering running a workshop allied to a public performance sometime next year. No date or venue so far…it’s just at the idea stage right now. Any puppeteers or other interested parties please get in touch via the “contact” page of this website.

Snowstorm in a Chinese Teacup

I got the idea from being in the audience for “Slavka’s Snow Show” where a huge auditorium is covered in paper snow. I wondered if I could recreate this in miniature and so now at the beginning of the Winter sequence of “Piggery Jokery”  snow falls, and if my aim is good, it covers Su who is playing music next to the puppet theatre. She gets laugh from a perfectly timed raised eyebrow. The effect is produced by using an aerosol can of water-based stage snow, and it melts away after a minute or two.

photo: Tony Jones

I bought several cans of the stuff, because I keep leaving them behind all over the world. They can’t be flown, you see. I found this out after being interrogated by security in Korea, which is not an experience I’d recommend.  Pressurised cans explode in de-pressurised airline holds don’t they?

 So what I do now is this… I send a can surface-mail three months in advance of a festival booking. Going by sea and land gets around aerosol problem.  And there’s little point in getting into the hassle of posting it back to myself from a foreign post office, so I donate the can to whoever is interested enough to accept it. My generosity knows no bounds. This system has worked well for Canada, and for a festival a year and a half ago in Taipei the capital of Taiwan. We performed again in Taiwan recently, in a different city, quite unconnected with our previous visit. This booking was confirmed at the last minute so no time to send the can in advance. Winter without snow…. climate change is clearly affecting puppet theatre now.

We experimented with paper confetti but it was a poor substitute. The gag isn’t essential, but it was a bit frustrating not to include it. Then I had the blindingly obvious thought that maybe I could track down the can that was already in Taiwan and use that!  Oh the power of Facebook…we found the right person and did our best to explain the situation.  Not very hopeful of the outcome due to translation problems. Indeed the negotiations for the festival were fraught with misunderstandings and changing criteria. We focussed on the large amount of preparation any foreign festival entails, and forgot about the snow.

We arrived in Kaohsiung and went to the theatre complex where we were to perform. What a place! And what a privilege to be performing in a purpose-built museum celebrating the art of the shadow puppet.

Shadow Museum exterior

Shadow Museum interior

We even had the deep delight of watching a performance from the Yung Shing Le troupe who were the real deal – popular folk theatre with dynamically and sensitively operated characters with a genuine connection with their audience. https://www.facebook.com/YSLST.

Just as we were getting adjusted to our new environment, and beginning to think about our own performances we were presented with a parcel containing the fabled snow! All the dots had connected, and now we felt quite confident we could present the complete picture .

Su wove her melodies with the Green Man’s spell and funny shows and happy audiences materialised . We learnt to say “Whopper” in Taiwan dialect, and we taught the audiences those essential English words: “piggywiggy” and “hurdy gurdy.”

200 Taiwanese say "Piggywiggy" !

Time for more cans of snow to be sent on adventures. The mystery is where will the next destination be? Was it Confucius who said “Pigs will fly, but snow will explode”?

SQUIGGLES

Writers especially, are always being asked, “Where do you get your ideas from?”

ideas into reality

As a creator and performer of visual theatre, I realised the partial answer for me a while back. A lot of my best ideas come from day-dreaming visual aspects of concepts and allowing them to change shape and meaning, until something useable appears. And I believe the training for this lies in my favourite  childhood game of Squiggles. Dad was keen on it, and I also played it often with my brothers. Here’s how it works: one person draws a non-specific squiggle and the other person finishes it by changing it into something recognisable.There were a few basic do’s and don’ts e.g. in the original squiggle no lines must cross. Certain easy solutions were banned: e.g.no mountain ranges.If it turns out a bit surreal then then a rational explanation is given e.g. “It’s a caterpillar eating a football”. I recall the co-operative nature of the game, which also helped dispel inhibition.

Seeing visual potential in an apparently random group of lines or shapes is a great intro to creativity. There is also an innate human tendency to help make sense of the world which tends towards seeing known images in unknown shapes. This is known as pareidolia, and is responsible for the “face on Mars” claim, religious images on burnt toast and so on.

definite proof of life on Mars

Virgin Mary appears on grilled cheese

Leonardo da Vinci said “if you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills. You will also be able to see diverse combats and figures in quick movement, and strange expressions of faces, and outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well conceived forms.”

Paul Klee said that a line is a dot that went for a walk, and that a drawing is taking a line for a walk.

Klee drawing

I read somewhere that John Lennon attributed the game of Squiggles to helping his creativity, though I’m not sure if he gave it that name.

Lennon drawings

 

It’s been a while since I was in my workshop creating anything new. I look forward to squiggling some new ideas!

 

An old idea but a good one. Buttermilk the Cow.

 

 

What’s in a name?

“Use your own name and make it famous!” was advice I read once when I was agonising over what to call myself/and or the puppet company that seemed to be evolving, many years ago.  The problem there was two-fold.  First, Bridle is a name that a lot of people seem to have trouble reading, despite it being a common enough word (the horse’s bridle). Second, Su is an intrinsic part of the work we offer, and she’d already changed her name back to her maiden name Eaton, for the reason stated- after we married she became quickly fed up with being called Mrs Biddle, or Brindle. So…what to do? Music groups spend as much time deciding on their names as they do rehearsing, and even then come up with some useless ones. Whatever became of “Elbow”? Silly name, they’ll never get anywhere!

In the early days of finding our feet, we had a brief mad episode of forming  “Hand to Mouth Puppets”  with the talented Rod Burnett. A clever name, as apart from the experimental stuff we were doing, we were also busking, and generally living hand to mouth. But on arriving in London to begin a bursary from the Gulbenkian Foundation, based at the Puppet Centre, we discovered puppeteer Jim Still was also using that name. So we dropped it at that point, and later decided to adopt “Allsorts Puppets”. Whilst working with Rod on our combined Punch and Judy ideas I had called myself “Professor Allsorts” on account of acquiring some promotional fabric from the sweet manufacturers Bassets from which to make a costume.

image from the very first show, "The cabinet of intrigue"

 

The original poster

A reasonable choice, as”Allsorts” is sufficiently nondescript to encompass any type of style of show, but also a familiar word.  However, on moving to Southampton, we discovered that there was a children’s entertainer close by using the name “Ticklish Allsorts”. This was, and still is, Gary Nunn, a fine fellow who provides a complete package of festival fun for children including his individual version of Punch and Judy.  As Gary was already established, it seemed crazy to pursue this name, and so we thought again.

Martin busking on the beach as "Professor Allsorts" with Rod inside the theatre

Our Allsorts postcard

 

Our first child was on the scene by now, and I launched myself as a solo performer out of necessity, and decided to use the description that most of the schools were using informally for me anyway, which is “Martin-the Puppet Man”.  Using the same out-of-date analogy that David Cameron has used recently to describe the coalition , it did what it said on the tin. Years of solo touring with this name was fine, if somewhat limiting, in the sense that I always had to have puppets at the centre of the show, and it always had to be me holding them! Later, this was truncated to become simply “The Puppet Man”.

The Puppet Man

Surprise surprise, the name had already been used to considerable effect by one of the luminaries of the post-war puppet revival, namely “Panto” Philpott aka the Puppet Man. I swear I didn’t know at the time! Also, that’s the name by which the incomparable Steve Hansen  from the USA goes by. Plus dozens of others it seems.  Now that we have search engines, it’s so much easier to find out who else has thought of the same thing. The name was also somewhat twee, and limited me to shows for children. I come from the generation of performers who came into the art form with ambitious ideas of what mightbe possible for sophisticated use of puppets, and talked of doing serious work for adults. That mindset deserves a book of its own, never mind a blog! But when Su came back on board with ideas and energy to add to the potential, we created the show “Piggery Jokery” which has since gone around the world and played to audiences of all ages.

Piggery Jokery

So how to promote it? We decided to reclaim “Hand to Mouth” and this time add “theatre” to it. This way we had the potential of doing non-puppet shows should the chance arise, and also not limit ourselves to children’s audiences. But now, should you decide to google “Hand to Mouth Puppets” you will find a company in Yorkshire who provide sub-muppet-style shows with a Christian theme. (I wonder if they are ever asked for the pagan “Piggery Jokery”?! ). There’s also a company with the same name in the USA, with whom we’ve actually worked alongside at a festival in California.

So “Hand to Mouth Theatre” it is, and probably will remain. Mind you, “Da Silva” has a classy ring to it. I wonder if anyone else has used it??

 

Puppeteers of the Labyrinth

“Well my name’s on the film’s credits…….they can’t take that away from me” I cry, as I’m dragged away to the Home for Confused Puppeteers.

“I touched Jennifer Connelly whilst wearing rubber gloves….I did, I did!”  It was in a scene where she falls, down a hole, Alice in Wonderland fashion, and is helped by 30 or 40 hands which materialise form the sides of the pit and support her.  The hands convulse into various human-like faces and talk to her. Two of those hands were mine, and I still have them, attached to my arms, and they are available for hire.

More than that, I was just a few feet from David Bowie on several occasions as he waited to be called for his performance as King Jareth in Henson’s “Labyrinth”. Hard to know whether to strike up conversation in this situation, and if so, what to say.  On relating this dilemma to a friend awhile ago, he immediately suggested the entree “I liked that album Hunky Dory.  Have you done anything since? ”

I worked for seven weeks on the film which was back in 1985. At that time, it was unusual to be a puppeteer in England and not be employed on the film. That’s because it needed plenty of hands free to operate the background crowd scenes of Goblins. This was the time when CGI was in it’s infancy, and special effects were mostly still animated by human effort. (that’s called puppetry !). Green screen for film was just about achievable, and the sequence with the characters called Fireys was a case in point. Cutting-edge technology in those days.

 

I had hair in those days

I was full of admiration for the design of the characters and sets. This was done by Brian Froud, with whom I and Michael McCormick memorably shared a bottle of wine on the morning of my audition.. This happened when I went over from the audition room to the workshop ( the Creature Shop) where everything was constructed. McCormick’s work and attitude influenced me more than he knows.It was there I was introduced to a young sculptor and puppeteer from New Zealand called Ron Muick, who has gone on to become a world-renowned artist. I’m sure the beginnings of his technique of super-realistic skin texture can be traced to this time.

Ron Mueck’s “Big Boy”

This was a time of “what ifs”. There was possibility that Su could have been employed in the workshop while I worked on the performance side of things. There was the possibility of the short-term contracts being renewed almost indefinitely if I’d wished, and then on to other similar films. I think if we’d been living in London at the time that’s a direction we would have chosen, but it was all a bit too complicated. This was compounded by Su and me having just established a regular pitch on Broadstairs sands.  Now, compared with the world of film, this might not sound like much.  But we knew that the big bucks of the industry might be illusory and it was very important to us to have some control over our way of life, however small. I wasn’t particularly enamoured of the film world, at least not as a small cog in the machinery. I would need to be the director to feel satisfied, and my ambition didn’t stretch that far. The wasting of time waiting for a few minutes of action was painful, as was the waste of money in sets and puppets that ended up not being used.

The pivotal moment was when I was operating the left ear of the dog knight Sir Didymus. The movement was achieved by operating a joystick,  and the rotation of the stick matched that of the ear. More name-dropping now. As I was rehearsing this character with Dave Goeltz, Sergei Obratsov, the great Russian puppeteer and theatre director was being shown around the studio, and he watched a bit of our efforts.  Anyhow, after a bit of filming of this character, Brian Henson offered me the chance of continuing with this role for another six weeks. I took a moment to consider, knowing that the summer season was about to begin. So- six weeks operating an ear for lots of money, or six weeks operating an entire repertory company of characters live, with laughter and feedback, but hardly any money? I asked the advice of seasoned TV performer Francis Wright, who said “take the money and run”.  But I weighed the money against the freedom of the beach, and decided to be my own boss with my own show, trading in a joystick for the laugher of children and total control of a comedy puppet show in the open air.  So although on “Labyrinth” I was being paid as much in a day as I was likely to earn in a week busking, I left the film set, and with my partner Su Eaton headed for the seaside. Foolish? What if…..?

It turned out to be a wet summer, but we did shows when we could, and we both love the excitement of live performance in the open air. In September I was offered another few days on the film, and fit and tanned I bounced into the studio, to find the bulk of the puppeteers to be slumped , world-weary in their chairs. This, together with the often-heard declaration from the TV career puppeteers that “one day I’ll do a show of my own”, I knew I’d made a reasonable decision .

Labyrinth continues to have something of a cult following, and I was amazed by the response a few years back when I offered my threadbare sweatshirt with the Labyrinth logo on Ebay.  It sold for £125 to a collector in the USA. Blimey! I guess I ought to treat the movie poster with more respect. I have one signed by Jim Henson which say “Thank you Martin.” It’s been rolled up in a tube in my shed for 25 years…………  Being a tiny part of the film was great experience with plenty of happy memories.  Thank you Jim!

 Jim and Jennifer

Here’s some backstage photos I turned up the other day.  Time for the world to share!

 

And the moral of this story is…………………………………

It was just a whimsical idea really….. a small part of a show based on a whimsical notion. Whimsy has been somewhat out of fashion for a while…………..

 

Head in the Clouds

So this is how it goes: The wind blows a lollipop lady’s sign away. A magic hat enables her fantasy of being a pirate to come true and she looks for the lollipop on a tropical island. The wind changes direction and blows the ship to the Arctic where she meets a concertina-playing polar bear sitting alone on an iceberg. He is next to the lollipop which he has mistaken for the North Pole. She claims her missing equipment and sails away, using her sign to stop a shark eating the little fishes. The magical hat which enables the wearer to realise their dreams lands on the polar bear’s head. He wishes it would get colder, so the iceberg won’t melt, and sure enough, it snows.

I wrote this scenario five years ago, mainly attracted by the sadness of the lonely bear in the vast wilderness, although I was aware of the issue of global warming which was just starting to enter the popular consciousness. Bringing the show back now, I fear it looks like I’m on a soapbox. Although I’ve been a Green-supporter for 30 years, I personally have little time for, wait a minute , no………I detest shows for small children which are overtly issue-based. Why? because it’s not the children’s’ fault the world is in such a mess. It’s really no good dumping our guilt of inaction, or of of our inept attempts at action, upon the bright optimistic young minds of the next generation. That’s not to say I don’t realise the responsibility of performing for children, it’s just that my priorities are different and I choose to focus on other aspects of  influence beyond the narrative.

Feet on the ground

There’s lots of other sequences in “Head in the Clouds” where dreams come true, but to describe them would only repeat my main point which is the tendency to look for the “message” in a story, and even a moral. I don’t know which straight-laced Victorian insisted all stories should contain an improving moral, but the legacy of that idea still resonates, and because of it people sometimes miss the underlying nourishing themes of stories, and look for a more superficial interpretation based on what happens, rather than why it happens. Added to this is the simpler but powerful effect a good theatre visit can have on a young audience, which is to see someone doing something unusual and wonderful (and live!), and to realise that many other options are available beyond the alienating screens that provide the bulk of their stimulus.  Pretentious?  It is after all just glove puppet show. Well, the power of this form to the 4-8 age range is immense, and sensitively performed it can be unforgettable.

And the moral of this story is………

 

 

 

 

 

I Used to Guard the Queen