Performing puppetry at Brighton Fringe

Alfie the puppet made his first trip to Brighton the other week for Brighton Fringe Festival. It was also my first time performing at the Fringe there. With a generous and supportive audience, beautiful weather and a lovely review, it was a great first show for us.

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We were performing Dark Matter, a puppetry piece about dementia, at the Rialto Theatre. This great little venue is just up the hill from the main road that runs along by the sea, so in a great central location. After the tech we headed out for lunch and sat in the sun eating delicious halloumi wraps from a greek mobile food stall. I love Brighton. It manages to maintain both a chilled-out seaside vibe and a lively, buzzing atmosphere at the same time. I wish I’d been able to spend a few days there, watching shows and splashing in the sea.

The show started at 4pm and was followed by a brief Q&A. In case you haven’t read my previous blog post, the show follows Alfie, a former astrophysicist now living in a care home and suffering from dementia. I animate Alfie’s feet, with Aurora Adams on the back and right hand, and Douglas Rutter on the head and left hand. The cast also includes Sofia Calmicova as care assistant Anna and several other characters from Alfie’s past.

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Strat Mastoris reviewed the show for Fringe Review, labelling it a ‘Highly Recommended Show’. He said:

‘The writing, by Eirini Dermitzaki and Mayra Stergiou, was poignant and sad, and Stergiou’s subtle direction took us right into Alfie’s inner world.’

You can read the full review here.

It was a fantastic experience for my first Brighton Fringe, and I look forward to hopefully taking part in future Fringe festivals there. But first, there’s our next show…. tomorrow, 7pm at Little Angel Theatre in London! Tickets are available here. There may be some tickets available on the door but please bring cash!

Puppetry rehearsals with Vertebra Theatre

I am currently rehearsing for my first professional puppetry role with Vertebra Theatre, in their show Dark Matter. Rehearsals are well under way and I’m loving getting to grips with both the play and the role of puppeteer as we near our first performance, at Brighton Fringe next week!

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The show deals with dementia and how it affects the mind, focusing on the story of Alfie, a former Professor of Astrophysics now living in a care home. There’s also a healthy dose of quantum cognitive theory in there, which has provided a juicy challenge for us to get our heads round.

I animate Alfie’s feet – yes, Alfie is the puppet. Whenever working with a bunraku-style puppet in training I always chose to animate the feet, as I find it a wonderful test of how well you can listen to, and be in tune with, the other two puppeteers. Some schools of thought say you should always focus on the body part that you are animating, so in this case the feet, whereas others would suggest you look up at the body if you are on the feet. With Alfie I tried both, and ended up basically looking at the puppet’s backside and using my peripheral to take in what’s happening with the other body parts. Obviously this means I can’t always see what I’m doing with the feet, but I can get a good sense of what’s happening through touch.

Although I’ve done bits of puppetry in shows before, this is the first time I’m solely a puppeteer throughout the whole show, animating Alfie’s feet for the most part, but also occasionally other objects in the story. During my puppetry training, either at Little Angel Theatre or with Gyre and Gimble, I remember being told that puppetry is painful. The morning after the first rehearsal I certainly agreed with that statement! Two weeks in and my body has got used to the stresses and strains put on particular parts, but there are still some days when my back and knees feel about 60. However, in a strange, sadistic gym-bunny kind of way, I like that it’s hard work physically as well as mentally. I enjoy pushing my body and working it hard, probably from so many years of dance training throughout my childhood.

It’s wonderful, getting to work with such a beautiful puppet. Alfie really is a little old man. The other actors and puppeteers on the project are also fantastic to work with – Douglas Rutter, Aurora Adams and Sofia Calmicova – and I think we make a great team, along with director Mayra Stergiou, writer and producer Eirini Dermitzaki and composer Gregory Emfietzis.

Our first show is next Wednesday 1 June, 4pm at the Rialto Theatre in Brighton, as part of Brighton Fringe. After that we perform at Little Angel Theatre in London on 13 June at 7pm as part of Creativity and Wellbeing Week, then we’re at Edinburgh Fringe from 22 to 26 August, 6.30pm, at Greenside Venues, Olive Theatre. Come and see the show if you can!

A workshop with Kneehigh’s Mike Shepherd

I recently got to meet a bit of a legend in the theatre world. Mike Shepherd, artistic director of Cornwall’s Kneehigh theatre company, came to Little Angel Theatre to give a day-long workshop as part of the ‘Behind Closed Doors’ sessions.

When he turned up in a flat cap and long tweed coat and carrying a load of bamboo sticks I thought, he looks just like in the YouTube videos! It was that strange thing when you meet someone who you’ve already seen on TV or in an interview, and your brain feels sort of like you’ve already met them, even though you haven’t.

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Sculpture made from my bag contents – read into it what you will!

After a warm-up to get us present in the room we worked with the sticks a little and played a few more games, all this work building on giving and receiving, working together towards a joint goal. Mike advocates playing games in the rehearsal room but making it relevant to the work you are doing, and don’t just do some warm-up games then sit down and start doing script work, losing all that wonderful energy and creative zing that you’ve just generated. Instead, use the games throughout the session.

Just before lunch we were tasked with creating sculptures out of the contents of our bags (see pic). Great fun, and an activity that could be used to flesh out a character.

In the afternoon we looked more at the devising process and how to go about adapting a written story into a piece of theatre. We used Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ as an example, as Mike directed this with puppets at Little Angel earlier this year. The initial steps involved first reading the story aloud together, then jotting down words from the story, making a note of the main themes, and then summarising the action of the story in a maximum of seven (though aiming for five) bullet points. Storyboarding was another option.

Mike struck me as pretty chilled on the surface but with a fire fizzing underneath – a rebellious streak fuelled by his passion for theatre and making work that actually means something to him. He spoke of how, after a few years as an actor in London, he moved back to his native Cornwall. In London, at least nowadays, there is this idea of a ‘career’, whereas he just wanted to make theatre, so he started Kneehigh and over the years it grew, then he made the work he wanted to make. There never seemed to be a big plan with a capital P. I think and talk so much about my ‘career’ and how to build it up that this gave me pause for thought. It’s true that there is such a sense of focusing on developing one’s career that I feel it’s good to remind ourselves why we’re in this game, and in turn take a look inside at work we really want to do.

It was a marvellous day. I got to meet someone I greatly respect and whose work I admire, the group was a lovely bunch of people who inspired me with their ideas and creativity just as much as Mike did, and I left feeling determined to make my own work that I care about and believe in the value of. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday.

Puppet Space at Little Angel Theatre

Delving further into the world of puppetry, a week ago I went along to Puppet Space at Little Angel Theatre, where I met some lovely creative folk and found out about their interesting projects.

Puppet Space is a puppetry gathering that takes place at the Little Angel Studios a few times a year, giving puppeteers and those with an interest in puppetry a chance to network, share and discuss ideas, and eat a lot of biscuits! In an industry where it’s easy to feel like you’re floundering about on your own in a vast ocean, it’s a treat to be in the room with so many of my peers.

The evening started with some time for networking, so I grabbed an orange juice and a biccy and headed towards the nearest group. At an event like this I feel no apprehension when approaching a crowd of new people – we’re all here to meet folk with the same interests as us, so I never feel like I’m imposing on people. I saw a few familiar faces and many new ones, and listened intrigued as one guy told me about a children’s book he’s had published and is interested in adapting into a show with puppetry, while a lady I’d met previously told me about the work she’s been doing with puppetry in schools.

The next part of the evening was a talk by Rachel Warr and Almudena Adalia, who spent a few weeks collaborating with Canadian puppetry practitioners in Montreal. It was fascinating hearing about the puppetry scene over there and the process the company went through to try out new ideas and make work in response to a stimulus, in this case a painting. We were even treated to a live performance of the piece Rachel and Almudena had created, along with a video clip of a piece the company in Montreal had made.

The final bit of the event involved us all sitting in a circle and each introducing ourselves and what we do, and mentioning any projects we’ve got on the go. It was fascinating hearing about everyone’s work and interests. We then had a chance to mingle a bit more and chat to anyone whose specific work piqued our interest.

Little Angel Theatre is a very special place for many people. It’s where I’ve done most of my puppetry training to date, where I’ve met many interesting people, and a place where I’ve always been made to feel welcome. And it’s organising events like Puppet Space, gathering all these creative people together to share ideas and support one another, that makes Little Angel such a key part of the puppetry scene in this country.

End of YSC tour

“And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain…”

So Bottom sang as Pyramus, just before he dropped dead in Pyramus and Thisbe. Well, in our version anyway. Sam, who played Bottom, came out with it one rehearsal and it just stuck. And it nearly always got a chuckle from the teachers.

But it’s true; we have faced the final metaphorical curtain on our Young Shakespeare Company tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Three weeks ago in fact. Since then I’ve had time to digest and reflect on the experience and everything I’ve learnt.

Touring is an amazing and invaluable experience for an actor. On this tour I have strengthened my resilience, seen new parts of the country, made new friends, and had the chance to perform to several thousand children, giving many of them their first taste of theatre.

Touring can also be very challenging. It’s tiring, you can spend a long time away from the comfort of home and loved ones (though on this tour we went home each weekend), you spend all your time with the same group of people, and you perform the same show many times. However, this is all part of being an actor.

I have learnt a lot about myself, both good and bad. I’ve worked with some very talented and creative people who have seen me at my best and my worst, and for whom I have developed a great deal of respect. I’ve encountered different ways of working and learnt to acknowledge that my way of doing things is by no means always the best way. I’ve had a lot of fun and made so many wonderful memories. Oh, and I got to say a bit of Shakespeare.

Touring A Midsummer Night’s Dream

It’s been a busy few weeks, and we’re now almost into week five of touring A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Young Shakespeare Company. Going into rehearsals at the start of January was a great way to kick off the year. What actor wouldn’t want to start the year with a job!

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Sherman the Shakespeare duck, courtesy of Samuel Lane

The company seems to have a very collaborative style of working – obviously the director steers the ship and has the final say on artistic decisions, but our lovely director Haf encouraged our own suggestions and welcomed ideas and work that we brought to the rehearsal room. In this way I feel we all shaped the final show together. It was thrilling seeing all the ideas and personal touches my fellow cast members brought to their roles.

After two weeks of rehearsals we set off on tour, initially to schools in London but then going further afield, down to the south coast and up to the midlands. In a few weeks we’ll be heading up to my neck of the woods, Yorkshire. I’ve been to both places I know well and parts of the country that I’ve never been to before. Admittedly, when on tour there’s not that much chance to check out the local sights. Sometimes the Travelodges are in the centre of town but more often than not they’re on the outskirts. However, I’m certainly getting a lot of experience driving around the different areas. When we first set off on tour I was a little bit nervous about driving Titania (as the company calls her – she’s a Ford Galaxy Titanium), or The Beast (as I call her) – she’s a fair bit bigger than my nippy little Toyota Yaris! But as they say, practice makes… well, not quite perfect but definitely better.

So far I’ve learnt a fair bit from my first touring experience:

  • Each school is slightly different, each audience is different, and therefore each individual show is different. As the students’ input is crucial to the show – some of them volunteering to play parts and all of them answering questions about how the characters might be feeling and what they might do next, and everyone joining in with sound effects and bits of Shakespearean text – they help shape the show/workshop that they are a part of. This keeps everything fresh, and also keeps us on our toes.
  • Eating out most nights can soon add up and too many Dominos can take its toll on your health and fitness regime, so making cost-effective, healthy options for dinner while away is something we all need to do!
  • I’m a girl who’s gotta have breakfast, and when you’re staying away and there isn’t a Greggs round the corner it’s not always easy to make sure you get this crucial start to the day. Porridge pots are the answer (if you like porridge). Travelodge rooms are equipped with kettles, so you boil, pour, stir, and ta-da! Breakfast sorted.
  • Always remember your phone charger, especially if you use your phone for your alarm clock. (And be eternally grateful when you forget your charger and one of your lovely tour buddies has a spare to lend you.)

We’ve had a little breather this week for half term but will be back on the road next week – looking forward to getting back into Titania’s dress and Snug’s hard hat and hi vis!

 

Shadow puppetry at Little Angel Theatre

For our final class of the Puppetry Foundation Course at Little Angel Theatre (sob!) we had a go at shadow puppetry. It was a session of cutting, tearing, sticking, trying out ideas and having free reign to create whatever kind of shadow puppet we wanted. I loved it!

Oli Smart took us through the three different items you need – object, light source and screen – and what items work well for each of these. He’d set up a bed sheet for a screen (not his favourite material to use – thin canvas works better) with an overhead projector (OHP) maybe 2 metres behind it, so we could keep trying out our ideas as we were making.

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Shadow puppetry is one of those creative forms that many of us have probably had a go at already without realising it’s puppetry. I remember doing class assemblies at school where we would sometimes cut out little characters from black paper and stick a dowel stick to the back, draw scenery on a clear plastic sheet with the OHP pens, then perform short stories projected onto a white wall or screen to the rest of the school. An early taste of shadow puppetry.

In our puppetry class I decided to make a dinosaur. Dinosaurs are cool. Oli said that with shadow puppetry, the less precious you are with what you’re making, the better. There’s no pointing spending hours crafting the perfect details as the audience just won’t see them. So I decided to initially forego the scissors and just tear the paper to make my dinosaur’s head, then used scissors for the finer points like the eye and teeth as I wanted them to look sharp. We attached a dowel stick to our puppets by which to hold them. A split pin created a hinge for the jaw to open and close (the head and bottom jaw are obviously two separate bits of paper), and Oli helped me devise a ‘trigger’ with a piece of string attached to the jaw and dowel, allowing me to operate the puppet and open and close its jaw using just one hand. This took a bit of practice!

My finished dinosaur actually looks considerably like a crocodile too, so make of him what you will!