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!

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.

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!

Making a moving mouth puppet

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Over our last two puppetry classes at Little Angel Theatre we have been making simple moving mouth puppets. Using electric breadknives to sculpt foam blocks into heads and hot glue guns to stick on eyes, nose and the opening mouth, we created a variety of funny-looking characters.

First came the drawing part. Drawing lots of circles for heads we tried out all different shapes and sizes of nose, and different placement of the eyes and the mouth, drawing first the front view and then profile. You can see in the second pic some of the different combinations I came up with. Next we drew the chosen face onto one side of a foam cube and the profile view onto another side, then used an electric breadknife (I genuinely hadn’t been aware such a thing existed) to sculpt the block into a sort of sphere. (It was a bit more technical than this but the best thing to do is have someone demonstrate it like our teacher Oli Smart did.)

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To get rid of any sharp edges we picked away at the foam with our fingers, then smoothed this by snipping away with a pair of scissors. I, however, quite liked the pockmarked effect so decided to keep it. I didn’t manage to get it entirely spherical, but then, whose head is a perfect sphere? We’d probably look pretty funny if it was.

Sculpting a nose from foam – the bigger the better with this kind of puppet – we stuck this on with the hot glue gun (my first time using an electric breadknife AND my first time using a hot glue gun! Playing with the big toys now). The mouth was a bit more complicated – again, it’s best to watch someone do it. We cut along the line we’d drawn for the mouth until we’d basically cut off the head/face below this point, then cut it down at the point where we wanted the mouth to open from. The bottom jaw was then stuck back onto the head by sticking a folded piece of card to both bits with hot glue. No, I’m really not explaining this very well!

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For the eyes we dug out sockets then glued polystyrene balls into the sockets and drew pupils on with a marker pen. Many of us finished off our puppets with some fuzzy eyebrows. There were some fantastic bushy black and brown ones, but I opted for making a pair of rather groomed-looking ginger brows. I didn’t get round to making any hair before the class finished, and if we had more time we would cover the foam with felt, but I’m pretty chuffed with him (I think it’s a him) as the first puppet I’ve ever made! At tonight’s class Ronnie Le Drew will be showing us how to make our puppets speak, so hopefully once I find the puppet’s voice I’ll discover more about the character of this little chap.

Mime, puppetry and people

Last week was fantastic. I went to my first corporeal mime class, had a puppetry class at Little Angel Theatre, took part in ‘Scene Gym’ at the Old Vic Workrooms and attended a one-person storytelling workshop with Little Angel Theatre’s Artistic Director, Samantha Lane.

The mime class was taught by Vini Carvalho of Fool’s Cap Theatre, and was a pure delight. Inspired by the work of companies such as Theatre Ad Infinitum, I was looking for a good mime class when this one popped up on Facebook! We worked on opposing forces (and got very sweaty), different rhythms and learnt an offering sequence. Corporeal mime, or contemporary mime, can be used to choreograph pieces, and it felt so good to be there in a class, learning the moves and practising them in front of the mirror. That’s my comfort zone, right there! It harked back to my ballet days. Vini’s planning on teaching the class every week so it will be great to make it a regular part of my ongoing training.

In the puppetry class at Little Angel Theatre we explored motion, firstly using puppetry sticks and then going on to having a play with some cloth bunraku-style puppets. The sticks are a great tool for puppeteers to practise movement before going on to try it with the puppet itself. I am so getting me some! (Or failing that I might chop up an old broom handle.) Just always check for splinters beforehand!

Friday’s ‘Scene Gym’ was an absolute joy – a bunch of actors, directors and writers all together in a room getting to play with some brilliant new play texts. But more on that, and yesterday’s storytelling workshop, in the next two posts!

Along with the chance to be creative, what made the week really special were all the interesting people I met and had the chance to be creative with. Being in a room full of people who all want to work together and create something together gives me the biggest buzz. I love meeting new people and finding out their story, and actors in particular are generally so open and engaging. It’s also great to hear what brings non-performers to the room, for example in my puppetry class and the storytelling workshop. It’s the people that are the true joy of an actor’s life.

Jacket puppetry at Little Angel Theatre

I have a lovely (fake) leather jacket. Perfect for the autumnal weather, perhaps not so perfect for puppetry. It’s got a stiff neck, you see.

Our most recent puppetry class at Little Angel Theatre involved animating our jackets. Oliver Smart led us through the stages of focus – thinking (eg of the clock on the wall), looking at the clock, turning your body towards the clock, then moving towards the clock. We practised this ourselves first before applying it to our puppets.

In order to establish our jacket puppet’s focus we first let the gaze of the puppet follow our finger as it moved around. It was interesting to see how our puppet reacted if the finger came closer and invaded it’s personal space. We kept it simple here with a clear like/dislike or curiosity/boredom reaction. Too complicated a reaction and the puppet’s movement loses its clarity and intention.

Once we’d had a go at the different stages of focus with the puppets, we looked at jumping. Just as with us humans, the puppet’s ‘knees’ (obviously imaginary knees in the case of the jacket) bend, it pushes up into the air, comes back down a little quicker and the knees bend again as it lands. We practised the required amount of ‘push’ – what happens if it doesn’t bend the knees enough? What if it bends them too much and jumps too high or far? Once our puppets could jump on the spot we had a go at bouncing to travel, paying attention to the transfer of weight and keeping it slow and steady. When working with a puppet, Oliver says, its movements should be a little like it’s underwater – not over the top, but steadier and more pronounced than our movements.

My beloved jacket was fun to work with but the softer jackets seemed more suited to the work, so I’m off to a charity shop to get my very own puppetry practise jacket!