Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2017

Today is the last day of one of my favourite events of this year, Bristol Festival of Puppetry. The Festival runs once every two years, organised by Puppet Place, a puppetry and animation hub in Bristol.

I could only make it to the first few days of the Festival, so I fit in as much as I could and soaked up the fantastic atmosphere. It all kicked off on Friday evening, 1 September, with Barnaby Dixon’s ‘Micro-Puppetry’. The little creatures this guy creates are delightful. They fit onto the fingers, both hands being used to operate one puppet. Along with demonstrations and one puppet treating us to a dance or two, it was very interesting listening to Barnaby explain how he made the puppets and where he gets his ideas. We also got to see some of his short animation films, which were pretty dry in their humour and therefore right up my street! It was a brilliant way to start the Festival. Sadly I missed the free Smoking Puppet Cabaret later in the evening as I was meeting a friend in town, but I heard it was great fun.

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Puppet carnival parade

My Saturday began with a Festival Breakfast in the Tobacco Factory Theatre with puppeteer Sarah Wright. Sarah, daughter of Little Angel Theatre’s founders John and Lindie Wright, runs the Curious School of Puppetry, and after corresponding via email and phone it was fantastic to finally meet her in person. She spoke to a group of us about puppetry training, asking what we specifically want from training, and also discussing other options if you don’t get a chance to train, such as learning on the job and making your own work. I was so inspired sitting there amongst all these fellow puppeteers and puppet-makers, theatre-makers and actors, as we chatted about the puppetry industry and how we can shape it for the better. The free coffee and big fluffy croissant and jam went down a treat with this!

At lunchtime I watched a free ‘New Visions’ film in the pop-up cinema, showcasing new talent in the animation world, then headed outside to catch the puppet carnival parade. A colourful crowd of puppets bobbing up and down paraded past me, accompanied by a New Orleans-esque jazz band.

Saturday evening saw me heading back to the Tobacco Factory Theatre (my new favourite place) to watch Stephen Mottram’s ‘The Parachute’ and ‘Watch the Ball’. In the first piece Stephen used white ping pong-sized balls on black wands to create characters that we can recognise and empathise with. With everything else in darkness, using just the balls and what he calls the ‘movement code’ of human movement that we can all recognise, he managed to tell a story and take us through the journey of a character’s life. It was remarkable. The second, shorter piece defies description really, insofar as to say that you really have to see it to get the essence of it. I thoroughly enjoyed watching both pieces, and would highly recommend seeing Stephen’s work – he’s performing at Skipton Puppet Festival at the end of the month.

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Puppets parading past the Tobacco Factory Theatre

My final slice of the puppetry festival was Stephen Mottram’s masterclass, ‘The Logic of Movement’, on Sunday afternoon. For that I’m going to write a separate blog post, as there’s too much to just tag on to the end of this one and it’s already getting pretty long! Suffice to say, it was probably one of the most useful workshops I have ever attended as a puppeteer.

There were so many other events in the Festival that I wanted to attend, had I not been busy: the masterclass with Les Sages Fous, Little Angel facilitator Judith Hope’s suitcase theatre workshop, the Prototype night showcasing new ideas and giving feedback, and two shows by companies based in Quebec, Canada – ‘Tricyckle’ by Les Sages Fous and ‘La Causeuse’ by Equivoc. Plus of course Hijinx’s ‘Meet Fred’, a fantastic show I saw earlier in the year in London. In the three days I was there I met some lovely people, saw inspiring work, learnt a lot and bathed in the warm fuzzy glow that is generated when a large group of creative-minded folk get together. Thank you to Puppet Place and all the artists and volunteers who made this year’s festival possible – I loved it!

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My first Edinburgh Fringe

Every year, come August, I’ve had the greatest fear that I was missing out. That’s because every August the whole of theatre land has gone crazy with Fringe fever, while I, stuck in London or Portsmouth or wherever I was at that time, have wished I could be up in Edinburgh where all the fun was.

Well this year, my wish came true. After performances at Brighton Fringe and Little Angel Theatre, (and with a trip to Russia in between), I headed up to Edinburgh with the rest of the cast and crew to perform Vertebra Theatre’s ‘Dark Matter’ during the final week of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. And let me tell you, the experience did not disappoint.

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Our show managed to sell out every night. The first few nights of the week had nearly sold out before we even got to Edinburgh! Don’t ask me how we did it – we’re still not entirely sure – but I think the combination of puppetry and the subject matter of dementia went a long way. The health community did a great job in helping spread the word, as did our producer Eirini, who, when not tweeting like a mad woman, was running around Edinburgh plastering every surface she could find with our posters and flyers.

We had lovely audiences and some great four-star reviews, complimenting the puppetry and storytelling. Sadly the sight lines at the venue weren’t great for our show, as our puppet Alfie is only about three feet tall, and much of the action takes place with him sat on a low chair or standing on the ground. We did what we could to improve this, moving some of the action further upstage. You live and learn!

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As for seeing other shows, I downloaded the Fringe app before I went and proudly announced to the team that I was the keeper of all Fringe knowledge. We got hold of a few copies of the printed guide when we arrived but, to be honest, with so many shows it was a bit overwhelming turning page after page, so I planned what to see and booked most of the shows through the app. It had a schedule function where you could add shows to your planner without buying the tickets, then decide which ones you wanted to book.

I watched nine shows during the week, a healthy number I reckon, considering I wanted to get a good dose of theatre but not empty my bank account. If I had to pick three highlights, they would be Theatre Ad Infinitum’s ‘Translunar Paradise’, ‘Losing It’ by 2theatre and Flabbergast Theatre’s ‘Boris and Sergey’s One Man Extravaganza’. Ok, one more – ‘A Heart at Sea’ by Half a String definitely deserves a mention, as it employed such beautiful and imaginative storytelling. Three of these shows were ones I’d already heard about and desperately wanted to see, but one – Losing It – was a new suggestion. Combining clowning with elements of dance, mime, puppetry and live music, this show turned out to be a very special theatrical experience indeed. It challenged me and made me question my feelings and response to what was happening in front of me.

So I survived my first Edinburgh Fringe, my sanity intact (at least until the overnight coach journey back). If we’d been performing there for the whole month I may have felt a little different by the end. I appreciate that the experience can vary greatly, depending on the quality of your digs, if it’s your own show you’re taking up or if you’ve joined a show like I did, and of course the weather (we were lucky and only had one day of proper rain). I definitely want to ‘do’ the Fringe again, and I’d like to visit the city at another point in the year to get a better feel for the place itself.

Less than a week since we got back I’m now in Bristol, checking out the delights of Bristol Festival of Puppetry. No rest for the wicked! But that’s for the next blog post…

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Half a String’s fantastic set for A Heart at Sea

Teaching my first puppetry workshop… in Russia!

At the English summer camp in Russia with CLASS Study and Training Centre this year we wanted to teach the students some specific theatre skills that they could use in their final devised pieces. Along with a bunch of fun drama games for team-building, firing up imaginations and encouraging creativity, I led my first puppetry workshops with the students.

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The first part of the workshop involved making simple bunraku-style puppets using a method I learnt at a Little Angel Theatre inset workshop – you make simple string ‘skeletons’ (sort of stick men), then the students wrap newspaper around these and fix it in place using masking tape. In the second part of the workshop I went through a puppetry warm-up, then showed the students how to animate their newly-made puppets. We covered the main principles of puppetry, including breath, weight and focus, and I encouraged them to explore different rhythms with their puppet’s movement. In groups of mostly four – three people on the puppet and one directing, though making sure to rotate roles – they then created short sketches to perform.

I wasn’t sure how the students would respond to working with puppets, but both groups really engaged with it, and with the younger group particularly I saw students who were normally a bit disruptive suddenly become engrossed in the activity. It was fantastic to see their enthusiasm and how much they were enjoying themselves.

The short sketches they devised ranged in subject matter from a day in the life of camp to a doll coming to life when its owner’s parents had left the room, to a marriage proposal between two puppets! Kids of all ages can be so creative if just given the space to do so.

These simple puppets were a great idea to make with the students – it felt good to put into practice something I’d learnt in the workshops at Little Angel Theatre. I’m now thinking about how I could improve on the session, and how I can progress on to making slightly more complex puppets the next time I deliver a workshop. With more time, I had wanted to try some object manipulation, with the students each bringing an object of their choice to the session to animate. Maybe that’s one for next time!

 

Russia summer camp: teaching English through drama

This summer saw me head off to Russia again to work at a summer camp on the Black Sea for a month, running drama workshops in English.

I worked directly with CLASS Study and Training Centre this time, an English language school based in Rostov-on-Don, and there were three of us going over from England – myself, Hebe Reilly and Emily Sly, all of us East 15 graduates!

It was a fantastic experience – completely knackering but so rewarding. For the first half of camp I worked with the middle group of students, mostly aged 11, 12 and 13, then in the second half I worked with an older group of 13–16-year-olds. Both groups were wonderful – the first took a few days to settle in, so were a bit of a handful at the start, but once we were used to each other they turned out to be a very caring, creative and attentive group of kids. Being that bit older, and most of them having been to camp before, my second group of students were ready to get on with the work in our sessions right from day one. Check out the Facebook page we created for this year’s camp to see photos and videos of what we got up to in the sessions. My thanks to the wonderful Drama Menu book for some new games and activity ideas that I put to good use this year.

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My second group with their camp certificates

The camp sits on the coast of the Black Sea, not far from Nebug, nestled between imposing hills carpeted with trees and a beautiful watery horizon stretching off into the distance. Looking out to sea from the fourth floor balcony in the main accommodation building, the view is breathtaking – such a huge expanse of space, the blue sea below, the blue sky above.

Like last year, the students devised their own pieces to perform to the rest of the CLASS group at camp. The theme of this year’s camp was jobs, and each day a different job or area of work was explored through the ‘quests’ the teachers prepared for the students. I used this theme with my first group and asked them to choose a job to create a piece of theatre about, looking at a day in the life of someone doing that job. As is so often the case when working with children, the results were not quite what I expected – we certainly had some unusual job titles come up, and not so much a day as six months in the life, but it was the students’ work, not mine, and that was the important thing.

With the second group I decided to try a different approach, and rather than just leaving them to their own devices I came up with the idea of creating a sort of news programme with two presenters and a variety of shows contained within it. I asked two students if they would like to be the presenters, then mostly gave the rest of them the option of creating a news report, a film trailer or a commercial. The key element here was that we were focusing on good news – this started with a group discussion early on in the process about the phrase ‘no news is good news’, looking at how so much of the news we consume focuses on negative events. We wanted to highlight the positive things happening in the world and the more positive side of human nature, from the serious to the slapstick. In the end we had a mixed tone to the overall piece, with a news report on a utopian version of camp (where the kids had ‘loud hour’ instead of quiet hour, they could get up at whatever time they wanted, and they got to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast), a quiz show, a puppet weather report, a chat show with a message about valuing how a person is on the inside, and a film première.

I felt so proud of both groups and the amazing pieces they created. They say that a great teacher inspires their students, but every time I work with a new group of children, whether 7 or 17, I find that they are the ones inspiring me. Their ideas, their energy and enthusiasm, the questions they ask, the way they approach a problem and find a solution, all of this makes me see the world differently, through their eyes, and I realise I have just as much to (re)learn from them as they have to learn from me. This is why I do camp. The beach is a draw, as is the wonderful team of teachers I get to work with out there, who make camp such a special experience for everyone, but the main reason I do it is the kids. They make it one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Performing at Little Angel Theatre

Last week a dream of mine came true. I got to perform, as a puppeteer, at Little Angel Theatre. With a wonderful audience including fellow puppeteers and friends as well as other theatre-lovers, it couldn’t have been a more perfect evening.

After taking the show to Brighton Fringe two weeks before, this was our second performance of Vertebra Theatre’s ‘Dark Matter’, with Douglas Rutter on the head and left hand, Aurora Adams on torso and right hand, and me on the feet (and on the head for two scenes where Alfie is a young boy again). Since the previous show we had gone back to the rehearsal room to iron out a few bits of the movement and choreography, and we approached this performance with renewed vigour and excitement. Knowing we had our friends, family and peers out in the audience added to the pre-show tingles.

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Our venue, Little Angel Theatre, is a very special place to the puppetry community. Transformed from a derelict temperance hall into a theatre by John Wright and a troupe of puppeteers, Little Angel Theatre opened in 1961, and since then it has produced countless puppetry shows and served as a source of inspiration and training for puppeteers from all over the world. In 2014 the company opened Little Angel Studios, just up the road from the main theatre, which is where they run their courses and workshops, and where I did the Puppetry Foundation Course last year.

Arriving at the theatre, we headed backstage to suss out the space. Beautiful wooden marionettes hung down above our heads – it was such a delight to see these very special puppets, as well as the marionette bridges constructed for long-string marionette shows. With it being a hot day the back door was open, and we could poke our heads out and peek into the workshop next door. I felt like a kid who’d snuck into Santa’s workshop!

The show, which started at 7pm, went really well, despite me nearly stacking it as I clambered onto the stage in a deep squat behind Alfie (the puppet, whose feet I was animating at that point). Thankfully no-one seemed to notice (apart from my fellow puppeteers), or at least, they had the good grace not to laugh. I could certainly feel those hamstrings the next day! After the show everyone mingled and chatted outside before a group of us headed to a nearby pub for a well-earned beer and some grub. As we were striking the set I saw Ronnie Le Drew, a lovely man with years of experience as a puppeteer who taught us for a few of the foundation course sessions, and went up to give him a big hug – how special to have him there supporting us. There were also other puppetry companies in the audience, including Smoking Apples, and it made me realise how supportive a community this is.

That night, as I drifted off to sleep, an aubergine and halloumi burger in my belly and a smile on my face, I knew that I would remember the experience of performing at Little Angel for a long time to come.

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!