Tag Archive | "Puppetry"

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Feature: Skitterbang Island – a cross between The Tempest and Wall-E…

Posted on 22 April 2014 by Katie Smith

“Really emotional and quite magical,” says Director Peter Glanville about Skitterbang Island, an opera for very young children, collaboratively put together by Polka Theatre and the Little Angel Theatre. “I know ‘magical’ is a world that’s overused – but in a sense you really are taken into this other world, this other island.” When one of the actors in the production, Lowri James, starts to animate the puppet of Skitterbang, the word “magical” does not seem far off the mark. Complete with long ears, fluttering wings, and a movable brow that allows for changes in expression, Skitterbang seems enchanting and real simply moving around on a table.

Aimed at children aged 3-6, Skitterbang Island returns to play at both theatres following a short run in 2010. “It kind of combines The Tempest with Wall-E,” Glanville remarks, referring to the opera’s plot. Completely sung-through, it follows a young girl, Marie, shipwrecked and separated from her uncle, as she finds friendship and companionship in the strange island inhabitant Skitterbang, only to run into further conflict when her uncle eventually finds her. It features an enviable creative team: Glanville, Polka’s Artistic Director, is directing the piece, with a score by Martin Ward (composer for the Olivier-award winning production of The Wind in the Willows) and libretto by acclaimed playwright Phil Porter.

Though the idea of an opera for young children may at first seem strange, Natalie Raybould, who puppeteers and sings the part of Marie, describes how Ward and Porter “knew how to balance serious and silly” in creating Skitterbang Island, which features the usual trademarks of an opera. “We wanted it to have all the complexities of an opera, we didn’t want to compromise,” Glanville agrees. “So it’s sung through, it’s got arias, it’s got duets, it’s got trios, it’s got all the things you would expect from an opera.” Raybould further asserts the authenticity of the piece. “There’s no ‘writing for kids’ music in this,” she says, “it’s exactly like their music for adults. And it’s just as fun, just as emotional.”

The production combines the specialities of both theatres – the puppetry expertise of the Little Angel, where Glanville was Artistic Director until November, and Polka’s specialism of creating children’s theatre. With the Polka also collaborating on future projects with Royal & Derngate as well as the Royal Opera, Glanville suggests this sort of collaboration is partially a “sign of the times” in terms of funding cuts, but mainly that there is great artistic benefit to be gained from two theatres working together. He suggests that in Skitterbang Island, opera and puppetry go hand in hand for children because “with opera, you’re singing with these kind of arcs and shapes that are non-naturalistic, and of course what we’re looking for in puppetry is the one gesture that can extend and carry through the sentence, and allow the audience to then imagine that character coming to life.” Raybould demonstrates this when she takes me to “meet” Marie. Referring to the puppet by name, and showing how simple changes in the puppet’s position can imply a range of emotions, it becomes clear how easily Sue Dacre’s puppets can appear lifelike.

It is the music, however, that helps the most to bring the characters to life. “Music gets you in the gut,” Raybould says. “Even when you know the story and you know what you’re going to sing. It still gets you. It still takes you by surprise. The whole place reacts to the music.” Raybould created her own show, Lullaby, for babies, using a combination of music, light and shadow to explore the relationship between baby and parent or carer. She strongly believes in young children experiencing music, and notes how when Skitterbang accepts the apology of Marie’s uncle, “that’s like at the end of The Marriage of Figaro, when the Count forgives the Countess. And the music tells the story even more than the words do.” Skitterbang Island, owing a great deal to the music, also manages to explore wider themes of trust and forgiveness. Raybould notes the importance of having the adult character in the opera admit to being wrong, “which is a serious issue in itself.”

“Children really should have work exploring the human experience in the same way that we would expect that as adults,” Glanville agrees. This is something that Skitterbang Island achieves, and looks to be something we will see more of during Glanville’s tenure as Polka’s Artistic Director. He is currently looking into an immersive project that explores the possibilities and uses of the whole building, a piece developed from material created by children themselves, and the possibility of more extensive touring, but is also “thinking a lot about professional development,” and is “looking to set up a more cohesive programme that allows artists that want to create work for children and young people to come together and explore ideas through a kind of initial scratch phase, so actually we’re supporting people potentially over a process of two or three years, in terms of taking an idea through to realisation.”

This development seems to be something present in Skitterbang Island as well. The production has had a rehearsal period in which to rethink and remember the piece, as it has not been performed since 2010. All three performers were in the original production, and Raybould notes that “it’s a luxury to be able to rethink it like this, rather than hurry back in.” Although there could have been the possibility of simply attempting to slot everything back in quickly, “happily Polka and Little Angel don’t think like that, and it’s lovely to be able to take the time.” Glanville acknowledges that the audience will find the production, in parts, “really soothing; at other points it’s going be engaging, and it takes them to a lot of different places emotionally. But I think it’s unique.” The emotion he describes speaks through the music and puppetry – and although developing and changing, Skitterbang Island seems as magical as ever.

Skitterbang Island is at the Little Angel Theatre from 26 April to 15 June, and at the Polka Theatre from 25 June to 16 August. More information and tickets form the Polka’s website and the Little Angel’s website.

Katie Smith

Katie Smith

Katie is a student and occasional playwright and theatre director. When not frantically fitting in as much theatre as time will allow, she can often be found complaining, reading or drinking copious amounts of tea

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Review: At The End Of Everything Else, Unicorn Theatre

Posted on 03 April 2014 by Lucy Bishop

At the End of Everything Ever

At The End Of Everything Else is a charming production following the story of a young girl, Icka, who lives with her father and often dreams of her deceased mother. Through the media of shadow puppetry, animation and sound we are taken on a magical journey as Icka searches for her lost best friend Tito, a little yellow bird. In doing so she travels around the world and takes us along for a whimsical ride.

The main point of focus is the screen hanging centre stage, which uses a variety of mixed media to create beautiful imagery such as montages of Icka’s daily routine before and after the adventure, the northern lights, and touching moments between the projected Tito and the shadow puppet Icka. However these gorgeous visuals feel somewhat undermined by the fact that young people are being asked to sit and stare predominately at a large screen in a theatre, which proudly announces that “all our shows are in 3D”.

The whole production is powered by several bikes that are pedalled on the side of the stage, enforcing the eco-friendly message of the piece. It is hugely refreshing to see a company not only preaching about saving the planet, but creatively incorporating ways of doing so. The highlight of the production is when children from the audience are invited on stage to help generate electricity to save Tito. In that moment there is a real connection between the performers and the audience, which creates a magical atmosphere in the theatre. Such effort goes in to ensuring the production itself is eco-friendly, that it is disappointing that the narrative does not echo this more clearly.

The design of At The End Of Everything is very in keeping with the sweet story. John Horabin’s animation is charming and holds the production together, while the puppets have a quality similar to the work of artist Rob Ryan. They are just as delightful as the animation and are well manipulated, particularly a fully-working cardboard bike that becomes Icka’s means of flying round the world. Perspective is used well to keep the images engaging and constantly changing, and the interaction between the animation and puppets is impressive. Around the edges of the space there is a trail of empty water bottles that are lit in different colours, again reinforcing the eco-friendly message as well as being aesthetically pleasing.

Due to the technicality of the production there are some dead moments as puppets, bikes and projections are negotiated: this is somewhat disengaging for younger members of the audience and generally the pace of the piece could have been picked up to keep them hooked. Overall though, The End Of Everything Else is a visually stimulating, charming production with an original take on saving the planet.

At The End Of Everything Else is playing at the Unicorn Theatre until 19 April. For more information and tickets see the Unicorn Theatre website.

Lucy Bishop

Lucy Bishop

Lucy is orginally from Bristol and is currently in her final year studying Physical Theatre at East 15. She is part of a comedy Music duo called "Silly People" and is a lover or scramble egg, Louis Theroux and puppets

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INCOMING Preview: Smoking Apples and Little Cauliflower

Posted on 25 March 2014 by Kate Wyver

Smoking Apples – CELL

Puppetry is all about movement. A group of puppeteers creating a show about an incurable muscle-wasting condition that takes away all mobility sounds like a paradox, but the deterioration of movement with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) is what drives Smoking Apples and Little Cauliflower’s new show, CELL. This show is part of A Younger Theatre’s Incoming Festival in May. It is the first collaboration between the two companies, with Little Cauliflower coming at puppetry from the design and technical point of view, and Smoking Apples from a performance one.

Molly Freeman from Smoking Apples says they decided to “go somewhere neither company had gone before”, wanting to explore movement and loss of movement with puppetry. “The overwhelming thing that we found when we met people with MND was that they were so positive, so hopeful.” This mindset has been the basis of the puppet character of Ted, who is “living with Motor Neurone Disease, not dying from it”.

The team did a lot of research on the disease in preparation for the show, working with the Motor Neurone Disease Association and the Royal Hospital of Neuro-Disabilities, to get a grasp of the biomedical side of it. Whilst it’s not an issue based show, “it’s nice to do a little bit to help raise awareness”. Several members of the cast have direct experience of family members with MND and wanted their play to be based in something factual but also personal.

In the play, which is almost entirely non-verbal (“that’s been a challenge”), Ted’s home life is interrupted by lots of people but they’re not necessarily his friends. His one companion is his goldfish, also a puppet. “We decided to try something quite obscure like a goldfish as something he could build a relationship with, and see how much character and personality we could get in it… It’s easier to show someone’s character, their compassion, all those really nice human qualities, when you’ve got a companion.” Ted and his pet fish go on an adventure, showing us the reanimation of this man’s life when he’s losing his ability to move.

As part of the preparation, the companies held rehearsals in Folkestone in a room with glass walls through which they were visible from the street. Freeman says it was like being in a fishbowl. The idea was to attract attention from the locals and engage them, and it was “quite bizarre for the first few days”. During this process they spent a lot of time “smashing everything apart and putting it back together again”, which Freeman describes as a necessary evil in order to intensify and tighten the play. They often get asked whether they are puppeteers or actors, but Freeman insists they are both. “There is a skill in balancing both of them as when you puppeteer you’re pushing your energy through an object but don’t want to be too prevalent.”

Both companies are extremely excited to be part of INCOMING. “It is such a good idea and I was so excited when the line up was announced,” says Freeman. “It’s great to see top quality stuff and be surrounded by brilliant people. That network of people is really important, and is one of the reasons we love collaborating.” Smoking Apples and Little Cauliflower have known each other for three years, and the timing suddenly seemed right to make a show together. Freeman notes that “in a true collaboration you can see both styles working together”, but she says there is still the individual identity of each company within the show. They have all learnt about themselves and their strengths. “We have used our different styles to create something new. They wanted to learn something from us and we wanted to learn something from them.”

The Incoming Festival is a co-production between A Younger Theatre and the New Diorama Theatre. Freeman is looking forward to working at the New Diorama, which they have never performed at before, but which she says has a really incredible support system for emerging artists: “Being given those mentoring skills is invaluable.” She has also followed A Younger Theatre since the beginning: “The form in which it’s done is very clever and insightful,and it doesn’t shy away from the stuff that’s difficult too. It allows everyone access to it.” She stresses the importance of there being a voice for young people making theatre and performance.

CELL has been in development between the two companies for nearly a year. Animating a puppet of a man with no movement is not an obvious treatment of the subject, but hopefully it will achieve Freeman’s ambition: “We really want to push the boundaries of puppetry.”

CELL is at the New Diorama Theatre on 20 May as part of A Younger Theatre’s INCOMING Festival. For more information and tickets, visit NDT’s website


Kate Wyver

Kate Wyver

Kate Wyver tries to go to as much theatre as A Levels will allow. She is going to read Theatre and Performance Studies at Bristol University next year.

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Review: Macbeth, Little Angel Theatre

Posted on 15 October 2013 by Richard Pettifer

Macbeth Little Angel Theatre

Many seem to miss the fact that Macbeth is pretty far-fetched. Sometimes our understanding of supernatural elements borders on the mundane: “Of course a dagger appears out of nowhere. Of course witches tell Macbeth his future. Ah yes – a ghost. Saw one last night!” I suppose this is a result of the post-Shakespearean normalisation of fantasy. Ghosts? We’ve got a world full of talking fish, wizards, teenage vampires and superheroes. Ghosts seem kind of, well, ordinary. But really, Macbeth is no Hamlet or Othello: it asks for a great suspension of disbelief.

The supernatural elements of Macbeth would appear on the surface to sit well with the medium of puppetry, given that the essence of that form is the animation of the inanimate object. Both puppetry and the supernatural create illusory doubles that ask a very real question through an opposing idea – what is the difference between a human and an object? And what is ‘natural’? These two questions, while not the same, are certainly related, and find their basis in the central problem of what it means to be human, and the methods by which we elevate ourselves from the animal, vegetable or mineral worlds.

Therefore it’s appropriate that Little Angel’s production of Macbeth chooses the form of an animal – the bird – to unite these two prongs of animation and supernatural into one cohesive instrument. Watching these false cocks strut and fret about the intimate theatre, their beaks protruding greedily and aggressively as they proclaim the dark machinations of the thick plot against the graceful swans, rather brings home the point that whilst we may make this distinction between animals and objects, the reality is that this is entirely artificial. Just as we may humanise an animal or anthropomorphise an object, the human being, at times, becomes object and/or animal. (There is even a case in the text for them becoming vegetables, as Birnam Wood grows legs and wanders over to Dunsinane.)

That the virtually unlimited potential for this concept is not fully exploited by a tight, workmanlike show, I put down to its surprising insistence to deliver text. Given that, perhaps even more surprisingly, this text is pre-recorded, a lot hinges on James Hesford’s carefully orchestrated Gothic score, the poetry of gesture, and the synchronisation of all of that to deliver vitality to each scene and trajectory to the story. Deliver it does – to a point. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that it robs the play of its primary tool for overcoming the suspension of disbelief – the humanity in the text – lending weight instead to its already gross spectacle.

The play is at its most successful when it works with pure visual and aural metaphor, such as an exquisite representation of the slaughtering of Macduff’s castle. His “pretty chickens and their dam. At one fell swoop?” are literally chickens, and their death a simple white handkerchief with stains of blood placed over the nest, and a slow passing into dormancy: a fascinating arm-wrestle – “What beast was’t, then, / That made you break this enterprise to me?” – that again employs a white sheet in a kind of tug-of-war, or final battle in a brutal cock-fight. But too often gesture and score are left to articulate a pre-recorded life, its own inanimate presence forcefully re-inscribing its omnipotence. This is no slight on the voice actors: it’s a natural consequence of disconnection, perhaps itself of necessity born, but ultimately releasing the audience from empathy with the fantastic.

Macbeth is playing at the Little Angel Theatre until 10 November. For more information and tickets, see the Little Angel Theatre website.

Richard Pettifer

Richard Pettifer is a Berlin-based theatre director and performance artist. He blogs about Berlin theatre at, and his political work ‘People Spoke’ was performed at the Festival of the Wandering Hangar on September 28.

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