The composer and lyricist, and co-adaptor of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, discusses music and puppetry in children’s theatre…
I am currently spending my time (very happily) in rehearsals for We’re Going on a Bear Hunt at the Little Angel Theatre. It’s a puppetry musical for everyone over the age of two, based on the gazillion-selling book by Michael Rosen with Helen Oxenbury’s superb illustrations.
The challenges with Bear Hunt were many fold. There is the Michael Rosen book and his own performance of his well-known poem, with a million hits on YouTube, and there is also a production for large-scale theatre. Then there’s the ownership young children feel about the piece. So when we came to the story, the main question we asked was, what could we bring to the theatrical experience of the book through puppetry and music?
Our challenge in terms of our performers was to cast actor puppeteers who were confident singers and possibly also instrumentalists. We’ve ended up with a cast whose ability to launch into three-part harmony whilst manipulating puppets and remain in character is impressive.
One of the central factors for our focus was set, inspired by the bold natural scenes painted by Oxenbury in the book. We talked a lot about the way we relate to the natural world and about the way that it functions very happily without us. All this tied in to our thinking about music.
The songs emerged during our research and development week a year ago, almost of their own accord. Inspired by the environment, they span a variety of styles and aim to be joyous and elemental. Scouring soundscapes for elements we seamlessly move from the twittering of merry birds into guitar, as humans enter the grasses or forests. Through songs we free the puppetry to be expressive and to move the story forward. Finding a way of doing that so that it’s not the puppets who are singing, we propel the journey through music and movement all the time.
When beginning with puppets and music, the main issue is who is singing what. The songs are a mix of narration and character-sung pieces, and we found that if two puppeteers were singing, the addition of a third voice could lose that sense of a puppet duet.
If you are interested in making children’s work, my advice would be to take inspiration from companies whose work for children is at the highest level. The Little Angel runs courses constantly, and has mentored a great many younger directors and puppeteers.
To find out more about We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, visit the Little Angel Theatre website.