Beccy Smith, Darren East and baby J head to Lancashire for a weekend of top-notch puppetry
Creating visual theatre events within their local community was where Horse and Bamboo, based in the rural East Lancs valley of Rossendale since 1978, began. Large scale processional work, fire displays, music and masks worked to bring communities out and together to commemorate local legends, celebrate events and frame the touring performances that made their steady, horse-drawn way around the region in summer times. Taking over the old Liberal Club in Waterfoot in 1996 (which was soon to be renamed The Boo), offered the company a decent sized and secure home; and it seems only natural that a community festival of puppetry should grow up here, to continue these traditions. And so in 2003 the Boo’s annual Puppet Festival was born.
There’s a great sense of continuity – of a deep working into recurring styles and themes – in this long-running company’s work. This festival, more than any other puppetry festival I have attended, effectively brings together local community with the wider puppetry community. Over the course of the weekend, the same faces and families keep cropping up. Based across every available nook and cranny of the Boo, inside and out, this is not a large festival, but its well organised programme presents excellent puppetry for all ages, and gives audiences a real sense of ownership of the building and the work it supports. Audience members talk about previous festivals and the things they remember and what’s new. People clearly come to spend the whole day; some come for the whole weekend.
This is the first puppetry festival we’ve taken our 15-month-old son to experience, and the wealth of early years programming was part of the appeal. On Saturday 16 July we saw POM, an adaptation of the myth of Persephone for audiences aged 0-4 by Ruth Boycott-Garnett (commissioned by Big Imaginations, a network of venues promoting excellent children’s theatre in the Northwest). Presented in a cosy upstairs creative space, this was a homely and welcoming piece of visual and sensory storytelling, following the story of cheeky and entrancingly life-sized puppet Pom whose curiosity leads her into the wintry underworld and how her mum gets her back and invites in Spring. This is a wide age range to cater for: a six-month-old’s interest and attention span are very different to that a two-year-old can manage, and a four-year-old is different again. The design is based on series of wooden boxes – the aesthetic of discovery is at the heart of the show: from one box music emanates; one is a lovely hand-cut and hand-cranked scrolling shadow screen; one (almost irresistible to my one-year-old) becomes a secret doorway. Using narrative is challenging but the story is well structured to offer many opportunities for interaction and sensory offers at regular intervals, and the young audience entranced by shiny ‘icicles’ to hold and soft fluffy winter hats to wear and hold. Most powerful though is Boycott-Garnett’s emotional directness – she meets every young member of the audience and works with them closely. The intimacy this creates goes a long way to holding all the different age groups together and within the story. And the wonderful interactive surprise at the show’s end demonstrates the delightful discovery that, well done, the magic of theatre can even transform the appeal of vegetables!
On Sunday 17th, we were lucky to squeeze in to Sparkle by Puppetship. This production, created by puppeteer Alison McGowan and visual artist Tanya Axford, and performed by McGowan with musician Alex Finnegan, offers a truly magical experience for its audience of babies that combines live and recorded music, light and projection, object animation and object play. The thoughtfulness of the offer made to young children throughout is something very special. The show takes place in a space defined by colour and sound; we are led in, Pied Piper-like, by a sweetly-made puppet, created from a piece of cloth before our eyes, and live music on what I think is an autoharp. Through the dark curtain and beyond are a series of felt ‘islands’ and cushions on the floor under a giant parasol from which hang an enticing array of glittering, everyday objects with many more intriguing offers collected in buckets to one side. Together, the two performers gently introduce the possibilities of the array of objects to their young audiences. Formally, the production works around the edges of object animation to tease out the many possibilities of everyday things to which young children are so attuned. There’s a strong theme throughout: the colours are blues, white and silver; the atmosphere watery, frosty, space-like and very calm. Feathers fly and tickle, peg fishes nibble at toes; colander jelly fish, tea pot-and-silk birds, glowing corals, and fluffy anemones all visit us around the circle in this 35 minutes of seemingly unstructured but hugely imaginative play. The company understand young children’s fascination with light and use a wide variety of handheld torches, push- and finger-lights brilliantly to share some of the weirder visual qualities of glowing plastic bowls, feathers and cloths. For older children there are object worlds to build and fascinating pulleys that affect lights and objects hanging across the parasol to investigate. By making multiple offers with many different objects, the performers are able to discover way of playing that interest every audience member and supports their needs and help their parents explore new ways of working with them too. This is a performance which fully incorporates the needs and wishes of a young child’s creativity. My one-year-old was so entranced that he kept running over to hug me and laugh in my face as a thank you for bringing him into such a wondrous experience.
Also with us at the festival were Conor (8) and Shannon (5) who were thrilled to experience some world-class original puppetry in work by Theatre-Rites and Indefinite Articles.
Theatre-Rites’s Recycled Rubbish is a streamlined reworking of their much-loved show Rubbish – down from four excavator-performers to two, and a rather more compact pile of binbags – to make it work for touring, including to non-theatre spaces. The mythic ambience of the excavators’ world is sacrificed to more open-handed witty play between the pair, and between them and us; but the favourite characters from the previous show are all present – the little oil-slicked duck, the dog whose owner needs reassembly, the bin-bag sorting monster, and – still a tour de force – the glove-man on his epic quest to find his partner. A fantastic puppetry-driven show whose visual magic inspires its young audience (Conor and Shannon declared it ‘amazing’).
Claytime, created by Steve Tiplady and Sally Todd, is a masterclass in clowning and visual improvisation which, as in all of the best puppetry, perfectly marries form and subject. The show has been a hit with young audiences (and some older ones) for years: it’s a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed. Taking place on an enticingly plastic-sheeted floor, in front of a simple blue-domed backdrop, the entire content is created before our eyes. Sally brings the clay and is the perfect ‘straight man’, sharing simply with the audience the satisfaction of amassing her collection, working it, holding it. Tiplady is the fool, who rushes in, fascinated by the game and sets about disrupting it. The couple know exactly how to set up and break rules with their audience, who lap up every moment of silliness with glee. After a tightly choreographed 20 minutes of clay-based clowning, the audience are in the palm of our performers’ hands, and more than ready for the challenge of the show’s second half: improvising, overseen by Tiplady, their own story to be created live out of clay by Todd. This process is really well managed – all the right questions are asked (you can discern Tiplady’s background performing with improvisational pros, Improbable) and the audience feel thrillingly switched on. As Sally steadily sculpts, a story emerges about lost penguins, greedy stick-men and a lot of death (don’t worry, we find a happy ending). In the final act, the story is comically puppeteered using Todd’s clay figures, before the audience are invited on to stage to do what they’ve been longing to since the show began, and make their own creations. An exhilarating and inspiring experience for children, setting the bar high for their expectations of theatre to involve and entertain them.
The theatre programme across three spaces is held together by a rolling programme of free outdoor shows, walkabouts, and music in the courtyard.
Whalley Range All Stars’ new show Ye Gods features a whole miniature town created, managed and eventually destroyed by its performer-gods. I never managed to see it straight through, which no doubt influenced my finding it slightly opaque for a big outdoor piece, but there were lovely moments: the Russian-doll reproducing coffee shops, elbowing other buildings out of their way; proliferating and wailing plastic babies pouring in and out of hospital windows; and a properly apocalyptic ending.
The completely ingenious and delightful Clapper Box, by The Fetch Theatre, comprised a row of little proscenium booth stages, occupied by various household objects. Each one awaits both a performer, and one or two audience members from the public. We all wear headphones: the performer gets instructions of what to do with the objects, while the audience hear the story – they are all well-known film extracts, so everyone feels at home. It is strangely hilarious – and delightful that every time you go past there’s someone calling out ‘I need an audience’, or requesting a performer to unlock what will happen with the corkscrew and the bottle-brush. It all quickly becomes highly interactive and fun, and, what’s more, makes everyone a puppeteer!
There were also one-to-one performances from several artists who’d spent the three weeks prior to the festival working with Horse and Bamboo to make these brand new pieces – they were wildly varied; you could see a show in a space helmet, have your portrait painted by a puppet, meet Thomas Byrne’s hamburger who wants to escape his microwave oven and sing, and, in the tiny secret garden space, Araceli Cabrera Caceres presented a rather magical and understated five-minute object theatre piece in which a series of beautiful and minimally worked pieces of driftwood became mythical creatures. A dragon crossed a pale drum moon and a tiny warrior dreamed (or was it real) of flying on her. A lovely introduction to the possibilities of object theatre.
Also in the secret garden, In The Bellows presented two short pieces both built into their portable puppet stage formed of a deconstructed old accordion. In Blue a tiny puppet grandfather helps his young granddaughter to head off on her own adventures, in a miniature epic with some precise puppetry, foot-powered bellows, and neat switches of scale. In Strings and Wire, Breath and Keys, an elderly inhabitant helps his human visitor to fully appreciate the many and fascinating aural possibilities offered by the instrument’s different parts. Featuring live loop pedalling and singing and a neat bit of puppet deconstruction too, this was another sweet calling card from this emerging company.
Mark Whitaker presented Horse & Bamboo’s own brand-new short outdoor piece Special Delivery as a bicycling, bumbling, postman who in a fortuitous mixup of labels, delivers four recipients each other’s parcels, with happily surprised outcomes. The four live in the large parcels on his bike, and are each represented by a different puppetry or visual form, giving a varied twenty minutes held together by Mark’s characterful charm.
Throughout the weekend there was a rolling programme of live music happening, and the young people particularly enjoyed the intriguing instrument and generous theatricality of Jali Nyonkoling Kuyateh on the kora, who was also happy to let them have a go on the instrument.
The Boo’s Puppet Festival places puppetry right at the heart of its community. The packed daytime family programme, which makes it easy to spend a day seeing work, watching music, participating in puppetry (including some great carnival-making workshops which culminate in a procession at the end of the Sunday afternoon) runs alongside an evening programme of top quality work, reviewed here.
Based in and around one building, this is a child-scaled festival, offering a real sense of ownership of this building and the art form it champions to its audiences that doesn’t compromise on the quality of the contemporary puppetry it brings to this secluded valley. And the sun shone!
Boo Puppet Festival ran 14–17 July 2016. See www.horseandbamboo.org
Beccy Smith, Darren East and baby J attended the festival 16 & 17 July 2016.
Featured Image (top) is Puppetfish: Sparkle