Author Archives: Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing. www.dorothymaxprior.com

Roll up, Roll up! The Carnival is in Town!

This year’s Out There International Festival of Street Arts and Circus in Great Yarmouth has a distinct carnivalesque vibe – channelling the sideshow traditions and popular entertainment tropes of days of yore, writes Dorothy Max Prior

Circus, street theatre, music, interactive game playing, and outdoor arts of all sorts across Great Yarmouth’s streets, parks and venues. Yes, here we are again – another Out There Festival. They come round quickly! But hang on – it doesn’t feel like a year since the last one. Which is because it isn’t – the Festival has moved from September to the spring half-term holiday weekend at the end of May/beginning of June, meaning that the 2024 edition comes hot on the heels of the last one in Autumn 2023.

‘It’s been hard work and something of a rush,’ says executive director Veronica Stephens. ‘I had a short holiday after wrapping up the last one, then it was Christmas, and then – countdown to the next one!’

But they’ve done it – bravo. Artistic director Joe Mackintosh, Veronica, and their team of bright young producers and administrators have somehow pulled it all off. And that’s whilst also instigating the development of the Ice House – a massive project that will see the building developed into a multi-use community arts venue and a national centre of excellence for circus and outdoor arts training and creation for Yarmouth.

And it’s another great line-up for Out There this year, with the usual mix of local, national and international work of all scales – although this time round the festival is a little more contained, starting on Thursday evening with Party in the Park and some indoor shows; then bursting out all over the town on Friday 31 May and Saturday 1 June, but with a substantial amount of community engagement leading up to that action-packed weekend programme.

Gorilla Circus: RPM

One of the shows I’m most excited about is the return of the legendary Insect Circus: We thought they’d retired, but the insects and their trainers are back for one final extravaganza … The Final Grand Finale, in fact –  staged on the Friday and Saturday evening of the festival in the Park. 

The Insect Circus was created by partners in life and work, Mark Copeland and Sarah Munro. Both are visual artists with a theatrical bent. Mark is a BAFTA winning designer (for his work on the BBC series Gormenghast). His work as a maker and painter can be seen in Yarmouth at Out There’s headquarters at the Drill House – it was he who designed the fabulous ‘giant paper theatre’ proscenium stage for the venue, and his legendary pink snail painting hangs on the venue’s wall. Sarah is a sought-after costume designer, these days well known for her work with theatre company 1927. The couple have a longstanding relationship with the Festival, having brought numerous shows to previous editions, including The Equidae Retirement Home for Pantomime Horses, set in the windows of  Palmers department store; and Miss O’ Genie’s Dazzling Dollirama, in which Miss O’Genie and her Damnable Dolls presented an alternative approach to a coconut shy, giving us a chance to throw things at famous misogynists. 

‘They have an amazing ability to reflect on circus and theatre work of the past and give it a modern twist’ says Joe.

The Insect Circus started life as a set of paintings by Mark Copeland – giving us such wondrous images as ‘a giant stag beetle closing its jaws around Mr. Maroc the Beast Tamer, two ladybirds drawing a pram with a clown inside, and the Great Flingo outlining the fragile wings of a butterfly with thrown knives’. (As eloquently described in an interview with Mark in Sideshow Circus Magazine

The Insect Circus featuring Pippa Coram as Albina the Awesome

Then came The Insect Circus Museum, an installation housed in a specially modified truck – an old horse box kitted out like a vintage gypsy caravan – which toured to festivals. Audience members entered in two’s and threes to find a fabulous display of carefully crafted figurines, skilful automata, letterpress posters and other printed ephemera celebrating the daring-do’s of the fleas, butterflies, wasps and ants who were the stars of this allegedly world-renowned circus. ‘Cabaret Mechanical’ style boxes lit up when buttons were pushed to reveal the teeny performers in action: snarling wasps are tamed; fleas hop in acrobatic harmony; and The Peaple, a Liverpool-based bug band, sing their little hearts out. The installation was finally retired as a touring show a year or two ago, and is now housed in its own specially designed ‘museum’ at Great Livermore in Suffolk.

A couple of years after the installation was set up came the idea of a live show, with circus and cabaret artists taking on insect roles, wearing beautiful costumes designed by Sarah. I particularly remember the show at London’s beautiful old music hall venue, The Hoxton Hall, featuring a lovely aerial act that told the sad story of the Mayfly, who only lives for one day… 

Many different artists were involved over the years – the show is almost a roll-call for Britain’s contemporary circus and variety community. Lots of those legendary names are back for the grand finale – the show is being revived, but then immediately retired again. It’s a catch-it-if-you-can last chance scenario! Mark and Sarah put a call-out to anyone and everyone who had ever been involved, with the idea of bringing 12 performers together. They’ve ended up with 25 travelling to Yarmouth to take part. ‘And that’s not including the children,’ says Mark, who goes on to tell me that one performer, Pippa Coram (aka Albina the Awesome), is coming all the way from Australia for the show! There’s also Simon Deville as The Great Flingo, Marcos Rivas Farpon as Mr Maroc (expect some Iberian stag-beetle wrestling), and Safia Amalgharabi as Talullah the Worm Charmer. Aerialist Vicky McManus is returning with her daughter Saskia Poulter for the Mothball Bolero, Phoebe Babette Baker will perform as Phee and her Bee on the tightwire, and Ashling Deeks brings Dungo out of retirement. Then there’s Dungo’s trainer, Peggy Babcock IV, played by company stalwart Persephone Pearl, who was last (un)seen as the back end of a pantomime horse… 

Marisa Carnesky’s Showwomen

This year’s festival will also see another Insect Circus associate Marisa Carnesky on the bill – one of the few indoor shows on the programme, her magnificent Marisa Carnesky’s Showwomen is on Thursday 30th and Friday 31st at the Hippodrome – Britain’s legendary oldest purpose-built circus venue.

Joe tells me that programming in to the Hippodrome fulfils a longstanding ambition: ’We used to put some shows in there,’ he says. ‘But then the Hippodrome’s summer show season was extended, so September was no longer possible – but with our change of dates to May, it is now possible. And it is our intention going forward that we do have a show in the Hippodrome each season. Something that does span the popular and contemporary worlds. With the Ice House opening next year, we hope to build on our indoor programme ’. 

Showwomen is a spectacular four-woman show researched and directed by Marisa Carnesky It has been created in collaboration with Veronica Thompson (aka hair-hanger extraordinaire Fancy Chance), performance poet and sword artist Livia Kojo Alour, and ‘fire lady’ and suspension artist Lucifire. The show asks: What happens to the showgirl when she grows up? And why and how do women perform dangerous and taboo acts? The four contemporary circus/live art performers explore their own showwomen circus and sideshow practices with reference to the legacy of forgotten and marginalised British entertainers; taking as inspiration 1880s teeth hanging aerialist superstar Miss La La, 1930s pioneer clown Lulu Adams, 1940s body magic star Koringa, and 1950s Western skilled performer Florence Shufflebottom. The show interweaves live action, in-depth interviews and archival footage to create a dreamlike landscape mixing death-defying stunts, taboo-breaking acts, notions of political resistance, and secret backstage rituals. ‘Expect witchy goings-on in full leopard-print, naked crocodile women scaling walls, ladders of swords, live hair-hanging, never-ending pom poms and ectoplasmic clowns,’ says Marisa.

Compagnie Têtes de Mules: Parasite Circus

Back to the outdoor programme: something that immediately caught my attention was Compagnie Têtes de Mules (great name!) with Parasite Circus, which promises ‘fairground theatre, smoking, nudity, loud bangs, buffoons, and hideous puppets’. An irresistible combination, I’d say.

‘They’re a French company, and it’s real street theatre, ‘ says Joe. ‘There’s a bit of a lack of that on the European circuit at the moment, with a lot of the work dance or circus based. Têtes de Mules combine a contemporary arts sensibility with popular entertainment values. Blood spurts over the audience – it’s a lot of fun! Dark humour, we like that!’

Ah, so a tie-in with Marisa Carnesky’s Showwomen and The Insect Circus – adding to the carnivalesque circus-sideshow vibe of this year’s Out There Festival. ‘Exploring the sideshow tradition in a contemporary way,’ as Joe puts it. 

Also with something of a sideshow vibe comes legendary maker Paka the Uncredible, who is returning to Out There Festival with Bag of Snakes, addressing the bad image Medusa has received over the years… 

‘Paka will be part of what we’re calling the Ava-go-goville,’ says Veronica. 

This bespoke zone will be sited on one of the greens in the town, between park and seafront, and will feature contemporary mock-amusement-arcade type interactive entertainments. The Losers Arcade (a big hit in 2023) will be back, along with the  Miniscule of Sound’s World’s Smallest Nightclub, and Professor WM Bligh’s Circus Photo Tent.

The Losers Arcade

Also channelling the carnivalesque will be perennial favourites Rimski and Handkerchief, the musical clown duo who will roam the streets of Yarmouth on their pedal-powered Bicycle Piano and Double Bassicle. We are invited to accompany Rimski & Handkerchief as they pedal, plonk and play their way through some of Out There’s key locations, singing songs of timeless wonder, en route to a favourite picnic spot for An Afternoon Out – which will no doubt see them setting out their stall of bric-a-brac and wondrous objects of all sorts.

Great also to see that local supported artists and Festival favourites CocoLoco are back again, this time with Mafia Wedding, which will engage students from local performing arts colleges as bridal entourage and wedding guest extras. The show tells the tale of a mafia boss with a pregnant daughter in urgent need of a groom (not to mention a bridesmaid, a priest, and a congregation) for a shotgun wedding about to take place! Out There have been instrumental in moving CocoLoco on from their classic two-handers to larger ensemble shows, often working with community performers and students, for example in last year’s show Shangri-la-la, which is now touring in the UK and elsewhere.

‘They’ve got an amazing wealth of experience and knowledge [in street arts and performance] and we’ve been hooking them up with younger artists and students for quite a long while now,’ says Joe.

Another company who have received consistent support over the years from the Festival is Gorilla Circus, who this year have been artists-in-residence at the Drill House, the organisation’s year-round venue, and take a new direction when they return to Out There Festival 2024 not with flying trapeze, high-wire or hair-hanging – as seen in a previous outings to Yarmouth such as their large-scale show Unity.This time, it’s a ground-based show, RPM.

‘It’s more urban dance than circus – no aerial at all this time,’ says Veronica. So, dance acrobatics and rollerskating – all staged on a moving treadmill.

‘Thematically, it’s exploring the repercussions and recovery from colonialism,’ says Joe. ‘And with some really unusual movement work – a really strong piece.’

‘Unity was the show they developed after they’d had the experience of working with Generik Vapeur,’ says Veronica. (Gorilla Circus worked with French maestros Generik Vapeur on Bivouac and Merci pour l’Accueil.)

 ‘Unity has spoken word, working with a poet, and is a political piece – moving away from the spectacle; the ooohs and the aaahs. Meaningful and very moving’

Gorilla Circus are based in the region and are now an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation.

 ‘We’ve helped them on the road – and are helping get their work out in Europe,’ says Joe. ‘They are touring Unity now – but also creating work in new directions (such as RPM) rather than staying with the familiar. We’ve always encouraged them to explore a greater range of artistic forms and to experiment with scale. Unity is a work of scale, but cleverly designed, so transportable. But they have smaller scale works too, which is good.’ 

15Feet6: Primus. Photot: Geert De RyckeBoulevart

Also on the circus and dance front, we have a good number of strong international shows. 

Primus, by Belgium-based 15Feet6, is a collaboration between Finnish Cyr wheel specialist Rosa Tyyskä (formerly of Cirque du Soleil and the Finnish female collective Sisus), and the equally busy and skilled Belgian Jasper D’Hondt who specialises in teeterboard, Russian bar, acrobatic bicycle and acrobatic roller skating. The 2020 lock-down forced the couple off the international touring circuit and into collaboration with each other – and the bicycle-for-two show Primus was the result!

Collectif Bim”s Place Assis (which translates as ‘a place to sit’) is a non-verbal performance that explores the ways people behave on public benches – and the way they interact with each other, the five performers challenging the norms that rule public spaces and social relationships.

Portuguese born (but Yarmouth based) Dulce Duca – juggler, rollerskater and street performer extraordinaire – is back with Unstoppable – a two-woman show, first made with Sarah Munro for the Bartholomew Fair in London, and on this occasion performed  with Tsubi Du from Australia – a costume designer and actress now based in Norwich, which Joe says will be ‘highly participatory’ and a ‘classic piece of street theatre, drawing people more and more into the show’. Which I can well believe: I first met Duca in Guadalajara when we were both performing with the Ficho Festival Caravana, where I witnessed her taming gangs of Mexican teens in some of Guadalajara’s more deprived neighbourhoods, training them to throw her clubs or allow her to balance on their shoulders.

Joe points out that participation and inclusion – always key components to Out There Festival – will take centre-stage at next year’s Festival, which will have participation and  inclusion as its theme, and will see a collaboration with international circus and street arts organisation Circostrada, with the Fresh conference welcoming a large cohort of international delegates, and an enlarged Festival in May 2025. 

Collectif Bim: Place Assis

But back to 2024: I’ve also noticed some interesting musical acts lined up: the Imaginary Orchestra, for example.

‘That’s Eric Tarantola,’ says Veronica. ‘I saw him at Chalons [French street theatre festival] and he is very engaging – simple and effective – a one-man-band using everyday objects to make good quality music.’

‘You’ll remember that we had a focus last year on music within circus and street arts,’ says Joe. ‘We’ve long championed the more unusual musical forms, that fit with the festival, and Eric is a good example.’

Veronica also flags up Kumpania Algazarra – a Portuguese company of musicians who bring together high energy jazz, Latin and Balkan rhythms, with both a static show and a processional walkabout act.

’They’re great at interventions in public space – parading around, jumping into arcades and cafes,’ says Veronica. ‘We feel that they’ll engage well with the Portuguese speaking community in Great Yarmouth’. For indeed, there are very many of those in the area – people from Portugal, although more likely from Angola, Mozambique or other former colonial territories.

Kumpania Algazarra

This year’s Out There Festival will also see the launch of YOT – Young Out There – recognising what Joe describes as ‘the upswelling of youth music and grassroots music here in Yarmouth, which we’ve helped to develop in tandem with the Creative People and Places’ Freshly Greated programme. We hosted a season of gigs – GIGGY – in the autumn. We had a reach out to the community to find young bands and musicians, and we wanted to find some more unusual ways and means for them to perform at the Festival. Some of the  young musicians had submitted videos of themselves rapping in cars, so we thought – let’s get a car!’

Hence, getting an old scrapped car that could be be graffiti’d: somewhere other than a regular stage where young artists could perform – in, around or upon! The car will be in the park throughout the Festival, as part of the YOT programme. 

Also part of the outreach programme is the now established relationship with East Norfolk Sixth Form College, who will host a week-long programme of workshops, training sessions and seminars run by Out There artists, attended not just by the students of the Sixth Form College, but by participants from a number of local schools and colleges – with over 1,000 young people taking part.

The organisation’s communications and audience development manager, Marcin Rodwell, who leads on access for Out There, flags up the SEND festival (Special Educational Needs) programme – now linked in to Out There Festival, as using the Festival’s resources seems to make sense! So Out There opened their doors to the collaboration. And it’s a two-way process:

‘They help us with our access offer,’ Marcin says. ‘They will be providing British Sign Language interpreters and audio description, touch tours and more.’ 

Marcin also flags up the ongoing heritage training and outreach programme for the Ice House, which once played a crucial role in Great Yarmouth’s fishing industry. They are working with 11 schools and three local colleges,  running workshops and enabling participants to create art work in response to the site’s heritage.

‘Participants are making a creative response using different artforms,’ says Marcin. ‘That could be photography, literature, film, game design, sound design…’

Veronica mentions the Out There professional programme, which will take place at the Drill House from Thursday 30th onwards, with informal meet-and-greets, drinks receptions, and sessions run by Outdoor Arts UK, the national organisation for all professionals working in the sector – artists, producers, programmers and more. 

So once again, the Out There International Festival of Street Arts and Circus is going to be a hub of activity of all sorts. Get out there, do!

Out There Festival runs 30 May to 1 June 2024. View the programme here

More About Out There Arts

Great Yarmouth based, but collaborating internationally, Out There Arts is an independent arts development charity dedicated to delivering outstanding circus and street arts events. 

Their focus on circus and street arts grows naturally from this seaside town’s rich performance heritage, providing an accessible medium to support their work. 

The organisation delivers an arts development function for Great Yarmouth Borough Council, developing the town as an International Centre of Excellence for circus and street arts creation, training and delivery.

More About the Ice House

A Grade II listed building of brick construction with a thatched roof, the Great Yarmouth Ice House, once one of a pair, is now the only one of its kind left in the country. 

Out There Arts have a vision to transform it into a National Centre for Outdoor Arts and Circus. This imaginative and creative use of the building will further develop the town’s reputation as the capital of circus in the UK as well as further link the town’s fishing and circus heritage.

All funding is now in place, with the project supported by the Architectural Heritage Fund and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Arts Council England, Great Yarmouth Borough Council, and the building’s former owners Towns Deal Brineflow.

Capital works began in February 2024, and is scheduled for completion in March 2025, in time for Out There Festival 2025.

See www.outtherearts.org.uk 

This Is Memorial Device: A Portal Into Our Collective Musical Memories

‘What is a memorial device? Is it like a pocket watch that you’ve inherited? Is it like a gravestone? Or is it more like a dictaphone – a dictaphone where you can record your memories? Is it like a marker in the sand? What is a memorial device?’

This is Ross Raymond speaking. He’s invited us here, to this theatre, to celebrate and commemorate Memorial Device. Ross wants to share his memories of the band with an audience who may or may not remember them, too; for us, collectively, to rediscover these experiences in a ritualistic manner. ‘I can’t do this without you,’ he says. ‘You are the final element of this ritual, this spell.’

I’m sure you do remember the band, am I right? Well, if you’re of a certain age, anyway. From Lanarkshire in Scotland (Airdrie, specifically)? Made waves – industrial strength waves, to be precise – in the early- to mid-1980s? Kind of a cross between garage band psychedelia and Krautrock? Although it’s hard to pin-point their sound exactly…

And yes, after performances of the newly re-staged theatre show, This is Memorial Device, or after readings from the book of the same name that it is drawn from, by acclaimed Scottish author David Keenan, people do come up and share their memories of the band – or even suggest point-of-information corrections about which band members lived where in Airdrie, and who did what back in the day.

There’s only one problem with this: the band never existed. Or perhaps it is more correct to say that the band only exists in the imagination of David Keenan – and nowadays also in the heads of the very many people who have read the book sometime over the past seven years, or engaged with the very many Memorial Device manifestations in the real or virtual world, which include the theatrical adaptation (touring Spring 2024), the numerous fan-fiction tributes, and the band’s Twitter/X account – which has nothing at all to do with David Keenan, but has an independent life of its own. So Memorial Device have been conjured up into the world, as if by magick. They exist as much as anything else exists in our memories and imaginations. And who on earth knows where memory ends and imagination begins?

‘People do think it is real,’ says David. ‘I’m interested in how you can retrospectively affect people’s memories.’  

David’s novel is a fabulous smorgasbord of first-person accounts that can be read as stand-alone short stories, but taken together add up to a history of the mysterious and legendary Memorial Device and the post-punk and alternative arts scene of Airdrie and surrounding districts in 1983 and 1984. A history, yes, but not a definitive one. There are numerous narrators, reliable and unreliable. There are conflicting accounts, and incidents are revisited from multiple viewpoints throughout. 

‘The book is unfathomable,’ says David. ‘There is no bottom to get to. You don’t solve the mystery of Memorial Device. The reason This Is Memorial Device is so alive seven years after publication is that it is a living, growing entity.’ He says that readers could read the stories in any order they wished; and, gleefully approving of the fact that I found it hard to keep up with all the characters and events in the book, suggests that I re-read it from the end story back to the beginning. ‘It’s designed like an ouroboros – when it ends, you can begin again. There are multiple entry and exit points.’

I’ll say also that it all feels true to life because it is. The characters and plots might be fiction, but it’s informed by David’s own experiences growing up in Airdrie in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and his involvement in the post-punk music scene. So all the details – the houses people live in, the objects in their homes, the bands, the music, the rehearsal rooms, the venues, the weird makeshift art installations and zines and happenings – all live and breathe. There’s a real sense of emotional truth and lived experience at the heart of it all. And despite a few harrowing incidents, and the background of tough working lives and lurking violence or abuse, the overall feel is one of optimism – a ‘let’s say yes to life’ vibe that is ever-present.

‘The book is all about possibility,’ says David. ‘Things were so incredible then, post punk, especially in small working-class towns. The avant-garde was on the street – it really felt like anything was possible.’

Field trip to Airdrie. David Keenan, Gavin Thomson and Stephen McRobbie. Photo by Steven Gribbin

Book, and theatrical adaptation, also serve as psychogeographic journeys to an Airdrie that no longer exists. The opening shot in the show is of a grainy photograph of David playing guitar, back in the 1980s. A photo taken by schoolfriend Martin Clark, who happens coincidentally (and what is coincidence, after all) to have come on board as the show’s video maker. Still photos are a crucial element of the show’s scenography.

‘For the past 25 years, I’ve been photographing Airdrie with absolutely no goal in mind,’ says David. ‘I’d go there and drive around and take black-and-white photos of streets and cafes and houses – often unpopulated shots. The Airdrie that exists in those photos is gone now…’ 

Which prompts another interesting reflection: photo as memorial device. The camera captures a second, and that image replaces any memories we might otherwise have had of that moment in time. The stage show uses those images, projected as a backdrop: ‘It’s remarkable how it has all come together’.

Sometimes we don’t know why we are doing something, but the reason emerges much later. It’s an argument in favour of instinct-led art making. As David puts it, ‘artistry is uncovering, finding out what the piece wants to be, rather than going in with a fixed idea of what it will be’.

Paul Higgins as narrator Ross Raymond in This Is Memorial Device. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

‘OK. Why am I doing this? I’m doing it because of Memorial Device. I’m doing this to stand up for Airdrie…I’m doing it because for a moment, when everything seemed impossible, everyone was doing everything – reading, listening, writing, creating, sticking up posters, passing out, throwing up, rehearsing rehearsing rehearsing in dark windowless rooms, like the future was just up ahead… and now already it’s the rotten past, isn’t it?’ – Ross Raymond

This is Memorial Device is not your regular kind of theatrical adaptation of a novel. It’s a piece of collaboratively made total theatre that merges first-person storytelling, ritual, quirky choreography, striking visual imagery, and video and photo projection; with a musical score developed in tandem with the other elements. 

The starting point came pre-pandemic when writer/director Graham Eatough mentioned to David Greig – Suspect Culture collaborator and artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh – that he had read and loved This is Memorial Device, and would be interested in musing on ways the novel could be adapted to a stage show. Graham had previously worked with David Greig and Nick Powell on the stage adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s 1981 novel Lanark, presented at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2015. 

Graham was a friend of musician Stephen McRobbie of Glasgow band The Pastels – also known as Stephen Pastel – who is a longtime fan of This is Memorial Device and a friend of David Keenan.

‘I felt that if David was on board, I’d be happy to be as well,’ says Stephen. ‘It is such an incredible novel that I wanted that affirmation from David. As it happens, Graham and David got on like a house on fire. And we all agreed that we wanted the show to keep the intensity of the book – we really didn’t want it to be lightweight nostalgia for the 1980s.’

The three worked together to create an initial workshop and a reading with music, presented at the Royal Lyceum Theatre’s Playing With Books slot at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. This experience gave them the impetus to pursue the project into a full theatrical adaption – and prompted the Lyceum to commission the work.

‘It was great to work with the author; the primary source,’ says Graham. ‘David was so generous with his material. The book invites you to reconsider your own experiences of this time… Adapting became a process of selection and amplification. The book has so many different voices in it, and so many different stories in it, that the process of selection was really challenging!’

Which is understandable, as the book has 26 different stories, mostly narrated by different characters – although it starts with Ross Raymond, would-be music journalist and zine editor, who is one of the few to get more than one story in the book. 

The solution was to make Ross Raymond the narrator of the theatre piece – although with some material filched from another character, Johnny McLaughlin. Ross, played by renowned Scottish actor Paul Higgins, is the only onstage performer – other characters are represented on-screen. 

‘Paul is absolutely magical,’ says Graham. ‘He has been completely central to the project, and really owns it. He’s around the same age [of the story’s main characters] with a similar background and some comparable experiences. He loves the book, and he’s bought into the idea of really doing something extraordinary in collaboration with the audience for that hour and a quarter they are together.’

So, no fourth walls here! The fact that Paul once trained for the priesthood is probably an added bonus when it comes to creating a sense of communion and shared ritual with the audience. It turns out that Ross has his own agenda that is slightly different to that stated at the beginning, this revealed as the show progresses, but that is for the audience to experience and discover.

So Ross and his, and our, relationship to Memorial Device is at the heart of the show, with some other elements of the novel necessarily sacrificed. 

‘A lot of our favourite stories aren’t in the show,’ says Graham, ‘because we had to be true to our chosen narrative; to put the real-time onstage storyteller Ross at the heart of the 75-minute show.’

It’s a wise decision – to give time and space to the limited amount of chosen material, rather than trying to shoehorn in too much. And although the focus is on Ross’s memories of Memorial Device, we never actually get to hear the music the band made.

‘One of the things that was always on my mind is that there shouldn’t be any music by Memorial Device in the production,’ says David. ‘Everyone has their own Memorial Device and I don’t think any music could live up to the idea people have of them in their head. Stephen and collaborator Gavin Thomson did this really well – worked around it somehow, without overtly stating it.’

Stephen talks of the process of creating the score, which evolved in tandem with all the other elements of the production, in consultation with Graham and David – so a truly collaborative venture. 

Stephen learnt, after the Playing with Books workshop, that it would be crucial to get trusted sound designer and technician Gavin, who he has worked with on Pastels live gigs, on board. And Gavin became far more than a technician:

‘Gav always does The Pastels live sound. He’s easy to be around and great with sound – and he’s a problem-solver, no tantrums. With This Is Memorial Device, I suppose we brought him in as our tech but he became a trusted and equal collaborator for me. I’d never worked with him in the studio before this, but will probably do so from now on.’

Stephen started with revisiting old cassette tapes of music he had made in the 1980s – so, music that existed before the book was even written:

‘The first music that I found that I thought fitted was made with my friend Corky [John McCorkindale]. We’d made this stuff as teenagers in his bedroom – usually when very drunk! We had this track called We Have Sex. We were trying to sound like Cabaret Voltaire, but were pretty inept. David heard it and thought it was a masterpiece!’

This and other 1980s pieces aren’t presented in their pure forms in the show, as Stephen says they are ‘too gnarly’, but have been worked into new sound compositions, created with Gavin: ‘There is a lot of beauty in the book and we wanted to bring that out.’  

He cites a track called ‘The Most Beautiful House in Airdrie’, which he describes as reflecting the fact that the house is indeed lovely, but infused with an air of decay. The resulting instrumental piece is a softly melancholic, bittersweet mix that captures the essence of the house perfectly. I see the track as featuring a typical Pastels guitar sound, but Stephen clarifies:

‘Gav and I both wrote chord progressions for ‘The Most Beautiful House In Airdrie’ – both of us on keyboards away from each other, unaware of what the other was doing. Gav played the guitar on this, as I had bad arthritis on the day we recorded it. I think he played it with a nod to my style and we didn’t revisit. I really like his playing! I’m on keyboards and xylophone on this one.’

And yes, elsewhere we get dashes of post-punk, industrial and noise music – but these merging effortlessly into melodic tracks that have more in common with Ryuichi Sakamoto than Throbbing Gristle. Stephen has employed his Pastels bandmates Katrina Mitchell (vocals) and Tom Crossley (flute) together with drummer Jennifer Hamilton; and he has worked with Gavin – a self-declared synth enthusiast – on creating a score that constantly echoes and references the experimenters and garage bands of the 1980s whilst sounding contemporary.

The final track of the show is the one that comes closest to evoking Memorial Device. The theatrical conceit is that it is the last piece of music made by the band’s singer Lucas Black before his death. Lucas has made field recordings outside his home at the break of dawn, and this track, ‘The Morning of the Executioners’, has been subsequently ‘sonically dicked with’ by Lucas’s bandmates, guitarist Patty Pierce and bass player Remy Parr.

‘That final track is euphoric, uplifting, transformative,’ says David ‘Audiences have responded so well to it. It’s a big YES!’

And David likes the word ‘yes’! His favourite ever book ending is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which ends with Molly Bloom saying ‘… yes I said yes I will.’ The on-stage This is Memorial Device similarly ends with a yes – this written in by Graham without him making the Ulysses connection until David pointed it out. Another meaningful coincidence…

‘I’m learning more and more about the book by watching the production,’ says David.

This Is Memorial Device. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

A story from the book that becomes a lynchpin of the show is that of band fan and associate Anthea Anderson. She recalls the Memorial Device rehearsal room under the railway arches, where a train would pass every fifteen minutes and the whole room would shake with this industrial noise: ‘You can hear it on the early recordings’, she says. ‘They said it added to the ambience.’

She goes on to recall a landscape painting on the wall that she said seemed incongruous:

‘But when I would go to the rehearsal to hang out, I would sit and stare at it, this forest scene. It was as if I could imagine myself entering it… It was as if the music had made it open up, as if it were alive. This is only me probably, but I’d go wandering amongst the trees and the bushes along this path. It was always confused. Like, it wasn’t really happening, but I wasn’t imagining it either. It was like a portal, you know? Does this sound crazy? It was there to get inside.’

The notion of portals through which we can pass to explore the music of Memorial Device and the enigma of the band, and indeed to find out more about ourselves and our memories, is central to the stage production. In essence, we are taken on a quest of discovery – and we must commit to that quest.

This story also includes a description of the band’s music, which has made it into the show’s recorded score – a track that emerged from Stephen and Gavin jamming a response to the scene. Their music invites us to form our own impressions of the band, complementing rather than illustrating Anthea’s description:

‘Patty playing one chord on the guitar, Richard playing a mechanical rhythm on the drums, Remy alternating between these two notes on the bass… and Lucas would step up to sing and he was so handsome back then. His big lips,  big Bambi eyes, his long fringe… He’d step up to sing and his lyrics would be about one thing at a time – thinking something, then seeing something, then doing something. One thing would happen after the next, like an automatic voice playing out without any personal volition…’

Although Memorial Device remain the focus, I’m pleased to learn that the story of another Airdrie band, Chinese Moon, makes it into the show…

Chinese Moon are showroom dummies. Literally. The narrator of this story is Chinese Moon member David Kilpatrick, who tells the tale of how band member Duncan’s dad, who had a high street clothes shop, agreed to let the boys appropriate the store’s mannequins, dress them in their school uniforms, and place them in the shop window with tapes playing behind them – something in between an installation and a gig. So this becomes how the band always appear when they play – absent but present. Chinese Moon appear on stage in the production as, naturally enough, mannequins.

‘The mannequins are a great way of populating the stage,’ says Graham, ‘and there are all the associations of animation and resurrection that are relevant metaphors’. Another element he highlights is the choreography (by movement director Kally Lloyd-Jones), inspired by a story in the book that describes Lucas Black leading a dance workshop in the local library. The idea of what that might be is turned into an element of ritualistic performance; a recurring movement motif that weaves through the show.

‘We invent endings, really… There is no resolution. No fixed beginning, no neatly tied up end. People have tried to read into it so much, but it was just a moment – passing.’ – Ross Raymond  

So for an hour and a quarter we are taken on the quest with our narrator. From a theatrical point of view, it is a complete experience – but it isn’t one that answers all questions. There is room to think on.

‘People want art that can be solved, wrapped up, and thus abandoned – filed away in a folder marked “understood”. I’m much more interested in art that is an organic entity,’ says David.

He is confident that Memorial Device will continue to mutate into new incarnations. The book and the theatre show will live on, as will the spin-offs not authored by David Keenan – who in any case sees himself as ‘a vessel, a channel, not a puppet-master’. Having toured Scotland through Spring 2024, the show is at Riverside Studios for its London premiere from 23 April to 11 May 2024.

The album – another part of the story – is in the can, created by Stephen and Gavin and collaborators, with a gorgeous cover by former member and long-term Pastels collaborator Annabel Wright (aka Aggi).

So who knows what will emerge next. An installation, a site-responsive event, a painting exhibition, an exploration in contemporary dance, perhaps…

‘There’s that stupid expression – that writing about music is like dancing about architecture – but why not dance about architecture?’ he says. ‘You can definitely fucking dance about architecture’.

Why not indeed. 

This Is Memorial Device.

To be continued… whenever, wherever.

Paul Higgins as narrator Ross Raymond in This Is Memorial Device. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Featured image (top): This Is Memorial Device. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Dorothy Max Prior spoke to David Keenan, Graham Eatough and Stephen McRobbie via Zoom, 2 April 2024.

This is Memorial Device, adapted and directed by Graham Eatough from the novel by David Keenan, was commissioned by the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh: @lyceumedinburgh

It was developed with the support of the Stephen W Dunn Theatre Fund and originally produced in a co-production with the Edinburgh International Book Festival. 

Scottish Spring 2024 tour dates:

Tron Theatre, Glasgow – 27-30 March 2024

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – 3-6 April

Lemon Tree, Aberdeen – 18-20 April

This Is Memorial Device comes to Riverside Studios for its London premiere from Tuesday 23 April – Saturday 11 May 2024

7.45pm (Wednesday and Saturday Matinees at 2.30pm, not 24 April) £30 (£20 concession)
www.riversidestudios.co.uk

Twitter/X: @riversidelondon | Instagram:@riversidestudioslondon

David Keenan was born in Glasgow and grew up in Airdrie, in the west of Scotland. He is the author of six novels, including the cult classic This Is Memorial Device (Faber & Faber), which won the London Magazine Award for Debut Fiction 2018 and was shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize. He is also the author of England’s Hidden Reverse (Strange Attractor Press), a history of the UK’s post-punk/Industrial underground, as well as To Run Wild In It and Empty Aphrodite, (Rough Trade Books), two experimental novellas, and is the co-designer, alongside Sophy Hollington, of his own tarot deck, the Autonomic Tarot (Rough Trade Books). 

Twitter/X: @reversediorama

Graham Eatough is a theatre maker who also works in visual art and film. He is the writer/adapter and director of the stage show This Is Memorial Device. Other recent work includes co-writing and co-directing the book and film for the Floating Worlds project made with Dutch artist Andre Dekker on the Island of Mull in Scotland; an adaptation of Naoki Higashida’s book about autism, The Reason I Jump staged in a specially designed outdoor maze for National Theatre of Scotland; How To Act written and directed for National Theatre of Scotland; Nomanslanding a large scale floating public artwork to commemorate the First World War (Sydney Harbour, Ruhrtrienalle, Glasgow Tramway). He was artistic director of Suspect Culture theatre company from 1996 to 2009 creating over fifteen pieces of new work with the company, shown across the UK and internationally.

Stephen McRobbie (aka Stephen Pastel) co-founded The Pastels in Glasgow in 1981. They were a key act of the Scottish and British independent music scenes of the 1980s, and are specifically credited for the development of an independent and confident music scene in Glasgow. The group have had a number of members, but currently consists of Stephen McRobbie, Katrina Mitchell, Tom Crossley, John Hogarty, Alison Mitchell and Suse Bear.

The Pastels now operate their own Geographic Music label through Domino, and are partners in Glasgow’s Monorail Music shop.

Instagram: @pastelsthe

The album This Is Memorial Device by Stephen Pastel and Gavin Thomson will be released 28 June 2024.

Available from https://www.dominomusic.com/uk and https://monorailmusic.com/

Silent Tide: The Adventures of Curious Ganz. Director Sarah Wright. Photo Steve Tanner.

Do Come with the Chablis Soon

An appreciation of Penny Francis, MBE who died in June 2023. Dorothy Max Prior and a host of other friends, former students, and colleagues from the world of puppetry and visual theatre tell us what the incorrigible Doyenne of Puppetry meant to them.

We have lost our Queen! 

Dear Penny Francis has left the building.

That’s Penny Francis, founder of the Puppet Centre Trust, and a tireless advocate and supporter of puppetry for seven decades.

Penny Francis, educator, puppetry tutor, and lecturer on the prestigious MA in Advanced Theatre Practice at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. 

Penny Francis, writer and editor, author of Puppetry: a Reader in Theatre Practice, and tireless translator of the works of her friend Henryk Jurkowski; founding editor of Animations magazine, contributing editor of Animations Online and Animations in Print, and long-term contributor to Total Theatre Magazine.

When I asked people to send in their appreciations of Penny, the same words and phrases popped up again and again: Penny, we all agree, was a legend, formidable, an inspiration, dedicated, funny, enthusiastic, independent, open-minded, supportive. There again, she could be strongly opinionated – and sometimes a harsh critic. She was never afraid to speak her mind. She radiated ‘fierce intelligence, determination, and sparkling optimism’ says chair of the Puppet Centre Trust,  Mervyn Millar.

RSC: As You Like It. Puppet design by Mervyn Millar. Photo Topher McGrillis

The last time I saw Penny in person, I went to her house in Bromfelde Road in Clapham for afternoon tea. When I arrived at 4pm, clutching flowers, wine and cake, she said, ‘Oh never mind the tea, let’s open the wine!’

Like many of Penny’s friends and colleagues, I have fond memories of this house, having drunk many a cup of tea and glass of wine in the comfy sitting room that overlooked her pretty walled garden. At other times, we might be sat at her table tucking in to an Indian take-away after an Animations editorial meeting; or gathered around the piano in the front room on a winter’s evening, singing Christmas carols whilst Penny thumped the keys.

Her funeral was, of course, a very sad occasion but a splendid tribute to Penny, featuring Music Hall songs and puppetry alongside the more traditional hymns and eulogies. I was pleased that we got invited back to her house afterwards. Just to see her piano one more time was such a pleasure, and to drink a glass of her favoured white wine as we swapped memories and anecdotes – many of which seemed to revolve around Penny’s erratic driving and bizarre parking choices.

When looking through my old emails, I find that the last one I received from Penny had the subject line ‘Do Come With the Chablis Soon’. As always, it was addressed to ‘Maxie Waxie’ and signed ‘Henny Penny’. As with so many of people who knew Penny and remember her here, what had started as a work connection had turned into a rich longterm friendship that had lasted until she died.

Faulty Optic: Soiled. A favourite company of Penny’s, often featured in Animations Online / Animations In Print

I’m trying to remember how and when I first met Penny. When I was appointed editor of Total Theatre Magazine in 2000, I ‘inherited’ Penny as a regular contributor, and advisor to the editorial board. But I’d met her before then, I know I had. She seemed to always be there.

Perhaps I first met her at the Puppet Centre at Battersea Arts Centre. I lived around the corner for a few years in the mid- to late-1980s, and frequently visited this fabulous storehouse of puppets,where you might find anything  from Bagpuss to Balinese Wayang Kulit. My baby son Gabriel loved going there. He grew up to be the Animations Online designer, before going on to become a film-maker, always praised and encouraged in his work by Penny, who was a fantastic supporter of talented young people.

Then again, I had probably been introduced to Penny sometime in the 1990s at a London International Mime Festival show. This annual festival ran from 1977 to 2023, showcasing the best of the world’s visual theatre, including puppetry and animation, and Penny was a vociferous supporter, and sometime advisor. 

‘We loved Penny. What a star! What a loss,’ say LIMF directors Helen Lannaghan and Joseph Seelig.  ‘She supported our festival from the outset, with friendship, and with recommendations of unusual puppetry seen on her travels. And she’d seen everything. She was clever and determined, sparkling fun and always great company. Forever youthful. We miss her.’

Figurentheater Tübingen/ Frank Soenhle: Salto.Lamento. A show much loved by Penny, which came to the London International Mime Festival

I do remember attending a Puppet Centre meeting at BAC, where the then-director of the venue, Tom Morris, asked if anybody might be interested in joining with Penny Francis to discuss the re-launching of Animations magazine. I put up my hand. Just a few days later, Penny turned up at Total Theatre HQ at Circus Space in Hoxton, with an emerging puppeteer called Mark Down in tow. Mark knows all about websites, Penny says by way of introduction, and we think that we could re-launch Animations as an online magazine, with you as editor. It was clear that saying no wasn’t an option. So we did, the three of us, with no finances or other resources. 

Mark was one of Penny’s former students. Anyone who entered her orbit tended to stay there – she seemed to collect people (as well as puppets). He’d first encountered her when he auditioned at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in 1995:

‘She waved her hands in the air animatedly and told us all, “I’m the puppetry tutor!”. I didn’t know what a puppetry tutor was. I found out that it was someone who suggests you use puppetry in all your projects, at every opportunity, and as much as possible. And I took her advice. After drama school, when I was very ‘out of work’, Penny put my name forward for jobs involving puppets, she invited me to puppetry conferences, she introduced me to people who did puppets, she invited me to birthday parties with puppets, and she asked me to join the board of the Puppet Centre Trust. She did the same, I believe, for and to countless other people (and puppets) over many generations. To me she was puppetry tutor, puppetry mentor, and puppetry friend. She was a force of nature.’ 

Blind Summit: The Table. Blind Summit was co-founded and directed by actor, director and puppeteer Mark Down

A little while after that, with Animations Online up and running, Penny made another introduction: Beccy Smith, also an ex-student, who was going to come to work with Penny at Puppet Centre Trust, and would get us some funding. And that’s what happened – the young Beccy was soon raised up to the lofty heights of Director of PCT, and did indeed bring in some much-needed income for the Centre and for its publication, Animations, which we were now talking about developing further, with an annual review, Animations In Print, being mooted.

‘Penny was a compelling person who inspired many of us during her time at Central,’ says Beccy,  ‘We learnt the value and relevance of puppetry as a contemporary artform through a combination of relentless critique and unstinting loyalty. Like many others, I owe what has become a rewarding career in puppetry and producing work to her. At the Puppet Centre she was a rigorous champion for the artform and a truly inspirational mentor, driven always by the potential for excellence she could discern in new work and new people. What I loved most, however, was her sharp mind (and tongue) and sense of fun. Fearless combatant in the art of The Parson’s Cat and game player of ridiculous murder mysteries (her Frazzle the Clown was unforgettable, darling!) but often beaten in the game of Find the Car. She modelled a unique way of contributing to culture and community.’

Touched Theatre: Twinkle Twinkle. Written and produced by Beccy Smith, featuring company co-director, actor and puppeteer Darren East

Penny, Beccy and I worked together for many years on Animations Online and Animations in Print – and Beccy and I continue to work together on Total Theatre Magazine, which Penny contributed to regularly from its founding in 1989 until 2018.

Penny and I shared duties on numerous panels and talks about puppetry and animation, across the UK. There was many an outing to see shows together. We went to the London International Mime Festival, to Visions Festival, to The Little Angel Theatre, to Riverside and the Southbank and of course to Battersea Arts Centre. With Penny, I met many of the world’s leading puppeteers and puppetry companies. 

We often socialised together, going out for lunch or dinner in London, or going to parties at Beccy’s house in Brighton, which she shares with her husband and collaborator in Touched Theatre, Darren East.

During the various lockdowns of recent years, Beccy switched her legendary murder mystery parties to Zoom, and Penny would participate, determinedly staying in character as Miss-Lost-Her-Marbles or whatever as she struggled with the technology: ‘I can’t see you! Where have you gone?’ was a frequent cry. 

James Foz Foster and Penny Francis, aka Foster and Frazzle the Clowns. Photo Peter Chrisp

Another of Penny’s students was Rachel Riggs, who co-founded DNA puppetry company after leaving Central, and who also went on to be a close friend, a relationship that blossomed from when they met in the Green Room in Manchester 30 years ago, through the Central years and beyond into professional practice for Rachel in both the UK and Australia; continuing right to the end, with Rachel helping to care for Penny in her final days, then joining granddaughter Kati Tārā in the arduous task of clearing Penny’s house and re-distributing her precious books and puppets.

‘Penny was my mentor, and she changed my life,’ says Rachel. ‘When I met her she said, “You absolutely have to come on this course I’m starting at Central School of Speech and Drama – you must, darling, you must!” So I did, and one month later, sleeping on my friend’s floor in a flat in Hampstead, I was enrolled and a real student of puppetry – she made my dream come true… We had a year of amazing experiences, training of the highest quality with master puppeteers in theatre and television, the whole wonderful world of puppetry opened like a magic box of delicious tricks, and we were the luckiest students alive! She took us to the festival at Charleville Mezieres, to perform our student group show, and to experience the amazing universe of international puppetry for the first time. Penny was my fairy godmother, and she lit up the world for me… She demanded proper representation and professional education for puppetry – an artform often seen as being only for children. In an often male-dominated arena of Punch & Judy professors and Machiavellian-minded puppeteers, Penny was a strong and determined woman.’

Penny Francis at home in Bromfelde Road in Clapham in 2017, with Rachel Riggs and puppet friend

Penny Francis was born Penelope Ann Elsdon-Smith in Kolkata in India on the 17th of April 1931. She was an only child, and she attended the Hilltop School in India, before being sent to the UK to complete her education at Cheltenham Ladies College, where her favourite subjects were athletics and dancing. She was, it is said, extremely good at performing even at that early age. She left school at 18 and started a degree in Spanish at Kings College, but left to go onto the stage.

Penny as Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s Pygmalion, 1953
Penny’s husband Derek Francis with thier best man Ronnie Barker.

In 1954, she married her husband Derek Francis whilst they were both working at the Oxford Playhouse. They subsequently set up home in South West London; a home described by Derek Parry, family friend and celebrant of her funeral, as an extension of the West End – replete with its own puppet theatre, and an ever-revolving cast of actor friends (Ronnie Barker was best man at Penny and Derek’s wedding). Penny was widowed in 1984 when she was 53. The couple had two children, Tessa and Julia (sadly, Julia died in 2008) and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Puppeteer Ronnie le Drew was a longterm friend of the family:

‘I first met Penny In the early 1960s. I was taken to Penny and Derek’s then-home in Putney. I saw a wonderful production of the Christmas story, performed by Penny and Derek for their two girls, Tessa and Julia.’

Penny was a renowned actress and Ronnie describes Derek as ‘a brilliant character actor, not only on stage, but in television and film, and an amazing puppet maker and designer’.

Ronnie Le Drew and friend

Seeing this performance was the start of a very long friendship for Ronnie and the Francis family. He continues the story:

‘Penny was such a vibrant and passionate woman, and it wasn’t long before she got involved with the puppetry organisations – she had given up her acting career to look after her children, but now her passion and vitality was channelled into puppetry. And it proved immensely helpful to us struggling puppeteers, for she made connections with the Arts Council of Great Britain and other funders. It wasn’t long before she had organised an International Puppetry Festival in London, the first of two. She then went on to co-found The Puppet Centre Trust which had two large rooms (at Battersea Arts Centre) dedicated to puppetry in all its forms; where there was a library of books and videos, and a permanent exhibition of puppets on show. Courses and talks soon took place, as well as performances by new professional puppeteers and established companies. The larger companies performed in the main auditorium of the arts centre. She joined the world puppetry organisation, UNIMA, and travelled to festivals around the globe, championing British puppetry and puppeteers, soon gaining respect globally from many of the world’s most famous puppeteers. She later became the patron of the Curious School of Puppetry, and attended and spoke at many of its events, always with humour and integrity. As she got older, I visited her at her home. Even if her body didn’t allow her to go to her beloved theatre anymore, her mind and humour never left her. She would say “Darling would you like a drink of wine? Just go downstairs and get some glasses…” and when I came back, she produced a bottle of wine which she’d kept by her seat for the occasion.’

Penny was so beloved of so many people within the puppetry and visual theatre community. There follows a number of further reminiscences and appreciations from the people she worked with, taught, mentored and supported. 

I think I speak for everyone when I say: we miss you, Penny! 

Improbable: The Devil and Mr Punch

‘It seems inconceivable that Penny Francis, the great grandmother of puppetry, is no longer with us. Since the very beginning of my journey with the puppets, from The Ghost Downstairs to The Vinegar Works, Dr Faustus, Shockheaded Peter, Satyagraha, and My Neighbour Totoro, which we are working on right now, Penny’s presence was always there. At a time when puppetry was virtually ignored, Penny was a quiet supporter and loud advocate for the puppets. She connected us to a noble lineage that didn’t just know puppetry was more than trivial; it was a form that could go deeper, darker, more radical, and could say the things the humans couldn’t. Penny herself has now become part of that lineage, and her kindness and passion will continue to inspire us through the creativity, commitment, and love of the puppeteers she has supported and loved over the years.’ Phelim McDermott, theatre and opera director, Improbable

‘Many of my most treasured memories of Penny were formed in and around editorial meetings of Animations Online and Animations-in-Print. Penny consistently championed British companies such as Improbable  and Faulty Optic that she admired and felt close to, while at the same time was constantly attentive to French and other European puppetry, and other puppet companies around the world. Her enthusiasm and openness to new forms and styles of puppetry were contagious.’  Matthew Isaac Cohen, Professor, University of Connecticut

Theatre-Rites: Mischief

I met Penny at the Puppet Centre. She had previously supported my father’s puppetry act The Buckmaster Puppets and then went on to support me to receive the Puppetry Bursary. She continued to support me throughout my career, as she has done for so many people in the puppetry world.

We shared a birthday and a passion. She was an inspiration. Her dedication and achievements were so impressive. She will be very missed but her impact lives on.’ Sue Buckmaster, artistic director of Theatre-Rites

‘I was the first Education Officer at the Puppet Centre from 1989 – 1992, just out of teaching and new to London and arts world  – I learned a lot from Penny.  She was the best advocate for puppetry and widening understanding of its possibilities in theatre, performance, education and training. She was funny and inspiring and wove her way uniquely through the world.  She will be much missed.’ Anna Ledgard

Oscar from Kneehigh’s Tin Drum, with puppeteer Sarah Wright. Photo Steve Tanner

As a dear family friend, Penny was a part of every pivotal moment of my creative life. She most importantly supported, as advisor and Patron, the founding of Curious School of Puppetry. Penny delighted in meeting young puppeteers – artists whose passion for puppetry mirrored her own and who gave her energy and hope for the future of the artform she loved so dearly. I miss her deeply, her boundless positivity and her joy in people. Penny and my dad (John Wright, co-founder with Lyndie Wright of the Little Angel Theatre) would both attend any event, say yes to any opportunity, and encourage me to do the same saying, “Go, do it, you never know who you might meet!”’ Sarah Wright, puppeteer and director of the Curious School of Puppetry

Little Angel Theatre: Alice in Wonderland. Puppet by Peter O’Rourke. Cast included Mandy Travis

‘Penny was probably one of the first people I met in the puppetry world, when I was still an actor and she was heading the puppetry course at Central. When I finally stepped onto the puppetry ladder to work with Christopher Leith in 1997 at the Little Angel, Penny was right behind me. She encouraged and mentored me throughout the next 20 years, seeing every single show I was in and having constructive stuff to say about all of them – well, nearly all! She knew what worked and what didn’t, and didn’t hold back if something wasn’t working for her. She had boundless energy and enthusiasm and was generous with her extensive knowledge. She supported me and everyone else who was part of this world of puppetry and animation, whether they were just starting out or at the top of the tree.’ Mandy Travis, actor, puppeteer and musician

DNA Puppetry: Skin Deep Circus. Fidji mermaid puppet made by Rachel Riggs

“It was early 1990. I had studied for a Bachelor of Theatre and worked full time for a puppet theatre for two years in Australia. Newly arrived in London, I asked around for information about the puppetry scene in the UK. Very quickly I was told to speak to Penny Francis, particularly as I was keen to see the inaugural graduating class at ESNAM in France. Penny immediately offered me a lift in her car, so I got on the ferry at Dover as a pedestrian. Penny, with her usual generous spirit, found me lodgings, and introduced me to her European colleagues – and a firm friendship was born. Penny was a powerhouse. For thirty years she encouraged me to keep trying, keep improving. Penny did more to advance and promote the status of puppetry as an artform and the skills of the puppeteer than anyone I have ever known, and likely ever will.” Adam Bennett, puppeteer, co-founder DNA

Shona Reppe: Potato

‘Penny was puppetry royalty and an absolute gem of a person, dedicated to the sector and determined to raise up both established and new puppeteers. I had the joy of being interviewed by her at the very start of my career for Animations Magazine and it was a joy and inspiration to speak to someone so knowledgable and kind. We kept in touch through the years and she continued to be supportive of my work (she even appreciated soap I made her). People like Penny are rare. It’s so sad we have lost her but she will shine on in all who knew her.’ Shona Reppe, theatre-maker & puppeteer (and soap maker)  

‘Penny was very serious about the things that bring light to people’s lives. Theatre for example. She knew the power of the puppet as storytelling master/mistress in her very bones. In a hotel room in Poland, where we were attending an international puppetry festival, she told me over a glass of vodka: “Never forget. Puppets can express things that are too unbearable to utter one moment, leaving you heartbroken, and then double you over laughing with their nonsense and joy the next.” She stayed in touch all the years beyond my time as a student at Central. Although for some reason the Xmas cards I sent her each year were almost annually returned to me in March, despite her insistence that I had her correct address. How very Penny. An international woman of Festive mystery. She gave us an olive tree when we got married. That meant a lot. One of the last times I spent with her in the flesh she was dressed as a clown with orange hair and never broke character. 100% present in every moment. That is how I will remember Penny Francis.’ Zoe Hunter, actor, writer, and puppeteer

Avital Dvory: My Own Wolf. Puppet designer and maker Revital Ariely. Photo Kfir Bolotin

‘I first met Penny during my audition for Central’s MA in Advanced Theatre Practice. At that point in my life (1999), I was in the midst of a soul-searching journey, grappling with questions about my artistic identity. I had explored various facets of performing arts, including acting, mask work, physical theatre, and dance, but none of them seemed to offer me a true sense of belonging.

‘Penny inquired about my past experiences in theatre, and as I shared my journey, she remarked: “Well young lady, you are a puppeteer!” Penny held belief in the visual ideas I harboured, even when I doubted myself. Her encouragement empowered me to bring my artistic visions to life on the stage. I became a professional puppeteer. This gift she gave me remains with me all this years, influencing my theatre work. And Penny’s role as a tutor did not end with my graduation. She continued to ensure my ongoing personal and professional development. I am sure she did it with others as well. She had essential impact on a broader community; from her I got the sense that puppeteering is a kind of family.’ Avital Dvory, puppeteer and visual theatre director

The Hatchling, Plymouth 2021, directed by Mervyn Millar

‘Penny was one of the first people I encountered at the Puppet Centre when it had a physical space in BAC in the 1990s. I met her first as a theatre-maker curious about puppetry, later as an applicant for Puppet Centre bursaries and schemes that would profoundly influence and transform my career, as they did so many others. Penny managed to combine being an extraordinary enthusiast for and champion of puppetry with being a phenomenally acute and perceptive critic. She set extremely high standards for herself and expected them from those around her. She encouraged participation but was most thrilled and excited by virtuosity, expertise, experiment, and the richness of the artform. It wasn’t possible to meet Penny without emerging invigorated, inspired, with a renewed sense of the importance of puppetry, and usually with two or three recommendations of shows to see – she was always keen to promote the work of emerging artists and companies of note.’ Mervyn Millar, puppeteer and chair of the Puppet Centre Trust

Penny Francis reads Beckett’s Ill See Ill Said, in preparation for In the Zone of Stones, 2013

Finally, let’s remember Penny on the occasion that her professional life went full circle, performing one last time with former student Mischa Twitchin, a director and dramaturg, and co-founder of Shunt, the renowned ensemble company that grew out of Central’s MA in Advanced Theatre Practice.

‘Thanks to the generosity of Luis Vieira and Rute Ribeiro, the wonderful directors of the Tarumba/ FIMFA puppetry festival in Lisbon, Penny made her return to the stage after many decades as the doyenne of puppetry in the UK – not on the main stage but directly below it! 

‘In 2013, we played our Beckett show – In the Zone of Stones (with text drawn from Ill Seen Ill Said) – in the atmospheric space directly beneath the main stage of the historic Teatro San Luis in the heart of Lisbon. The low wooden ceiling was held up by wrought iron pillars, in between which we and the audience shared an extraordinary, intimate darkness. In this space, resonating then with Beckett’s narrative, Penny performed a solo “pantomime of memory” with a handful of objects taken from and returned to a small suitcase that she clutched to herself. We did only a few performances but it was all a wonderful experience – from rehearsing in Penny’s living room in Clapham to then participating in this international festival, where Penny was, of course, known to so many of the other artists performing. 

‘The dinners during the festival were as much a highlight as the shows, full of the warmth and humour of Penny’s innumerable friendships. In this respect, her special relationship with Henryk Jurkowski should also be remembered. Amongst so many other projects, Henryk was editor in chief of UNIMA’s World Encyclopaedia of Puppetry and Penny worked tirelessly to make his research and insights accessible to an Anglophone readership, including through a second edition of the essays collected as Aspects of Puppet Theatre, now published by Palgrave (originally published by the Puppet Centre).

‘Perhaps the best word to evoke Penny’s presence might be, indeed, ‘animation’ – whether in the art of theatre or in personal relationships, and most often where these two were interwoven.’

Penelope Ann Francis, born 17 April 1931 in Kolkata, India; died 29 June 2023 in London. 

A film of the above mentioned performance, In the Zone of Stones (with text drawn from Samuel Beckett’s Ill Seen Ill Said), featuring Penny Francis, can be seen on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/manage/videos/84826418 

 Puppetry: a Reader in Theatre Practice by Penny Francis is published by Palgrave Macmillan (2012). 

The last article written by Penny Francis for Total Theatre Magazine, Puppetry in Performance, can be read here: https://totaltheatre.org.uk/archive/pathways/puppetry-performance

A memorial event to commemorate Penny’s life is planned for April 2024. Details will be published nearer the time on the Total Theatre Magazine social media pages.

Featured image (top of page) Silent Tide: The Adventures of Curious Ganz. Director Sarah Wright. Photo Steve Tanner.

Frazzle the Clown and friends at the Circus Murdery Mystery party, held at Beccy Smith and Darren East’s studio in Brighton. Photo Peter Chrisp

Sounds and Visions

A round-up of Out There Festival 2023 which brought good cheer and top-notch physical, visual and musical performance to the streets, parks and seafront of Great Yarmouth. Dorothy Max Prior reports 

It’s 11am on a sunny Saturday in September, and here we are, in St George’s Park in Yarmouth, sitting at a cafe drinking a flat white and eating a pastel de nata – there’s a massive Portuguese-speaking community here, and these delicious little custard tarts are very much a local delicacy. As I sip my (excellent) coffee, I’m watching the park come to life for Out There Festival’s biggest day. 

There are small brightly-coloured vintage caravans scattered around the park, acting as information points. There are craft stalls, and booths selling food and drink. There is an interesting-looking contraption put together by Japanese musician and installation-maker Ichi, a kind of giant marble-run made out of scrap objects, which he’s called Tobogan Gaki. There are flags and tree-dressings and hanging sculptures. A big mechanical metal horse is whinnying and tossing his head – this is Paka’s wonderful creation, the trusty Rusty, who’s about to go Out and About with a Whinny and a Canter. A nun on a giant hoverboard sporting a baby grand piano (Musical Ruth) whizzes past Rusty, who neighs loudly at her. And all across the park, soundchecks and rigging checks are happening at the six or so different stages and pitches, where in just an hour’s time, the day’s programme will kick off with a whole host of outdoor arts and circus shows of all scales and styles.

Ichi and his installation. Photo Kat Mager

Although Saturday is the fullest day, the festival is well and truly in the swing by now. It had started on Friday with a day of professional networking for artists, producers and other industry types. As people arrived in the morning, they were greeted with a What3Words game to share where they’re at and how they feel about the current state-of-play, for their own practice and for the sector. A communal lunch gave people the chance to catch up, and this was followed by a panel discussion on music in outdoor arts – the Sounds Out There strand of the festival saw an emphasis on music as an integral part of the outdoor arts sector, as witnessed in very many of the shows in this year’s programme, in which the music was far more than just an accompaniment to physical performance. At the official festival launch on Friday early evening, tributes were paid to artistic director Joe Mackintosh, on the occasion of this year’s double anniversary: 15 years of the festival and 25 years of Out There Arts, the organisation behind it that Joe has steered from small-scale outfit to Arts Council National Portfolio status. The role that Joe’s right-hand woman, executive director Veronica Stephens, has played in that was also acknowledged. Veronica is well known to many in the outdoor arts industry as as a former director of Zap Arts (in its later days) and producer of Streets of Brighton – a once major part of the Brighton Festival which is sadly no more. Brighton’s loss is Yarmouth’s gain, clearly…

Les Filles Du Renard Pale: Résiste. Photo James Bass

Friday evening saw Party in the Park animating St George’s with a team of renowned DJs and dancers, and the organisation’s HQ at Drill House was also a hive of activity. Meanwhile, along the seafront at St Nicholas’ car park, we had the fabulous opening night show Résiste by Les Filles Du Renard Pale, who festival director Joe described as the ‘all-female powerhouse’: a dynamic duo who combined live music with a breathtaking display of tightwire skills on a rig that was scarily tugged and tilted into different permutations. The duo comprises a talented multi-instrumentalist who is equally at ease with grungy feedback guitar, trip-hop synths, and dreampop vocals; paired with a very talented circus performer who dangles and dances on the wires with wild abandon. And sometimes the musician also joined her, cocooned in an aerial pod hung from the wire! Here was a show where the music and the physical performance worked together in perfect symbiosis – an exciting start to the weekend. A shout out also to local bands Arthur Black and Jehenna, who warmed up the space for an hour or so before the main show, with an onsite bar to help ease everyone into the weekend.

The coming together of circus and live music was something of a theme for this year’s Out There Festival. In one way, nothing new there: live music has always been a key element of traditional circus, and it is usual for clowns to also be talented musicians, incorporating their musical skills into the ground routines (providing the space for aerial rigging and act turnarounds).

Sure Mesure: Barriere. Photo James Bass

But what is different here is the number of companies that are integrating live music into a more progressive or experimental contemporary circus landscape – often with no demarcation between roles.

Take, for example, Sur Mesure with their show Barriere, presented as part of the Spotlight on Flanders showcase, and seen Saturday daytime. The story here is of four border guards who get up to all sorts of high jinks when bored. The staging is a small hut next to a metal barrier which is attached to a winch that can be cranked up and down. Our team of three women and one man have an astonishing array of skills between them. All are fabulous physical performers. The trio of women also gig as a music ensemble, and all three are talented multi-instrumentalists and singers. We have guitar, banjo, various brass instruments, keyboards and percussion in the mix. The barrier, when cranked up, gets used as an aerial rig – giving us a very lovely upside-down coffee-drinking act, and a comedy straps number. The male performer does a great macho put-down as he paso doble dances himself into a tight corner. It is all a joy to behold, and musically brilliant to boot – a mix of great tunes and fabulous sung harmonies. 

Collectif Malunés:We Agree to Disagree. Photo Kat Mager,

Also part of the excellent Spotlight on Flanders programme is Collectif Malunés with We Agree to Disagree, which was the big draw in the park on Saturday afternoon. And my goodness, what a show! It has it all. There are extraordinary circus skills, including high-flying swinging trapeze on one rig and doubles on another, wire-walking, teeter-board, acrobatics and hand-to-hand. It has live music. It has humour a-plenty. And it has audience interaction – and then some. Audience members are roped in to tug ropes and counter-weight, to read out speeches, sing in a choir, play keyboards, throw rice at a ‘wedding’, push buzzers, be climbed upon or jumped over – and even to be taken up as high as the sky on the trapeze (firmly and safely held by the artists). A young girl looks like she’s achieved her heart’s desire as she is carried high, supported from above and below as if by angels; and an elderly woman standing on the trapeze, the aerialist wrapping her arms around her as they are drawn upward to the heavens together, is beaming with joy. It is a fabulous 75 minutes of immersive performance of the highest order – one of the best outdoor shows I’ve seen in many a year, and one that will stay with me for a long time.

Zen del Sur: Orbita. Photo David Street

Meanwhile, down at the Marina Centre on the seafront, a stage on the beach is the setting for Orbita, an intriguing mix of music, dance and circus. The music is mostly live classical/flamenco guitar (with a little bit of looping and effects here and there) by a wonderful female guitarist, who moves around the stage with ease; with a fantastic coming together of flamenco dance, urban dance and circus skills (hand-balancing, Cyr wheel, acrobatics) from a very talented male performer.The couple, collectively known as Zen del Sur, come from Cadiz in Andalusia, but are now based in Granada. I’ll admit, as a flamenco aficionado, to some trepidation as I arrived at the start of the show, as these kind of hybrid re-interpretations of flamenco can so often go awry – but within minutes I relaxed, aware that I was in the hands of people who loved the form and had worked hard on a respectful honouring of the traditions whilst demonstrating a wonderful willingness to experiment and to create something brand-new and exciting. I particularly love the way that  objects such as the cajon percussion box and the Cyr wheel are used in an innovative way – the cajon used for hand-balancing, the wheel enclosing the two performers into a tight circle. A magical performance.

Poppy Plowman and Zara Hudson’:Turk(ish). Photo Kat Mager

Poppy Plowman and Zara Hudson’s Turk(ish) also combines live music and contemporary circus. Here, we have cello from Zara Hudson and tightwire from Poppy Plowman. Plus, pre-recorded verbatim text and live spoken word – a mix of autobiography and true-life stories giving us a feminist debunking of the intrinsically racist Western beauty industry. Turk(ish) comes with good intentions, and both performers demonstrate a high level of skill in circus and music. The use of radio mics feels like an unnecessary faff – not least because they are erratically-functioning, so the live text is often inaudible, but also because turning radio mics on and off before doing a hair-hang or a complicated dance along a tightwire feels a little awkward. Perhaps it would be better if all or most of the spoken text became pre-recorded and integrated into the soundscape? But these are decisions for another time – this was the very first outing for a show newly devised, and outdoor arts work inevitably needs to be tried out in the open air with a live audience to know what works and what needs working on. It is early days for (Turk)ish and as the show is supported by Out There Arts it will no doubt get further development.There’s the makings of a good show in there: both performers are clearly talented, there are very many strong visual images, and the ‘subject matter is interesting.

Amoukanama: Photo Kat Mager

One of the most exciting and extraordinary music and circus combinations seen at Out There 2023 was a collaboration that only came about at the eleventh hour. Amoukanama are a Flanders-based acrobatic troupe, comprising performers of African heritage, who only just made it to Yarmouth after a hair-raising dash across Europe to pick up visas that had previously been refused. They were paired with The African Choir of Norfolk, who feature songs from 16 different African nations. After just one Zoom rehearsal, and an in-person meeting a mere hour or so before the show, the two companies pulled out all the stops and wowed the night-time park audience with an extraordinary display of song, dance and acrobatics. We started with the beautifully-dressed women singers – resplendent in traditional circular skirts and head-dresses – doing a short set on a stage. Then, the male acrobats burst into the space, giving us a fabulous display of tumbling and balancing, human towers and pyramids rising and falling. The women then moved down onto the grass, and their lyrical song and traditional dance moves were met by the acrobats, so that all of the space was filled with one harmonious team creating a wondrous mix of music and physical performance. Amoukanama also performed a number of great daytime shows in St George’s Park the next day – seemingly still full of energy.   

Karl Stets of Oktopus Orkestar. Photo David Street

Music of another sort was seen in the Oktopus Orkestar trio which features three wonderful one-man bands: orchestra leader Karl Stets, a former circus performer now focusing on his music, but retaining a circus sensibility and flexibility; the Martin Kasper Orkestra which declares itself to be ‘minimalist and virtuoso all in one’; and Santiago Moreno (from Argentina) who uses a series of pulleys and strings along with his guitar, utilising the principles of puppetry and the complexity of Latin American rhythms. I catch Santiago Moreno’s show down at the Marina Centre, and marvel at just how many things he manages to manipulate with his hands, feet, arms, elbows and head. I see the multi-armed and many-legged Oktopus at Drill House, where each man gets a solo slot, then the three combine to create something extraordinary that is far more than the sum of their parts. It really does sound as a if a full orchestra is on the stage, with brass, wind, guitar, and percussion of all sorts combining into a magnificent musical melée.  The trio were greeted with tumultuous applause at the Drill House – definitely a popular booking!

One of the many things I like about Out There Festival is the thoughtful programming that sees a genuinely eclectic mix of experimental and genre-defying work with the classic crowd pleasers of traditional street theatre.

MarkMark: Team B Gees at Out There Festival 2023 launch at the Drill House. Photo David Street

In this second category come such stalwarts as MarkMark, who seemed to be everywhere over the weekend, with interactive walkabouts such as PC Gone Mad, which comes with the tag line ‘whatever you’re doing, stop it now’ and the ‘spectacularly camp’ swashbuckling Pirates of Northants; an indoor cameo slot for Team B Gees, their irrepressible tribute to The Bee Gees, seen at Friday’s launch event;  and static show The Maniax, presented right outside the Drill House on a high stage, and featuring comic routines, daring stunts and illusions, and a Houdini-inspired escapology finale, replete with audience countdown.

Also outside the Drill House – and at numerous other locations across Yarmouth – were Hicks & Rudkin with Tony & Ray Find Their Feet, in which two mature workmen steal a moment to indulge their passion in eccentric dance. A mobile tool cart becomes the vehicle for a portable sound system, so the team are self-sufficient – and although static for their ten-minute slots, they provide many of the advantages of a walkabout act. This was the show’s very first outing, but it is already a winner – the combination of well-honed physical humour (as the pair attempt to capture an invisible squeaking something-or-other on the ground) with the lovely little dance routines, that include a classic soft-shoe-shuffle and a paso doble, working very well. Of course, the two-man act is a mainstay of physical comedy, in both music hall and film/TV – and these two play on all the tropes of rivalry and one-upmanship with experienced ease. I suppose it could develop into a longer show, but there is something very pleasing about it being a little burst of heart-warming humour that pops up all over the place, in between the longer static shows at the fixed pitches, or anywhere on the streets.

The solo clown or comedian is also well in evidence here, with a great one-man act from Daryl J Carrington, whose word-free act combines clowning, juggling and object manipulation with comic portraiture (in chalk) and audience participation, as he draws (literally) two men in from the audience to form part of his giant-ball-throwing team. Belfast comic Paul Currie – a last-min addition to the programme – is certainly not word free. His act, presented on the seafront stage, features a barrage of patter from beginning to end. It’s great stuff! Described by the man himself as ‘a screaming hysteric waterslide ride of joy all the way back to your childhood’ it’s chock full of popular culture references, mostly from TV and film of the past couple of decades so much of it goes over my head, but I love it all anyway. He has us all flying through the air riding a dragon, playing imaginary pan-pipes, and dancing like there’s no tomorrow. There are an endless number of props, dragged out of a suitcase he constantly rummages through. He plays a ‘hus-key-board’ – a little Casio inserted into a husky dog puppet – and a pair of panda puppets become his ‘panda hands’. There are plenty of comic references to his Belfast childhood of 40 years ago, at the height of The Troubles. When handing out party poppers to a row of kids he says ‘Beware Belfast men handing you explosives’. A noisy, windy beach might not be the ideal pitch for this sort of act, but Paul Currie overcomes all obstacles and conquers the crowd. His control of the ‘house’, the ad-libbing and the full-on interaction with the audience (particularly the children) is of the highest order. A grand success!

Still with the comedy: The Miraculous Theatre Company’s Dead starts as a processional piece as we follow a pair of undertakers (a classic pantomime duo of bossy fool and obsequious servant) as they manoeuvre a coffin from a pub through the backstreets of Yarmouth. They rap on church doors to be let in, stop the traffic with officious bluster, and enlist audience members to help carry the coffin. When they arrive at the Drill House, they set the coffin in place on a bier outside. The energy goes up a notch as we learn that our undertaker friends are fed-up with their usual traditional offerings, and have decided instead to transform the business into Happy Endings Funeral Services. Audience members are enlisted to don grass skirts and Hawaiian leis in rainbow colours, and to dance and play the ukulele to see the dead off with gay abandon. Only one problem: they seem to have lost the body… A solid, old-fashioned piece of British street theatre, well realised and performed by two seasoned artists who know how to work an audience.

L’Abre a Vache: Goodbye Persil. Photo Kat Mager

French company L’Abre a Vache are also a comic duo, but of a fabulously surreal bend. Goodbye Persil is the story of two brothers on a mission: to bury their dearly departed dog in a small roadside park. Sporting balaclavas and glasses, one tall and dressed in casual hipster mode, one short and wearing an ill-fitting shirt and tie, they make an odd couple. They arrive in a car which, like the famous Herbie the Love Bug, has a mind of its own. They hop out, dead dog wrapped in a blanket, and try to locate their spades, and their dog’s beloved toys, for the burial – but then the trouble starts. The seemingly sentient car is out to sabotage: it sounds its horn whenever it wants to, turns its windscreen wipers on and off, locks the brothers out, and shakes and bangs at random moments. All the neighbourhood dogs are alerted, and a ferocious barking starts up from over the wall, causing our heroes to go into total panic mode. Worse, as they dig the grave, pipes would seem to be hit, and fountains spurt all over the place. The show is a text-book example of a great concept brought to fruition with perfect precision and attention to detail, and fantastic performances from both actors. Street theatre of the highest order – and managing to be both crowd pleasing and innovative at the same time. One of the highlights of the Out There 2023 programme for me.   

Other theatre offerings included the UK’s Inverted with The Precious Thing, a tale of environmental concerns about planetary care and water preservation that uses colourful costume and set (all yellow to start, with purple creeping in slowly), well-chosen props, and a soft and gentle performance mode to tackle its subject in a pleasingly non-polemical manner. The two performers use object manipulation, including some very nice hat juggling, acrobatics, hand-balancing and contortion, and clowning to tell their tale. Look after what is precious, is the message – it might not last for ever. With so many ‘take care of our environment’ shows out there, it’s good to see one that treads softly softly rather than ramming the message down our throats.

Cocoloco: Shangri-LaLa. Photo Kat Mager

Cocoloco is a Norfolk-based company supported by Out There Arts. Their latest work Shangria-LaLa, a 2023 premiere, is set on a mini-site of its own on the edge of St George’s Park, a circle of calico tents enclosed by a fence. Shangri-LaLa promises the delights of heaven on earth, exploring famous utopian ideas from Avalon to Xanadu. A showman brings us through the entrance into the site where we are welcomed with a short speech introducing the ‘I Have a Dream’ theme, then led off into the first utopian space, Arcadia, where all is gentle pastoral pleasures. I’m picked to be a sheep, which is a great honour, and dressed in a woolly sheep-robe and mask, sat knitting on a bale of hay (rather like the old ma sheep in Alice Through the Looking Glass, I think to myself). Baaaaah! All is indeed an Arcadian utopia – until the butcher arrives to lead away us sheep… Next comes Avalon, where we encounter the Knights of the Round Table, who are sat around a circular table, putting the world to rights. A note of disharmony creeps in when we hear what Lancelot has been up to; and there is also a rather odd, deliberately anachronistic, debate on gender and sexuality that I don’t quite get. And so we continue, into more utopias. Cocoloco’s very own mystic, Dr Yaya, takes us time-travelling; we get a touchy-feely New Age moment of gazing into another’s eyes; and we get to write our utopian wishes onto a wall. A good time is had by all! It’s an ambitious show with a large cast and a great deal of audience interaction and participation – and thus the sort of show that has to be rehearsed in public, so to speak. This was its first outing, and I am sure it will blossom and grow with each new presentation. Big dreams are nothing without a dash of pragmatism is the message, it would seem.

Interactive shows have always been a key component of a successful street theatre festival, so it was good to see so many different sorts at Out There. The Losers Arcade is a giant games emporium with nothing to lose. ‘Leave your ego behind and join the Losers as you focus on putting the fun back in failure’ says the invitation. Like Shangri-LaLa it’s on its own site within a site, set up like a mini fairground, bobbing ducks and all. I try my luck on a roulette wheel spin and am rewarded with a shot of sour apple liqueur (there is a non-alcoholic alternative, I’m told). Every one’s a winner!

Professor WM Bligh’s Circus Photo Tent. Photo courtesy of Mark Copeland / Insect Circus

Right next to it is a tent housing Professor WM Bligh’s Circus Photo Tent, in which photographer Martin Thompson is set up in a Victorian style photo studio, with a low stage, a beautiful backdrop, a selection of props (knives! clubs! balls!), and two rails of splendid dressing up clothes. The Prof is aided and abetted by artists Mark Copeland and Sarah Munro – they of the legendary Insect Circus Museum. Audience are invited to stroll up and have their portraits taken, dressed as a circus artiste. You can have the end result emailed to you for free, or buy a print for a mere £2. It’s a lovely idea, and when I go along – to be kitted out as an over-the-hill pierrot in faded gold – I’m second in line to a family who are dressed as strongman, trapeze girl and baby clown in a tiny pink hat; and followed by an excited gaggle of girls who all want to wear flamenco dresses. A roaring success which will hopefully return to a future Out There Festival.

This lovely booth show is an example of one of the unique festival commissions that differentiates it from many of the country’s outdoor art events. With the Without Walls shows dominating the programming of so many festivals these days, it is good to see Out There putting on some very different work that you won’t get to see anywhere else. Pair that with the collaborations with overseas partners that the organisation has nurtured – with Catalan arts organisations in past editions, and Circuscentrum in Flanders here in 2023, for example – and you have a truly unique programme.

Out There Festival is always a great event. This year’s programme was full of phenomenal work in so many different forms and genres – a fitting celebration for both the 15th edition of the festival and the silver jubilee of the organisation that presents it, Out There Arts.

It is also the end of an era – and heralds the start of a new one – with a move for the 2024 festival from September to the May-June spring half-term week, alongside the exciting news that the company has received a substantial National Lottery Heritage Fund award to develop its second venue, the Ice House, into a year-round national centre for circus and outdoor arts training and professional development.

It has been a fabulous story to date – with a lot more to come from Out There Arts over the coming years. Here’s to the next 25 years!

Paka: Out and About with a Whinny and a Canter. Photo Kat Mager

Featured image (top of page): Les Filles Du Renard Pale: Résiste. Photo David Street

Out There Festival ran 15–17 September 2023, its 15th edition.

Over those years, the festival has established an international reputation for its exceptional, innovative and diverse programme, attracting more than 60,000 people to Great Yarmouth each year.

Out There Arts and the festivals and events it produces has built a national and international reputation for world class artistic quality, new and diverse work, regional artistic talent, international collaboration and innovative community engagement.

The Ice House is set to be transformed into a new Centre of Excellence in Outdoor Circus and Arts. Built between 1851 and 1892, the Ice House was once a vital asset in the Great Yarmouth’s once-thriving fishing industry, enabling the storage of freshly caught seafood before transportation to London’s Billingsgate fish market.

Out There Arts recently received news that their National Lottery Heritage Fund bid had been succesful, and the project also receives support from Great Yarmouth Towns Deal, Brineflow, and the Architectural Heritage Fund, enabling the Ice House building to be repurposed into an arts and circus training hub, with opportunities for performances plus a licensed bar.

The completion of the project, which is being led by Out There Arts, would be a significant step towards the realisation of a vision for Great Yarmouth being recognised as the UK Capital for Circus and Outdoor Arts.

The development for The Ice House has been a long term project for Out There Arts. Much of the vision had been established with the local community through community consultations and events surrounding the building.

Out There Festival returns to Great Yarmouth 30 May – 2 June 2024

See https://outtherearts.org.uk/  

One man band Karl Stets’ feet. Photo David Street

The Streets are Alive…

 … with the Sound of Music! Dorothy Max Prior previews the Out There Festival 2023, which brings a wealth of physical, visual and aural delights to the streets, parks and beaches of Great Yarmouth

It’s almost time for Out There International Festival of Outdoor Arts and Circus, which takes place annually in Great Yarmouth, a small coastal town in the east of England which is fast becoming the UK capital of circus. 

2023 is a double anniversary: 15 years of Out There Festival, but also the 25th year of Out There Arts, formerly known as Seachange Arts. Which means it’s a silver jubilee for artistic director Joe Mackintosh, who has been there from the start. 

But talking to Joe, it’s clear he’s not resting on his laurels:

‘The main thing is that we are changing all the time,’ he says. ‘A lot of people say it takes 10 years to establish a festival, and that’s about right, but at 15 years, we are still learning…’

And there are changes afoot! This will be the last time that the festival will be held in September, as it is moving to a spring slot from 2024 onwards. More on that anon…

But first let’s take a look at this year’s programme. Out There Festival 2023 boasts 34 artistic companies drawn from 17 countries, featuring 108 performances, with a dozen UK premieres – as well as a wealth of opportunities for the professional sector, the local community, and audience members from near and far to participate.

As has become the tradition at Out There, Friday will be a day for professional networking – with the inclusion this year of young artists from the local sixth form college and schools, who are being drawn into the professional fold. 

From Friday evening through to Sunday evening, the streets, parks and seafront of Yarmouth will be ablaze with colour and sound as artists take over public spaces and animate them with physical and visual (and often musical) performance of all sorts.

Les Filles Du Renard Pale: Résiste

Highlights include what Joe calls ‘the all-female powerhouse’ Les Filles Du Renard Pale who will be presenting Résiste at St Nicholas’ car park: ‘an absolutely unmissable tour de force of tightwire and music’ combining the thrills of French contemporary circus performance and the atmospheric sounds of Bristolian trip hop music. This show, though presented outdoors, is one of a few that will ticketed at this year’s festival.

‘Ticket holders will be able to go onto the site at 6pm, have a beer and watch a number of local bands performing – all of whom are led by young women or non-binary musicians – before the main event’ says the festival’s executive director Veronica Stephens. 

Other ticketed shows are indoors, at St George’s Theatre. Opposable Thumb Theatre will be bringing their London International Mime Festival hit Big Boys Don’t Cry [link to TT review] to Yarmouth, posing the question: What makes a man? A serious question explored with a light touch by two very talented clowns. Then, there’s Norfolk poet Luke Wright’s Silver Jubilee, a ‘warm and honest hour of poems and stand-up with the directness and pathos that has made him one of the most popular live poets in England’.

But most shows at Out There Festival will, as ever, be outdoor, free to audience and unticketed.

Spotlight on Flanders at Out There Festival: Amoukanama

A strand in this year’s festival is a focus on work from Flanders. There are four fabulous Flemish companies – Collectif Malunés, Sur Mesure, Amoukanama and Circus Katoen – in the Spotlight on Flanders programme. All four companies have previously performed at Out There, so this is a new manifestation of an ongoing relationship.

Veronica points out that the shape of the festival is a little different this year: ‘We don’t have a big Saturday night parade, but have instead programmed a lot of shows that can play to large audiences, at different sites.’

She goes on to say that this year, there is a drive to build up different outdoor ‘hubs’ for the festival – so that rather than so much focus being placed on St George’s Park and its multiple stages (which will still be there, though!) there will be other hotspots throughout the town, at Trafalgar Square, St Nicholas Car Park, and Deneside/Blackfriars. These hubs will each have a bar, so people can move between them, or hang out at their favourite site. ‘We want to create a participatory, immersive event’ says Veronica – each hub its own ‘mini environment within the festival’. 

Losers Arcade

For example, at Trafalgar Square, there will be the Losers Arcade – a giant games emporium with nothing to lose. ‘Leave your ego behind and join

the Losers as you focus on putting the fun back in failure’ says the blurb. ‘Madcap games and challenges at the only arcade were taking part and becoming one of the gang is far more valued than actually doing well.’ This little hub will have an emphasis on local artists, community, and young people – so will also be hosting Broken Spoke for poetry and spoken word, which will be all local poets/artists. The site will also host a circus performance from Duo Vita, who are the local youth troupe Drillaz Circus’ resident circus tutors (all the way from Colombia!); plus a selection of young bands and other emerging talent programmed by Play, Produce, Promote, working with Freshly Greated / Creative People and Places.  

Of course, St George’s Park will remain a key site, with the traditional Party in the Park on Friday night, billed as ‘Great Yarmouth’s best outdoor party, with DJ’s, dancing, Lacons festival ale, Gonzos cocktails and street food’. 

This will be followed by a whole weekend’s worth of quality shows on a number of park pitches. The Drill House, round the corner from the park, will also be a hub for socialising and participating in festival workshops, as well as hosting the late-night Festival Lounge.

Another element to the festival will be the Sounds Out There strand, with an emphasis on music as an integral part of the outdoor arts and circus sectors – music not just as an accompaniment to physical performance, but music in the foreground – a focus on innovative and unusual music performance in outdoor arts and circus. The programme seeks to inspire emerging musicians and music professionals with talks, behind the scenes access and performances, highlighting how music can be used in ways that reach beyond conventional imaginings. 

Circus meets music – Poppy Plowman & Zara Hudson’: Turk(ish)

Interesting and innovative combinations of music and circus on offer include  Zen Del Sur’s fusion of Flamenco and acrobatics, Orbita, described as a fiery fusion of acrobatic dance, urban dance, flamenco, Cyr Wheel, Boleadoras and acrobalance. A radical combination indeed! Then, there’s Poppy Plowman & Zara Hudson’s Turk(ish) – an autobiographical performance using of live music, contemporary circus and storytelling to discuss personal struggles of identity and Western beauty standards.

’There is an emerging trend of circus artists who are also high level musicians,’ says Joe, citing the ‘jaw-dropping’ one-man band trio Oktopus Orkestar – featuring  Karl Stets, a former circus performer now focusing on his music, but retaining a circus sensibility and flexibility.

Ichi

The one-man band acts who will be merged into Oktopus Orkestar  – subverting this traditional street busker trope –  are the aformentioned Karl Stets, for whom ‘classic melodies and new material are mistreated by a character obsessed with playing everything simultaneously’; the Martin Kasper Orkestra which  declares itself to be ‘minimalist and virtuoso all in one’; and Santiago Moreno (from Argentina) who uses a series of pulleys and strings along with his guitar, utilising the principles of puppetry and the complexity of Latin American rhythms.

Then, there’s Ichi from Nagoya in Japan, a star of Out There Festival 2022, who takes the notion of a one-man band to new limits, using quirky handmade instrument inventions such as his stilt-bass, Kalilaphone, balloon-pipes, and tapumpet. Ping-pong balls, typewriter, toys and everyday objects will also make an appearance.

Two companies that have received developmental support from Out There Arts, via residencies at the Drill House arts centre, are bringing work to the festival. Hicks and Rudkin will present a world premiere of Tony & Ray Find Their Feet, in which two mature workmen steal the moment to indulge their passion in eccentric dance. And CocoLoco’s Shangri-LaLa promises the delights of heaven on earth, exploring famous utopian ideas from Avalon to Xanadu – this also a world premiere.

Circo Rum Ba Ba: The Whale

Elsewhere in the line-up, Paka the Uncredible will be Out and About with a Whinny, as Rusty the mechanical horse slips his tether and is off on a solo adventure; and Circo Rum Ba Ba’s The Whale will offer people the opportunity to squeeze into the belly of an enormous inflatable Sperm Whale where they will find a bubbling, kelp-swirling ocean. Exquisite puppets, comedy and music abound in this tale of sea creatures and their battle to survive. Puppetry of a completely different sort can be found in Professor Patel’s Bollywood Punjeet & Judygee Show, an imaginative modern day twist on the traditional Punch and Judy show, presented by Jack in a Box Entertainment.

As ever, participation as well as spectating will be a key element of the festival. This has never been an ‘add on’ for Out There Arts, but always integral to the organisation’s work.

This year, Duckie’s The Posh Club at the Drill House will, on the 9th of September, open a week of pre-festival community engagement. The Posh Club is a participatory dance and cabaret event aimed at the over 60s – although they can bring along their younger companions! 

Duckie: The Posh Club

From the 11th till the 15th, East Norfolk Sixth Form College will be a hub of activity, with students from schools and colleges across Great Yarmouth coming along to participate in workshops led by musicians and circus artists who are performing in the festival. On Thursday 14th, Out There will facilitate a Careers Day for young aspiring musicians – with an emphasis on ‘thinking outside the box’ exploring the potential working with outdoor arts.

‘The college is very supportive and have excellent links with schools in the borough,’ says Veronica, ‘It’s a good, positive relationship’. One that they will bring forward into future festivals.

This increased engagement with schools and colleges is one of the main reasons that the festival will, from 2024 onwards, be in spring half-term week (end of May/ beginning of June) rather than September.

‘At the moment we do engagement work in June and July and then there’s a six-week summer holiday,’ says Veronica. ‘If it’s earlier in the year, it can be embedded in as part of the curriculum.’

‘That half term week will mean that there will be potential for more days –to spread out a little,’ adds Joe. ‘Out There is now the biggest Outdoor Arts weekend festival in the UK and trying to see all the work in two days is tricky.’

Joe also says that another reason for the move is that the organisation has, for the past couple of years, run a second festival, Fire on the Water, in late October.

‘Fire on the Water last year sold 29,000 tickets in 6 days – in the off-season in Yarmouth!’ says Joe.

So that’s two massive festivals for the organisation to run close together…

‘Piggy-backing events – producing Out There Festival in September and Fire on the Water in October-November is challenging for the team!’ says Joe. ‘Moving Out There to the spring allows us some breathing space and planning time’.

‘September has worked for us, but it’s time to try something else…’ he adds ‘but it is the end of an era…’

Yes, the end of an era – but no doubt the start of a fabulous new one!

Out There Festival Lounge at the Drill House. Photo David Street

Out There Festival, now celebrating its 15th edition, has built a national and international reputation for world class artistic quality, new and diverse work, regional artistic talent, international collaboration and innovative community engagement.

Perched on the east coast, closer to the continent than the capital, Out There has established an international reputation for its exceptional, innovative and diverse programme, regularly attracting more than 60,000 people to Great Yarmouth each year.

Out There Festival runs 15–17 September 2023, and is preceded by a week of community-engaged activity, starting with Duckiie’s The Posh Club at Drill House on the 9th of September.

Featured image (top of page): Sur Mesure: Barriere, appearing as part of the Spotlight on Flanders programme at Out There Festival 2023.

Spotlight on Flanders is a project of Circuscentrum, funded by VLAIO (Brexit Adjustment Reserve) with the aim to invest in long-term cooperation between Flanders and the UK in the circus field. The project puts Flemish circus creations in the spotlight and brings together Flemish and UK circus professionals to facilitate exchange.

For full details of the programme, including all free and ticketed events, see https://outtherearts.org.uk/  

Box office link for ticketed shows: https://outtherearts.ticketsolve.com/ticketbooth/shows

Out There Festival aideonce photo by Katherine Mager