Monday, 27 February 2017

March's Puppet of the Month - Mao from 'Mr China's Son'

Chairman Mao, thank you for joining us.


What do you want?

We’re hoping you can tell us more about Mr China’s Son and the true story of He Liyi.

He Liyi! He loves the English language too much. 

‘Mr China’s Son’ - He Liyi's autobiography. Nick Barnes met the real life He Liyi and wanted to tell his story. Communist China, puppets, controlling the people... a good idea.

So this was Blind Summit's first ever show?! 

Yes. 2002 at the Pleasance, but we started making it in 1997 after Mark went to Nick's workshop at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.  

You're a miniature sized Mao, aren't you? 

I am small but very precise. Nick took a long time to make my head. Sculpting in clay, make a mould, then casting in resin, and finishing.   

How was the experience of the show for you? 

They sent me to Hampstead in a parcel. Very uncomfortable. Terrible experience.

For reviews, photos and more on the production click hereand for Maddy Costa's article on how Mr China's Son fits into Blind Summit's history, click here.

Johana Vavřínová on learning the Blind Summit method

At the start of this year, Mark went to Theatre Drak in Czech Republic for 3 weeks of R&D. 

We interviewed one of Drak's puppeteers, Johana Vavřínová, about her experience and the Blind Summit method... 

How did you come to work at Theatre Drak?

I have been puppeteering since my childhood, when I joined a local drama club aged 9. It wasn't written anywhere, but puppets were the only means of our acting expression. I loved the combination of live music, singing and puppeteering. I passed exams for DAMU (Academy of Performing Arts in Prague – Departement of Puppet and Alternative Theatre), freelanced after graduating and found Drak in 2013. It was a great pleasure and honor for me to be full time employed at this theatre with a long history, full of great actors and puppeteers. Every day I learn a lot from them.

Can you tell us more about your R&D with Mark?
The main goal of that workshop was to animate the puppet. Three people, one puppet, bunraku style, that's a big challenge. In Japan they are working on it lifetime and we had just 16 days! But there were some moments when we were close to how it should look like. So happy moments...

How is this different to projects you've done before?  
We use puppets as a symbol, metaphor, image. We are not used to doing things with the puppet people can do. In this case we hide puppets and use live actors. With Mark we were learning how to truly exist with puppet on the stage, how to make the movements of the puppet as realistic as possible.

Tell us 3 things have you learnt about Mark's approach
1. Mark's method: breath in – pause – movement – speak. Breath gives the impulse for the body.  
2. the character of the puppet is not in its voice, but in its movement, each part of the body has its vocabulary
3. Ambition, fail, cover. Each puppeteer has a specific ambition at the time, for example go to the right with legs. But when the body and the head don't follow him, he fails and he has to cover this ambition. Exploit the ambivalence!

And finally, what is your top 'puppet tip' from these rehearsals? 

For maintaining the suspense, which is so enjoyable for the audience, find the problems, not the solutions, because problems are interesting, solutions are dull. 

Friday, 3 February 2017

In the Workshop... Inventing lip-sync mechanisms for Citizen Puppet.

... Inventing lip-sync mechanisms for Citizen Puppet.

Assistant Producer Alex takes a tea break with Associate Fiona Clift, to find out what it is she’s making...

A: what’s going on for you in the workshop?

F: We’re expanding the puppet cast of Citizen Puppet to about 20, so I thought this was a good opportunity to improve my sculpting skills and understand how mechanisms work. And by making the mechanisms and really knowing how the puppet works, my puppeteering skills improve as well.

A: what’s your starting point for making a puppet head?

F: The provocation for this one I’m doing now – the Mayor of Massiveville in CP - was Tom Hanks in Saving Mr Banks that I watched over Christmas. Something about his chubby face and little moustache... it gave inspiration for strong features when sculpting the head.  He also has a comb over which feels very ‘in’ right now.

A: what is this stuff you’re brushing onto it?

F: I’m Jesmonite-ing – a two part material (powder mixed with water) that hardens over styrofoam to harden the head and protect it

A: CP is a ‘puppet verbatim’ piece, where the puppets have moving mouths?

F: Yes! You’ve got a lot of known moving-mouth puppets (Spitting Image, the Muppets) but not quite like these. Following experiments in the first run of the show (2015) we’re expanding on the bunraku model of puppet. The big breakthrough here is moving the mechanism from the head to further down the back of the puppet.

A: how has that pushed things forward?

F: Well, with just the head you get a bit obsessed with the puppet from the neck up. But by lowering the mechanism the puppet is more ‘centred’ and you’ve got better overall control of the puppet so you can concentrate on improvising as the character more. Before it was all isolated in the head.

A: When will the Mayor of Massiveville get his first outing?

F: We’re getting ready to test out the mechanisms through some workshopping next week, and the latest draft of the script. 

Can you spot the difference?

February's Puppet of the Month - Chamberlain from Le Rossignol

Chamberlain: Uh, ah – yes, yes! I am the Chamberlain! I am here. I am ready to commence the interview. Let us start.

You’re very efficient, Chamberlain. This isn’t how our puppet interviews normally run.

C: Well yes, but I am exceptionally organised and efficient and it is my job to do the introductions to court, yes – so – one of us needs to get this thing going do we not?

Maybe you can tell me a bit about your role at court?

C: I herald in visitors to the Emperor at the Imperial Court and I am often accompanied by the Cook – who is a wok - and the Bonze – who is a lantern – and we have good fun.

And you are... a scroll? How did that come about?

C: The music of the opera of Le Rossignol took the design team to Cubism, and in Cubism you have things where the parts are lots of bits of the same thing – you know, like the Violin Woman – and so the puppet design looked at objects and then those objects influenced the movement of the puppet. So I am a scroll and I was very popular with the puppeteers, yes I was.

And why was that?

C: Because I leap onstage in a dynamic and high energy way! Like a scroll unfurling. In the end a puppeteer called Valentin – who is a breakdancer – got to operate me. Lucky boy.

Violin & Candlestick - Georges Braque

Thursday, 29 December 2016

January's Puppet of the Month - Goldstein-becomes-Moses

Moses (photo by Nigel Bewley)

Thanks for joining us Mr Goldstein. Or is it Moses? Which puppet are you exactly?

These days I’m widely recognised as “Moses” from The Table, but I first came to life as “Emmanuel Goldstein”, leader of the underground resistance to the Nazi’s. I was made for Blind Summit’s adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 but I was too cute, apparently.

And that was the end of Goldstein?
Sadly, yes. But just 6 months after 1984 I was pulled back out for The Other Seder - a commission by the Jewish Community Centre for London and Knish Collective playing with the idea of Moses returning to the Passover table (they thought I looked a bit like the Prophet). Lo and behold: I became "Moses".

So what's with the other girl? 
In the very early days of The Table we had me, my 3 puppeteers, and another character. The show focused on the relationship between Moses and the girl, but was dropped around 2012 as we reworked the material. But - we’re bringing her back for the Drak project. 

The Drak project?
I’m about to travel with Mark to the Theatre Drak rehearsal room in Czech Republic for 3 weeks. We're doing R&D on that early idea of Moses and the 4th character. Plus, I went from German revolutionary to Czech puppet in that Goldstein-to-Moses transformation, so I feel like I'm going back to my roots. 

You were a Czech puppet?!

The concept for The Table 1.0 was a Czech group coming to the UK to perform Tabel and divulge the secrets of the famed Czech puppetry. But that got scrapped in rehearsal and we went back to earlier ideas in The Other Seder. So it feels good to pick that up again with our friends in the Czech Republic. 

The Other Seder, 2010

Czech Puppetry: the basics

Mark is off to Theatre Drak - renowned state theatre for puppetry in Hradec Králové, Czech Republic - for 3 weeks of R&D this month. As they rework some early 'Moses' ideas for for a show this autumn, Assistant Producer Alex takes a look at some Czech-puppetry facts you may not have heard of... 

Divadlo Drak ('Dragon Theatre') 
A Quick History

  • In its beginnings (late 1600s) puppets in Czech theatre were used as cheap alternatives to actors, made in large, real-life proportions
  • Made for adult audiences, puppet shows (1700's) were performed in pubs and village town squares
  • With state-run city theatres performing exclusively in German (the official language) it was the provincial  puppetry shows, performed in Czech, that came to represent the indigenous nation 
  • The puppeteer became a cultural hero in the Czech nationalist movement (1800's), with funding flooding into community ‘amateur’ theatre that was created by professionals. The audience shifted from adults to children
  • 1928: UNIMA founded in Prague, where amateur puppetry theatre Rise Loutek still operates
  • 1920's: "Spejbl and Hurvinek" were comic puppet characters critical of the Nazi regime, until their puppeteers were sent to a concentration camp 
  • 2016: Czech puppetry made it onto the UNESCO cultural heritage list 


Delve into Czech mythos and witness the mastery of  Bitva s Lučany (Battle with the Luczans) by Jirí Trnka (1953)

Some Links

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Spilling the beans on Jack & The Beanstalk - the story behind Citizen Puppet

Citizen Puppet is currently undergoing some major reconstruction in the rehearsal room. Those who have already seen it will know that it's built around Jack and the Beanstalk, refashioning the classic story as a puppet docu-drama about the 2008 economic crash.

The day Jack chops down the beanstalk is the fairy tale parallel of the Lehman Brother's collapse - the fall of the financial giants that devastated the western world and continues to reverberate to this day. 

As we enter the panto-season proper, we thought it a fine time to take a look at other interpretations of this classic... 

Need a story recap? 
Jack and his mother are very poor. Forced to flog their only cow when her milk runs dry, Jack meets a stranger en route to market and sells the animal for magic beans. Mum is angry, beats Jack, and throws the beans out the window. Beans grow into a gigantic beanstalk, leading to a bloodthirsty giant’s castle in the sky – complete with gold coins,  a goose that lays golden eggs,  and a singing harp. Jack swags the riches and kills the giant by chopping down the beanstalk with him still on it, in hot pursuit.

So where does it come from?
'The Boy Who Stole Ogre's Treasure' are a collection of stories dating back 5000 years (say Durham academics), and historically the giant may have its roots in the Gogmagog character of Welsh and English folklore. This giant was thrown from a cliff during a wrestling match in the lands we now know as Cornwall. 

What do others make of the beanstalk? 
The tree with incredible properties is a feature of ancient stories from across the world: 
  • The Banyan Tree, the Hindu’s sacred tree, symbolises longevity, fertility, nourishment and the fulfilment of wishes and material gains
  • Buddha finds enlightenment – a spiritual awakening - after meditating for 7 days under the sacred fig (Bodhi) tree with its heart-shaped leaves 
  • Serbian families burn the badnjak (Yule log) on Christmas eve alongside prayers to God for happiness, luck and riches
  • The tree in the Garden of Eden offering its fruit that bestows deeper knowledge (of good and evil)

What research went into Citizen Puppet rehearsals?
The creative team read versions of Jack & The Beanstalk from all over the world and analysis by experts like Marina Warner. 

And what's next for Citizen Puppet?
The script is currently being re-developed and some of the puppets re-designed, in particular the mechanisms used for the mouth movement. Hopefully we'll have some more news for you next year!