Thursday, 29 January 2015

Helen Foan, our puppet maker for Citizen Puppet, talks about her process...

What are the different elements of making the puppet?
Every puppet is unique and needs to move and look a certain way for that character, presenting new challenges and requiring different skills.

The “Citizen Puppet” puppets have carved Styrofoam heads with moving mouth mechanisms, skeleton structures, fabric bodies and foam hands.

How do you approach it?
Blind summits puppets evolve a lot during the R&D process. Puppet heads and bodies will be swapped around, passed between performers and characters will emerge.

I begin with the head.  The most important thing to think about is creating a characterful face with a mechanism that is strong and easy to use. 

I then think about what movement is needed from the puppet. The “Citizen Puppet” cast are mainly seated puppets so leg and arm joints are very simple. I make a skeleton structure of fibre glass rods and webbing. Then I fit that into a fabric body and stuff it with wadding. Finally it’s the fun bits like sewing shoes, casting hands and making costume.

What are the most challenging moments of the make?
Getting the jaw mechanism right is very important, It’s all about pivot points and tension. The lesson that I have learned is that you should always work from life. Even if the head is very exaggerated and cartoonlike, always look at where the joint would be on a real skull.

What is your favourite part to make?
Ears! Carving the ears is weirdly satisfying.

Who is your favourite Blind Summit puppet?
The other day I was looking through the boxes and found a puppet called Mildred.  It was like finding a beautiful antique; she has so much character even without a puppeteer moving her.

What is your favourite material to work with, and which one do you hate?
I like sculpting with polymer clay like Fimo or Sculpey as you can put so much detail in it. Once I was asked to make a very large carnival puppet and thought that chicken wire would be a good idea. It wasn't. Chicken wire is Satan’s own invention.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Mark talks 10 years of Madam Butterfly...

2015 marks ten years since Blind Summit worked on the premiere of Madam Butterfly. With rehearsals beginning this week for the latest revival at the Perth International Arts Festival, I chatted to Mark to find out more...

How did Blind Summit first become involved with Madam Butterfly?
In 2002, we made a show called Mr China's Son which was on at the Pleasance Theatre. Madam Butterfly's choreographer, Carolyn Choa, came along to see her dancer friend Tom Yang, who was in the cast. (He played He Liyi's father). In 2005, Carolyn started to work on Madam Butterfly with her husband, Anthony Minghella. They both decided that they wanted Madam Butterfly's son, Sorrow, to be played by a puppet and Carolyn remembered us.

Where did your interest to work in Opera come from?
When I was 18 I asked for a recording of Madam Butterfly. I don't know why - perhaps from listening to Malcolm McLaren's Madam Butterfly remix single. The first opera I saw was Queen of Spades at Glyndebourne. I went for the picnic, but was stunned by the production. I think it was directed by Graham Vick, with a design by Richard Hudson.

What was new about Madam Butterfly that you hadn't done before?
So many things! Working with an Oscar winning film director. Performing in an opera. Taking an opera curtain call. 

How did the rehearsal process and relationship between the puppeteers and the singer's work?
When we rehearsed it, the team - me, Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell - had been working together for a year in Low Life and so we knew each other pretty well. We improvised in rehearsals and gave Anthony a naughty 3 year old child to direct. We were terrible show offs I think. Occasionally Anthony would say, "Blind Summit, we love you, but it's not all about the baby!". Another of our Low Life team, Giulia Innocenti, was also in the show and gave us puppetry feedback.
Mary Plazas, who was the original Madam Butterfly,  worked really hard with us to be a real mother to the baby and that was a really important part of believing in the puppetry. She led the way and all the singers have been very open to working with a puppet baby and are really good with it. One wanted to buy it from us!

Where has it been performed since the premiere?
ENO London, Met Opera New York, LNOBT Lithuania, China, Madrid...

What's different about preparing for a revival than the original shows?
I am directing the puppetry of course - not in it. Also we know more about how the show works and that it does work. And because everyone knows about the puppet now no one is afraid of it and actually looks forward to working with him. Mainly we spend our time trying to remember where the screens go and who does it!

Who are the puppeteers for Perth?
Curtis James who was the first person to take over the role of the head from me in London, Eugenius Serjegevias who took over the head in Lithuania, and Vaiva Uzaite who has been doing the feet in Lithuania.

Originally the puppetry was quite controversial. After so many revivals, do you think audiences are more accepting of puppetry in opera?
In New York two ladies stood in front of us at an open day and said, "I'm sawry, bud I don't like it". Another opera supporter said to me, "I closed my eyes as soon as the puppets came on!" Since then, lots of the most popular opera productions seem to have puppets in them, and people love the puppets. Yes I think they are more accepted, and that's great for opera and great for us!

How has being involved in Madam Butterfly affected Blind Summit's work, and has it been an inspiration for any of our other work?
Madam Butterfly dramatically changed our profile and established our reputation for the quality of our work. Working in it taught us everything about working with puppets in big theatres, working in opera, working!
Each night before we went on stage we used to warm up by messing about in the wings. We would improvise the baby attacking Finn, who was on the back and right hand. The warm up was partly what gave us the idea for The Table