Thursday, 31 August 2017

September Puppet of the Month - Mel the Cow

How did you get your name "Mel"?

Charlie named me after a friend of hers, Mel. Mark wanted to call me Daisy. I play the part of Milky White in Citizen Puppet. 

That sounds complicated...

Actually "Citizen Puppet" is changing to "Citizen Jack" I think. Although it's not a final decision yet. It keeps going backwards and forwards. It might be "Citizen Jack - A Puppet's Story". So... yes it's complicated. We're in development so things keep changing around. 

You weren't in the first version of the show were you?

Well exactly! The new version is going to be even better. There are going to be 25 puppets including a talking cow - me. 

What do you say?

I just try to tell my side of the story, what I know, which is mainly about when Jack sold me for beans. People don't think about what a risk he took when he did that, the gamble. Usually he is portrayed as dumb, but he knew what he was doing I think. And I talk about my life after that with the butcher. 

Do you make any cow puns?

Of course, but I don't milk it.

Charli - puppet maker

What's your name and where do you come from?

I’ m Charli and I’ m from Bremen, in Germany

Who is the cow?

That’s a good question. I think no one really knows yet, she could have so many different characters. I like to call her Mel, I gave her this little mark that says that she is from the same part of Germany where I come from, but I actually think she is British

How did you come to be making a cow at Blind Summit this summer?

I actually study in Salzburg in Austria and as we  got summer holidays at the moment I asked if there might be anything to do I could help with during this time, and happily there was Mel

What are the challenges of making a puppet cow and how did you tackle them?

I think what made it so difficult at the first place was that I never properly looked at a cow before and there are no references running around in your everyday life in London, other then with a human head..
There are many cow photos on the internet, but not of the same cow from every angle, obviously.. and as all the cows really look quite different that was a bit confusing.

But then I bought a little 3D toy cow and just stuck to her as reference. That was really helpful

Have you made other puppets?

Just one. A hairy little hipster inspired by a friend of mine. I also made him at blind summit at the beginning of this year.

What do you like about making puppets?

I think it’s a good mixture of creative designing and the actual making. It combines fantastic thinking and naturalistic precise copying in a way- and I love tiny details and that there is space for those in the puppet world

What tip can you give someone who wants to make a puppet?

Think before you cut. Actually always think first!.. Don’t rush, Don’t get lost into details before you got the actual shape right. Keep in mind that someone also needs to play with them

Would you like to say anything else?

It really was great fun making Mel, I’m very thankful for the opportunity and I really hope I might have the chance to make another puppet in the future

Thursday, 29 June 2017

July's Puppet of the Month - 'Husky' from Call of Wild

Hello Husky. 

We hear you've been on a recent trip.
Yes. Mark just got back from a research trip in Alaska, re-tracing the steps of Jack London who wrote 'Call of the Wild'. He took me with him. 

How was that?
Absolutely loved it. I saw the midnight sun on the top of the midnight dome in Dawson City. And I had a nap on Jack London's bunk in his cabin.

Did you see any bears on your trip? 
I saw a grizzly and its cubs. Were I not on a boat at some distance, I would have been nervous. I have yet to outrun a bear.

What are you made from?
I've got a styrofoam head, plastazote trimmings, a wooden skeleton held together with webbing strips, and a jesmonite finish. 

Can you tell us about the Blind Summit show you were originally created for?
'Call of the Wild' in 2010 at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. They wanted a show for their 3rd year students, and Mark had always wanted to put the Jack London story on stage. The original idea stemmed from shadow puppetry, and that the arctic setting of the story would make the perfect backdrop.

Are you sure? I don't remember seeing you in that...
Well. The company had just done '1984' and were getting into the creative possibilities of folding cardboard. So I got junked and they went with a different style to create their 'cardboard arctic puppet ballet'. So no, I wasn't in it - but I was created for it. 

Well, we're glad you finally got to follow the call.

The start of our 8 hour bus ride

Sailing to Port Rupert

Friday, 9 June 2017

Lighting Designer in Profile: Ed Elbourne

Ed Elbourne is a freelance lighting designer and currently on tour with Blind Summit as Technical Manager for The Table at Spoleto Festival USA, 2017.

Ed & Mark in technical rehearsals
for The Table
How did you start working with Blind Summit? 

Steph (Executive Producer) asked me to cover a few shows of The Table which was touring in Erfurt. I think that's where Martin Luther was from? It was when Germany beat Brazil in the World Cup. The Germans were quite excitable as a result! 

How has The Table changed from when you last worked on it? 

The show is actually very different. Which is important because it still feels like a fresh, improvised stand up. So structurally and metaphorically, it’s a different show to the one I lit 3 years ago. 

Are there particular considerations to be made when lighting puppets? 

I recently went to a conference called ‘Showlight’ where David Duffy (Little Angel) gave an excellent talk about the technicalities of lighting the puppet and not the puppeteer. This is imperative where the puppetry is taking an audience into a visual illusion - to maintain the theatre magic. It's very different with the Table, though - there’s no concealing that there are 3 operators of the puppet! We aren’t trying to hide the puppeteers, but we’re trying to light the puppet itself in a certain way, for effect. 

What are the key elements of the lighting design for The Table

Waiting for Stanley
Waiting for Stanley
Lighting by Ed Elbourne
Defining space. Because it’s such a focused piece of theatre, we need to define the space so that the audience don’t feel distant and stay engaged, and that the puppet owns the space. And then getting the angles right on Moses' face. He's a brilliant puppet, the slightest change in angle of light on his face gives him a whole new expression.

What about other shows you’ve lit with puppets? 

I've lit a few where a puppet is included amongst non-puppet performers. It can be difficult because the puppet moves around a much larger area than a puppet-only show, and you just can't be as precise. You fall back on larger washes of asymmetric side light and top light to sculpt the face and give a puppet expressions. The human brain is so good at ‘filling in’ faces on things that aren’t faces - we see faces in clouds, for example. So creating contrasts of light across a puppet's face with shadows and colours and audiences helps project expressions onto them.

What’s your proudest moment?

I'm very proud of The Table, because the audience love it so much. And ultimately that’s why we do what we do. Isn’t it? 

For more on Ed’s work, check out -  

June's Puppet of the Month - Gudrun Esslin from 'Little Match Girl'

What’s your name and where do you come from? 

I’m Gudrun Ensslin, and I come from Germany.  

Oh. I thought the 'Little Match Girl' came from Hans Christian Anderson.  Aren’t you Dutch? 

Gudrun Ensslin
Well - the fairy tale of the poor, young matchstick seller who freezes to death is only one part of Helmut Lachenmann’s opera. Onto this he layered the story of me and the Baader-Meinhof gang in 1970’s Germany. Our guerrilla group battled the capitalism of western Germany, and I died by hanging myself in prison. Lachenmann weaves some of my suicide texts into the opera, as well as radio recordings of the gang.

That doesn’t sound like a happy story. 

No, it is all quite dark, quite challenging…. Lachenmann’s music has been compared to artwork by Francis Bacon. But we are dealing with themes of protest, and isolation, and sacrifice. Helmut actually knew the real Gudrun when she was a child. 

So you are a shadow puppet version of Gudrun? 

There is a puppeteer - Fiona Clift - who wears plastazote shapes and costume to give the silhouette of me, and I am a cardboard cut out of that silhouette. 

There’s two of you?

Yes. So I could appear in different scenes in different places in very quick succession. This is the good thing about shadow puppetry - it can be lighting fast. An effect you can’t have with real-life puppets and puppeteers. You could also say that the lights were puppets in this production too. They were manipulated and moved around, and ‘puppeted’ to create our effects.  

When did we last see you? 

A year ago at Spoleto Festival USA, in 2016. I understand that Blind Summit is back at Spoleto this year, performing The TableI’m currently enjoying my Big Yellow storage unit in Reading. 

Little Match Girl at Spoleto Festival USA, 2016

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

May's Puppet of the Month - Sharik from 'A Dog's Heart'

In rehearsals, Amsterdam

Hi Sharik. You have an unusual name - where does it come from? 

You know that I am Russian? Alexander Raskatov based his opera on Bulgakov's novel The Heart of A Dog. In Russia a pure-breed is called 'Sharik'. I am a stray, so it is a little ironic. 

The novel itself is very satirical, no? 

Ah, yes. There is much debate over the novel's meaning, and the target of it's satire. Maybe it is a comment on how 'base' people can acquire power. Or maybe the Soviet state attempting to change people. Or eugenics. 

You go through quite a few transformations I understand? 

Sketch by Nick Barnes
Yes. The story is that a Soviet doctor wants to be the first to transform an animal into a human. So he sews the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead drunk onto the dog, and this begins the transformation. For most of the show I am onstage with my puppeteers, and then we have an 'interim' human-headed dog puppet before a male actor takes the part of my fully-transformed human self for the second half. 
Final mock up

What happens to the human version of you? 

He is a man but with the mentality of a dog. So the IQ is lower. He is a very sexed creature. He still chases cats! Yet, he begins a revolutionary movement, rousing the workers to overthrow the wealthy. And so the doctor must intervene and turn him back to a dog. 

You live in Amsterdam? 

Yes. I was made in the Netherlands by Sindy Buissink (overseen by Nick Barnes, my designer)for the rehearsals and premiere of A Dog's Heart at the DNO in 2010. Later I traveled to ENO (London), La Scala (Milan), OpĂ©ra Nouvel (Lyon) and now back to the DNO for the revival that is currently playing. 

And what is next for you? 

I will be on display at entrance to the 'Casa Romana' exhibit at the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities. You can see me there from 23 May.

Producer in Profile: Stephanie Wickes

As Stephanie Wickes makes ready for her departure as Executive Producer of Blind Summit Theatre, we asked her about the highs of her job and what it's really like to get ground-breaking puppetry put on stages around the world... 

What is your earliest memory with the company? 

I started when the whole team was touring France and rehearsing for the Olympics, so I spent three weeks sitting on my own in a workshop in North London with no idea where to start. It was the most terrifying thing I'd ever done. But I put my head down - I read 4,000 emails, looked through every file, scrutinised every budget. When I had my first company meeting at Stratford station in a rehearsal lunch break, I was able to keep up with everything Mark and Nick were talking about. From then on it was a lot less scary!

When you were starting out with Blind Summit, did you have a good idea of where it would lead? 

Not at all. I started as General Manager on a 6 month fixed term contract, and ended up staying 5 years and becoming Executive Producer. The real joy of my job has been living through every momen alongside Mark and his amazing team. The work the company creates is very experimental, so my role has become the "safety" that allows them to take that artistic risk... always knowing the answers so they don't have to, knowing how to manage the budget so they don't even notice, holding off questions and problems until the creative process is at the right point to answer them. So although I hover behind the scenes, every opening night I get to feel that the work is as much mine as those on the stage.

What is your London highlight?

I saw The Table for the first time at Soho Theatre after I'd just accepted the job and resigned from Watford Palace. I was irrationally terrified that I'd hate the show and would have to work it for weeks! But obviously I adored it, and as I sat amongst the fans raving about it afterwards I remember thinking "I'm going to work with that company". Whenever I'm at Soho Theatre's bar I remember that feeling.

'Le Rossignol' in Bregenz

What is your touring highlight? 

This is tough to answer.

Overall, it was going to Bregenz Festival in 2014 with three different projects - Mark was directing a cubist-puppet opera of Stravinsky's Le Rossignol with 11 puppeteers and about 300 puppets, a revival of The Magic Flute on the giant lake stage with the same puppeteer team, and a one-off of The Table to cap it all off. We'd been preparing for over a year, and when we got there I didn't really sleep for three days. But I was rewarded by Le Rossignol - probably my all time favourite Blind Summit show. The biggest project I ever saw from beginning to end, the first opera directed by Mark - and just an amazing show. It was one of the few times in my career that I had happy tears welling up on opening night.

But there are also some smaller personal highlights like going to the sold-out run of The Table at the first ever Chicago Puppet Festival, looking out over the incredible city skyline from the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. And dancing all night at the amazing opening night party for The Magic Flute in Bregenz in 2013 and limping home at 5am without my shoes.

Is there a Blind Summit puppet or show you have a special connection with? 

Strangely I think it's the dog from A Dog's Heart - strange since I haven't had much to do with the show. It was first made long before I worked for Blind Summit, but I'd booked tickets for it at ENO because I'd never seen an opera before and the combination of Blind Summit and Complicite made me want to give it a try. I absolutely loved it, it became the first of many operas I saw, and it was the show that inspired me to apply for the job when it came up the next year. I also happened to go to the opera on an early date with a new boyfriend who is now my husband, so there is a bit of a personal link there too. I went along to see one of the revivals at La Scala in Milan not that long after I joined the company, and now it's on again as I leave, I feel like it's a full cycle!

What three tips would you give the next Blind Summit producer? 

1. Get comfortable with being reactive. Things change quickly - have plenty of secret contingencies up your sleeve, people you can call at a moment's notice, and a schedule with extra time in it!

2. Have a network in the wider industry. Being in such a small company means that being able to ask some other producers what on earth they are doing about new pensions regulations, or to share a template contract is an absolute blessing.

3. Know who all the artists are. The heart and soul of Blind Summit is the artists, and knowing what everyone's strengths are and what they are up to at the moment, is key to being able to help Mark pull together a team for a last minute R&D day or puppet filming day.

What is particular about producing a Blind Summit show? 

There is no "producing formula" here. Every project is so different, from an opera to a devised theatre show to filming for a TV show. So I've loved getting to know all the different artistic processes - the various ways of making puppets, Mark's way of running rehearsals, how we develop scripts, how we cast. In that way I can draw on all that knowledge to plan for a new project. Plus I feel much closer to the art than I ever have done as Producer elsewhere.

What are you leaving to do? 

I'm taking a leap out of theatre to work for a tech start-up. I've worked in theatre for 11 years, and I decided it was time to find out what goes on outside of our bubble. I'm hoping to learn some new skills and bring them back into theatre and the arts in the future. And I'm looking forward to being a theatre audience member for a few years, particularly of Blind Summit's work.

Steph & team receive a Fringe First for Citizen Puppet in 2015

Saturday, 1 April 2017

April's Puppet of the Month - Real Man Head

Aren't you one of the heads from The Heads

I've featured in quite a few Blind Summit shows. There are actually around 20 replicas of me - most are in storage but we keep a few to hand so that Mark and our Associate Artists can take them to workshops for puppet-play. 

I see. So how did you first come about?

Nick, inspired by the face of Tommy Lee Jones, sculpted a head out of clay then made a mould from silicone rubber, finally pumping in expanding foam to make me. 

I was commissioned by ROH2 in 2007 for their Firsts Festival, and a 20 minute sketch called Real Man, inspired by Jack London's Call of the Wild

I'm sure I've seen you in a dark corner of the BAC... 

You're right. I was used in Odde Angel, a 4 minute side-show scene in Punchdrunk's Masque of the Red Death (2008) where a labyrinth of rooms featured work inspired by Edgar Allen Poe stories. 

And then? 

The early versions of The Table had a 20-minute section of me, my replicas and hands flying across three frames to Lightning by Philip Glass. That was then developed into a full hour-long show, The Heads, that premiered at the Soho as part of London Mime Festival 2013. 

Read more about Nick's head-making process here

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.