The Evolution Of Puppetry

Helena and the Journey of Hello is the latest work from Tasmania’s Terrapin Puppet Theatre, directed by Frank Newman and written by Finegan Kruckemeyer.  

Through three narrators, Fox, Hare and Wolf, we are told the story of Helena Bugosi, whose parents have mysteriously disappeared. The complex plot touches on themes of (mis)communication, loss and loneliness.

Mel King, Ryk Goddard and Sam McMahon take on multiple roles, with the title role of 10-year-old ‘Helena’ a puppet operated by King.
 
The show uses elements of clowning, song and traditional and ‘digital’ puppetry. Mobile phones are used as a communication device and even as puppets, with disembodied LCD screens seeming to dance through the air at one point.

Briony Kidd talks to Frank Newman, Artistic Director of Terrapin since 2007.



Madeline PhoneYou say in your program notes the starting point for this show was playing around with mobile phones. So how did that lead to a story?
The stories came from Fin [playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer] but he reacted to what was happening in terms of the exercises we were doing on the floor with mobiles. The content was a reaction to form. That whole opening speech about the ‘hello’ which travels around the world, that was a hugely influential text. We extrapolated outwards to find the concept about the girl and the words travelling around the world. We were mucking around with sound: you could have two live phones and they could feed back and do all that kind of weird stuff. The most interesting thing in all this for me is the fact that they’re in the same room calling each other, so the sound’s going up [to a satellite] and then coming back.

I asked Fin to just write stories at first: so no characters, purely narration. We started with the idea of three very disparate stories and I wanted them to relate in a very odd way and so the relationships between the stories would become increasingly clear or raise questions for the audience at the end of it. Because I know that all of your instincts go towards making it clean. We all want that conventional story, so to start off not easy and simple and a straight up narrative was important to me. 

We’re dealing with the mobile phone: there’s nothing easy or narrative about it, it’s a device which has all sorts of different functions which have never been together before.  It’s an odd little device.

I’ve never seen anything done with mobile phones on stage. Technically was it fairly straightforward or –
No. [laughs] There’s nothing straightforward about the shows I usually do. There was a lot of stuffing around. We basically had to map where each of the phones go. All the phones were named and had different functions and can do different things, and so getting on top of that was not easy. As we developed the show we realised what the capabilities of each of them were and then worked with that.

So do you have to actually worry about access to a phone network in the venue?
Well, there’s ways of cheating it but that is a worry if we play somewhere at the back of Dismal Swamp at the top of Tasmania where there’s no reception. It could be an issue.

I understand Finegan Kruckemeyer has written other shows for Terrapin?
Fin did the last show, Boats (2008), which was a school touring show, and he wrote Con Artists (2007), the school touring show from last year [directed by Robert Jarman]. He’s writing the next two shows for us as well. So there’s a developing relationship between he and I as director/writer. I like the idea of artistic teams knowing each other very well and starting to really understand how each other works. My process is not straight up down traditional, so it’s good that he understands that. That really happened in this show, which is really exciting. 

Essentially Fin wrote a whole series of stories and then I assigned things to characters, like words to characters, asking the performers to develop characters and play with ideas. I made some calls and provided the framework and then everybody sort of filled it in. Fin really allowed me to push into his script significantly. The whole beginning section wasn’t there [initially], in the original three stories. It’s what’s called a traditional ‘boast’, where the performers come out, saying “My name is Wolfie” and so on. I thought we really need that to help the audience, just to give them a bit of information to get them going. And Fin ran with that. So him understanding my aesthetic is really important, because if you read that script – well, it’s not a script - if you read that series of stories on the page, you won’t see that show, you won’t see what that looks like, you’ll see something very different.

Will you end up with a written script?
Now it’s totally formatted as a script. We started a long time ago, we started in May, and it kept going back and forth. But really there weren’t names of characters assigned to lines up until about four weeks ago. 

I'm interested in authorship questions, with the actors putting quite a lot in obviously and you and Finegan Kruckemeyer. When it comes to the final say, is that him or is that you? Or whatever works?
Whatever works really. If there was any animosity then we would have locked it down more, and we would have defined the roles (and we did define the roles in the contract at the beginning). 

There was some consternation over who ‘conceived’ the work, because the stories were a reaction to a conceptual framework which I provided, but then Fin wrote the stories and then we furnished those stories with all the other stuff. Authorship is a really interesting one, and Fin and I did discuss it once or twice. He asked me to take away the ‘conceived’ part, because he thought that in narrative theatreland ‘conceived’ is perceived as writing and I went, “Okay, fair call,” because I didn’t write those stories at all. Helena and those three stories about her are entirely from his mad mind. 

I think Terrapin used to direct all its shows entirely towards children but in the last few years its scope has broadened?
Terrapin was entirely children orientated and then about six years ago they made a complete shift to adult theatre. They tried that for three years [but] that alienated that audience base that they’d spent 20 years building up. So then the next artistic director [Annie Forbes] shifted it back toward families. 
{xtypo_quote_right}...instead of carving the head of a puppet out of wood and then putting arms and legs on it, traditional materials, we’re using digital materials to look at how we can make puppetry moments{/xtypo_quote_right}
Part of my brief [as Artistic Director] is to consolidate that audience base, and so the work I do is very much pitched at families. There’s stuff which we intend the children not to understand and there’s stuff we intend adults to go, “Well, that’s for kids”, and they’ll laugh along with it if they so choose. That’s a difficult balance to write. 

There’s some quite dark moments in Helena and the Journey of Hello. I'm wondering if there’s some kind of charter that Terrapin has that says ‘what are we aiming for’ and that you have to live up to?
No. You mean in terms of what kind of material is off limits?

Well, as in does it have to have a moral? And how dark can it be?
No. Common sense. I certainly was worried at times that we were stepping over that common sense line with this. But then with a lot of the sort of darker stuff, the younger kids, they’re going to engage with the sadness of it but they’re not going to be affected by it because they don’t have the emotional intelligence yet. It’s maybe the 10-year-olds and up that it starts to get a bit scary for, because they are starting to develop notions of families breaking up and understanding that quite deeply. 

[But] the story was so cloaked in a ridiculous world that it constantly flitted back to a very stylistic way of viewing it, and that was a decision. [For example], that it had to be narrated by animals. In that way that you could always make it safe for kids. 

In the next development of it, we’re certainly looking at two things. One is potentially [performing] the stories in order, so they happen in a linear narrative. The other one is bumping up the comic sections of two of the pieces. We were only starting to find a lot more of the laughs in the last four or five shows in the two heavier sections. So, yes, we’ll look at continuing to push with the comedy of it.

So generally a Terrapin show evolves throughout the run? You don’t try to lock it in?
No, no, it’s a constantly evolving beast. It never stops changing. Some people hate that, but for me it doesn’t stop. Not until we finally put the show to bed.

The ‘digital puppetry’ concept, using technology, is that a conscious attempt to be relevant to children today? I mean, is it thematic? Or is it more of that you want to experiment in different forms?
I think it’s really important to reflect a contemporary world by the work you do and the easiest way to do that is through the form I think. I don’t necessarily know whether we’re going to engage with current political stories, I don’t really think that’s the role of a family theatre company. I'm interested in [stories] being engaging on lots of levels:  human stories about people, families, life. 

But the packaging of those is where the digital puppetry stuff comes in. Quite simply, instead of carving the head of a puppet out of wood and then putting arms and legs on it, traditional materials, we’re using digital materials to look at how we can make puppetry moments. So it’s literally in the inspiration of the materials that we find stories. 

The digital stuff is not so much about looking at some kind of post-apocalyptic world where, you know, everything is kind of Terminator-esque, it’s not that at all. It’s actually still mixing it with just real, traditional stories, which theatre does so well, but using digital materials as a way of starting exploration.

So in terms of the traditional puppetry side, are there people who have those skills who come in from time to time? Or do the actors learn skills as required?
A bit of both. Hobart has not got a vast pool of people to draw from, so some people have got high-level skills in puppetry and I like to work with them, and then there’s people that have got high-level skills in performance and don’t have puppetry skills.  With Explosion Therapy (2007) and Boats I had to train people in puppetry stuff, but then with Helena I didn’t really need to. Mel was an old hand at puppeteering and Ryk and Sam both learnt very quickly and could fill in the gaps. 

And they understood all the stuff we did with the mobiles, because although it conformed to some puppetry concepts in terms of the way you operate things, it was also drawing on lots of other performance skills, like improvisation. Or contemporary dance even, in the way they moved around and the way you choreographed the spaces with those lights. 

And so is the idea to keep a group of actors going as much as possible?
I’d love to, yes, but it’s just really hard because every show demands different skills.  Next year we’re launching a training program. That has two aims. One is to gather a group of people and train them up in the skills, which I'm interested in so that I can draw on people that I know are trained. The other one is to develop a pool of people who have skills in the community who can inject those skills into other projects and can get their own projects up and running and can become self-employed artists themselves. 

It’s impossible to have an ensemble these days because you just can’t afford it. You can’t have actors on the books, being paid [full time]. Terrapin used to but, you know, if they’re only working like two months out of the year, what are they doing the other ten? 

RememberAre there other theatre companies looking at the idea of digital puppetry?
There are a couple of people around doing stuff with computers and people have tried lots of stuff. There’s the whole live relay thing and all sorts of work which is crossing over between dance and puppetry. So people are putting on body suits with sensors, which send impulses to computers which then send those back through to projectors. They move and then you get things moving on a screen. 

So is it a puppet? It’s all being blurred. A lot of the people in the traditional puppetry community are saying, “It’s not puppetry, it’s something else”, and other people are saying, “Shut up, you old people," you know, “Get over it”. So there’s this kind of quite hilarious sort of fracas between the old guard and the new guard and the avant garde and the rear guard. Who cares? At the end of the day, is it interesting to watch with an audience and does it engage you? Does it actually make you feel or think? 

In general, does digital puppetry end up costing more? I imagine it’s pretty expensive to make a puppet anyway.
Yeah, exactly, it’s really expensive to make a puppet. We have a cap on the amount of money we can spend on projects so we bring it under that cap somehow each time. I mean, we can spend more if we want but there’s only two of us that are full-time employed and then the rest of the time we’re bringing in specialists to do things; whether they’re production managers, whether they’re performers or designers. 

If we were a bigger company and had more managers and more production staff, then we could do bigger work. But right now I think we’re about as big as we can get.   



Helena and the Journey of Hello finished at the Peacock Theatre in Hobart on 18 October. The show will tour Tasmania next year, with other states to be confirmed.

Explosion Therapy recently toured to China, where it was awarded ‘Excellent Production’ of the Shanghai International Children’s Theatre Festival. Terrapin will collaborate with two Chinese companies next year to produce a show using digital puppetry and filmmaking techniques.

For more information go to Terrapin’s website - www.terrapin.org.au


Photo Credits:
Top Right - (left to right) Ryk Goddard, Mel King and Samuel McMahon Helena's mother goes into the phone
Bottom Right - Ryk Goddard performs with mobile phones in Helena and the Journey of Hello

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