Continuing with our series of interviews with the artists, designers, makers and performers who reside here at Puppet Place, we meet Chris Pirie from Green Ginger, an award-winning theatre & film company featuring puppetry. Green Ginger has a commitment to puppetry in the widest sense and its practitioners will use any tools and effects they can put their grubby little hands on to realise its surreal and absurd imagery. We sat down with Chris to talk about the latest show, ‘Outpost‘ and the power of puppetry to connect with audiences in so many different ways.
How did you get involved in puppetry?
I wasn’t looking for a way to get into puppetry… It grabbed me and dragged me in! I met a puppeteer, Terry Lee, who had his own one man company at the time called ‘Green Ginger Puppets’ and he was doing anti Punch and Judy shows on the beaches of Pembrokeshire. He was very keen to collaborate. He honed in my ability to draw, was very excited by the potential for us to collaborate and invited me to come back and spend a week working in the land of ‘Green Ginger’.
That lasted for ten years and now, between us, we’re running the company, albeit between two international bases. He’ll be coming along to see ‘Outpost’ next week, which is kind of scary as he was involved in the early scripting but has had no input since then, so it will be interesting to see what he makes of it.
Where did the idea for ‘Outpost’ come from? What’s the inspiration?
The initial inspiration is from international touring. Every time you cross a border there is a feeling that this is really fertile ground for dramatic conflict, its very artificial – borders and the demarcation of land. It’s very much a human thing; we’ve created these countries. The idea also came out of an earlier show we were writing. We ended up with a show with too many ideas in it so we just focused on one scene that really excited us and that was the idea of a border crossing, the idea of conflict between two guards.
Additionally, during the early writing, the Scottish referendum was going on and I was really conflicted. On the one hand I was thinking, ‘yes great, Scottish independence and the ability to have your say in the governing of your land’ but at the same time I was thinking ‘well, that’s going to impose yet another border, yet another small country.’ First and foremost I don’t think of myself as an Englishman. I think of myself as probably European or even an ‘inhabitant of the planet Earth’, so I found that I was very conflicted by that referendum vote when it came around.
Clearly what’s been going on in places like Ukraine, Syria and having worked in Palestine and in Israel, we see how the division of land can affect people, being forced to be on either one side or the other. These experiences played heavy on our minds when we were writing ‘Outpost’. I think right now the idea is pertinent in reflecting the realities of thousands of displaced people that are fleeing the most horrendous circumstances. It feels timely to being doing a show about borders.
‘Outpost’ covers some quite hard-hitting themes, such as politics, tyranny, violence. Do you think that puppetry lends something specifically that live performance couldn’t do?
It’s well documented that puppets can get away with saying difficult things. You can put words in the mouths of puppets and get away with it and the puppeteer can be separate from that. So having a tradition of court jesters and from that the Punch and Judy tradition, right up to ‘Spitting Image’ and beyond. I think it’s certainly part of that tradition that we can use puppetry to make forceful statements or have a particular point of view that has a different weight or emphasis when coming through this third-party, if you will – the puppet. Also, I think it’s about the ability of puppetry to take us to any situation as we’re not so rooted to the stage, like actors are. Our flights of fantasy can come alive on stage. This provides a little more license to take our audiences on outrageous stories. We can show difficult themes like war, destruction and violence very quickly just by bringing the scale down. So we can offer up both an interface and a conduit to the audience. We can offer an interface, so the audience are happy to suspend disbelief and you can take them into a world that might be harder to do if using actors subject to the rules of scale, gravity, time and space. And then there’s the conduit of being able to communicate through puppets.
I’m still fascinated by this. I still don’t have all the answers. I don’t know all the mechanisms at play so I’m fascinated every time we create new work. What is it that really excites an audience about puppetry?
Using puppetry in its right place is also important, and not crowbaring it in because you’re expected to do puppetry, because you’re a puppet theatre company. Every time Green Ginger sets out to do a show we force ourselves through that painful internal conversation, ‘why are we using puppets?’ And we have made shows in the past without a single puppet in sight because of that. When we started making ‘Outpost‘ we got to the end of three days of R&D and thought ‘we’ve got a street show for two physical performers here… There’s no need for any puppets!’ But Mike Akers, the writer, was just starting to grapple with the possibilities of puppetry and said ‘no, leave it with me.’ He realised that these characters could go anywhere, even underground. All those possibilities weren’t so apparent to us when we were doing the R&D but Mike just went off on a beautiful tangent and we’ve ended up with the show we’ve got now, which is, I guess, a bona fide ‘puppet show’ with puppets all the way through.
Do you think that puppetry has a place in non-theatrical communication, like protest?
Yes. I think there is a long tradition of puppetry and protest. There are some well established organisations, such as ‘Bread and Puppet Theatre’ from Vermont who specialise in protest theatre and do a lot of large-scale processional puppetry. ‘Welfare State International’ uses a lot of similar techniques. There’s a generation of political performers from the 70s and 80s, from both sides of the pond that have been involved in this. I think in terms of demonstration, the scale of these puppets is effective. To be able to get something over the heads of the people marching, whether effigies or something else, is very effective. I don’t think there are any themes that puppetry should not be used to comment on. If it’s well intentioned and it’s the right tool for the job, then puppetry can absolutely do that.
We’re known for being a puppetry company that has inhabited some of the darker sides and tackled some darker themes. But whether you feel you need to do that, just because that’s what people expect, is another good question. ‘Outpost‘ is a comedy-thriller. We wanted to make people laugh and to leave them with some stuff to think about on the way home from the theatre or when they next encounter a border, or immigration checkpoint, or stories of refugees. Just to give people a slightly different perspective. It’s food for thought. First and foremost we’re storytellers.
Interview by Emma Windsor
‘Outpost‘ is on tour throughout the UK from Sep – Nov 2015. The full tour schedule can be seen on Green Ginger’s website and a promotional video for the show can be seen on Vimeo. This Christmas, Chris Pirie will once again take on the role of Associate Director of Tobacco Factory Theatres/Travelling Light’s hit ‘Cinderella, A FairyTale’ for its run at MAC Birmingham. The Olivier-nominated show recently won on OFFIE for Best Production for Young People.
Based in the heart of Bristol, Puppet Place offers workspace for artists and creatives including puppeteers, prop makers, graphic designers and filmmakers. Benefits of becoming a resident at Puppet Place include a profile on our website, advice and information, discounted rates on hire rates in the fabrication and rehearsal studios and more. To join Chris and artists like him, contact Rachel McNally at rachel [at] puppetplace.org or call 0117 929 3593.