In a strange other-world two guards journey into the dark heart of politics, tyranny and murder. This latest show from Green Ginger combines absurd comedy and grotesque puppetry to explore nationalism, leadership and the consequences of using another man’s toilet. Puppet-maker and Puppet Place associate artist, Joel Calvert, went along to watch a recent performance at the Tobacco Factory Theatre in Bristol.
I’ve been looking forward to Green Ginger’s new show ‘Outpost’ since February 2014. At the time I was taking much needed advantage of Puppet Place’s workshop rental scheme. Chris Pirie hinted that he was working on a new show and having seen Green Ginger’s weird and wonderful ‘Rust’ at Bristol’s first Festival of Puppetry in 2009, I was excited to see how it turned out.
When I go and see a puppet show, I go not just to be entertained, but to learn. To assess what I like, why I like it and how that fits together into a successful show.
At the very start of the show, the puppeteers are introduced in clear, detached, hilarious silence. Its hands-on puppetry so this is really important. We need to know the puppeteers aren’t hiding so we can get on and ignore them for the rest of the show. They even wear headlamps to make themselves so obvious they disappear. It’s subtle and clever.
The puppetry itself is amazing to watch. The characters are brought to life sometimes by one performer, sometimes two, sometimes even all three. At one point a single performer holds fort, operating two characters at once. The puppeteers Chris Pirie, Kim Heron and Adam Huller all delivered strong vocal performances. The strength of direction, as well as the level of rehearsal and overall variation of choreography on display is really inspiring – hats off!
The foundation of a puppet show’s aesthetic is in the puppets, and puppet-makers Emma Powell and Camilla Clarke have done some really lovely work here. Each character has a distinctive, interesting silhouette and there was enough energy and life in their faces to keep them looking like they were always ticking away. Mechanically they seemed quite simple, which is great. Over complicated puppets suit a different kind of show and can create problems with choreography, particularly when each character has to do perform a variety of different kinds of actions.
A few years ago Emma delivered a compelling lecture on making puppets for ‘Bunraku’, a related style of puppetry from Japan. It’s great to see this technical knowledge in motion on stage.
The lighting was pretty spectacular, bringing out the beautifully rendered faces of the characters, whilst creating different environments and special effects. I was interested to see use of black-lights on stage, as its something I’ve wanted to try and was able to make some useful mental notes. The smoke effects and the curious glowey, floaty props were fun. They gave the underground sequences a special sense of place that was unique and believable.
The set for ‘Outpost’ is superb. Sets that animate and do crazy things dovetail wonderfully with puppetry. I remember Chris talking about how the Green Ginger team had spent some time discussing whether the show could be made just as well with living actors. I suspect the crazy transforming set, with its various inside-outside turnabout plug-ins helped sway the decision. It cements ‘Outpost’ as a show that really uses and justifies puppetry and the flexibility it allows. A set like this, scaled to human actors, would never fit in the van. Not to mention the fact it would be a health and safety nightmare.
There were lots of surprises and stand out moments in the show. To pick just one , I absolutely loved the sequence where our friends slip through the crack in the ground and all you can see is their glowing eyes.
Not only were we treated to this unexpected dramatic change in aesthetic, but yet again the technical possibilities of puppetry were stretched elegantly and powerfully to great effect when a dozen or so characters appear out of nowhere, all animated by just three puppeteers.
I’ve not touched much on the story. As a maker myself the guts of the show are a constant distraction. The story was funny and entertaining, but I think it was filled with more promise than it makes use of. Outpost attempts to run too many creative ideas and threads together and at times this confused its message.
But overall, it’s great.
Joel Mark Calvert
About Joel Calvert: Joel is a puppet/modelmaker and animator. He has worked for various companies including Aardman and John Wright modelmaking. He also delivers workshops for children that explore the natural world and world culture. More information regarding his professional and artistic practice, see his website: http://joelmarkcalvert.wix.com
About Green Ginger: Green Ginger makes award-winning theatre for streets, stage and screen. 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.
Puppet Place Associate Artist Scheme: Offers a range of benefits to artists including: discounted tickets to all Puppet Place events; reduced rates for rehearsal and fabrication space hire; dedicated training and skills sharing; the latest job/funding information and promotional services via our online network; and a forum to exchange ideas and connect with other artists. To talk with someone directly about becoming a Puppet Place Associate Artist, contact Victoria at Victoria@puppetplace.org or phone on 0117 929 3593.