Highly-talented puppet designer, maker and performer, Dik Downey, is one half of the acclaimed puppet theatre company, Pickled Image. He and co-director, Vicky Andrews have produced an array of dark yet delightful shows including, ‘Houdini’s Suitcase’, ‘The Shop Of Little Horrors’, ‘Little Edie’ and ‘Wolf Tales’. Most recently, he has donned a red nose and bad wig for ‘Coulrophobia’; a surreal dark comedy about two terrorised clowns trapped in a cardboard world. We caught up with him to talk about the show, the origins of Pickled Image and his fear of clowning workshops.
What we taking about?
We’re talking about you, we’re talking about Pickled Image and we’re talking about the recent show… And then what’s next, as ‘Coulrophobia’ continues on tour…
OK, well, literally got back yesterday from Bergen, where we were performing ‘Shop of Little Horrors’ at the mini, midi, maxi festival, a festival for young people. And then prior to that, three weeks touring Norway with ‘Coulrophobia’, going from Tromsø in the far north, all the way down to Oslo in the south. And today I have been loading ‘Santa’s Little Trolls’ into the van to rehearse downstairs for two weeks, before that goes to the Quaterhouse theatre, Folkstone for a ten day run at Christmas.
After we’ve done our two weeks rehearsal here, we’re going to Doncaster to put the finishing touches onto the new show, which is ‘Christmas Tales with Granddad’, on at the Cast Theatre in Doncaster, and that’s with two new performers who we’re employing.
So, right back to the beginning… How did you get involved in puppetry and performance?
I got into performance first. At the age of 18 or 19, my best friend learnt to juggle and he showed me how easy it was. And he, myself, his brother and another friend hitchhiked to France and basically begged with juggling clubs to perform. We had a little tiny tape recorder going through an amp and we played ‘The Cramps’ and ‘The Blues Brothers’, whilst juggling and asking for money. And it worked, and I’ve never done another job since (smiles).
So we all traveled around France and Spain for three or four years, fire juggling and other skills like that. Then I moved to Barcelona and formed a company called ‘Órbitas Excéntricas’ which did clowning, on the street but also in cabaret and theatres. We also did a 3D show and fire shows and things like that.
From there, I came back to the UK and went on to ‘Fool Time’, which was a precursor to ‘Circomedia’ and I did a three month course there, which was great in the sense that I met lots of people, but I had already been performing for four years so in some respects it felt a little bit like going back to school!
And then, I was persuaded to join a company called ‘The Desperate Men’, who are a theatre company based in Bristol, and whilst I was working with them I’d got to know Chris (Pirie) and Terry (Lee) from ‘Green Ginger’, and they kept on trying to lure me away from outdoor theatre to become involved in puppetry performance. I took work with them as a technician for a tour that was already running at first, on the condition that I’d be involved as a performer for a new show that was in the pipeline. Whilst I was with them, I learnt a lot about puppet-making with Chris, who is a phenomenal puppet maker. I’d already been making things, such as props and stuff out of latex for my own work, so I had a little experience of puppetry prior to Green Ginger, but then an immersion into the whole world of puppetry whilst I was with them.
I was with Green Ginger for about seven years, until 2000 when I met Vicky (Andrews) and we decided to make our own company. The plan was we were going to predominantly make puppets and I wasn’t going to tour anymore… But the first job that came in was – a touring erotic puppet festival! So instead of making puppets for other companies, we ended up being a touring theatre company. And ‘Pickled Image’ was born.
And the name. ‘Pickled Image’…?
It was (laughs) where we thought we had to have a reasonably interesting name and all the puppet companies that we know seemed to have one of those double-barreled names… Originally we were going to be ‘Grimly Fiendish’ but it wasn’t really suitable if we were going to be doing any sort of school work. ‘Pickled Image’ was just one of those brain storms – and ‘Pickled Image seemed like a good idea at the time.
You have quite extensive experience with the circus and clowning. With the show, ‘Coulrophobia’ is that something you wanted to revisit?
What happened was… 30 years ago I was a clown on the streets of Barcelona. Then I went along to a clowning workshop to develop further skills, but had an absolutely awful time there, I hated it so much. The workshop leader was so abusive and horrible that we asked for our money back but they refused, so we were persecuted for the rest of the course. It was like a two or three week long session of ridicule and persecution!
But later, because I’d made ‘The Shop of Little Horrors’ with Adam Blake, who really is a good clown and is highly-skilled, I’d been toying with the idea of making a really horrible clown show, where we punched each other, abducted members of the audience and did really horrible things. The truth is though, we’re not horrid by nature, so it developed into a much nicer show. Adam is really good fun to work with. We worked with the director from ‘People Like Us’ John Nicholson, who’s also a very good clown, and that input was great.
I wanted to step out from being a ‘puppet show’. It’s got puppets in it but I wanted it to be a clown show that was quite confrontational and in your face, which involves a lot of audience participation… But it’s not mean. It’s intense, yes, but not cruel.
What’s been interesting doing it is that although people hate being dragged on stage, nobody ever complains. Everyone really does enjoy it because they’re not treated in any way nastily or humiliated or made to feel stupid – we’re the stupid ones – I think people really enjoy it. Not once have we had a complaint.
There is a comedy/horror thematic that seems to run through a lot of your work, evident in ‘Coulrophobia’ for example. Do you that there’s something in particular that puppetry can lend to the macabre?
I think it does by its nature. If you look at the interest in puppetry, people are always interested in the dark side, the fairytale side of it. A lot of people instantly go toward that. It seems to fall into two camps in peoples’ imaginations. If they think of puppetry they either think ‘cute, children’s theatre’ or they think ‘dark and twisted’. We fall into the latter camp. But I don’t go out of my way to make horrible grim, dark and nasty shows. And I don’t go for deep, poetic and meaningful much either. We’re not trying to play for every man, and it’s not an acquired taste, but it’s a taste that people will like, as soon as they’ve had some.
What plans for the future? What’s in the pipeline?
Myself and Vicky (the other half of Pickled Image) take it in turns with ideas. She wanted to make a show about Grey Gardens, so we made ‘Little Edie’, and the Granddad series is predominantly driven by Vicky. Recently, we’ve been toying with an idea about a young girl who meets a Yeti in a forest, and that’s had a tentative green light so production will begin in 2017. It will be a non-language family show set in Russia in the 1950s. We will be working with the writer, Hatti Naylor, who produced the very successful play ‘Ivan and the Dogs’, so that’s a project on the go.
We’re also considering making a storytelling show for next year, which will be a minimalist show – a very back to basics storytelling of stupid tales in a silly way with the minimum of puppets. Plus we will continue to tour ‘Coulrophobia’, ‘Shop of Little Horrors’ and ‘Granddad’s Tales…’ has extended to a new performance.
So we have numerous productions going, with still loads more to come!
Interview by Emma Windsor
Formed in 2000, Pickled Image specialises in puppetry for live performance and theatre. Since its inception the company has gained international recognition and numerous awards for their darkly humorous visual productions. To find out more about Pickled Image, their performances, their puppets or to book a show, visit the website: http://pickledimage.co.uk
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 Dik and artists like him, contact Rachel McNally at rachel [at] puppetplace.org or call 0117 929 3593.