Puppet Place associate artist Tessa Bide is a Bristol-based theatre maker and puppeteer with her own company. She is also one third of Lady Strong’s Bonfire alongside Tomasin Cuthbert and Liz Hart. Her innovative theatre productions tell original magical stories that aim to encourage a dialogue between the generations. She is happiest when on stage…Or by the sea.
Can you tell us a little about yourself? How did you become involved in puppet theatre? What is the appeal?
I became involved in puppetry through Stuff and Nonsense theatre company and Niki McCretton, back in 2009. I worked for them for 3 years and trained on the job under Marc Parrett’s direction. I used to dance a lot as a teenager and I find it interesting watching dancers puppeteer because of their understanding of the way bodies move. I think that enabled me to pick up the skill fairly naturally. I’ve since made three shows of my own, all featuring puppetry: The Tap Dancing Mermaid, Arnold’s Big Adventure and The Melody Makers and I’m working on my fourth A Strange New Space at the moment.
The appeal of puppetry to me is that it is an accessible form of magic. Seeing an inanimate object brought to life in front of your eyes is a form of magic and it’s very satisfying when you can do that for an audience. It also opens so many doors as to what you can do as a storyteller. Reams of characters can be brought into a story that might have only one performer in it, for example.
You collaborate with Liz Hart (Bric a Brac Productions) and Tomasin Cuthbert (Soap Soup Theatre) as ‘Lady Strong’s Bonfire’. What bought you all together? What collective interests do you have and what do you want to explore? What do you feel that you personally bring to the work?
I met Tomasin whilst working for Stuff and Nonsense. In Autumn 2013, she got the three of us together one evening and told us about an idea she had for a new show that she thought we would both be interested in – The Bed. I hadn’t met Liz before but we both got excited about the prospect of making a show collaboratively, having made only solo work in the past. Collectively, we’re all interested in feminism, puppetry, Jungian archetypes and visual theatre. We work very well as a trio because each of us has very different training and specialist skills. Tomasin trained in design so has an incredible eye for visual composition. Liz trained at Circomedia so has a brilliant physical vocabulary and I am a storyteller and writer, so I enjoy making narratives and characters. We all bring various other skills and passions. It all fits together pretty well!
Your latest project under development ‘Mummy Monster’ is a site specific piece that will be performed in kitchens. What led you to consider kitchens as a venue for the work? What do alternative forums bring to both the work and its audiences?
Lady Strong’s Bonfire has an interest in reaching new audiences and in particular audiences who would not normally go to the theatre. When Liz became a mother, she realised that she was not going to the theatre herself anymore, so she devised Mummy Monster alongside caring for her children. Inspired by the quiet of the kitchen after the children had gone to bed, the original idea was to perform in her own kitchen at night. After Liz was awarded funding to research and develop the show, we all got on board and contributed to the devising and design process.
Mummy Monster is about spending long hours with young children and we targeted audiences who don’t normally go to the theatre and who do spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Using East Bristol as a pilot study, Liz performed work-in-progress in kitchens at Children’s and Community Centres. These spaces are more familiar and welcoming. There is often a crèche running and many of our audiences gathered there anyway. We used theatre lighting and sound, designed by Chris Menes, to transform the spaces. Liz had to adapt her performances to the different spaces and manage the intensity of the material, depending on the audiences. This seemed to keep the material really fresh. The shows were an intimate look at parenting and we followed them with discussions about the themes – often sat round the kitchen table.
You have successfully used crowdfunding campaigns to support performance development, such as your current show ‘The Bed’. What particular opportunities does this source of funding provide puppet theatre?
For us, using crowdfunding enabled us to produce our first show that was experimental and perhaps not as commercial as our work for families. It meant that we could create the work as we wanted it, without jumping through hoops for a funding body. It also generated a lot of interest in the show, through investors and people who shared our campaign. So when it came to putting it on, we had already built up an eager audience. In terms of what it can offer puppet theatre, it is a useful resource for making work that traditional funding streams might not be interested in or for new companies starting up without a network of contacts who could support a funding application. However it certainly isn’t an easy way to get funds, as I’m sure anyone who’s lead a crowdfunding campaign will testify!
Interview by Emma Windsor
Tessa’s show Arnold’s Big Adventure, is on tour throughout the summer 2016 and her new show A Strange New Space will be going into a ‘Research and Development’ period in Autumn, to tour in Spring/Summer 2017. She is also a children’s author and has recently published her first book, The Tap Dancing Mermaid. To find out more about Tessa’s shows and workshops, visit her website: http://tessabide.com.
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 become a Puppet Place Associate Artist, contact Rachel at Rachel@puppetplace.org or phone on 0117 929 3593.