All Fingers & Thumbs: An Interview with Drew Colby

As director and founder of Finger and Thumb Theatre, Drew Colby’s work with puppets has evolved over 30 years.  He has performed at many key venues and festivals around the world; including the International Festival of Marionette Art in Prague, Norwich Puppet Theatre  and The Little Angel Theatre. We caught up with him to chat about his latest project ‘Carnival of the Animals’, his experiences of collaborating with artists abroad and his future hopes for the arts in the UK.

Photo: Nir Shaanani

Your latest show ‘Carnival of the Animals’ is based on the suite of fourteen pieces of music by the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns.  What inspired you to produce the work?  How does hand shadow puppetry lend itself to the work?

drew_colbyI wanted to create a performance around this music because it is of great quality – but also accessible. And beautiful. And a bit of a conundrum that needs to be solved. I like the limits imposed by (and possibilities inherent in) using a set piece of music combined with the limits and possibilities of my own technique. Hand shadows are suited to the work because they are capable of quick transformations and portraying a large number of different animals – the challenge being to keep the interest of the audience so the performance doesn’t resemble a mere list of creatures – a “look what else I can do with my hands” show. The Carnival of the Animals was not written specifically for children, yet its moods, characters and small harmonic storylines are entirely accessible to them. And it is great fun. I’ve wanted to do this show for almost twenty years!

Back of Flyer COTA

A focus of Finger and Thumb’s work in Israel was collaboration with local artists. How did this come about and what opportunities and challenges did working with practitioners with a different language, culture and artistic heritage provide?  What do you think spaces for international exchange can bring to puppetry performance?

I was invited to the festival in Israel to perform a family show and an adult show. Ilan Savir, the artistic director, also wanted me to train puppeteers at the puppet centre in Holon. As negotiations for the festival progressed Ilan had the idea to have all the international companies (and some local puppetry students) perform with Israeli diva Shefita for two adult gala concerts. Shefita is an invented character who performs stand-up comedy alongside her cross-over pop / folk music. Ilan also had to find a concert pianist in Israel to work with me. During this time The Carnival of the Animals was being rehearsed in the UK and emerging as a piece which relies on the relationship between the puppeteer and the pianist. I was very fortunate with Ilan’s choice of pianist, Michal Solomon, as she was a quick study .  We had three quarters of a day to rehearse the entire show and then  gave  our first performance.

dc02_pull_outThe theme of Finger and Thumb’s Carnival is about working together – sharing different skills – and bringing those skills together collaboratively to make something incredible. In total we performed four Carnivals and two gala nights with Shefita. Working with both Michal and Shefita was straightforward. There was a humility and willingness from both artists (alongside very good technical and production support from the theatre) that allowed a relationship and creative rapport to easily develop.

One of the ironies for me was that Shefita performs her show mostly in English (for an adult audience) whereas I had to perform my text in Hebrew (so the children could understand). Learning the Hebrew was a challenge! Everybody I worked with spoke good English though, so there were no communication difficulties during rehearsal.

All of my activities in Israel were created with people I was meeting for the first time, in an intensive and focused environment. From the Carnival performances, to the concerts, to the three day workshop I facilitated. Creating the performance with Michal in Israel was a transmogrifying experience. An amelioration. Likewise improvising to Shefita’s song (sung in a language I didn’t understand) was a freeing experience. I left Israel with many new ideas of what to do next with my technique – inspired by the freedom to play and suggestions / dialogue with the workshop participants. Hand shadow work is like an oral tradition – it literally needs to be “handed down”.  Over the years I have learned a bear from a puppeteer in Georgia, a chicken in India and a goat in Uganda.  Students now come to me with screen grabs of some of my videos asking “how do you make this chicken” or “how do you make this bear” and I show them. I think we will see some good hand shadow work coming out of Israel before long!

Donkey by Nir Shaanani 270 Shefita
Photo: Nir Shaanani

The recent EU referendum will bring many changes and opportunities for all organisations involved in the Arts.  What are your hopes for the future?

I’m unsure how Brexit will affect those involved in the Arts. I hope that it will not cause an “economic fear-factor” leading to more conservative programming in theatres around the UK. I personally hope to find many more collaborators who will bring their diverse skills to the table so that we can create something new and that we all go from the experience as better artists. It is important to protect traditions, but also to invest in work that is not always obviously commercial / conventional. It would also be wonderful to see more specialists – puppeteers who focus on one aspect of puppetry, master it and make it their own – so that they can collaborate with other skilled masters to create work.

And I hope there will be more live music in live theatre shows!

by Emma Windsor

Carnival of the Animals: Shadowgrapher: Drew Colby; Pianists: Michal Solomon, Daniel Wallington, Sarah Kershaw and An-ting Chang; Additional direction by Liz and Daniel Lempen; Illustration by Hannah K Broadway. Commissioned by Junction, Goole and funded by the Arts Council.

Tickets are now on sale for the UK premiere of ‘The Carnival of the Animals’ on 17 September 2016 at Junction, Goole, Yorkshire.  Find out more at the Junction website and buy tickets here.  It will also be performed on 27 November 2016 at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Finger and Thumb Theatre create visual shows for family and adult audiences using different combinations of hand shadows, video technology, live and recorded music, storytelling and songs.  Find out more and see tour details on the website.

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