This month, we are delighted to begin a series of articles following Puppet Place Associate Artists Tessa Bide and Katie Underhay as they navigate the challenges of bringing a new puppet show from concept to public performance. By doing so we hope to give you an insight into the tremendous amount of hard work and know-how that is required to make a successful puppet show. We intend to follow both shows from their early development through to the get-out of their last night wherever that might be. Both artists are creating shows for younger children and families, and are currently applying for funding, attending scratch nights as well as starting to organise their programme of performances later in the year.
I caught up with Tessa after her scratch night at the Trinity Centre in Bristol to ask about her show ‘A Strange New Space’ and its story so far…
Where did the original idea for A Strange New Space come from?
The original idea for ASNS came whilst in a dreamy fog at 5am one morning in bed when I should’ve been asleep. I had been thinking a lot about the refugee crisis and how I could use my skills to respond to it or help in any way and, having my routes in children’s theatre, I’d also wanted to have fun with a space-themed show for a while. I had the idea of using a space journey as a metaphor for a child refugee’s journey and it developed from there.
Who are the creative team behind the show?
We have an incredibly talented and experienced team working on this project. We have yet to announce the Development Director but the rest of the team are:
Claire Crawford – Assistant Producer and Co-Devisor
Matt Huxley – Musical Director
Bryn Thomas and Laura Street – Movement Directors
Sarah Dicks – Designer
Joe Stathers – Lighting Designer
Adam Fuller – R&D Director
Paul Blakemore and Sam Cleverly- Photography & Promotional Film
How did the show go from concept to performance? What creative processes were employed in its development?
After a year of stewing, researching, fund application writing, partnership-securing and team sourcing, we R&D-ed the show in October 2016. We used a lot of games, physical exploration and improvisation, using live sound-scores as stimuli as the show has no dialogue.
For the first day or so we wrote down everything we’d expect or want to see in a space show then the same for a refugee’s journey. We paired up what could work together into the same motif. For example the anti-gravity sequence could work with a sea-sequence. Our partners are a large local Primary School (May Park) and two local venues (The Trinity Centre and Circomedia). The school partnership is really useful in devising material. I did a week of workshops with the pupils on the show’s themes, then when we were in rehearsal we showed excerpts of the material to the same kids and used their feedback to shape it into a show.
We go into the second Arts Council England-funded development stage in March and we’ll be using similar processes then.
Your show was very well received by the audience. Why did you choose to do a scratch show and how did you find and apply to be part of that particular event? Did you get from it what you had hoped to?
I have performed at organised scratch nights in the past, but for this project I facilitated my own work-in-progress showing at the end of the R&D. Scratch nights are a great way of testing your early material to see if it’s road-worthy and going down the right track. If they are popular, high-profile nights like Tobacco Factory Theatres’ ‘Prototype’, they can also be a good way of getting early interest from bookers, partners and investors in your idea. To apply to perform at one of these nights you only have to research the different schemes around and apply via their websites when they call for applications.
For ‘A Strange New Space’ I organised my own scratch performance at The Trinity Centre at the end of our R&D. The Trinity are partners with my company so they offer space and marketing in kind. Combined with my marketing I had a great turn-out of around 55 audience members and the feedback was invaluable. A lot of the feedback from the adults was that they would watch it as an adult show. This could’ve been worrying but the day previously I’d performed to all 900 pupils of May Park (aged 4 – 11) and they loved it so it actually proved its universality.
Other comments we received were “It’s clearly a show that comes with more than just to entertain. It makes me think of children in all different situations. Innocence and vulnerability.” and “I was most interested in the changing of locations and as to why she was traveling to all these places. I thought her change of mood from place to place was great and added to the intrigue as to what she was looking for. ”
Putting on a show and touring is obviously an expensive thing to do. How have you gone about finding funding, what has been done already and what future funding sources are you hoping to tap into?
For ‘A Strange New Space’, as well as my other 3 shows, I was fortunate enough to be awarded Arts Council England Grants for the Arts funding twice. Once for the initial R&D and then for the development of the production. This latest grant is my 7th consecutive successful grant, which is obviously incredibly lucky. To support this funding in the past, I’ve also received funding from local authorities, a patron and a charity as well as crowdfunding and fundraising through ticket and merchandise sales from my other shows.
Looking forward to 2017, what are the plans for your show and how will you measure its success?
This year, the show is going into its development period in March with 4 weeks of rehearsal (including the production week) with the full creative team, at May Park Primary and The Trinity Centre. In this period we will be testing the material on the May Park pupils and a small invited audience at The Trinity, where we’ll host post-show feedback sessions to gauge the audience’s response.
The show will opening in London at the Clapham Omnibus on April 9th. It’s touring pretty much non-stop over the Easter holidays, going to 8 different venues, including Circomedia in Bristol on the 12th & 13th April. It will then tour sporadically through May to July. At the moment I have a further 11 venues confirmed in that period. Then I’m hoping to take it to Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. I took my other solo show, The Tap Dancing Mermaid, to Summerhall during the 2015 Fringe, which is where I’m aiming to showcase it to international bookers for an international tour in 2018. I’ve also been shortlisted for a Story of Space festival in Goa, India in October and November this year, so fingers crossed for that!
The show’s success will be measured by audience reactions and reviews. At the end of every show I stay on stage and invite the audience to come and chat and I always find that a useful tool for gauging the success of the performance and what that audience got from it. I also issue feedback forms with a mailing-list sign up on. Edinburgh can be a brutal way to test-run the success of a new show because of the vast and diverse competition. If you sell some tickets, you’re doing pretty well.
Thank you Tessa, one last question if I may. What words of encouragement and advice would you offer to any new artists thinking of making their own puppet show?
I think when figuring out how to start up making your first piece of theatre, it’s most useful to shadow someone else’s process and see what you think works and doesn’t work. This is something I did when I was younger and that I offer students and young people during my projects. I also found going to a lot of theatre networking events helpful as you start learning who the useful faces are where to tap into for advice and support. I’m a big advocate for Theatre Bristol and Puppet Place. Both organisations have helped me out a lot in the past.
‘A Strange New Space’ will be touring from Easter 2017. For further information about the show and tour dates, see Tessa Bide’s website.
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.