We continue with our series of articles following Puppet Place Associate Artists as they get their work on tour. In this interview with Stephen B. Watters, Katie Underhay from Mumblecrust Theatre gives an update on her latest award-winning show, ‘The Tale of the Cockatrice’ and the history behind the idea and its development.
Tell us about your show and who are the brains behind it?
‘The Tale of the Cockatrice’ is a family show based on a little-known piece of British folklore, all about monsters, knights and nuns! Anthony Burbridge and I created the show and play the two muddle-headed storytellers. We’ve recently expanded and created ‘Mumblecrust Theatre’ for this production and any future shows, as a sister company to ‘Peafrog Puppetry’ who take on puppet commissions and run workshops. We have worked on each others projects in the past but decided it was time to collaborate. We each have specific talents to bring to the table. I’m a costume maker and Anthony is a multi-instrumentalist but we crossover with writing, composing and making skills, which makes us a pretty strong team.
Anthony knew the folktale as it was a story his Mum used to tell him as a child, and I love anything about mythical creatures. So we decided to take this tale and put a bit of a twist in there. I don’t want to give you any spoilers, but you often find knights defeating evil beasts in these stories and our protagonist is a young nun.
How did the show go from concept to its first performance?
We knew it would be hard to get going unless we had a clear goal for the show, so decided to apply for any festivals we could and were accepted by the first one we applied to! So in April 2016 we were accepted to perform at Midsummer Dreams Festival in Dartington, Devon in July 2016. This didn’t give us very long and we had a few clear ideas for characters that would be puppets, so we started there. We created a Kickstarter campaign and managed to raise the £500 we asked for, which paid for a lot of the costs for puppets, costumes and set. It was a lot of hard work, and we were so exhausted that the day of the first show was a blur! But I will never forget overhearing a 9/10-year-old girl telling her mum about all the shows she had seen that day, and her excitement about “the monster one” and how “the nun puppet was so cool”.
What was the most challenging part of the process?
Working on a show like this with just two people can be pretty scary and a lot of hard work, so there were a lot of challenges along the way. The cockatrice puppet was definitely the most difficult part of the process. According to legend, a cockatrice is part cockerel, part snake and part bat. It was a lot of fun to design. The puppet has glowing eyes, mechanical wings, a tail that moves like a snake and bird-like legs. We even had to buy a new type of saw to make it. It was unlike anything Anthony and I had ever made before and took a long time, but the one thing that really saved us was making a prototype version (a maquette) which moved in the same way as the real thing. It was then a case of translating the mechanisms to hardwearing materials, which was difficult at times, but far easier than if we’d tried designing it without having a cardboard test run.
Since Midsummer Dreams Festival, how has the show developed?
Over the Summer, we had a brief break and then were straight back into figuring out all the kinks. We held a ‘polished scratch’, as we called it, at the Lyric Theatre in Bridport. It’s a great space and Niki McCretton, the artistic director, is a real advocate for aspiring theatre makers. She gave us some fantastic advice and in our post-show Q&A with the audience we had some great feedback.
What sort of feedback did you have? Was there any criticism?
Not as much criticism as we’d have liked, I think. We really wanted to see what was working, which has been hard without a third person watching and giving us feedback in rehearsals, so we kind of had to grill the audience a little to tell us what was missing. There were a few ideas from the audience that we’re planning on taking on board, like adding another song to finish the show and a new puppet character. Overall we had some lovely feedback.
“It is hard to find shows that work so well for older children and adults alike and I would highly recommend this new and exciting company. Mumblecrust have created a dark, winding tale around this myth, which is completely absorbing. The two storytellers played by Katie Underhay and Anthony Burbridge are compelling and skilled in leading the audience in and out of a world of monsters in the dark and an ancient village searching for hope. This is a work of skill, executed beautifully by two performers who are clearly talented and have a passion for bringing audiences inside their imaginations.” – Niki McCretton
“Such sincerity of story writing and telling is rare and there are some real innovations in the delivery.” – An audience member
“It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen!” – A 6 year-old audience member
What are the plans for your show in 2017 and beyond?
We have some really exciting festivals lined up this year that we’re going to be using to promote the show to rural touring agencies and venues all over the country, with the hopes of a 2018 tour.
We’ve just come back from Brighton Fringe which went unbelievably well! Not only have we come away with a 4 star and a 5 star review, we have also won two Brighton Fringe Awards: ‘Best of Brighton Fringe: IYAF Children and Families’ and ‘Best Newcomer’. We couldn’t be happier and hope this will really open doors for us. Having worked on the show so hard for so long, it feels amazing to have this recognition from the industry. Winning the International Youth Arts Festival award means that we’ll be doing an extra performance at there in Kingston on 16th July. It’s our Ed Fringe preview in Cardiff at the Royal Welsh College on the 26th July and then we’re at Edinburgh Fringe in August. We have a few other prospective festivals and venues, including The Lyric in Bridport where our scratch night was performed. We can’t wait to get back there.
Thank you Katie, one last question if I may. What words of encouragement and advice would you offer to any new artists making their own puppetry production?
It has been a tough but rewarding process, and I think that it’s important to remember that creating theatre is quite a fluid process. Start small and keep adding, improving and refining as you go. There is no ‘deadline’ for it to be perfect, and it probably never will be in your own eyes, because you created it.
That’s the nature of the beast, if you excuse the pun!
‘The Tale of the Cockatrice’ will be showing in Kingston upon Thames, Cardiff and Edinburgh Fringe this Summer. For further information about the show and tour dates, see Mumblecrust Theatre’s website: www.mumblecrust.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.