Chris Pirie is Artistic Director of award-winning theatre company Green Ginger, and a resident artist at Puppet Place. He has thirty years’ experience as a freelance designer and maker of puppetry solutions for screen and stage and is also a lecturer and researcher in puppetry for performance. We sat down with him for a chat about his latest show in production, ‘Intronauts’, and how his work in disability performance and accessible theatre has developed since he led Interchange at Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2017.
So how are you? What’s new?
It’s going well. We are now in the design and early fabrication stage of creating the next Green Ginger show. This process will go on from now until August when we go out to Norway for a residency in the frozen wastes to finish the creation of the show.
The show is called ‘Intronauts’. In our story, Intronauts are human beings who are charged with body maintenance. They are miniaturised through nanotechnology and sent into the body in little vehicles that can travel around the body to maintain health. Well, within reason; they’re not allowed to go near the brain, or anywhere there is a danger of them being excreted too early, like the bladder or mouth.
It’s quite a common technology in the future. Everyone will have an Intronaut looking after their body. Intronauts go into the body for two years at a time – so it’s quite a long shift. We join our story after a new, non-human based technology has been introduced. There are two versions: a full version that locates the Intronaut in the body and safely extracts them for enlargement. And then there’s the budget version, which just locates and destroys the Intronaut in the body! So there’s a dilemma for the person who is using an Intronaut.
What’s the inspiration for the story come from?
Well, we’ve wanted to do something inside the body for a long time. Ever since we made ‘Rust’ and got obsessed with submarines and travel in strange vehicles and in strange places. So why not take a submarine into the body? Also, we’ve drawn inspiration from classic sci-fi films from the 60s, such as ‘Fantastic Voyage’ (1966), and later ‘Innerspace’ (1987). We’ve used those two movies in particular as our starting point.
We had initially three days of R&D here in Bristol where we went for a walk around Oldbury power station and we investigated the world of hazmat (hazardous waste handling) to see what that might mean in terms of protective clothing, protocols and the management of dodgy stuff! (SMILES). So, these two worlds of nanotechnology and hazmat have collided into what we hope will be a spectacular addition to the Green Ginger canon.
And there’s great opportunity for puppetry in this, of course. We’re in a strange world inside the body and puppetry will come into its own spectacularly because we are dealing with a world where the normal rules of gravity, time and space can be messed with. The gift of puppetry is that we can deliver this cinematic vision; we can create everything from wide-shots to intimate close-ups . We can mess with scale, motion, gravity – we can explore how things move in viscous liquids to how a submarine might travel through a vein or any other part of the body. It can be quite surreal and we can present an absurdist view of what the inside of the body is. Puppetry lends itself well to that.
We’re also exploring the use of new video projection technologies for this new show, to enable us to embed open captions. It’s very interesting! This is coming directly from the work that we all did for ‘Interchange’ at Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2017 and feeding into our practices at Green Ginger. So we’re adopting the learning that came out of ‘Interchange’ and applying that in a meaningful and embedded way.
I’ve wanted to bring some of this new found learning into Green Ginger’s activities, in particular live performance, for some time, as I realise that 9 million people in the UK, that’s around one in seven, have some form of hearing deficiency. Only half of them might be diagnosed as deaf. The other half are people who have lost hearing through old age or a number of other reasons.
Not being diagnosed, they can choose to avoid situations like cinemas and live performances where they feel they might not enjoy that activity. So we want to use open captioning and embed that into the fabric of the show, so it’s not like surtitles (supertitles) where you’re having to shift your eyes up above the stage to see a screen and adjust your focal length throughout a performance. Nor is it like closed captions, where you read from a handheld device or device in the back of the seat in front of you, because these methods can be quite tiring. So we wanted to embed these into the imagery of the show and find new ways of doing this.
It’s clear that you have a passion for this kind of work. We’ve already spoken about Interchange, which you head up at Bristol Festival of Puppetry, plus the work that you’re doing right now in the new show.
Puppet Place, in association with UNIMA Research Commission and Bath Spa University, are about to hold the next Broken Puppet Symposium on 14 – 15 April at the University. Can you tell us a bit more about that? What’s your involvement?
The first symposium was in Ireland last year and this second one is going to be here in the UK in Bath. I’m going to be making a short presentation, talking about ‘Interchange’ at BFP17, what we achieved and its legacy. As I have already mentioned, some of this is being employed in my own work, but there are a couple of other interesting strands that have come out of this work. There were two main lab based activities in ‘Interchange’. One was iPuppetry, which now has the potential to be developed further with Dave Young – a wheelchair user who describes himself as a differently-abled artist. Dave is an amazing poet who uses Eyegaze technology to communicate, so we’re doing further experimentation with that to allow Dave to explore his idea of bringing broken access equipment to life. This is in collaboration with Laura Kriefman (Hellion Trace) and Barry Farrimond (Open Up Music) who has created the Clarion technology that plugs into Eyegaze. We will be fundraising to take this work further.
The other ‘Interchange’ lab explored new ways of approaching table top puppetry. We worked with inclusive theatre company Hijinx Theatre who have an academy in Cardiff that facilitates disabled and non-disabled actors working together to produce professional performance. There was a real appetite to revisit and continue with that work. There is no timescale for that at the moment, and we’ll need to attract further funding to make that possible, but we’re excited to take that further. So I will be talking a little about both of those projects and the legacy that has come out of ‘Interchange’ at the Symposium on 14 – 15 April.
And at 4pm on Saturday 14 April, there will be a puppet building lab, facilitated by Nikki Charlesworth, myself and Emma Fisher. So there’s going to be a lot going on!
You’ve a significant anniversary coming up, is that correct?
Yes! ‘Intronauts’ will be the 21st show of our theatre company! It’s Green Ginger’s fortieth year this year, so it feels timely to be making a new show that’s going to challenge us as theatre-makers and storytellers. And we’ve just found out that two earlier works have been digitised as part of a project to document the highly acclaimed ‘Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater’.
Throughout the 90’s, the Jim Henson Foundation presented this festival in New York City and scoured the world for acts. We were fortunate enough to do two festivals, and took ‘Frank Einstein’ in 1996 and ‘Slaphead’ in 1998. The videos of the performances have now been digitised and are now available in the New York Public Library. So that’s very exciting! We found out that news on World Puppetry Day, which was pertinent. A nice anniversary present for Green Ginger, but more importantly it’s a wealth of material of shows from around the world that is now available in posterity.
Broken Puppet 2 Symposium on Puppetry & Disability Performance will be held on Sat 14 & Sun 15 April at Bath Spa University. For further information and to make a reservation, visit the website: https://www.brokenpuppetsymposium.com
Green Ginger makes innovative theatre for streets and stage. Since its formation in 1978, the Company has had a commitment to puppetry in the widest sense and its members will use any tools and effects they can put their grubby little hands on to realise its surreal and absurd imagery. To find out more about their work, visit their website, Twitter and Facebook page.